Guitar tablature is a graphic representation of where to play musical notes on the neck of the guitar. It is a popular format for guitar music among lead style guitar players. Though it is somewhat easy to read, it is limited in the information it gives compared to other methods for writing guitar music.
Lines = strings
Tablature is written on six lines that represent the six strings of the guitar. The bottom line is the sixth string. When tuned to standard tuning, the strings are E, A, D, G, B, E from the bottom up.
Numbers = frets
A number written on a line indicates that the string is supposed to be pressed down on the corresponding fret number and the note played. The notes are to be played in order as they appear on the lines from left to right. Numbers that are stacked are to be played simultaneously as a chord. Basic tablature fails to give any rhythm information about the music.
Tablature excels in showing how to apply stylistic expression to guitar music. This is shown by the following symbols:
b or ^ = bend
r = release
h = hammer on
p = pull off
hp = hammer on, pull off
v or ~ = vibrato
P.M. = palm mute
s, / or \ = slide (/ = slide up, \ = slide down)
tr = trill
x = mute
Bend: b or ^
To bend a string, you press it down on a fret and push it up or down on the fretboard (toward a neighboring string). As this happens, the string tension gets tighter, causing the pitch to go up (sharp). A bend allows the guitarist to start on one note and move to a higher one without changing fret positions. Bends can be very slight and move the pitch less than a half step or they can be very “deep” and change the pitch a whole step or more. Bends allow guitarists to play fractional notes that are not available otherwise on the guitar. A bend is indicated with the first note, a “b” and a second note (like 4b5) or a ^ instead of a “b” (like 4^5). This means to fret the string on the fourth fret and bend it until the note sounds the same as it would if played on the fifth fret.
After bending a note, the guitarist may let tension off the string and bring the pitch back to where it started. This is called a release and is indicated with an “r” and the original fret number (like 4b5r4). The intro riff to “Meant to Live” by Switchfoot has a prominent bend and release.
Hammer on: h
A hammer on allows the guitarist to play two separate notes on a string but only strike the string once with the pick. This happens by fretting the string, striking it with the pick in order to play the first note, then “hammering” another finger down on the string on a higher fret while the note sustains vibration. Hammer ons always move from a lower pitch to a higher one. The hammer on is indicated with an “h” followed by the higher fret number (like 4h5).
Pull off: p
The reverse of a hammer on is a pull off. In this case, the guitarist is fretting a higher note while also holding the string down on a lower fret simultaneously. The finger on the higher fret is “pulled off” the string after it is struck with the pick, leaving the string fretted on the lower fret as the vibration continues and the pitch drops. This is indicated with a “p” between the higher and lower fret numbers (like 5p4).
Hammer on, pull off: hp
Follow a hammer on with a pull off and you have… you guessed it, a hammer on, pull off! This is indicated with the lower fret number, an “h”, the higher fret number, a “p”, then the original lower fret number (like 4h5p4). The beginning of “Layla” by Eric Clapton is a great example of hammer on, pull off.
Vibrato: v or ~
If you’ve ever heard the quivering notes held by an opera singer or old church lady, you’re familiar with vibrato! This is a wonderful stylistic technique that makes your notes come alive, much like a human voice. Vibrato is achieved by playing a series of short, very slight and repeated bends on the string. The string is normally bent up then down in alternating fashion. Vibrato is indicated with a repeated “v” or tilda symbol (like 4vvvvvv or 4~~~~~). The intro to “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix is a great example of vibrato.
Palm Mute: P.M.
You can get a chunky sound with your rhythm guitar playing by using your right hand to partially mute the strings. This technique requires some finesse. Put your hand too far back and the strings aren’t muted enough; put it too far forward and you get no pitch at all from the strings. A section of tablature that is to be palm muted would have P.M. written above it. “Just What I Needed” by The Cars starts with palm muted chords.
Slide: s, / or \ = slide (/ = slide up, \ = slide down)
You can slide from one note to another by holding down the string, striking it to play the first note, and then moving your finger to the fret location of the next note without letting pressure off of the string. This allows the guitarist to play at least two notes (possibly more, depending on how many frets you cross when sliding) while only striking the string once. A slide up moves from a lower note to a higher note and is indicated by an “s” or a forward slash (like 4s5 or 4/5). A slide down moves from a higher note to a lower note and is indicated by an “s” or a back slash (like 5s4 or 5\4).
Trill: tr or tr~~~~~~~~
A trill is a quick, repeated hammer on, pull off, typically between notes that are adjacent on the fretboard (one half-step apart). It can be indicated a few different ways. Sometimes you will see the first note followed by the second note in parentheses followed by the original note, like 4 (5) 4. Above the tab lines you will se tr~~~~~~~~~~~~~. The tilda (squiggly line) gives an indication of whether the trill should be sustained for a longer or shorter duration. This way of notating the trill will sometimes use the hammer on, pull off notation (like 4h5p5) with the trill marker above the tab lines. Other times the trill will be indicated with the numbers on the tab lines. This looks like the original note, an “h” to indicated hammer, followed by the second note and “tr” to indicate the trill (like 4h5tr). Jimi Hendrix‘ version of “Star Spangled Banner” has several trills in it.
When the guitar strings are played in a percussive manner with no tone at all, this is called a mute. It is similar to a palm mute but the strings are completely dead. The strings can be muted with the strumming hand (as in a palm mute) or with the fretting hand. A mute is indicated with an “x” where the fret number would be on the strings. “Back in Black” by AC/DC begins with muted strings.