Beginner Guitar Lessons:

Tabs: Performance symbols

Save to PDF


Tabs may give us a wealth of information regarding timing and playing style but also about the tuning for a specific song: it's not uncommon to use alternate tunings, different from the standard EADGBE, to extend the range of the guitar (as in DADGBE which is a standard tuning with the 6th string tuned down to a D, very common) or to make a different use of open strings and play comping and melodies together in some keys (eg. DADGAD) or even tune the guitar to get an open chord (EBEG#BE) to play with a slide.

So the first vertical row of letters before the Tab tell us how to tune our guitar: if you don't see them it means we're in standard tuning.

Next (after the TAB label) comes the time signature that tells us how how many beats are in a single bar (more on that in the notation section): in this case we have 4 quarter beats, to get the idea imagine a drum beat and think about kick - snare - kick - snare or the four kick hits in a dance track. In this example we see eight notes per bar and the inverted square U symbols beneath the numbers are called Beams and tell us that the notes are all eighth notes. Under the beams we find more numbers that correspond to the left hand fingers: in this exercise we use one finger for every note on each string beginning with the index finger (1) and ending with the pinky (4).

Above the Tab we may find picking instructions: the upturned square bracket symbol means a downstroke while the v is an upstroke: this is an example of alternate picking.

There's a little inverted v under some of the downstrokes: this is an accent, it means the note must be played 'louder' than other notes.

Sliding from a note to another on the same string is a very popular technique and is represented by a slanted line connecting the two notes and the sl. symbol. The horizontal bracket means that the notes are tied and you must play the first one and slide to the second without playing it.

If you see a short slanted line after a note, play the note and slide all the way down (or up if the line is upwards) the neck and let the sound die. If you find this symbol before the note it means you have to play a fast slide into the note from a few frets away (up or down).

Below the notes in the first bar are short vertical lines that indicate that the value for both of them is 2 quarters while the last note lasts for a whole bar ( 4 quarters) since it has no line beneath it.

Bending notes is one of the most expressive tools for a guitarist and a good Tab will give you detailed infos to perform it correctly. A curved upward arrow means you have to play the note and then bend it to the value that is written right over the arrow's tip: 1/2 corresponds to a semitone bend (G to G# in the first bar) and full means a whole tone bend ( F to G in the second bar). A sraight upward arrow indicates a 'pre-bend', the note is already bent when you play it and must remain bent for the duration of the note while a downward curved arrow means that you must play the bent note and then release it.

Connected upward and downward arrows on leagato notes, as in the second bar, tell you to play the note, then bend it and release it without picking it again following the timing indicated by the beams under the notes.

Hammer-ons and Pull-offs are another way of playing legato notes:in the first example you play a C on the fifth fret with your left hand index and the you bring down hard the ring finger to 'hammer on' a D on the seventh without picking the new note. In the second example you play the D on the seventh fret of the third string with your ring finger while your index is already on the fifth and then you pull the finger off the string and towards the second string, letting the C on the fifth fret ring out.

In the second bar example we only play the first note and then hammer on and pull off repeatedly.

Tapping became one of the most used techniques by metal guitarists in the late 70's and it's an expanded version of legato that involve the use of a right hand finger. In the Tab below we see a simple ascending tapping example: you play the first note, hammer the secon with your pinky and then use your right index ( or middle) finger to tap the third and pul off to the first again, repeating the pattern 4 times. The note tapped with the right hand is marked with a T.

The bracket under the beams with a 3 means we're playing triplets: three notes in the space (time) of two: there are 12 (eighth triplets) notes in the first bar, three for every metronome beat.

The last note that takes up all of the second bar is an example of vibrato: you bend the note slightly back and forth to alter the pitch. The timing of the vibrato can be slow or fast and is mostly a question of taste and style as is its width.

The P.M. symbol stands for Palm Mute, a technique where we dampen the lower strings with the heel of the right hand, resting it gently over the strings close to the bridge. It gives a staccato sound that may be very effective on distorded rhythm work.

Another kind of muting occurs when we use the left hand to dampen the strings and pick with the right hand in the usual way: this indicated in the tab by replacing the number of the frets with an X.

If you put your finger on a string exactly on some frets (like the 5th, 7th or 12th) and play that string you'll hear a different, ethereal sound, quite different from a fretted note: these are called Natural Harmonics and the pitch of the harmonic (except for the 12th fret) is different from the one you'd get from fretting the note.

Natural Harmonics are shown in brackets on Tab and the finger goes upon the metal fret closer to the body of the guitar: for example to play a 7th fret harmonic you must put your finger on the metal fret between the 7th and the 8th.

In the last bar the P.H. symbol stands for Pinch Harmonic, one of the several ways we can play an Artificial Harmonic: in this case we brush the string with the outer part of the right thumb while we pick it generating an harmonic that changes in pitch depending on the position of the picking hand. Used with distortion it generates a characteristic 'squeal' that is enhanced by a wide left hand vibrato marked by a thicker squiggle line.

In the last example we see an open A major chord and the upward and downward arrows indicate the direction of the picking hand (downstroke or upstroke). In the second bar, the squiggly vertical lines mean we have to play the chord more like a fast arpeggio or a slow strum than as a single fast stroke.

There are a few more symbols we can use in Tabs and we'll see them when we study in detail all the techniques we introduced in these examples in the basic techniques section.

There is another way to display Tabs that is very popular on the web and is a bit different from printed Tabs: we're talking about ASCII Tabs.