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Reading Tablature

Tablature provides an easy way to read and write music as it is played on the guitar. It has similarities to regular written music (standard notation), but there are many differences also, which make tablature much easier to understand. The tablature staff looks much the same as in standard notation, but instead of each line representing a particular note, each line represents a string on the guitar. With a little practice, this method provides a clear and immediate mental image of what you need to do on the guitar. Below is a section of tablature, and instructions on how to read it follow.

  • The illustration above show four measures of tablature. The measures are separated by a bar that goes all the way from the top to the bottom of the tablature. The most common timing is 4/4 time, and this is noted at the beginning of the tablature. The letters on the far left side of the 1st measure (EBGDAE) designate the tuning of the guitar. This is the most commonly used tuning.
  • The six lines of the tablature staff each represent a string on the guitar. The 1st string is the thinnest, highest pitched string. The 6th string is the thickest, lowest pitched string. When holding the guitar in the playing position, the 1st string is nearest to the floor.
  • The letters G and C in the example above represent the chords that you should be playing. In this example you play the G chord for 2 measures followed by the C chord for 2 measures. These chords also show a chord diagram along with the chord name. Reading chord diagrams is explained in another lesson.
  • The numbers shown below the tablature above represent the count of each measure. In each measure of 4/4 time there is a count of 1 - 2 - 3 - 4. All of the notes in the 1st measure above are quarter notes. In the second measure, however, the first note is a quarter note but the six notes that follow it are all eighth notes. This is easy to see because the quarter notes all have a single stem going to the bottom of the tablature. The eighth notes are connected in pairs, thus making the count in the 2nd measure: 1 - 2 & 3 & 4 &. An eighth note only takes up half as much time as a quarter note (1/8 + 1/8 = 1/4). Please note that the count is not ordinarily written under the tablature, but is done here for instructional purposes.
  • A number on a line represents the fret on which you should be holding with your left hand (most of the time it will be the same finger position that the chord calls for, but not always. For example, in the 1st measure above the 1st note to be played (count of 1) is the 6th string, 3rd fret. You know it is the 6th string because the number is written on the 6th line, and you know it is the 3rd fret because the number is a 3. The second notes played (count of 2) are the 1st string 3rd fret, 2nd string open, and 3rd string open. This represents a strum of the first 3 strings.