I personally feel that it is important to teach tablature (tab) reading to beginning guitar students.  Tabs empower students to learn songs on their own, outside of lessons.  They also help beginner students feel like they are learning “real” songs, like, according to them, not you.  😉

Here are a few pointers and insights on teaching guitar using tabs:

1.  Draw tabs this way:

NOT this way:

Drawing the “E” and “A” string thicker might seem subtle, or even inconsequential, but this little change makes a HUGE difference for beginning guitar students!  It helps orient them.  I usually reinforce the idea by asking the student to show me the two thickest strings on the guitar and then point to them on the tablature.

How many teachers out there have had students learn their song “upside down”… you know what I mean?!

(I also make them tell me the string names as often as possible… you can always teach them an acronym like “Elephants And Donkeys Get Big Ears” to help them remember string names.)

2.  Start with a simple song

I often use “Iron Man”, “Smoke on the Water” or “Seven Nation Army”.  I’d totally put tabs here for you but from what I can deduct, it seems to be illegal… don’t they (i.e, bands, record companies and generally, “the man”) know that students & musicians passionate about songs are more likely to invest their time, energy and money into the music/band?

3.  Teach them what the symbols mean

This is another reason I use “Iron Man”… there are hammer-ons, pull-0ffs and string bends… perfect!  Students think this is really cool.  This is the kind of thing  they show off for their families and friends!  (Even adult students)

4.  Consider their perspective

The whole reason I even thought about this blog is because one of my students was having difficulty understanding tabs.  He is a smart guy, 20-something years old who loves to draw.  Because of his bent toward space and perspective, when I gave him this tab:

He saw this :

Obviously, if you play the above notes, it won’t sound like anything familiar.

By the way, he said it’s easier for him to think of the tabs like this:

He said he imagines the tab coming at him like the triggers in Guitar Hero or Rock Band.  I though it was a very interesting perspective and wonder what other students have struggled with tabs in the same way.  I know that it was difficult for me when I was a 15-year-old learning tabs for the first time!

Have you struggled with understanding tabs?  Teachers, do you have any other advice to contribute about reading or teaching tabs?


  1. I also agree it is almost equally important to be sure your student can read tab as well as standard notation. Your idea of making the tab staff with thicker lines is wonderful. What software do you use to create those? I use Microsoft Office Publisher to make what I call “concept sheets,” typically about barre chords, three-string triads or whatever I find myself having to constantly write out.

    I think we are going to start seeing more parents almost using Rockband or Guitar Hero as a type of prelude to guitar lessons. “If they like playing that video game, why not sign them up to play guitar for real?” Will this be a good thing for us as teachers or will we have to now reprogram the poor habits they may gravitate towards as a result of them first learning guitar on a push button guitar shaped controller? Great blog. Should I repost this to Facebook?

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