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Are you looking to play fingerstyle guitar and wondering how to read guitar tabs for fingerstyle? Here's how to read fingerstyle guitar tabs for beginners.

If you're new to fingerpicking guitar, reading fingerpicking tabs can be a bit challenging as there is a lot of information contained in the tablatures. Furthermore, the notation isn't as standardized as other tab notation for electric guitar.

Fortunately, fingerstyle guitar tablature is essentially the same as tablature for other guitar music, with more specialized information, which we'll talk about below.

Also, if you have access to a recording or a video, you can easily familiarize yourself with these special differences. 

Let's go over the basics of guitar tabs before looking at the challenges with reading fingerpicking guitar tabs for fingerstyle.


What are Guitar Tabs?

Guitar tabs, or tablature, are a form of musical notation that allows guitarists to read and play music without having to learn traditional sheet music. Instead, tabs use a system of numbers and symbols that represent the frets and strings on the guitar, telling you where to place your fingers on the guitar fretboard.

The online course Play Fingerstyle Guitar Now! contains a complete video lesson on understanding guitar tablature.

Unlike standard guitar tabs, fingerpicking tabs contain symbols to represent special effects used in fingerstyle guitar, such as percussion.

Furthermore, because fingerstyle guitar involves playing melody and bass at the same time, there is much more information crammed onto the staff as compared to single note soloing.

Fingerpicking tabs may contain information on which finger to use to pluck the strings. This is particularly true if the tab contains a staff with standard notation. Each finger of the plucking hand is referred to with a letter:

  • P for the thumb
  • I for the index finger
  • M for the middle finger
  • and A for the ring finger. 

How To Read Fingerstyle Tabs Tabs

There are two types of tab notation for fingerstyle guitar: Simple or Standard, also known as full or complete.

The simple notation contains only the fret number indications, with fingering and other information usually provided in a separate staff. 

On the other hand, the Standard Tablature contains rhythmic information and may not be accompanied by a staff containing standard notation. 

Here's an example of how fingerpicking tabs are typically notated:

Tablature for Guren No Yumiya
In this tablature we have both standard notation and simple tablature just below.

Tabs for fingerpicking guitar are essentially the same as for any other guitar parts, except they will often contain more vertical notes than a picking solo.

Also, fingerpicking tabs tend to not use the higher positions, such as is the case with an electric guitar part.

Because fingerstyle guitar involves playing multiple lines simultaneously, as well as special effects, it's important to notate these as clearly as possible on the tablature, especially when using standard tablature.

Thumb Independence

One of the most important aspects of fingerstyle guitar playing is thumb independence. This means that your thumb should be able to play a bass line while your fingers play melody and harmony.

To represent this with tablature, it's important to notate the bass line which is played with your thumb using stem down notes. The melody that you play with your fingers should be marked with stem up notes. 

Freight train tab with travis picking pattern

One common fingerpicking pattern is the Travis picking pattern. This pattern involves alternating the thumb between two bass strings while the fingers play a melody. 

With Travis picking, you can mark the notes that should be played with the thumb using 'p' and the melody using 'i', 'm', and 'a' fingers.

Notating Fingerstyle Percussion

Unfortunately, there is no standard way to notate fingerstyle guitar percussion.

The best way remains to watch a video or listen carefully to a recording of the fingerstyle guitar song that contains the percussion.

The most common technique is to notate percussion as a drum staff. This means that the various parts of the guitar body meant to be struck are notated along different lines of the guitar staff.

I have not had much success in understanding these percussive staves, even with the detailed notes provided by guitarists such as Jon Gomm.

Other Special Guitar Effects

Other special effects found in fingerstyle guitar, such as harmonics, bends, palm muting, etc. are notated much the same way in fingerpicking guitar tabs as in regular tabs.  

An example of complex fingerstyle guitar
This example from "Bohemian Rhapsody" contains artificial harmonics, tapping, slides and right hand percussion.

Artificial harmonics, which exist with electric guitar in the form of pinch harmonics, must contain the fret number where you place your fretting hand, as well as the fret where the node is located.

In this example, we want to place a finger on the second string in the 2nd fret and simultaneously touch the node at the 21st fret. This will produce a harmonic sounding an octave and a fifth higher than the fundamental.

How to Get Started Reading Fingerstyle Tabs

Now that you understand the basics of fingerstyle guitar tabs, let's look at how to learn a song using fingerstyle guitar tablature. Look first for tabs that are in the format where it shows both  the rhythm and the fingering.

Familiarize yourself with the song first by listening to the original recording or a fingerstyle arrangement. This will help you better understand the rhythm and timing when reading the tab.

1. Understand the Basics of Tabs

Before diving into fingerstyle tabs, make sure you have a solid understanding of basic guitar tabs. Tabs consist of six horizontal lines, each representing a guitar string, with numbers indicating fret placement.

2. Choose A Song You Know

Listen to a song that you are familiar with and pay close attention to what is notated in the tablature. Be sure to choose accurate tablature that clearly represents what is being played.

Step 3: Familiarize Yourself with Finger Assignments

In fingerpicking, each finger is assigned to a specific string. Typically, the thumb plays the bass notes and the fingers play the higher notes. 

If the tablature does not contain stems pointing a certain direction to help you decide which finger you should use to play each note, you will have to decide yourself which finger pattern to use.

Tips for Learning Fingerstyle Tabs

Learning how to read fingerpicking tabs is an essential skill for any guitar player who wants to play fingerstyle. With the right resources and practice, anyone can learn how to read and play fingerpicking tabs.

Remember that the key to reading fingerpicking tabs is to take it slow and practice regularly. Start with simple songs and gradually work your way up to more complex pieces. 

One of the best ways to learn fingerstyle tabs is to practice with songs you already know. This will help you develop a better understanding of how fingerpicking patterns work and how they fit into a song.

Start by finding a simple song that you enjoy and try to figure out the fingerpicking pattern. Once you have the pattern down, practice playing the song slowly and gradually increase the tempo. This will help you develop your fingerpicking skills while also learning a new song.

As you become more comfortable with fingerstyle tabs, try branching out and learning new songs. The best way to proceed is with an online course to learn fingerstyle guitar, such as Play Fingerstyle Guitar Now!