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I'm not a guitarist, I'm learning piano and I'm trying to translate some guitar tab for piano.

With this section of tab (for I Don't Want It by Ween, from the Ultimate Guitar site):

e--8-8-8---3-3----3-3-3-3-3-3---4-4--|
B--9-9-9---4-4----4-4-4-1-1-1---4-4--|
G--8-8-8---3-3----3-3-3-1-1-1---x-x--|
D-------------------------------3-3--|
A-------------------------------4-4--|
E------------------------------------|

At the start, the D A & E strings just have a "-". Does that mean you don't play those strings, or does it mean you play them open?

Sometimes I've seen tab where the open strings are represented by having a "0", but I'm guessing that the convention may be to omit these as it makes the tab too cluttered and hard to read. Later on in that tab section there's an x on the G string, which I'm guessing means to mute the string.

That kind of suggests that we are supposed to play the E, A and D strings at the start, otherwise they would have x's too? But I think this is one of those things that is ruled by convention rather than logic necessarily.

3 Answers 3

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It means "don't play".

0 is open.

In your case, the 8-9-8 at the beginning is a Ab major triad, that would clash a lot with the open E and A strings ^^

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  • Strictly speaking, not so! 'Let ring', maybe. But that doesn't account for the dashes before the numbers...
    – Tim
    Apr 17, 2020 at 10:27
  • Thanks. That makes my life easier :) I guess I could have worked this out by trying to play all of the notes (including the unmarked strings) on piano and seeing if it sounded awful . So, i guess the difference between "-" and "x" is that when the string you don't want to play is in the middle of some strings you do want to play, you have to mute that string since you can't simply avoid hitting it on a strum, which you can do if you only need to play the top three strings? Apr 17, 2020 at 12:25
  • @Tim i think the dashes before the numbers are just spacing, as you suggest in your answer. Apr 17, 2020 at 12:26
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x means don't play that string at all. o means play that string open.

The dashes are just spacers, presumably some kind of timing device (there are 36 'zones' in a 'bar'). And although this would be a good idea, I don't think it's employed here, as the guitar starts at the very beginning of the bar - the chords shown don't!

The dashes actually do not mean don't play. If we go by the track, the chord played before the dashes actually rings on, until the next chord. This is one (of many for me!) problem with this sort of tab - it doesn't give as much detail as 'proper' music, in that unless there are notes or their stems shown as well, unless one knows how the song goes, one cannot know how the timing goes. And if one knows the song, then one is at least half-way to playing it anyway. Rave over!

So, basically, it means very little! Presumably, you've listened to the song. That will most likely give far more clues than blindly following what someone has tabbed. Seriously!

That apart, if you're learning piano, it's somewhat counter-productive to try to translate guitar tab (especially as you don't play guitar!). You will be better off finding proper piano music, and learning to translate that. Honest!

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    @MaxWilliams - that pretty well sums it up. Persevere with the ear, it'll pay off in the end (or well before that!) and chances are you'll understand my scepticism concerning a lot of tabs. Never understood why tab writers don't use, say, 16 or 32 'zones', which would pretty well cover most songs, albeit occasionally in a primitive way - but better than it is now.
    – Tim
    Apr 17, 2020 at 12:45
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    x means mute the string, not 'don't play'. Apr 17, 2020 at 15:24
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    I think Tab is best viewed simply as an aid to learning a song, for people who already know what it sounds like, and is not to be looked into too deeply. If you're getting really detailed with it you should probably be using sheet music - that is the way to prescribe exactly what to play. Apr 19, 2020 at 13:25
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    @MaxWilliams - back in the 60s, I used to buy the sheet music - still have a load - and it really wasn't that helpful. Over time, I found it was easiest to listen to a track, and figure out first key, then sort of scale used,then chords, then voila! It put me in good stead for when students come and say they want to learn 'this piece' in this lesson. So it had to be done 'on the fly'. And also is invaluable when I'm in a house band at open mics, etc. Often the dots/chords are approximations - as are tabs...
    – Tim
    Apr 19, 2020 at 13:36
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    @MaxWilliams Standard notation (shape notes) is essential, absolutely. But there are some details which are much easier for guitarists to glean from Tab, which is why most serious books include both staves. I started reading on piano and get a lot of theatre work as one of the few guitarists in Atlanta who is a fluent reader. I definitely appreciate and prefer shape notes. But I learned most of the 1,000+ pop/rock/blues songs I know by ear, and having taught for about 20 years I appreciate how Tab and aural skills benefit the student. All my kids learn how to read and appreciate both systems. May 5, 2020 at 17:13
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The dashes represent lines. They are not meant to each be an individual symbol; they arise from trying to represent guitar tab using only typed symbols. Take a look at printed tablature:

Sample tab for House of the Rising Sun

Image source

There is a 6-lined staff on which the fret number for each note is placed.

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  • That tab is so inaccurate! For starters, in the Animals version, the top string gets played in every bar. thus 7 notes played, often. For seconds, the last note played, in most bars, is open 3rd (listen to youtube!), as the guitarist couldn't change chords quickly enough. Yet another reason I don't trust tab... If tis is related to my recent question, I'm referring to tab with dashes, not solid lines looking like clefs.
    – Tim
    Sep 25, 2023 at 7:56
  • @Tim an import detail in the tab in the question is that it is plain text file, not an image. How would you represent solid lines in a plain text file?
    – ojs
    Sep 25, 2023 at 14:34
  • @ojs - even so, the tab is a poor representation of what actually was played on the original track. If one is going to portray such, it's important (to me, at least) to get it accurate! Dashes or lines are the least of the mistakes here.
    – Tim
    Sep 25, 2023 at 14:44
  • @Tim I agree that this is a very bad transcription. But the context of the discussion was really the dashes or lines.
    – ojs
    Sep 25, 2023 at 15:52

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