Quick Summary: A look at some of the most useful guitar tab symbols - that address guitar-centric aspects of sheet music - and how to apply them, either on paper or with tab-building software.
For the past couple of years I've been actively avoiding Courier font guitar tabs, simply because there is so much musical information that they're unable to provide.
The timing of a note, for example, cannot be discerned or displayed using only Courier font. This is why I've always recommended tabs that are comprehensive and properly formatted, both for creating and reading guitar music.
These tab sheets are every bit as capable of informing the musician as the formal sheet music or score, meaning there are a lot more guitar tab symbols to consider. For example, a tab sheet should be able to indicate bars, note timing (whole, half, quarter, etc.) and should properly show bends along with other basic technique.
For example, take the following tab:
This kind of tab sheet is a lot more informative than the common Courier font tab that you see on a lot of the older tablature repository sites. In the above example, you've got ways to indicate all of the following information:
- Half notes
- Quarter notes
- Bars or measures
- Time signature (4/4)
- Technique (bends)
What this means is that there are a lot of guitar tab symbols that are not common to us that we would be unlikely to recognize on paper. I will highlight and explain some of those symbols so that next time you're reading or creating a tab sheet like the one above, you'll be able to better use and understand it.
We'll cover nine symbols with textual and graphical explanations of each one. If you need some help with the basics, checkout our full where to start guitar lesson for a broad overview.
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1. Pick Scrapes: Upwards and Downwards
The pick scrape is a common guitar feature and actually has its own formal notation in tablature. It's displayed as an "X" on the string where the scrape occurs followed by a thin waveform line extending either upward or downward, depending on the direction of the scrape.
While this line is similar to the designation for left hand vibrato, the pick scrape line extends inside the tab lines, while the vibrato line sits above the entire bar.
The easiest way to distinguish it is by noting that a pick scrape will always follow an "x."
2. Up and Down Pick Stroke Directions
The up and down pick stroke direction symbols are extremely helpful for things like building lead tabs or creating instructional material for alternate and economy picking lessons.
Both symbols are unique and can be described as the following:
stroke up: A tall, thin V-shaped letter (start below the note and pick up through it)
- Pick stroke down: A squared off thick line with two thin pegs (start above the note and pick down through it)
These symbols should not always be used, at least not in instances where pick stroke direction would be instinctual or inconsequential. However, they can be quite helpful when the decision between pickstroke direction is more critical, perhaps in a teaching situation.
3. The Ghost Note
Ghost notes in tablature are indicated by a parenthesis around a note and are used to indicate notes that are one of the following:
- The same note continued from the prior beat
- Silent or not played but assumed as part of a chord or melody
- Optional or not crucial to the tone of a particular segment of music or a particular chord
Now, it's true that you can create parenthesis with a simple text editor. However, software like Guitar Pro 7 has this functionality built in and does a much cleaner job of displaying the parenthesis without moving the notes around it.
You can use the ghost note to your discretion, though keep in mind that it's particularly helpful when building chord tabs or arpeggiated guitar patterns. Take the following G chord, for example:
Here we've made the high G on the first string a ghost note because it's the third G note in the chord, meaning it's expendable and not at all necessary for the core tone of the chord. In this case, it made sense to list it as a ghost note with the parenthesis.
4. Left Hand Tapping
Left hand tapping is indicated in tablature by a short, arching line drawn right before the note that is to be tapped (hammered by the left hand and not picked by the right hand). In Guitar Pro 7, you'll also have a "T" enclosed in a circle right above the tapped note.
This technique is commonly employed when you pick one note on a string and, if the subsequent note is on the same string - perhaps a few semitones ahead of the original note - you can use one of your left hand fingers to "tap" or hammer that note instead of picking again. Displaying this in tabs is easily drawn by hand, if you're not using some kind of tab generating software.
You can also only write the circle "T" above the note in question.
5. The Staccato Note
A staccato in music theory is a note that it played and then quickly muted, almost instantly. Despite occurring commonly on the guitar, most conventional tabs do not include the staccato mark, simply because it doesn't easily display. Moreover, it's hard to see in many cases, since it's just a small dot above the note number on top of all the tab lines.
6. Let Ring
Any time you need to indicate that a note in tablature should be held, even while other notes are being played, you can simply write "let ring" above the note in question. If the sustain should continue with the following notes, you can use a dotted line to indicate how many of the notes should ring in a row.
In the above example, I've set all the notes in the measure to ring out with sustain. It's a common feature of guitar playing and an easy notation to remember.
7. Wah Open and Wah Closed
The plus sign and empty circle you see in the above tab sheet are the most widely accepted form of wah pedal notation for guitar players, even though it was originally developed for trombone. While it's true that the use of a wah pedal is usually a bit subjective and fluid, there are many occasions where the illustration of a wah pedal's positioning can be extremely useful.
Particularly in the context of teaching or tracking a song that involves the use of a wah pedal in synchronization with particular notes.
Tom Morello's "Bulls on Parade" riff is a good example.
8. Tremolo Picking
Tremolo picking can be displayed in a tab sheet using a thick slanted line to underscore each note that should be handled this way. In most cases, tremolo picking will span multiple notes, where the easiest example is a run of eighth notes that stay on the same string.
When writing this out by hand, be careful not to confuse the slanted line with lines for slides and bends. For tremolo picking, the line should be thicker and directly under the note to which it should be applied.
9. Trem Bar Tab Symbols
As with wah pedal notation, notating the trem bar can be a bit ambiguous and difficult to nail down. A good example of where it might be more useful would be some of Joe Satriani's tracks, where he makes heavy and specific use of the whammy bar. "Satch Boogie" is an optimal showcase.
The conventions of the notation are easy to pick up on. A line down would be a flatted dive (going down the fretboard) while a line up is a sharped pull (going up the fretboard). The number next to the line is used to indicate (approximate) the number of semitones or fret numbers that the dive covers. For example, negative one would mean a dive roughly equivalent to a one fret drop or one "semitone." Negative two would denote a whole step drop and so on.
When to Use Advanced Guitar Tab Symbols
In a lot of instances it isn't necessary to use these more advanced symbols, particularly if you're just writing tabs for your own use and reference. Yet, in a more academic setting - or any situation where you need to be particularly accurate - it's extremely helpful to know how to identify and use these guitar tab symbols.
Here are just a few examples where you'd want to put them into practice:
- When using tabs to illustrate or teach a particular concept
- When tracking a song that includes the aforementioned techniques
- When teaching a song that includes the aforementioned techniques
- When developing any kind of professional, semi professional or academic-level sheet music
Again, Guitar Pro 7 is the best software tool to play around and get familiar with some of these concepts. Otherwise, you can just refer to this page and write everything down on paper.
My advice is to get familiar with tab sheets that are structured like this, that at least afford you the option of building and reading a more complete representation of the music. Whenever it's needful to use these symbols, it's likely also needful to have a reliable method of producing a well-organized score, even if it is just tablature.
Take some time to write down and memorize the symbols in this list. The more of them you can recall, the better tab reader and writer you'll be. Even if you don't use them all the time, it's useful to have the more advanced tab symbols in your back pocket, if and when you need them.
If you have questions, thoughts or ideas about the guitar tab symbols I've covered, perhaps something I failed to mention, feel free to chime in via the comments section below.
I much prefer that method over email, since our conversations here will serve to benefit future readers and information seekers.