Reading Tablature (Guitar Lesson)

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Jim Deeming

Reading Tablature

Jim Deeming covers the basics of reading guitar tablature. Knowledge of tablature will help with JamPlay lessons as well as learning your favorite songs.

Taught by Jim Deeming in Basic Guitar with Jim seriesLength: 21:12Difficulty: 1.0 of 5
Chapter 1: (07:46) Introduction to Tablature Tablature is a short hand method of writing out guitar music. This system utilizes numbers and symbols instead of notes. In this lesson, Jim explains how to interpret the symbols and terminology used in the tablature system.

Limitations of Tablature

Unfortunately, tablature omits several of the important features that are present in standard notation. The rhythmic element is frequently left out when tablature is written. Rhythm is the most important aspect of music. Without it, music becomes chaotic noise.

In addition, musicians that play other instruments cannot interpret guitar tablature and apply it to their specific instrument. On the other hand, standard notation applies to every instrument. Standard musical notation is a universal language that musicians of all cultures understand.

Consequently, tablature is only useful if you already know what the piece of music is supposed to sound like. If you are able to learn the rhythms from a recording successfully and accurately, then tablature is very helpful.

Importance of Reading Sheet Music

Note: The following information is taken from lesson of Matt Brown's Reading and Rhythm series.

-First and foremost, learning to read music will make you a better player. Reading skills will enhance the overall musicality of your playing. Continuing with these lessons will make you sound better. Period. After all, isn't that the goal we're all after?

-If you can't read music, you cannot interpret written music or tablature properly. This is due to a lack of understanding of how notes function with one another from a theoretical standpoint.

-It is impossible to learn music theory without basic reading skills.

-Musicians that play other instruments don't use tablature. You cannot communicate with these musicians without reading skills.

Visit the Reading and Rhythm Series to learn how to read standard notation. Both Jim and Matt Brown teach lessons in this section. Begin to read music as soon as you possibly can. You will not regret it down the road!

Reading Tablature

A. Lines

Unlike the musical staff, which features five lines, the tablature system uses six lines. Each line represents a string of the guitar. Tablature written for seven string guitars features 7 lines. The lowest line (closest to the ground) represents the low E string. The top line represents the high E string. The tablature staff is upside down compared to the way that the guitar is actually held.

B. Numbers

The numbers written on the tablature staff indicate fret locations. For example, a "1" written on the lowest line indicates that the low sixth string should be played at the first fret. On his marker board, Jim has written out an "open" C major chord. When notes are listed parallel to each other, they are played simultaneously as a chord. Map out this chord on the fretboard by going through one tablature number at a time. A "0" represents a string that is played open. An x indicates that a string is muted by the left hand. This is accomplished by lightly resting any finger on the string to prevent it from vibrating.

C. Tuning

Often, the tuning of each string is indicated to the left of the tablature lines. Tablature works just as well regardless of what tuning you are playing in.
Chapter 2: (04:28) Hammer-ons, Pull-offs, and More Tablature is not a very standardized way of writing out music. Publications may notate certain things such as bends or harmonics differently. Often, a legend is provided in magazines or at the back of a publication to help you determine what each symbol means.

Chord Symbols

Often, chord names are written above the tablature. However, there are infinite possibilities for chord voicings. You must still look down at the numbers indicated on the lines to determine which voicing is utilized.

Fingerings for chords are often provided within standard notation. They are seldom used in tablature. When used in tablature, they are typically written in parenthesis.

Hammer-ons and Pull-offs

Hammer-ons and pull-offs are written with a curved line connecting two different pitches. If the first number is lower than the second number, a hammer-on is indicated. If the second number is higher, play a pull-off. Often, multiple hammer-ons and pull-offs are combined together with a single curved line.

Jim provides an example of a hammer-on from the 7th fret to the 9th fret of the third string. Often, an "h" is written above the curved slur line to indicate a hammer-on. Observe how this hammer-on is written on the marker board at 03:20. At 03:44 he writes out a pull-off. A "p" is frequently written above the slur line to indicate a pull-off.
Chapter 3: (04:39) Bends, Slides, and Vibrato Bends

An arrow written above a pitch indicates a string bend. This arrow also indicates how the bend begins and how it is concluded. The interval for the bend such as a 1/2 step, whole step, 1 1/2 steps, etc. is often written above the arrow.

