Guitarists might read three different types of notation. Each has its strengths.

1. Traditional notation. Many teachers consider it essential for guitarists to read traditional notation. In part, the reason is for better communication with other musicians. Strings are generally indicated as circled numerals, with 6 being the low E string and 1 being the high E string. Numerals that are not circled are plucking fingers, with 1 being the index finger, 2 the middle finger, 3 the ring finger, and 4 the pinkie. You sometimes see T for the thumb. There are also many types of articulations possible, but I’ll leave these for another post. Usually, you only see fingerings in pedagogical materials, unless a specific string or finger color is desired. Set strings above the staff to the left of the notes. Set fingerings near the note heads, either to the left or centered against the note. Make sure fingerings are in a different font than measure numbers, to avoid confusion.

2. Tablature. Tablature is an ancient notation system that dates to the Renaissance, and variations exist for lute, bass guitar, banjo, and other similar instruments. On guitar tab, there are six lines, each corresponding to a guitar string, with the high line being the high E string, and the low line being the low E string—the same orientation as if the guitarist was looking at his or her guitar while playing it, tilting it to see the front. Numerals indicate frets, with 0 indicating an open string. It’s a help to non-guitarists to know that each fret of a guitar is a half step, getting higher as the vibrating part of the string gets smaller. So, a 3 on the fifth string (A string) would be the note C, which is three half steps up from A. Tab doesn’t usually have rhythms, which is a shock to musicians new to tab, and it sent my old high-school band director into conniptions. But if you know the music by ear, it is a handy way to figure out how to play music. Tab is considered redundant with fingering numbers on traditional notation.

If the strings are tuned to notes besides the standard EADGBE, those notes will be indicated along the left. For example, here is our excerpt with the strings tuned to DADGAD.

There are variations of tablature, including some that have rhythm stems coming out of the numbers, some that dispense with the lines and just have numbers, and others. The version shown is generally preferred for pedagogical materials.

Many teachers have a bias against tab, and for this reason, publishers such as Berklee Press will accompany tab with traditional notation. But particularly beginning guitarists love it, and it serves as a useful entry tool into playing the instrument.

3. Fretboard diagrams. Fretboard diagrams indicate chord shapes and voicings; on guitar, unlike piano, the same chord can be played in various incarnations, using various strings. These diagrams are like tablature rotated 90 degrees, or looking at your guitar’s face with the head pointed upward. Horizontal lines indicate frets, solid dots indicate which fret is pressed to make the note, and open dots above the string indicate open strings. The leftmost line indicates the low E string, the rightmost line indicates the high E string. A numeral followed by “fr.” (e.g., 3fr.) to the right indicates what fret the shape begins on. An x above a string means that the string is muted so that it doesn’t sound. Numbers under the strings indicate what fingers should hold each fret, and are relatively rare. Like a chord symbol or key signature, a fretboard diagram stays in affect until the next one appears. Like tablature, it doesn’t imply rhythm.

Here’s a version with a different voicing. The above diagram was at the first fret, so no fret numeral was indicated, and the top line was thick. Below, we’re using a different C chord voicing (different than the other notation!), starting on the 3rd fret. The slur means that one finger is holding down multiple strings (called a “bar” or “barre” chord fingering). The numerals at the bottom aren’t included here, which is really more common.

One more tip for non-guitarists. Guitar-specific notation and pedagogy is generally oriented towards right-handed guitarists, but some left-handed guitarists will hold their guitar so that their right hand works the fingerboard as their left hand plucks. For that reason, some will speak of a “strumming” or “plucking” hand vs. a “fingerboard” or “fretboard” hand, rather than “right” or “left.”

By the way, a “fretboard” is a “fingerboard” with marked frets. Orchestral strings (e.g., violin) and fretless basses have fingerboards, not fretboards, as they don’t have marked frets. Guitarists particularly might use the words fretboard or fingerboard interchangeably. More specifically, a position is a general hand location located near a fret, but the fingers might stretch beyond it to grab a note outside of it.

If you’re not a guitarist, just use traditional notation. While computer software can instantly generate tab and fretboard diagrams, the default notation choices often don’t make sense to real guitarists. Only attempt the more specialized notation if you really know what you’re doing or are closely supervised!

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    Classical guitar notation differes from what you describe. Plucking fingers are labeled; P or thumb, i or index, m or middles and a or annular/ ring finger. Pinkie is rarely used. Arabic numbers indicate fretting hand finger choices.

    YES! Thank you, good point, I should have mentioned that. Generally, the p, i, m, a are set lowercase, often in italics.

    any recommendations for software that notates while playing?

    Is there a music notation book that covers guitar scores?

    I am confused about the usage of brackets joining the treble clef staff to the tab staff.

    Also I notice above that the bar lines cross over the space in between the staffs as well.

    Christopher, I find that automatic transcription functions don’t really save one time, as so much editing is required afterwards. I see it currently as more of a marketing gimmick than a practical tool, though I know a small number of engravers who do use that functionality. Finale will do it, though.

    Graham, I haven’t seen this topic addressed very well in notations books, which is why I wrote about it here. I’m trying to address such orphaned topics in this blog.

    You’re going to find variations between publishers in how the traditional and tab staves are connected. You might see no bracket, you might see a curly brace. You might or might not see the staves connected.

    Arguably, I should have used a curly brace rather than a straight bracket, as curly braces are used when a single player (or section) reads multiple staffs, whereas a straight bracket (like the one I did) is used for multiple players that are logically joined together. The connecting barlines also clarify that one player is reading multiple staffs. But that’s usually when they are reading them simultaneously, and this is really an either/or situation, here.

    Looking at what Berklee Press publishes in similar situations, it looks like no bracket and no connecting barlines is preferred, and the more I look at it (rather than thinking about it), the more I think that’s better than what I did above. Keep it simple!

    I’m using Finale on a Mac to arrange songs for mountain dulcimer, using notation with tab underneath. The tab numbers are very small and difficult to read as they intersect the tab lines themselves. Is there a way to make these numbers bigger or bolder?

    Hi Carol,

    Yes, change the tab numeral font by choosing the Staff tool, double-clicking the Tab staff, and then next to Notation Style (Tablature), click the Select button. Here, you can change the font (Set Font). Also, I like to select “Break Tablature Lines at Numbers” in this window, to make them more easily legible.


    Is there a chart that shows each chord with its corresponding staff notation; as above, but just a list with all possible chords and what they look like on the G clef.


    Hi John,

    A given chord can be played in many ways. For example, a G chord can be played with just three strings or it can be played with up to six strings, doubling various notes. These different interpretations of chords are called “voicings,” and a given voicing will be more appropriate for some situations than for others. For example, you might not play the chord root if there’s a bass player, or if it’s just you and melodic instrument, you might play a fuller chord. So, the answer is, there’s no simple chart. But there are “chord dictionaries” that give you what you’re looking for, with many possible voicings for each chord symbol. Forgive me for the sales pitch, but Berklee Press has a couple great guitar chord dictionaries by Rick Peckham. Jon Damien also has a fun and useful book “The Chord Factory,” which you might find to be a helpful exploration.


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