Reading Tablature & Playing The Guitar

Jan 20, 2015

Of all the instruments available to pick up and play here in the Western World, it could be argued that the guitar is the most popular, and most often attempted. We could speculate on why this is all day long; it’s a status symbol, desire to emulate heroes, wide variety of possible genres to play. The list goes on and on. One interesting aspect of learning to play the guitar is that you do not necessarily need to know how to read music. I’ve known more than a few people who had never learned to play an instrument because they were intimidated by the prospect of learning to read music. When learning to play guitar many people bypass this intimidating factor by learning to read tablature.

Sometimes just called “tab,” tablature is used most commonly for fretted stringed instruments like the guitar or lute, and it is a form of musical notation that shows where your fingers should be, rather than the musical pitch you should play. This week I’m going to give a brief overview on how to read tablature, then take a look at some songs and instruction books that are good for beginner guitar students to play and learn from.

How To Read Tablature

As I said, tablature is useful because it allows you to play the guitar without actually knowing how to read the music by showing what frets and strings you should be pressing. If you’ve never read tabalture before all you need is a few minutes to understand the symbols and how they work.

Basically, each line on the tablature represents a string on the guitar. Numbers appear on the lines, indicating which fret to press on that string. For example, if a 2 appears on the top line, you should press the first string at the second fret. A zero means that you play an open string, and if two numbers appear, you play both strings at once.

Along the bottom of the tablature you will notice circled numbers. These represent the fingers of your left hand, with a circled 1 representing your index finger, a 2 for the middle finger, a 3 for the ring finger, and 4 for the little finger. These show which finger to press the fret with.

And lastly, you will see letters above the tablature. These letters are “p” for thumb, “i” for index finger, and “m” for middle. These letters indicate which fingers of your right hand you use for the fingerpicking technique. For instructions with visual aids, try this link.

Songs & Instruction Books

Guitar Noise

This first website boasts a number of popular songs arranged for beginners. Each song acts as it’s own lesson that shows you how to play the chord, strum, or pick the notes. They also claim to add new songs frequently, so check back with them often!

Right now their list features 60 different songs from a rather impressive range of artists. Love Green Day? They’re got at least 2 songs. More into Pink Floyd? “Wish You Were Here,” or “Brain Damage/Eclipse?” They have everyone from Johnny Cash and Neil Young, to Colplay, to The Beatles. If you want to learn guitar by playing more modern, pop songs, this site is perfect for you.’s website’s design leaves a little something to be desired, but don’t allow it’s somewhat simplistic construction to dissuade you; this site offers “100 easy beginner guitar songs with tabs.” While Guitar Noise tends to focus more on rock music, this is a little more classic and may be more suitable for younger students who may not be as fixated with pop music yet. Among their list of songs you will find holiday favourites, like “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” “White Christmas,” “Auld Lang Syne,” and a few versions of “Jingle Bells.” You’ll find “The Star Spangled Banner,” as well as “America The Beautiful,” and “Battle Hymm Of The Republic.” There are even light-hearted ditties from childhood, like “Little Bo Peep,” and “Blow The Man Down.”

Next up is This site is a bit of a mixture of the two previous sites. Again, the design element may be a bit lacking, but the library more than makes up for it. Broken into two categories (“Very Easy Guitar Songs,” and “Easy Guitar Songs”), the library consists of a few folk songs, like “Amazing Grace,” “The Hokey Pokey,” and “Happy Birthday to You,” as well as an impressive selection of rock and pop songs from artists ranging from AC/DC, The Beatles, Bob Marely, and Creedence Clearwater Revival to Justin Bieber, Coldplay, and Taylor Swift. This list is surprisingly robust, with artists from a bunch of different genres. Of each of these three free sites probably has the best list of songs regardless of the age of the student.

Method Books

Now, we don’t all learn the same way. What works for me may not be the best solution for you. So, with that in mind, I would also like to suggest the use of method books. Instead of using tablature to play old folk songs or new pop songs to learn to play guitar, many people turn to method books. These books can help teach you everything you need to know about playing your guitar. Method books usually begin with tuning, playing positions, and musical symbols, before moving on to notes, chords, strumming and picking, and on to songs and riffs. This style of learning is usually quite a bit slower to get to the popular music many students are chomping at the bit to play, but it is usually a much more comprehensive approach. offers a huge selection of guitar method books.

Remember, each person learns at their own pace, with their own style. Tablature is a great way to play the songs you love quickly. This is fantastic for impatient students looking to see progress quickly. On the other hand, picking up a few method books and building a solid foundation is also an important approach. A strong foundation of essential skills and techniques will help you grow your talent, possibly beyond playing other people’s songs.