When a beginning guitarist looks at the sheet music for a song that they want to play, it may as well be in Chinese. While reading music is far from the most difficult thing in the world, it certainly isn’t a walk in the clouds. You may be surprised, however, to find that many of the greatest musicians of today and yesterday actually can’t read music!
This shouldn’t come as too big a surprise, though. Any musician worth his salt will tell you that music comes from the heart, not from the head. Instead of reading sheet music, with its treble clefs and other Latin nonsense, guitarists will typically read what is called ‘tablature’.This thing called tablature sounds more complicated than it really is.
Think of tablature as a sort of guitar-oriented set of blueprints. It is far easier to figure out than deciphering the sometimes bizarre rules of sheet music, and the payoff is immediate. Even the least-skilled of guitar novices can still figure out the basics of tablature within twenty minutes. A line of tablature consists of six smaller lines (there are other types of ‘tab’ that have between four and twelve lines, but these are for different types of stringed instruments.
Right now, we’re focusing on the typical six-string guitar). The top line of these six corresponds to the thinnest, bottom string on the guitar you hold in your hands. The second line is, you guessed it, the second string from the bottom, the second thinnest. Obviously the third through sixth strings all correspond up to the string closest to you. See how simple tablature is? It helps to pretend the lines are the neck of an actual guitar.
When you look down at the typical right-handed guitar, you’ll see that the bass string, the ‘top string’, is closest to you, as it is on the paper. These lines of tablature aren’t blank, however. There are numbers on there that all range from one to fifteen.
You can probably guess what they mean. Each number is for a fret on the guitar. If you saw the number two on the fourth string from the top of the tab line, then you would strike the guitar with your finger on the fourth string of the second fret.
Pretty simple, isn’t it? Suppose a part of your tablature had the number one on the second string, the number two on the fourth string, and the number three on the fifth string, but they were all in a line, atop one another. This simply means that these strings need to be struck at the same time.
For the record, this would make the “C” chord. Sometimes you won’t see a number on a string but instead the letter “O”. This means ‘open’, which essentially tells you to just strike the string with no fingers pressed down on any of the frets. There are other things that you will find on tablature, such as H’s and P’s, and certain arrows.
These are a bit more advanced and such endeavors should not be pursued until your mastery of basic guitar work and tablature are adequate enough to ensure that you can move on to further your skills.