Guitar Tab Notation and Chord Charts

If you’ve read my article on standard music notation, you know that it communicates everything a musician needs to know to play a song.  But it isn’t always the easiest thing to interpret for guitar players.  Much of the difficulty has to do with a guitar not being quite as intuitive to play compared to other instruments such as a piano.  A prime example is to compare the layout of keys on a piano to the frets on a guitar.

guitar tabs piano keys

Based on the principles in my music theory article, there are twelve notes in a musical octave.  And those notes repeat themselves as you move up or down the chromatic scale.  As shown in the image above, the twelve notes on a piano are relatively easy to “see” without any difficult memorization or visualization.  For example, the note that is to the left of the group of two black keys is a C note. Always.  No matter where you are on a piano, this note is always a C.  And all you have to do to play that note is push on it with one finger.

On a guitar, even something as simple as a C note takes a little more work.  First of all, to play any C note on a guitar, you have to use both of your hands.  One to pluck the right string, and the other to press on the same string at the right position on the fretboard.  And all but two of the six strings have different notes for each fret.  In other words, pressing your finger on the same fret of each different string will produce different notes.

Now don’t be frightened, but here is what the guitar fretboard looks like through the first 12 frets:

guitar notes on fretboard fingerboard

The notes grouped together in the tall orange box on the far left indicate the open strings, which is sometimes referred to as fret zero.  The fret numbers along the bottom that are circled in gray indicate where the dots or other markings are inlayed into the fretboard to help you keep track of which fret you’re on.

While you don’t have to memorize the entire fretboard layout, there are a few critically important items to understand about the guitar fretboard image above:

  • If you start on any particular string and follow the pattern of notes as you move right or left, you will see the exact same pattern of notes that are shown on the piano keys above.
  • Once you get to the twelfth fret, the pattern begins to repeat itself because you’ve reached the next octave. So the 12thfret is the same as the open string, the 13thfret is the same as the 1stfret, and so on and so on.
  • The fifth fret is another natural point of overlap, but in a different way. With the exception of the B-string, the fifth fret of a given string is equal in pitch to the next higher open string. For example, the fifth fret of the low E-string is an A note, which is the exact same pitch as the second open A-string. If you’re still a bit confused by the image above, check out the simplified version below to visually see what I’m talking about.

guitar relative tuning fifth fret

This phenomenon can be very useful when minimizing finger movement when playing more quickly, as your fretting hand doesn’t have to slide to far up or down the fretboard to rapidly play notes of a similar pitch.  Also, as you may have already figured out, this type of overlap is repeated between the 5thand 10thfrets.

If you are now feeling a little bit intimidated, don’t fret (guitar pun!) because help is on the way!  And help for guitar players comes in the form of a second type of musical notation, called guitar tablature notation, or guitar tab for short.

Guitar Tab Notation

Instead of worrying about memorizing the musical staff to understand which note to play, and then having to remember where that note falls on the guitar fretboard, guitar tab simply tells you which string and fret to play.  In other words, tabs tell you where to put your left and right hands to play the notes of the song.  It’s genius really, and makes the life of a budding guitar hero much simpler and enables a much more rapid learning curve.

Unlike the 5-line staff used in standard music notation, the staff used in guitar tab notation uses a 6-line staff.  And instead of each line or space representing notes in the chromatic scale, each line of a tab staff represents a string of the guitar.  The bottom line represents the low E string on a guitar (the thickest string) and the top line represents the high E string (the thinnest string).

guitar tablature tabs explained

ItemItem Description
1A standard musical staff with a treble clef and quarter notes representing all of the major lines and spaces. For simplicity, additional standard music notation items such as a time signature, bar lines, tempo headings, etc are not shown.
2The names of the notes of each quarter note assigned to a particular line or space on the musical staff. The “notes between the notes” which are the sharps and flats, are omitted for simplicity.
3A tab staff which has six lines and is positioned directly below the music staff. The line at the top represents the thinnest 1st string and the line at the bottom is the thickness 6th string.
4The numbers listed on the lines represent the fret number on the guitar. Remembering that the guitar nut is considered fret zero, each ascending number means moving your fretting finger one position away from the nut toward the body of the guitar. This particular notation is translated into guitar-speak as "2nd Fret, 4th string".
5Tab staff line representing the sixth low E string (the thickest one).
6Tab staff line representing the fifth A string.
7Tab staff line representing the fourth D string.
8Tab staff line representing the third G string. Without cheating, do you know the names of the remaining second and first strings?

