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Reading a guitar TAB sheet is an important skill when learning guitar. In this post, I wanted to cover a basic introduction to the guitar TAB sheet and some fundamental concepts that will allow you to read most any TAB within 5 minutes. Let’s get to it!

Time Signature

There are several different ways to transcribe musical notes. Different styles of music may represent their music differently depending on the way the music is played by musicians. In standard notation, the time signature of the TAB can be found next to the treble clef on the sheet music. 4/4 time indicates four beats to a measure with the quarter note getting the beat.

Here we have a basic treble clef and corresponding guitar TAB in 4/4 time, also known as common time.

Now that we know how to determine the time signature for a given chart, let’s take a look at how to read the TAB sheet itself.

Matching the strings and notes on the guitar to the TAB

Even a guitarist with little to no knowledge of musical notation can read a TAB sheet because it maps out the guitar fretboard. The six lines on the TAB represent the 6 strings of the guitar – bottom to top, from the low register to the high register. The open string notes of a standard tuned guitar are shown at the front of the TAB – EADGBE.

Stem Notation

One of the most important bits of information contained on a TAB sheet is the stem notation which indicates the note duration for a given note.

In bluegrass fiddle tune style guitar, most of the fast picking you are accustomed to hearing will often be represented by sixteenth notes and eighth notes. Take this example from the classic old time tune “Turkey in the Straw“.

In this example, the basic melody is represented as sixteenth notes and longer duration notes are shown as eighth notes. Since each beat lands on the quarter note, this will also inform how you set the metronome. I often stick to the 60 – 120 BPM range when using a metronome. This is a good way to practice different tempos and improve your speed and accuracy while picking.

Pick Direction

The pick direction is shown directly below the TAB as an up triangle for upstrokes or arrow and a down arrow for downstrokes.

Capo

The capo fret position for a given tune is shown as a letter ‘c’ followed by the fret number. The TAB itself will not change but the capo position will affect the key of the song.

Chords

Chord names are shown directly above the TAB. Just like the notes, the chord position on the TAB indicates where the chord is to be played in time.

In this example TAB snippet, we see a “c2” at the top. This tells us this tune is meant to be played with a capo on the 2nd fret. We also see the first chord is a G. Since our capo is on the 2nd fret, this means we will be playing in the key of A.

Repeat Signs and End Bars

Repeat signs and end bars are represented the same way on TABs and standard sheet music. A repeat sign means you play the whole entire section through again starting at the opening repeat sign. The following example shows an opening repeat sign. This is where the repeat would start should you see a repeat sign at the end of a measure:

Now that you are familiar with the basics of how to read guitar TABs, why not check out the All-Access Guitar Lesson Membership? Membership grants you access to ALL of the guitar lessons and supplemental material on the website through your custom lesson library. Get access to the Roadmap section for guided learning and bluegrass technique courses to get your chops up to speed.

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