Man learning fingerstyle guitar with tablature
Fingerpicking tabs are an excellent tool to learn your favourite fingerstyle song.

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.

How to Read Guitar Fingerpicking Tabs for Fingerstyle Playing

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. 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 fingerpicking guitar tabs.

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.

Tablature Basics

Tablature, or tab for short, is a type of musical notation that represents where to place your fingers on the guitar fretboard. It consists of a series of horizontal lines that represent the strings of the guitar and numbers that indicate which fret to play on each string.

Tab is a popular alternative to traditional sheet music because it's easier to read and understand. Unlike sheet music, tab shows you exactly where to place your fingers on the guitar, making it ideal for beginners who are just starting to learn fingerpicking.

How Are Fingerpicking Tabs Different?

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. 

What is Standard Notation?

Standard Notation vs. Tabs

While standard notation is a universal language for all instruments, it can be overwhelming for guitarists to learn. Tabs, on the other hand, are specific to the guitar and are often easier to read and understand.

Tabs provide a visual representation of where to place your fingers on the fretboard and which strings to play. This makes it easier for guitarists to learn new songs and play them accurately.

Why Use Fingerpicking Tabs With Guitar?

One of the biggest advantages of tabs is that they allow guitarists to learn songs quickly without having to read traditional sheet music. This is particularly useful for fingerstyle guitarists who may not have formal music training. Tabs are also a great way to learn how to play songs by ear or to transcribe songs from recordings.

However, it's important to note that tabs aren't a replacement for traditional sheet music. While tabs can be useful for learning songs quickly, they don't provide the same level of detail and nuance as standard notation. Guitarists who want to take their playing to the next level should consider learning how to read sheet music in addition to tabs.

Understanding Fingerpicking 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. 

Reading Fingerpicking Tabs

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.

Fingerstyle Techniques

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
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.

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. 

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.

Advantages of Fingerstyle Tabs

One of the advantages of fingerstyle guitar tabs is the ability to read them without having to first learn standard notation. This makes tabs less cluttered and easier to read for beginners.

Disadvantages of fingerstyle tabs

One of the main disadvantages of fingerstyle tabs, when compared to standard notation, is the absence of rhythmic notation. This means that, unless you're already familiar with the song, it can be challenging to understand the timing and rhythm of the piece just by looking at the tab. This can lead to confusion and make it harder to learn new fingerpicking patterns.

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!