Tab is a representation of the 6 strings of the guitar. The numbers in the Tab system correspond to the frets on the guitar and not to fingering numbers. Guitar Tablature is designed specifically for the guitar, it cannot be used for other instruments.
As shown in the diagram below, each fret is marked by a number on the Tab graph and that number corresponds to the fret as it sits on the line representing the string. The lowest string is low E6 because it is lowest in pitch, and the high E1 is highest in pitch because it has a higher frequency.
Chords are written in Tab by stacking the fret positions vertically as they would appear on the actual fretboard. Here is a C major chord in open position as it would appear in Tablature. The bracket around the O means “optional”.
For writing simple chord diagrams the preferred method is the basic chord box.
Essentially this just sits the Tab up in a vertical position on a short section of the fretboard and the circled numbers, instead of being fret numbers are now finger numbers. These chord boxes are often placed over top of music that is written in notation for guitar rhythm playing indications. The chord diagram is also found written above lyrics, or sometimes with words and bar line indications. There are some song books that use only the chord diagrams with bar lines and lyric. It is worth keeping in mind that one of the shortcomings of this system is that there are many ways to play a chord. Books written in this way pull from a database of diagrams that only reflect one possibility.
Here is a example that demonstrates three different methods of writing: chord diagram, notation, and Tab. On the chord diagrams, the X’s mean don’t play that string, so it either has to be muted or just avoided by your picking hand. The O’s refer to an open string, or unfretted string. These indications are also sometimes used in Tab. Note that a piano player would be able to play the middle example using notation on the treble staff; also note the barlines. The bar line will provide a means of dividing the time once a time signature is added, such as 4/4 or 3/4.
Very often Tab is used to assist with the reading of music notation and sits below the written notation as in the diagram below. You will note that in the music notation there are note durations or values unlike TAB that does not indicate rhythm or duration. If you don’t already know how the music sounds by ear, using only Tablature won’t be an option unless used in conjunction with a recording.
Strengths and Weaknesses of TAB
- Tab does not indicate the length of the notes as music notation does.
- Tab does not indicate note names.
- Tab is for guitar players so is difficult to communicate to other musicians.
- Provides a quick fingering reference if the song is already familiar.
- Helps as an aid for learning to read music notation.
- Can be used to assist in learning notes and fingerings of recordings.
Tab Has Been around for a Long Time
It is worth considering that songs that have been recorded in most pop music genres weren’t learned by reading Tab but the same thing would hold true for music notation. In pop styles music is passed on primarily by ear and with a degree of shared understanding of a musical language. Music notation as a system was primarily developed so that musicians playing a variety of different instruments could share a written language by reading it. This does not necessarily hold true in pop music where much of it is learned by ear.
The most pronounced limitation of Tab is that it is meant for the guitar only, as a result communicating with other instrumentalists can become problematic. You should use Tab as a blended approach to achieve your musical goals but don’t rely on it as a sole method of learning. Any learning program that combines the ear with an understanding of music notation and note names and values will lead to a more successful approach to learning the language of the guitar and how it functions within musical contexts.
Tablature was used before the modern music notation we know today. Below is a song written by Thomas Morley and published in 1600, notice the combination of Tab and an emerging music notation.