How To Read Tab For 3 String Cigar Box Guitar

This is a basic tutorial on reading tabs made by me for 3 string instruments. For a guitarist, tabs are a simple way to learn songs without having to read musical notes, and tabs can also show many of the same things as musical notation such as timing and special effects like hammer-ons and vibrato, but rather than generically telling you what note to play, it tells you which string and fret. After learning the basics, most guitarists find tabs more intuitive than musical notation, and many go no further than learning to read tabs. OK, on to the tutorial!
click on image for full size

This is a basic example of how I write out tabs. There is a lot of information in this little bit, and I hope that this tutorial will help you to understand it.

You will see that under the song title, I tell you the tuning. While 6 string guitars have a standard tuning:
E A D G B E (yes, there are exceptions), CBG's are tuned in a number of different ways, so I always specify what type of tuning in Roman numerals, though rarely in which key. This example is of a popular tuning for slide guitar, the open power chord, and is featured in Keni Lee Burgess' video CD#4 "How To Play 3 String Cigar Box Guitar- 1930 Depression Era Bottleneck Slide Guitar". I typically tune to the key of G, which would be G-D-G, in A it would be A-E-A and so forth; what is important is the string pitch relationship and not the exact note name.

Once you have determined the tuning, look at the tab grid. The lines represent the 3 strings of your guitar. From top to bottom on the grid are strings 1, 2 and 3. On your guitar it is opposite: string 1 is the one towards the floor (usually the highest pitched), string 2 is in the middle, and string 3 is at the top towards the sky. This is illustrated below:


click on image for full size
Next, look at the numbers on the tab grid. These are the fret number where you need to press down the string with your finger or slide. The first measure (measures will be described with time signature) would be read like this: 3rd string open, 1st string open, 3rd string open, 2nd string open. The second measure would be: 3rd string open, 2nd string open, 1st string pressed at the 4th fret, and then strumming the 3rd string open, 2nd string open and 1st string pressed at the 4th fret, all together..

Next, let's look at the right hand fingerings. These tell you which string to pluck with, and in this particular fingerstyle playing I use 3 fingers: T for thumb, I for index and M for middle. I don't always include fingerings in song tabs, but I often do in exercises.

The time signature tells you how many beats per measure in the top number, and the bottom number tells which note is a beat. This example is 4/4, also called common time, and means there are 4 beats to a measure and each beat is represented by a quarter note. Try tapping your foot to a regular beat: "one-two-three-four"; these would be your quarter notes and at four, you've arrived at the length of a measure. Now try: "one-and-two-and-three-and-four-and"; these are eighth notes, your foot taps on the number and the upbeat is represented by the "and". "four-and" marks the end of the measure.

Tab can also show much more, just like musical notation, but these are the basics to reading the tabs that I write out. Once you understand these basics, you should be able to learn new songs using this common system, as well as  writing out your own tabs.

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Comment by Swamp Dawg Primal Music on January 29, 2013 at 4:36pm

Paul, to tune your CBG, you should use a "chromatic" tuner, many guitar tuners have this feature, but not all. "Chromatic" means that it will read all 12 of the notes in the entire major scale, not just the ones used for common 6 string tuning. I prefer the type that clips onto the head, I've found the ones you plug into the git to be a bit less reliable for CBG's. A model that has gotten good reviews is the "Snark". You may also want to try to find someone near you that's into CBG's, I think you may benefit from some face-to-face guidance to get you started on the right foot and jam a bit with (making music should be social!), as well as keeping up with us here.

Comment by Scott aka Farmer Ted on January 27, 2013 at 11:40pm

For GDg, use strings 5,4 3 ( the A, D, and G strings). The A will be the thickest of the three. Tune them as they are designed, ADG, and then tune the A  down to a G. This creates the GDg tuning. And because the A (now tuned to a G) is thicker than the other actual g string, their relative pitch will be an octave apart.

If yor tuner wont recognize different notes, try googling for "online guitar tuner".

Comment by Paul Lasicki on January 27, 2013 at 10:10pm

Scott ,thanks for the explanation, but how do you get that tuned on the guitar with a tuner?

Comment by Scott aka Farmer Ted on January 27, 2013 at 7:23pm

Not F#. It's a G, an octave higher than the other. THink of it like this...there are 7 full notes, A to G...then the next A is an octave (or pitch) higher. The word "octave"refers to the number 8. So if you count from the G, for example, 8 full notes, you arrive at the next "octave" of g.

Comment by Paul Lasicki on January 27, 2013 at 7:07pm

Nice site with all the songs. With a tuning of G D g the second g is an octave higher then G. What exactly is meant by this? Would that be a f# ?


Comment by Swamp Dawg Primal Music on January 27, 2013 at 4:54pm

Redbelly, Nice site, I'm checking it out now! I'll be adding it to my recommendations.

Comment by Redbelly on January 27, 2013 at 4:33pm


I have found the lessons at  very easy and logical to follow. It is presented for the absolute beginner, but I believe more advanced lessons are in the pipe line. I have contacted the author on 3 occasions and my questions were promptly answered. In hindsight I should have worked the answers from the material presented. Many songs in CBG tab are available on the website. In a previous post it was suggested that paying for the lessons was unnecessary but from my view point it has been money well spent.

Comment by Swamp Dawg Primal Music on January 27, 2013 at 4:29pm

Paul, fret not (pun intended)! Set aside your Kenni Lee CD for now, but you'll eventually come back to it. Yeah, it's not for the absolute newbie. If you're brand spankin' new to playing stringed instruments and music theory, yer still in the right place, but ya need to learn to walk before ya run. Click here to read my post about learning to play fretless slide on...

 The tabs that I publish are all arranged on my fretless 3 string, using both slide and fingering. I'm no musical genius, so if I can play these songs, you can, too, it just takes practice.

Shane Speal, Hollowbelly and Keni Lee all play fretless, and with practice and patience, you too can learn to play fretless well. They all started at zero, too!

I've had enough people ask about playing my tabs fretless, so soon I'll have to post some tips and tricks to fretless on my blog here. Stay tuned.

One last thing: if you have problems with Kenni's lessons, contact him here or on Facebook. He's more than willing to give personal advice and attention. That's why his lessons are such a bargain.

Comment by Paul Lasicki on January 27, 2013 at 3:55pm

Thanks for the response. But I think I'll need to put Keni Lee on the back burner as his CD is not aim for the absolute beginner.

I'll need to start with more basic lessons with lot less theory. Listening to Keni makes my eyes glaze over.

I find lessons on more my speed.

Thanks again.

Comment by Swamp Dawg Primal Music on January 27, 2013 at 3:24pm

Also, Paul, you're right, Keni's lessons aren't exclusively slide, you will need to learn to fret notes, even without metal frets. It can be done with practice and patience, and you will then have a well-earned superiority over the lazy louts who need metal bars on the neck to make a note sound.

My main difficulty with fretless is the blues shuffle when it's not on an open chord, so I usually substitute with walking basslines, which are covered in Keni's supplemental lessons on CD4. Once you are able to use your fingers on the neck with scales, go right to the walking basslines, a fretless player's best friend- just think rockabilly stand up bass. Don't give up- fretless gives a unique sound to your playing, and bends and micro tones are super-easy, and you always get more satisfaction when you learn to play something well enough that nobody notices you're playing fretless...

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