How To Read Rhythm Guitar Tabs

Posted by Mike Schuck

When learning how to read guitar tabs, there is an important thing to know before diving in. What kind of tab you are reading makes a big difference!

There are two main types of tablature: standard notation and alternative (or natural) notation. Standard notation uses very specific symbols that describe what notes get picked and when. This type of music notation is most commonly found in songs that have been written down or recorded many times.

Alternative notation does not use special markings to denote which strings get played, instead using position markers to help identify the note changes. These charts usually begin with the bass line and then add additional chords as needed to complete the song.

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This article will talk about how to read rhythm guitar tabs using either standard or alternative music notation.

Look at the chord charts

how to read rhythm guitar tabs

The first thing you should do is look at the chords in the song, and what position they are in!

The rhythm guitar part will have some sort of pattern or structure to it. This can be a simple back-and-forth motion, like walking up an escalator, or a more complex one that changes direction.

It’s important to know how many notes make up each section so that you don’t have to start playing all over when the flow changes.

For example, if the main riff has eight notes per line, then the rest of the music needs to have a total of sixteen notes — not including any repeats.

Practice reading chord charts

how to read rhythm guitar tabs

Chord diagrams are one of the most fundamental things you will need as a guitarist, and it is totally possible to learn how to read them easily!

Reading chart symbols can be tricky at first, but if you’re willing to put in some time, then you will quickly pick up how to do it. Some chords have very simple shapes or patterns that match their name well, making it easy to recognize what note goes where.

Other chords may use special notes or numbers instead of actual notes, which also help tell your brain the order for reading.

The hardest part about learning how to read guitar tab is knowing when to start trying to figure out the song. Sometimes there is a main theme or rhythm pattern that repeats throughout the music, so those get played more frequently.

Learn to read meter

how to read rhythm guitar tabs

The second part of learning how to read guitar tabs is understanding what kind of rhythm structure the song uses. This article will go into more detail about this, but first let’s take a look at an example.

The song we are going to be looking at contains three main parts that make up the whole rhythmic cycle. These are called meters. There is a one-two-three pattern in each metric group (the two or four beats within a larger measure). Let’t test our knowledge with a few examples!

First, note what meter the song starts off with – it is grouped as a swing meter. A standard way to describe this type of meter is something like “double time.” That means these songs play twice as fast as normal.

Now, try reading the bass line using the same timing signature. You can use any chord, your choice!

As you may have noticed, there is a different feel between the chords. One reason for this is the accent used when counting out the notes. An accented count goes faster than an unaccented one, so if you were to pick, say, the third fret, then your finger would move quicker because there is no longer a long break before hitting the next string.

This concept applies to music too! As we learn new rhythms, we must teach ourselves which notes get an accent and which do not. In music theory, this is known as an accidental.

Become familiar with common time signatures

how to read rhythm guitar tabs

There are four main time signatures in music that everyone needs to be at least passable in, know how to read, and maybe even play a few songs in!

These time signatures include: 2/2 (or normal tempo), 3/4, 4/4, and 5/8.

Becoming familiar with these will help you read guitar tabs more effectively and also give you some basic theory concepts related to timing.

You should be able at least recognize what each one means before moving onto the next level.

Know the names of each chord

how to read rhythm guitar tabs

Chords are one of the most fundamental building blocks in music. A chord is three or more notes that sound together. The name of the chord comes directly after the lowest note of the bar it belongs to, followed by the next highest note, and then the third note.

So, for example, if you wanted to play the first chord of the song “Happy Birthday”, the name would be E-G-Am (the order doesn't matter). The E is the first note, the G is the second, and the Am is the third. These chords all have their own special effects and ways to use them in songs!

The hardest part about reading rhythm guitar tabs is knowing what key every chord is in. Most musicians add little symbols like major, minor, etc. After learning the chords in any given position, you can determine which symbol applies and what the chord actually is.

Know the location of each chord

how to read rhythm guitar tabs

Chords are one of the most important concepts in music theory. A chord is an interval, or combination of notes, that creates a feeling or tone. For example, the first chord of any song is usually either a major or minor tri-chord (three note) with one empty space.

A beginner might try to play this chord by writing down all three notes at once but it will not sound correct. You should be able to identify the root, third, and fifth of each chord before playing them. The root is the smallest part of the chord, like “b” in the word baby. The third is like the “a” in father and the fifth is like the “e” in die.

By learning where these chords are located in relation to each other, you can begin to read guitar rhythm charts and tabs.

Know the number of strings played

how to read rhythm guitar tabs

In music, rhythm is defined as “the pattern or sequence in which notes are sounded”. When reading guitar tab, you will often see how many strings each note is strummed across. This information is referred to as the number of strings being hit within the song.

For example, let’s say there was a chord with an A major tone (A-D-E). Then, someone else may play their index finger up along the top string (high E) while hitting all three lower strings (low D-, G-, and B-) with their middle fingers. The two chords combined make this a perfect fifth (A–B–C–D–E), so that is what we call this trick in theory!

However, if people did not include the high estring in their playing, it would be hard to hear the perfection of the sound. So, knowing whether there is one extra string for the ear to focus on makes sense.

It is best to learn the numbers of strings at the very least for beginner songs, then work your way up from there. With that said, here are some easy ways to identify the number of strings in a new piece.

Know the naming convention for strings

how to read rhythm guitar tabs

The first thing you will need to do is learn how to read guitar tab rhythm charts! This can sometimes be tricky because there are several different conventions used in naming string parts. Some use numbers or symbols instead of names, but most use name-value pairs where each string has a name and a note value that goes with it.

The notes listed under a string’s name usually get marked up as natural notes (or open), slash chords, or barre chords depending on what kind of chord shape they create. There may also be some sort of legato option chosen if the string needs to be trilled or bent slightly. All these options contribute to creating music and reading guitar tabs effectively takes time to practice properly!

There are many ways to learn this basics of reading guitar chart patterns, so don’t worry about being too hard on yourself! Keep practicing and listening to songs and videos to help you along.

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