How to read guitar tabs

What does this have to do with playing the piano? Let me explain…

If you look up free sheet music or chord sheets on the internet, you often run into something called “guitar tabulature” or “tabs”.

This is a simplified type of sheet music that is easier to read for guitar players than traditional notation. It basically displays the fretboard of the guitar.

What if you want to play that song on the piano and you can’t find the sheet music? Then you might get lucky with the guitar tabs.

Translating tabs to notes on the piano is not very hard but you’ll have to learn a bit about how the guitar works.

Let’s search for “Comfortable” by John Mayer. I typed the following into google:

john mayer comfortable chords tabs

After some digging around, I found a nice tab here. Below I have copied a small portion of this tab.


So how do you read this? There are 6 lines, one for each string on the guitar. The bottom line is the lowest string and the uppermost line represents the highest string (makes sense).

Typically guitar strings are tuned like this, from bottom to top: E, A, D, G, B, E. (Notice that this looks a lot like the Circle of Fifths!)

Other tunings are possible too, but they are less common. Usually the tab indicates the tuning of the strings. In the snippet above, each string is preceded by its note name and we can see that this tab is notated with standard tuning.

The numbers represent the guitar frets. The number 0 means you’re supposed to play an “open string”; that is, you don’t press the string down on a fret.

To translate the tab to notes, we have to do some counting. In the above snippet, the top-most line (e) begins with the number 2. That is the note F#.

How did I calculate this? Simple: the E is 0, the next tone in the chromatic scale is F (1), and the tone after that is F# (2).

So you start at the tone the string is tuned to and then count upwards through the musical alphabet. Or you simply use the table below:

0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
E F F# G G# A A# B C
B C C# D D# E F F# G
G G# A A# B C C# D D#
D D# E F F# G G# A A#
A A# B C C# D D# E F
E F F# G G# A A# B C

(I only used sharps here, but you can substitute them with flats if necessary.)

This table is basically a representation of the guitar fretboard (up to the eighth fret).

You read tabs from left to right. If there is a number on more than one line — as is the case here — you’re supposed to play these notes at the same time.

Let’s look at the first part of the tab again:

g--2--0-- ...

The first thing we should play is 0-2-3-2 on the D-G-B-E strings. Because I play guitar, I immediately recognize this shape as a D major chord.

If we count it out, we should find the D major too. Look in the table above and write down the notes. You should find, from bottom to top: D – A – D – F#. Those are indeed the notes of the D major chord.

Notice that the D tone is doubled: that is common for guitar chords. You can play this on the piano as a regular D major chord, or you can voice it some other way: that is completely up to you!

After the D major chord we’re supposed to play 1-2-0-3-0. These are the notes: A# (or Gb) – E – G – D – E. And so on…

Sometimes you’ll see special symbols in the tab, for example in:


The h indicates a “hammer-on”, which is a quick finger tap on the string. The p is a “pull-off”, the opposite of a hammer-on.

You don’t really need to worry about these techniques if you’re transcribing the music for the piano because those things are impossible to do on a piano. (You could try playing them as a grace note.)

The x indicates that particular string isn’t supposed to be played.

That’s about it.

Note that often guitar tabs contain no rhythmic information, so you already need to know more-or-less how the song goes.

Happy counting! :-)

Read more articles on Piano Clues:

Basic Theory

Chords and Harmony

The Circle of Fifths

Arrangement, Improvisation and Composition

Reading Music and Sheet Music

How to Record Piano

Software and Virtual Instruments

Scales and Exercises

Digital Pianos

Links and Other Stuff

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