Tablature

A beginner's guide to naming musical notes on a guitar fretboard

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Guitar

So far, you have learned about traditional music notation. You have learned where to find notes, steps, accidentals etc on a keyboard. But there are some other forms of notation for certain instruments. One of them is tablature. But first, let’s learn about guitars.

In today’s music, guitar is a popular instrument. We classify it as a fretted string instrument. Although it may differ from one instrument to another, a common guitar has six strings. We play it by either strumming or plucking its strings with one hand and pressing our fingers against the frets on its neck with other hand.

Fretboard

 

Neck is the long wooden extension of a guitar. Fingerboard or fretboard is the long strip of material which is laminated to the front of the neck of a guitar. A fret is a metal element inserted into the fretboard of a fretted string instrument. Frets divide the neck into segments. For guitars, each fret represents one half step. So twelve frets beside each other represents an octave.

Fretboard on an electric guitar
Fretboard on an electric guitar

A typical fretboard and frets on the neck of an electric guitar looks like this. We number frets from left to right such as 1, 2, 3, 4 and so on. Third, fifth, seventh, twelfth, fifteenth, seventeenth, nineteenth and twenty first frets are usually marked with dots. Twelfth fret is marked with two dots. If we don’t press against any frets, we produce some notes from strings too. When we don’t press any frets, it is called open position for that string. We number strings from thinnest to thickest. So the thinnest string is the first one, and the thickest is the sixth one here.

Tuning

Note that the note names which correspond to the frets depend entirely on the tuning of an instrument. Standard tuning for any kind of guitar is E, A, D, G, B and E from the sixth string to the first. So the thickest string should produce E when you play it in open position. The fifth string should be A, the fourth string should be D and so on.

Notes on a fretboard

Here is a visual representation of a fretboard of a guitar. The vertical numbers on the left represent the strings of a guitar. Note names beside those numbers represent the open positions of a standard tuned guitar. For example, when we pluck the second string without pressing any frets, we actually play B. Horizontal numbers on the bottom are fret numbers.

The notes on a fretboard
The notes on a fretboard

This figure only shows twelve frets of a fretboard. But the logic is same for other frets. The first fret of the sixth string is F. Because each fret is half step higher than previous one in pitch. The open position of the sixth string is E. Half step higher is F. This is why the first fret is F. There are a lot of same name notes on a fretboard of a guitar. Those notes are marked with same colors in this figure.

Also the enharmonic equivalents are marked with two note names which are separated from each other by slashes. For example, the second fret of the second string is C sharp and D flat. If you look at that note from C, it is C sharp. If you look at that note from D, it is D flat. Because it is half step higher than C and half step lower than D. Notice that open positions of strings and the notes on the twelfth fret is same. Because the twelfth fret is one octave higher than the open position of the strings. Their names are same but the notes on the twelfth fret are one octave higher in pitch.

When we tune our instrument differently, notes on the open positions will change and thus all other notes will change.

Tablature

Tablature is a specific form or musical notation that indicates instrument fingering rather than musical pitches. It is common for instruments like lute or guitar. Tablature is a friendly way of reading guitar music. Let’s see a tablature example.

Tablature
A melody on a tablature

This is an example tab that consists of six horizontal lines which represent the strings of a guitar. It seems just like the previous horizontal fretboard figures. The line at the top represents the first string, the line on the bottom represents the sixth strings. We number other lines accordingly.

On the other hand, numbers on the lines represent the fret numbers. Number 0 represents the open position for that string. It means we don’t need to press against any frets for that note. We just plug or strum that string. You can figure out the notes according to the string number and the fret number. For example, the first number 2 on this tab is B. You can find the other notes easily.

Tablature also indicates when you play a note. In this example, the notes are not vertically aligned. So you play the first note on the left, then others in order. So this is a melodic line. But if they are shown vertically aligned, we play them at the same time.

Four chords on a fretboard
Four chords on a fretboard

We indicate intervals and chords like this. Notice that with the second chord there is nothing on the sixth string. So we don’t play that string at all. Sometimes when a string should not be played, we can place a X on that string. Some of the special playing techniques such as hammer on, pull off, vibrato can be indicated on tab too.

Pros and Cons of using tablature

Using a tab gives a direct visual representation of an instrument’s fretboard. So that we don’t have to decide on which position we should play the notes. We don’t need special sheets to write our music. However, tab won’t show us the pitch itself, it only shows positions and fingerings. Note names can change according to the tuning of the instrument. Tablature is instrument-specific, while staff notation is generic. It is hard to indicate rhythmic information on tab. Nevertheless, a tablature is a good starting point for beginner guitarists.

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