How to learn guitar with tabs

Last updated on July 6th, 2023

Perhaps you are in the initial stages of learning to play guitar and have been wondering if using tabs are a good way to learn. I recommend learning tabs when first starting out but eventually it would be good to learn how to standard music notation as well.

In this post, we’ll cover what guitar tabs are and how to read them, the advantages and disadvantages of using them, and other common questions about tabs. Let’s get started.

What are guitar tabs?

Tabs, short for tablature is a simplified way of notating music for string instruments. When tabs are written for guitar, each line on the tabs section represents the 6 strings of a guitar. The highest line in tabs notation represents the thinnest string (high E) and the lowest line represents the thickest string (low E).

For example, instead of reading from the 5 staff lines which is standard notation, you would see the tabs notation lines below like this:

what guitar tabs look like on staff lines

The numbers on a tab line indicate what fret you need to play on that particular string.

You may see standard notation or tabs written on their own as well as together like the example above. This depends on the person writing the music or depending on what instrument it is intended for (again, you wouldn’t see tabs written non string instruments).

How to read guitar tabs

Guitar tabs (short for tablature) simplify music notation to tell you which string and fret to play. Under the staff, you’ll see a connected set of 6 lines to represent each of the 6 guitar strings.

For TAB lines, the top line represents the thinnest string, while the lowest line represents the thickest string. The numbers on the tab lines represent which fret to play (0 means to play an open string).

Here is an example of guitar tabs below:

Guitar fingering symbols

These symbols are used for guitar music to indicate what fingers to use when playing notes. If you hold the guitar like most people who are righties, you use your left hand to press down notes, otherwise known as your fretting hand. Your right hand is your picking and strumming hand to play the strings.

Left hand symbols:

1 = pointer finger

2 = middle finger

3 = ring finger

4 = pinky finger

(thumb goes behind the guitar)

Right hand symbols:

p = thumb

i = pointer finger

m = middle finger

a = ring finger

c = pinky finger

Fretting hand picking and strumming hand symbols on guitar

Advantages of using tabs

  • Straightforward way of reading music on your instrument.
  • Be able to play music right away since it is quick learn as opposed to having to learn to read music which can take some time to get comfortable with.
  • You are able to quickly find an accurate fingering for a set of notes. This helps because the same thing can be played in many different ways on the guitar fretboard.
  • If written correctly, you can even learn complex songs using tabs notation at a much faster pace.

Disadvantages of using tabs

  • Many times tabs are uploaded by inexperienced users on a site with wrong information
  • Tabs are often written on their own and don’t usually indicate rhythm which is too ambiguous for the reader
  • It’s easy to rely solely on tabs but they won’t always be available to you when learning new material.
  • There are limitations on the way you can indicate certain details in the music in comparison to standard notation.

How to best use tabs to learn guitar

I think the best way you can make use of tabs is when you also have standard notation above it. This is because it provides the rhythm of the music as opposed to just having a row of notes without any context.

Check the examples below to show you what I mean.

Guitar tabs example 1

tabs example 1

In this first example you only see the tabs notation which doesn’t give you any direction on how long to play each note, making it an unreliable way to learn a song.

Now here are the same notes but this time including the standard notation above the tabs.

Guitar tabs example 2

guitar tabs example 2

As you can see, this is much more accurate when learning music because it becomes clear how long each note should be played.

Even if you aren’t reading the notes from the staff lines, you can follow the rhythms and overtime it will also help you to get more familiarized with standard notation.

Guitar string symbols in standard notation

Some sheet music notates string symbols in standard notation string instead of using guitar tabs. See examples 1 and 2 to compare different ways of notating music.

Notation example 1

Here is an example of writing notes using tabs notation.

fingering notation on tabs

Notation example 2

Here are the same notes as example but written in standard notation including string symbols. The numbers inside the circles indicate what string to play the note on.

guitar string notation

These string symbols are just another way to help to find your way around the fretboard if you don’t have tabs for the music you want to learn.

Check out this link to learn more guitar notation symbols.

At what point should you stop using tabs to learn music?

If tabs are available to you and you can verify that they are coming from a good source, then by all means, I would go ahead and keep using them to learn material.

However, you will often see that once you start learning more advanced or lesser known songs, it can get harder to find tabs for those specific songs. When you reaching this point on your musical journey, it’s a good indicator that it’s probably time to learn standard notation.

I’m remembering being at that stage to improve my reading with books like Reading Studies for Guitar by William Leavitt. I would set aside some time specifically for reading to improve this area. There might just be a specific season to focus on this and later on just keep practicing with pieces that you’d like to learn or review.

What are some good websites that include free guitar tabs?

These are some sites I’ve tried using myself and have enjoyed their content. These sites include standard notation along with tabs.

You can also check out the sheet music with guitar tabs resource on this site.

Guitar Essentials (Expanded Edition) front cover

Guitar Essentials is a step-by-step approach to learning to play the guitar. This ebook will guide you from the fundamental beginner skills to being able to play songs on your own. Whether you have little to no experience playing guitar, this will help you take your skills to the next level!
👉 Get it here!

Guitar Essentials (Expanded Edition) front cover

Guitar Essentials is a step-by-step approach to learning to play the guitar. This ebook will guide you from the fundamental beginner skills to being able to play songs on your own. Whether you have little to no experience playing guitar, this will help you take your skills to the next level!
👉 Get it here!

Wrapping up

As we discussed in this post, tabs can be a really beneficial tool if they are used the right way along with standard notation. Although it’s a great a way to start playing right away, don’t neglect learning to read standard notation and developing ear training since tabs won’t always be available to you.

Think about learning to read music as a long term investment to improve your music skills rather than limiting yourself by only being to read material that has tabs.

If needed, check out this link for more on how to read guitar notation symbols.

Get the free guitar practice guide here!

All the best,


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