Some publications write bends very similar to slurs. Two notes are connected with a curved line. Instead of writing an "h" or "p" between the notes, a "b" is written to indicate a bend. The first number represents the note that the bend is applied to. This note is bent up to the pitch of the second note.

There are number of different ways in which a bend can be performed. Each type of bend is written differently in tablature. Refer to each type of bend listed under "Supplemental Content" tab for a representation of how each bend is typically written in tablature.

Pre-bend: The string is bent up to pitch, then the note is plucked.

Bend and Release: The string is plucked and bent simultaneously. Once the specified pitch is reached, the fretting hand returns the string to its normal position.

Gradual Bend: The string is plucked then gradually bent to pitch over a specified note duration.

Bend on the Beat: The string is plucked and bent simultaneously.


There are several types of slides as well. Typically, a slide is indicated by a slash mark. A backslash indicates an ascending slide. A forward slash indicates a descending slide.

Position Shift-Pick both notes connected by the slash mark.

Slur Slide-A curved line is written above the slash. The first note is picked. The second note is not picked.

Slide Out-Pick the note, then slide in the indicated direction.

Glissando-Gradually slide over the rhythmic duration that is indicated in the attached notation above.


Vibrato is indicated with a squiggly line. A fat squiggly line indicates a wide vibrato. A normal sized squiggly line indicates a moderate vibrato.

Note: Check out David MacKenzie's Phase 1 series for tips concerning how to perform a vibrato. For help with performing a vibrato on a nylon string guitar, check out lesson 1 from Danny Voris' Phase 3 set.


Harmonics are typically written in angle brackets. There are three types of harmonics: artificial (harp), natural, and tapped (slapped) harmonics. The type of harmonic is abbreviated above the brackets. Natural harmonics are abbreviated "N.H." Artificial (harp) harmonics are abbreviated "A.H." A lowercase "t" above angled brackets indicates a tapped harmonic. Pinch harmonics are abbreviated with "P.H."

Note: Refer to the Phase 2 Tips and Tricks series with David Anthony to learn how each of these harmonics can be performed. Refer to lesson 4 of the Metal series with Dennis Hodges to learn about pinch harmonics. These harmonics are not covered in the Tips and Tricks series.

Ghost Notes

When it can not be clearly determined whether a guitarist actually played a specific note on a recording, a "ghost note" is written in parenthesis. Ghost notes frequently occur as a result of sympathetic vibration. Sympathetic vibration is common when playing with a high gain setting.

Optional Notes

Optional notes are typically written in parenthesis as well. Usually some written instructions are written in conjunction with them such as "play notes in parenthesis on second repeat only."

Tied Notes

Notes that are tied are written in parenthesis too. A tie indicates that the rhythmic duration of a picked note is extended by the length of the additional note that is tied on. The tied note is not picked.
Chapter 4: (01:28) Palm Muting and Tablature In the previous lesson, Jim taught you how to palm mute. He provides a quick review of this technique and how it sounds at 00:44. Now he explains how this technique is written in tablature. Palm muting is indicated by the abbreviation "P.M." A line frequently extends from the abbreviation to indicate that additional notes in a phrase are also palm muted.
Chapter 5: (02:58) Tablature Limitations The main disadvantage of tablature is that it omits rhythmic content. Sometimes the rhythm of a phrase is is written in numerals below the staff. Unfortunately, this system does not work very well when notating fast rhythms such as sixteenth notes, triplets, sextuplets, thirty second notes, etc. Also, this system is not very effective when it comes to syncopated rhythms. Things get especially messy when fast rhythms and syncopated rhythms are combined.

Video Subtitles / Captions


Supplemental Learning Material



Member Comments about this Lesson

Discussions with our instructors are just one of the many benefits of becoming a member of JamPlay.

dmolesdmoles replied

In this lesson you refer to "Reading and Rhythm" series. Where do I find that. I assume it is within the Jam Play lessons somewhere. Thanks.

