How to Properly Use Tab To Learn Banjo

by Bennett Sullivan

Whether it was way back when we were starting or just yesterday, most of us have used tab to learn the banjo. It’s easy to access, simple enough to read, and with some practice it helps us learn arrangements of the tunes that we love to listen to.

The catch is, we don’t really learn how to play music when we’re exclusively learning from tab, and that’s a problem.

Here’s a plan for you to use when learning your next song with tab:

  1. Choose a recording, then get the tab - listen to music and find a banjo solo you dig, then find a tab for that exact solo. If you can’t find it, ask a teacher or friend to tab it out for you.

  2. Listen to the recording and hum along with the melody - the point of this is to get that music in your ears so when you do look at the tab, you’ll have the melody in your head. It’ll make learning from the tab so much easier

  3. Give yourself a “tab deadline” - Tab addicts, I’m looking at you! Set a date for the tab to be permanently taken away from your practice. For example, spend three days working with the tab and the recording and after those three days are up, exclusively practice with the recording. If you forget something that you learned from the tab, use the recording to figure it out!

  4. Metronome that ish - Take time out of your routine to practice the song in chunks with the metronome. Look away from the tab as much as you can and relearn parts of the song from the recording if possible. The metronome isn’t just for timing! It teaches you how to listen to something while also listening to yourself, which is an essential skill for jamming. Backing tracks are great to work with as well but the metronome forces you to fill in the rhythmic spaces rather than relying on backing tracks for rhythm.

  5. Practice Slow - get a slow downing application like or the Amazing Slow Downer and practice at a speed that allows you to play with great timing and tone. That’s what it is all about right there - not learning something as fast as possible.

There’s more. You can also take this more aggressive approach, which focuses even more on learning by ear:

  1. Start out with no tab - Instead of starting with the tab, take a stab at learning the song by ear first. Figure out the key, chords, and try to get the melody down using a slow downing app. Give yourself more time than you feel comfortable with this. If you’ve never done it before, it will be frustrating.

  2. Add in the tab - After about a week of trying to get it using the recording, take a look at the tab. At this point you probably have most of the melody down even if the other filler notes aren’t there.

  3. No more tab/Tab deadline - Take the tab permanently away after 2-3 days of working with it and finish the song off using your ears.

This approach is definitely more intense but if you can stick with it for 1-2 songs, it will get much much easier and you’ll thank me when you’re feeling way more comfortable on your instrument.

There are some great resources online for getting better at learning by ear while also working with tab. I’ve created Banjo by Ear (which features my Listen & Learn Method) and the Tunefox website, which is an incredible resource for bluegrass songs, licks and lessons that focus on creativity and unique practice methods. Tunefox also has an in-person camp coming up this May.

I’m here if you need help. Send me an email at if you have questions.


Kristin Scott Benson chooses the Deering Golden Series banjos
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