Banjo tab or tablature is a way of reading and writing banjo music that has similarities to standard musical notation, but is much easier to read, and gives the player the precise fret, string, and right hand fingering (assuming the player is right handed). It is a great tool for beginners to learn some songs and licks since it shows exactly what to do. As a teacher I focus my students on learning to understand the instrument, what exactly they are doing, and to use their ear, but banjo tab does help communicate many of these ideas quickly and easily.
This article is not about the benefits and shortcomings of banjo tab, but how to read it. It is a tool to learning that can be very helpful, but should not be used solely on its own. It is however, a very important tool to understand as 99% of banjo music is written in tablature form. You can find tablature for almost any fretted stringed instrument. Banjos of all kinds use tab, it doesn’t matter if you are playing a tenor banjo, plectrum banjo, 5 string banjo, 6 string banjo, or banjo uke - tablature will work for all of these. There are slight differences though when reading tablature for different instruments. Let’s start out with what tablature is.
What Does Banjo Tab Look Like?
Tablature without any notes on it looks a lot like standard music manuscript paper. There are a group of horizontal lines that go all the way across the page. These horizontal lines represent strings.
If you are playing a 4 string banjo there will be 4 horizontal lines grouped together. When playing a 5 string banjo you would see a group of 5 lines. 6 string banjo tab (or guitar tab) would show a group of 6 horizontal lines. The 1st string (the one closest to the floor when you are holding your banjo in proper playing position) will be on the top. The highest number string (the one closest to you when you are holding your banjo in proper playing position) - 4 on a 4 string banjo, 5 on a 5 string banjo, 6 on a 6 string banjo, etc. - will be on the bottom.
On these horizontal lines you will then see a vertical line that goes from the top horizontal line in that group to the bottom horizontal line in that group. These lines would appear at the very beginning, the end, and spread evenly throughout the page. These vertical lines represent bar lines or measures.
You will also notice numbers written on the horizontal lines. The horizontal line that the number is on will tell you what string we are talking about. The number will tell you which fret to put your finger on. If you saw a number 3 on the top line, the tab would be saying to fret the 3rd fret on the 1st string.
In Ex. 2 above you see the first note would be the 3rd string played open or unfretted. The second note would be the open B string (the 2nd string), and the 3rd note would be the open 5th string.
Moving forward you see the first note of the second measure has a 2 on it. This is on the middle line which in turn represents the 3rd string. This is telling you to play the 2nd fret of the 3rd string.
How Does Tab Show Rhythm?
The way banjo tab shows you each note duration varies slightly. In my opinion, the clearest banjo tabs use the same rhythmic symbols as standard musical notation.
In Example 2 above we are playing in 4/4 time. This is called the time signature and is shown at the very beginning of the tab. The top number tells us how many beats there are per measure and the bottom number tells us the note value that represents one beat. In this case we would have 4 beats per measure (the top number) and each beat is equal to a quarter note (the bottom number). If the bottom number was an 8, then each beat would be equal to an eighth note. If it had a 2 as the bottom note, each beat would be equal to a half note.
Luckily, most of the music you will be playing will be in 4/4 time. 4 beats per measure with each beat being equal to a quarter note.
Now we have to distinguish what each note value is. Is the note on the tab a quarter note, an eighth note, a half note, a whole note, something else?
Here are the most common different choices we have, starting with the longest note duration is a whole note. All of these assume we are playing in a time signature where the bottom number is 4.
In Example 3 below we can see all of the different types of common notes and rests.
- Whole Note - equal to 4 beats. If we are playing in 4/4 time (like we usually are), a whole note would take up one entire measure. This are shown in tab by usually by a circle around the number. Shown in measure 1 of Example 3.
- Half Note - equal to 2 beats. In 4/4 time two half notes would take up an entire measure. These are shown in tab with a straight line down and a circle at the end of the line. Shown in measure 2 of Example 3.
- Quarter Note - equal to 1 beat. There would be 4 quarter notes per measure if we were playing in 4/4 time. They are shown in tab with just a straight line down. Shown in measure 3 of Example 3.
- Eighth Note - equal to one half of a beat. Two eighth notes equal one quarter note. The majority of bluegrass banjo notes played are eighth notes. You would need 8 eighth notes in 4/4 time to fill out a whole measure. These are shown in tab with a straight line down and a little flag at the end. If you have two eighth notes next to each other you connect them at the bottom of the line down. This makes it easier to read. Shown in measure 4 of Example 3. Measure 5 shows two eighth notes together.
- It is just like 6th grade math class fractions from here on out. You can keep dividing these note values in half. The next would be sixteenth notes, then thirty second notes, and so on.
- Measure 6 shows a 16th note and measure 7 shows two sixteenth notes tied together. Measure 8 shows a thirty-second note and measure 9 shows two thirty-second notes together.
Looking at Example 2 above, the first measure consists of all eighth notes. The first 4 notes of the second measure are eighth notes and the last two notes are quarter notes.
We also have rests which denote a space where you don't play anything. Rests work the same way as notes do in regards to their duration.
- Whole Rest - shown in measure 10 of Example 3 above
- Half Rest - shown in measure 11 of Example 3 above
- Quarter Rest - shown in measure 12 of Example 3 above
- Eight Rest - shown in measure 13 of Example 3 above
- and so on