In case you’re having a difficult time figuring out how the guitar tab staff aligns to the strings of the guitar, check out the image below.  Follow along starting from the first E note, highlighted in a blue box.  The beautiful thing about guitar tabs is that once you “see” them, you can’t “unsee” them. Hopefully, your brain will start to easily translate the guitar frets and strings represented on a piece of tab notation, to the strings and frets on your actual guitar!

guitar tabs explained training

Using Guitar Tab to Play Chords

The explanation above focuses on playing notes on a guitar one at a time.  But how does guitar tab communicate how to play a chord, or any combination of multiple notes at the same time?  Easy.  Just by adding more numbers aligned vertically to communicate which additional fret/string combinations are to be played.

guitar chords in tab

The image above shows four basic open chords (C, D, E and G) on both standard music notation and guitar tab notation.  In the standard music notation version, you have to know which notes are being represented on the musical staff based on what lines or spaces the notes occupy. And then you have to know where these notes fall on your guitar’s fretboard.  In the guitar tab version, you can quickly visualize exactly which frets and strings are being called out.  And always remember…

Guitar tabs don’t tell you which notes to play, they tell you which frets and strings to play.

Chord Charts

Now there is one last piece of the puzzle to get chords to actually ring out from your beautiful guitar. And that is knowing which fingers to put on which frets and strings!  Because guitar players don’t like playing the game Twister with their fingers, another extremely helpful tool has been created to assist guitar players in knowing which fingers should go where in order to play a chord. They’re called chord charts and they make your guitar life a lot easier.  Below are examples of four extremely common chords that all guitar players should know very well.

guitar tabs chord diagrams

ItemItem Description
1The letter name of the chord. In the annotated example, a C Chord is shown.
2The extra-thick horizontal line represents the guitar nut, or the zero fret.
3Each vertical line represents a string of the guitar. The vertical line on the far left represents the low 6th string (E) and the line on the far right represents the high 1st string (e). Imagine you’re holding your guitar by the neck and letting gravity pull the body straight down toward the floor. That is the orientation of a guitar tablature chord chart.
4Each horizontal line represents a fret of the guitar. Starting with the first horizontal line below the nut, the frets are numbered 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc. As shown, most open chord diagrams display the first four frets. If a chord diagram shows frets further up the neck, say frets 5 through 8, then the diagram will include the staring fret number (in this case 5) at the upper most horizontal line and the thicker nut line will be of a normal fret line thickness to remind you that you are not playing near the nut.
5The numbers listed at the bottom of a chord chart indicate which fingers to use to fret the strings identified. 1=Index, 2=Middle, 3=Ring, 4=Pinky. The thumb on your fretting hand is rarely used to fret strings. Instead it is generally used to grip the neck and create leverage to allow your other fingers to push down on the strings against the fretboard.
6The dots that appear on various vertical string lines between two horizontal fret lines tell you where to place your fingers.
7The X and O symbols above the vertical string lines tell you which strings are to be played open (O), which means unfretted, and which strings are not to be played at all (X).

Like the guitar tab staff we reviewed earlier, using chord charts does not require you to know the notes on the musical staff or where those notes land on your fretboard.  The chord charts simply tell you where to put your fingers, and which fingers to use to accomplish the pattern.

An important skill when learning to play guitar is the ability to quickly change the “shape” of your fingers to switch between chords quickly.  At first, this will seem like a virtually impossible task, and you will require a lot of time to place each finger one by one.  But trust me, the more you develop “muscle memory”, the quicker you’ll be able to transition from one chord to another without skipping a beat.

The following table quickly summarizes the pro’s and con’s of both methods of guitar notation:

Standard Music NotationCommunicates everything needed to play the music perfectly.
- Pitch (what to play)
- Duration / Rhythm (when to play)
- Expression / Articulation (how to play)
Translating the notes on a musical staff to individual frets and strings on a guitar is very difficult for the vast majority of guitar players.
Guitar Tablature NotationQuickly and easily understand where to put your fingers on the fretboard and which strings to play.Guitar tab does not definitively tell you when to play (duration / rhythm) or how to play (expression / articulation). It simply tells you where to put your hands.

Final Thoughts on Standard Music Notation and Guitar Tab

All of my favorite guitar songbooks and individual pieces of guitar sheet music include both standard music notation and guitar tab notation right beneath it, just as I’ve shown in this article.  To me, this is the most useful method of learning how to play a song for a number of reasons:

  • The guitar tab version quickly gets your fingers placed where they belong and the correct strings being played. This enables you to play the correct pitch of notes.
  • The standard music notation can then be used to give you direction on duration, rhythm, expression and articulation, which are much more easily and quickly identified.  For example, distinguishing between a quarter note and half note gives you direct instruction to play the note for twice as long.
  • And don’t forget that the vast majority of beginner, intermediate and advanced guitar players start learning songs they already know very well. So you probably are going to have a really good sense for rhythm and expression just by trusting your ears.

If you can get your head wrapped around guitar tab and chord charts, you’ll be amazed at how many songs you’ll be able to start playing within a fairly short period of time.

Good luck and have fun!