Guitar Tablature and Chords for keyboard players

Because of the simple way that guitar chord shapes and tablature can be represented in plain ascii files, there is a huge amount of guitar music (tab and chords) on the internet. As far as I'm aware, there is no similar agreed "standard" for representing keyboard music with ascii text. Keyboard parts can of course be displayed as image files (jpeg/gif) with standard notation, but these files are rather large and are more difficult to create.

However, guitar chords and tab files can quite easily be converted to meaningful information for keyboard players, as long as the conventions for tablature and chord naming are understood. This page is designed to give keyboard players all the information they need to know in order to make use of guitar tab and chord files.

Tools for converting guitar tablature

You may like to try this web-based conversion tool for converting guitar chords written in tab-style notation to notes on a musical stave: The tool allows you to copy and paste guitar tabs as text, and the output overlays notes on a stave for all the chords used in the guitar tab. Neat!

To understand how guitar tab is written and how to interpret it yourself, read on...

Guitar tablature for keyboard players

The basics of tablature are straight forward: Tablature does not usually give detailed information about the lengths of each note. Given the note pitches you have to play, and reasonable familiarity with the song in question, it's assumed you can figure out the note lengths for yourself. As a very rough guideline, the wider the horizontal spacing between notes, the longer the note length.


The above tablature starts with a chord of six notes, followed by a chord of four notes, a short melody of single notes, then another chord. To convert the tablature into note names, use the table below. The left hand column has the strings in the same order as they appear on the tablature (lowest pitch string at the bottom). For each note in the tablature, look along the row for that string, find the fret number and read off the note name.

Guitar fretboard to note name conversion table

String\Fret 0
E E F F#/Gb G G#/Ab A A#/Bb B C C#/Db D D#/Eb E
B B C C#/Db D D#/Eb E F F#/Gb G G#/Ab A A#/Bb B
G G G#/Ab A A#/Bb B C C#/Db D D#/Eb E F F#/Gb G
D D D#/Eb E F F#/Gb G G#/Ab A A#/Bb B C C#/Db D
A A A#/Bb B C C#/Db D D#/Eb E F F#/Gb G G#/Ab A
E E F F#/Gb G G#/Ab A A#/Bb B C C#/Db D D#/Eb E

Thanks to Steve Chernove for the original idea for this conversion table.

Note that 12 frets corresponds to an octave, hence you get the same note names for frets 1 and 13, 2 and 14 etc.

Using the first chord in the tablature above as an example, working from the bottom string up, we get:

So, lowest to highest, we have a chord of E B E G# B E.

If we continue through the complete tablature example, we find that it corresponds to an Emajor chord (low to high: EBEG#BE), followed by a different Emajor chord (EG#BE), then the notes E F# G# F# E D# and finally a repeat of the second Emajor chord. In standard notation, this might look something like this:

E major example

Guitar chords for keyboard players

Reading from transcriptions that give the chord names (usually written above the lyrics) should work in much the same way if you are a guitarist or keyboard player, as long as everyone has the same interpretation of the chord names. Among guitarists, unfortunately, there is widespread disagreement and misunderstanding of what many chord names actually mean. Among keyboard players my impression is that there is a better understanding of what chord names represent, but there may still be differences of interpretation.

For example, should a 13th chord include the 9th and 11th, or are these notes optional?

To help keyboard players (and guitarists!) to understand exactly what is meant by the chord names I have used in my transcriptions, I have written a table summarising what I consider to be the essential notes for the most common chord types. If you're reading my chord transcriptions and come across a Bm11 chord for example, you can check this chord reference table to find out what notes should be used. The table gives the "spelling" for each chord in terms of the notes of the major scale, for example the major chord spelling is 1, 3, 5.

Go here for my chord reference table

Most of my chord transcriptions include guitar chord shapes that specify exactly which chord voicing to use. These chord shapes are specified by giving the string & fret number for each note. An x indicates the string is not played, and a zero indicates the open string. For example, the chord shape for Cmaj7 might be specified as:


In other words, the Cmaj7 chord is played by fretting the A string at the 3rd fret, the D string at the 2nd fret and playing the G, B and top E string open (the bottom E string is not played). Using the conversion table above, you can get the notes that make up these chords so you can play them on the keyboard (in this case you'd get the notes C E G B E).

Keyboard chord voicings

For transcriptions of songs by artists such as Frank Zappa and Steely Dan, these chord shapes are often based on keyboard parts in the original song, so keyboard players are encouraged to use the above fretboard conversion table to convert the guitar shapes to note names to enable them to play the particular chord voicing specified. In the case of Steely Dan songs in particular, getting the right voicing can make a big difference.

To give another example, my transcription of the first two chords of the introduction to the Steely Dan song "Deacon Blues" is Cmaj7 Gsus2/B, where the chord shapes are given as:

 EADGBE      EADGBE       
 8x998x      7x778x       

 Cmaj7       Gsus2/B      
Using the conversion table above, and working from lowest string to highest string (left to right in the chord shapes) we find for the Cmaj7 chord: giving a chord spelling of CBEG. Doing the same thing with the Gsus2/B chord, we get a chord spelling of BADG. These two chords in standard musical notation would be:
Deacon Blues intro chords

Last updated November 2012