BD cgullBD cgull replied

Nice summary. I am working on a piece with pretty much all of that in it. It was handy to have pretty much every shortcut aka notation in one place.

dhfalcondhfalcon replied

Thanks for the lesson, Jim. The "ghost note" explanation was especially helpful.

1bbarber1bbarber replied

I played piano when I was younger and can read music fairly well but still have some questions about guitar notations. At the end of this lesson you mentioned that notation was coming up next. Where is it? I'm sure that I'm over looking it.

lutonluton replied

Enter your comment here.

rumble dollrumble doll replied

Really informative & helpful. Thanks Jim.

jboothjbooth replied

In some tab programs that can show if you are up or down picking. |_| is one direction and if you put the bottom line on the top it changes to the other.

SylviaSylvia replied

Nicely done Jim. Sometimes I see noted under the tabs a U shaped thing that looks like a 3-sided square with the top missing. What is that for?

lutonluton replied

I am trying to figure out what the arc means from one note to another sometimes its a small arc sometimes its longer.

Basic Guitar with Jim

Found in our Beginner Lesson Sets

Fingerstyle master Jim Deeming teaches you the basics of guitar playing. With over 30 years of experience teaching and playing, Jim will definitely start you in the right direction. This is a great series for beginners and guitarists looking to refresh their knowledge.

Introduction LessonLesson 1

Introduction Lesson

In this short lesson, Jim Deeming will introduce himself and talk about his upcoming lessons.

Length: 6:12 Difficulty: 0.5 Members Only
Choosing a GuitarLesson 2

Choosing a Guitar

Jim gives his thoughts on purchasing your first guitar.

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Goal SettingLesson 3

Goal Setting

Jim discusses the importance of setting goals. He provides some tips that will help steer your practicing in the right direction.

Length: 11:00 Difficulty: 0.5 FREE
Changing the StringsLesson 4

Changing the Strings

Jim Deeming walks you through the process of changing your strings. He gives some excellent tips on this important process.

Length: 41:09 Difficulty: 0.5 Members Only
Meet Your New GuitarLesson 5

Meet Your New Guitar

Jim introduces proper playing technique. Then, he explains how to play your first chord.

Length: 52:24 Difficulty: 0.5 Members Only
Learning More ChordsLesson 6

Learning More Chords

Jim teaches you the 3 primary chords in G major. He also explains how chords relate to specific keys. A great lesson!

Length: 39:15 Difficulty: 1.0 Members Only
Right Hand RevisitedLesson 7

Right Hand Revisited

Jim discusses a plethora of right hand techniques that are essential to guitar playing.

Length: 35:19 Difficulty: 1.0 Members Only
New Chords and KeysLesson 8

New Chords and Keys

This lesson provides additional information about chords and keys.

Length: 19:08 Difficulty: 1.5 Members Only
Let's PlayLesson 9

Let's Play

This lesson is all about playing. Jim will start you off playing a song. You will have the opportunity to play along with him.

Length: 20:10 Difficulty: 1.5 Members Only
Alternating Bass and ChordsLesson 10

Alternating Bass and Chords

Jim teaches you a few more commonly used chords. Then, he discusses a technique known as the alternating bass line.

Length: 40:54 Difficulty: 2.0 Members Only
A Shape ChordsLesson 11

A Shape Chords

Jim covers all possible fingering options pertaining to the basic open A chord shape.

Length: 17:42 Difficulty: 2.5 Members Only
Basic Guitar CheckupLesson 12

Basic Guitar Checkup

Jim talks about the future of his Phase 1 guitar series and where to go from here.

Length: 4:18 Difficulty: 0.5 Members Only
Notes, Scales and TheoryLesson 13

Notes, Scales and Theory

Jim delves into basic music theory. He starts from square one in this lesson.

Length: 29:00 Difficulty: 2.0 Members Only
Chord FiestaLesson 14

Chord Fiesta

Jim Deeming invites you to a veritable chord fiesta. He demonstrates common dominant and minor chord shapes.

Length: 43:00 Difficulty: 2.5 Members Only
Movable ChordsLesson 15

Movable Chords

This lesson is all about movable chords. Learn the importance of barre chords and other movable shapes.

