Unlike many other instruments, the guitar uses several notational devices. Standard staff notation, tablature and chord charts are among the most prevalent systems used. If understood, each system has merit within a comprehensive guitar program.

Standard Notation for Guitar

The first thing to note is that the guitar is a transposing instrument; it is written one octave higher than it sounds. Since the same note can be played many places on the neck, standard notation must show the places where notes are to be played beyond the first four frets. Beginning guitar classes rarely play beyond the first four frets so they do not often encounter some of the items seen here. However, there are occasions when the composer or arranger indicates specific fingering to make a passage easier.

This example shows four different places where one could play E on the guitar. The tablature indicates the finger placement in this case. See the next example for how it is notated in standard notation.

There are two ways to indicate a note should be played somewhere other than in first position on the guitar. This first example indicates that only a few notes are to be played somewhere else. The circle indicates the string number. A number outside a circle indicates a finger number. The example below shows that D should be played on the 3rd string, G on the 2nd and E open – returning to 1st position.

The second example seen here shows the musician to play all of the notes in a specific position. The roman numeral indicates the position all of the notes should be played. In this case the G would be played at the 5th fret on string 4, the D at the 7th fret of string 3, E on the 5th fret of string 2 and B on the 7th fret of string 1. Often this is done to prevent the player from having to jump around the neck of the guitar.

In more advanced guitar music a player will be expected to barre all or some strings with the first finger. The letter C with Roman numeral (CV) indicates a full barre. A 1/2C indicates only the first 3 strings are required to barre (1/2CV). The other way this is seen is with a vertical line through the C. This can also be indicated similar to the position notation with just the Roman numeral as above.

Full Barre at fret 2
1/2 Barre at fret 7

Harmonic notation is another advanced technique. In standard notation it is often seen as a diamond shape or with a tiny o. Occasionally the composer may simply write in harm. or arm. to indicate that the note or notes are to be played with harmonics. There are two kinds of harmonics on the guitar, natural and touch harmonics. Natural harmonics occur most prevalent at the 12th, 7th and 5th frets of the guitar. These are played by touching the string at the fret with the left hand (not compressing the string) and plucking with the right. Touch harmonics are played by fretting a note with the left hand while the right hand finger touches 12 frets above the fretted note and plucking with the right thumb. Again, this is an advanced technique.



Tablature is older than standard notation. It can be used to teach students to play without having to know standard notation. Many method books use some form of tablature within the first few pages to teach simple concepts like open strings and fretting notes. Rock and popular musicians use tablature often, even beginning players can easily access notes up the neck, beyond the 4th fret, by reading tablature. However, tablature should not be the only notation system; it has limits and it is not standardized. For one thing, it generally does not include rhythm or left-hand finger number; it only tells the player on which fret to place a finger. Tablature used alone limits a player’s ability to connect harmonic theory to the music they are playing. Because of this some teachers insist on using standard notation alone. This may seem comfortable to many music teachers who are new to the guitar. A rounded guitar program will embrace tablature since it is still an authentic form of notation used for guitar music today.

Tab, short for tablature, has six lines, each representing a string of the guitar. The bottom line of tab represents string 6 and the top line of tab represents string 1. The numbers placed on the strings indicate the fret at which the player should place their left hand to sound a note. There is no standard for how to indicate rhythm on tablature. The example below shows the rhythm placed under the tab. Sometimes tab is seen by itself and others it is attached to standard notation as seen here.

Basic Tab with rhythm indicated below

Electric guitar has the ability to bend strings easily and make quarter tones, half tones and steps. This technique is used in heavily used in rock and electric blues but, is also seen in other styles. Tab is extremely helpful with notating this.

Example of whole and half step bending indicated by arrows. Squiggle indicates vibrato.
This example indicates to bend the note and gradually release the bend to the original tone.
Quarter tones bend is shown above in the fraction 1/4.

There are many more unique symbols seen in tablature, especially when studying electric guitar. Taking a course or private lessons to learn more is advised.


Lead Sheets and Chord Charts

Chord charts or chord grids are another system used to show where chords are placed on the fingerboard. They are used in method books and lead sheets. They show the guitar from the front view with the neck in a vertical position. Guitarists need to understand how to read these for learning to accompany melodies. Chord charts are better than standard notation when learning how to play a chord on guitar. Since the intervals between open strings are not consistent on the guitar, EADGBE, chord tones are not always stacked neatly.    

Jazz FakeBooks offer a specific type of lead sheet which is read by many musicians. In this example, the guitarist is expected to know the chords to accompany. Another option might be to play the melody or use the chords to frame an improvisation. In the example below, the guitarist is expected to know that G-7 means to play G minor 7.

In the lead sheet below all of the chords are indicated. The melody is provided and the chord symbols are placed where the player should sound the chord. Again, the guitarist can play the melody, chords or even try to add a bass part.

There are other forms of chord charts. Chords might be embedded into the lyrics with no notation. This version is often used in songwriting. An example can be seen in the Top Ten Songs on the Additional Resources page.


Using Different Notation in the Classroom

As you can see there are benefits and pitfalls to each type of notation used for guitar. Knowing the different types of notation can help you teach students authentic guitar skills.

Standard notation is used by most instruments and our national standards require it to be taught in all music classes in order to promote music literacy. Understanding standardized notation will help students build a strong foundation of music theory. Guitarists need to know standardized notation so they can further study at higher levels if they wish. Knowing standardized notation guitarists to participate with other musical ensembles as legitimate, literate musicians.

Tablature can be helpful in many instances. Using tablature to have students play more difficult pieces earlier is one benefit. Writing parts that include higher position playing than what you are teaching in class is another benefit of tablature. Students can plot notes on the tablature to show they know where to play them on the guitar. As a teacher, you could give an assignment that presents only standardized notation with blank tab and have students fill in the tab to show they know where the notes are located. This can be done opposite as well, where students are only given tab and expected to fill out the staff with the appropriate sounding pitch. Exposing students to tab early does not limit their understanding of standard notation. Think of standardized notation, tablature and lead sheets as tri-lingual note reading.

Lead sheets and chord charts are useful when studying popular music or songwriting. This shorthand for playing chords can help students practice playing progressions and support learning chord theory. Knowing how to read a lead sheet allows students to participate as members of alternate ensembles like jazz band, rock band and concert band. Understanding the variety of lead sheets and chord charts gives students flexibility as musicians. In your classroom, small groups can put together a trio with a simple lead sheet. One person playing chords, one person playing melody and the third playing bass figures based in the chord symbols. Your class should include a compilation book of music for students to study and create these types of groups.

All three systems of notation are important to include in your class. Try to use them to give students an authentic experience in your class!