Length: 40:00 Difficulty: 2.5 Members Only
Proper PracticingLesson 16

Proper Practicing

Jim Deeming explains how to create a productive practice routine. Make sure you aren't wasting needless time!

Length: 30:00 Difficulty: 1.5 Members Only
The Pinky AnchorLesson 17

The Pinky Anchor

Many guitarists use their pinky as an anchor. Jim explains the pros and cons of this technique.

Length: 9:00 Difficulty: 1.5 Members Only
Palm MutingLesson 18

Palm Muting

Jim discusses an important technique--palm muting. He explains how palm muting is used by flatpickers and fingerstyle players.

Length: 7:00 Difficulty: 2.5 Members Only
Reading TablatureLesson 19

Reading Tablature

Jim Deeming covers the basics of reading guitar tablature. Knowledge of tablature will help with JamPlay lessons as well as learning your favorite songs.

Length: 21:12 Difficulty: 1.0 Members Only
Tuning ExtravaganzaLesson 20

Tuning Extravaganza

Jim explains various tuning methods. He provides useful tips and tricks that will ensure that your guitar is sounding its best.

Length: 31:45 Difficulty: 1.0 Members Only
Let's Play: Lesson 21

Let's Play: "Red River Valley"

Jim is back with another "let's play" style lesson. He teaches the classic song "Red River Valley" and encourages you to play along.

Length: 52:38 Difficulty: 2.5 Members Only
Drop D TuningLesson 22

Drop D Tuning

Jim Deeming introduces drop D tuning. Drop D is a popular alternate tuning used in many styles of music including rock, fingerstyle and blues.

Length: 25:25 Difficulty: 2.0 Members Only
Let's Play: Lesson 23

Let's Play: "Wayfaring Stranger"

Jim Deeming breaks down the song sections to the classic tune "Wayfaring Stranger".

Length: 29:20 Difficulty: 2.0 Members Only
More On Drop DLesson 24

More On Drop D

Jim Deeming takes another, more focused look at drop D tuning.

Length: 6:27 Difficulty: 1.5 Members Only
Your Friend, the MetronomeLesson 25

Your Friend, the Metronome

Jim Deeming discusses how to use a metronome for practice, skill building, and speed building.

Length: 24:02 Difficulty: 1.0 Members Only
Jim Deeming

About Jim Deeming View Full Biography Jim Deeming got his first guitar when he was only six years old. His Dad was taking fingerpicking lessons, and Jim wanted to be just like him. The Mel Bay books didn't last very long before he strapped on a thumb pick and added the Chet part to Red River Valley so it sounded better.

Most of Jim's early learning was by ear. With unlimited access to his Dad's collection of Chet Atkins albums, he spent countless hours decoding his favorite songs. They were never "right" until they sounded just like Chet. Around the age of 12, Jim heard Jerry Reed for the first time and just knew he had to be able to make that "Alabama Wild Man" sound. The styles of Chet & Jerry always have been a big influence on his playing.

More recently he has pursued arrangements by Tommy Emmanuel and Doyle Dykes, in addition to creating some of his own and writing originals.

Jim has performed in front of a variety of audiences, including concerts, competitions, weddings and the like, but playing at church has always been a mainstay. Whether playing in worship bands or guitar solos, gospel music is deep in his roots and is also the driving theme behind his debut CD release, titled "First Fruits".

Jim has been playing for about 38 years. He also has taught private lessons in the past but believes is an exciting and better venue with many advantages over the traditional method of weekly 30 minute sessions.

Jim lives in Berthoud, Colorado with his wife, Linda, and their four children. Although he still has a "day job", he is actively performing and is already back in the studio working on the next CD. If you wonder how he finds time, look no further than the back seat of his truck where he keeps a "travel guitar" to take advantage of any practice or song-writing opportunities he can get.

The opening song you hear in Jim's introductory JamPlay video is called, "A Pick In My Pocket". It's an original tune, written in memory of Jim's father who told him early on he should always keep a pick in his pocket in case he ever met Chet Atkins and got the chance to play for him. That song is slated to be the title track for his next CD, which will feature several more originals plus some of his favorite covers of Chet and Jerry arrangements.

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