What Is Banjo Tab?

by Barry Hunn

Banjo tab is a term you have probably come across when learning the to play the banjo. “Tab” is an abbreviation for “tablature” which is a system of writing and reading music for banjo, guitar, mandolin, etc. It is popular for players who do not read traditional music notation.

Tablature is a system where there is a line for each string of the instrument. In other words, a five string banjo would have a series of five lines; a six string banjo (or guitar) would have six lines and a four string banjo would have four lines.

Even though conventional music notation uses five lines, it does not work like tablature. Because five string banjos have five lines in their tablature it does create some confusion because standard music notation has five lines. Fortunately, that’s about the only similarity.

Play it by the Numbers

In tablature each “note” is represented by a number written on the five lines. For example, if you see the number two on the 1st string line in tablature that means you are fretting fret number two on the 1st string. For another example if you see the number four on line number three, the 3rd string, this means you are fretting the 3rd string on the 4th fret.

The benefit of tablature for many players is that it not only tells you what note to play but it tells you exactly where to play it.

If you are learning to play a song with conventional musical notation, you need to know where the note on the musical staff is located on your banjo. So, “reading music” means that you need to have thorough knowledge of all the notes on all of the frets on all of the strings on your banjo. Knowing this is extremely positive, but for many of us who are playing the banjo as a hobby, it can be a little daunting to feel that we have to learn all of this information to play a few songs and have fun.

For example: Let’s say your piece of music says to play an F note that is just above middle C. On a 5 string banjo in G tuning, you can play this note in 4 different places! You could play it on the  first string fretted at the 3rd fret, the second string at the 6th fret, the 3rd string at the 10th fret, or the 4th string at the 15th fret. Now that can be confusing. How does the player choose where to play it? That is a question for another article, but tablature will tell you specifically where to play it and with what right hand finger you should play it with. In tablature, you will see a number three on the first string which tells you that is the fret that you are playing.

Before we go any further, we need to make it clear that there is nothing wrong with learning to read music and using it to play the banjo. Conversely, there’s nothing wrong with learning to play the banjo using tablature.

Banjo Tab Example

The sample below shows a musical staff which is the top five lines and it has musical notes in it. In the five lines below the musical staff the word tab is written among these five lines. This is how tablature looks and how it's written. Many books show this combination of musical notes above and tablature of those musical notes below. Some books just show tablature without showing the music. Both are helpful and I don't believe one is necessarily better than the other. However, once you learn to read tablature, if there is musical notation written above your tablature, it makes it easier to see how music works by equating the tablature with the music notation. But getting back to the example, the zeros and numbers on the tablature lines illustrate which fret you will play. So even if there are several "places" or frets where you can play the same note, the tablature tells you the specific fret to use. This helps learning new songs and it leaves no guesswork as to which fret you should use. This is extremely helpful for beginners and intermediate players.


Banjo Tab - Alternating Roll banjo tab example #1


Banjo Tab Gives You A Roadmap

Tablature for many beginners makes learning easier because it is something of a roadmap and you don’t need to know all the street names on the road in order to find your way to play and learn songs.

Many of the most popular banjo instruction books available today are written utilizing banjo tablature. These have been very successful teaching beginners. Some books include the musical notation just above or just below the tablature so the student can see the “standard music notation equivalent” of the tablature that they are reading. This can be doubly beneficial by showing the student where the notes are on the banjo in relation to standard music notation; which can be kind of fun to know even if it’s not a necessity.

Reading Variations

Over the years, there has been tablature where the fret number has been placed on the top of the line that the string represents. There has been tablature where the number has been placed underneath the line that the string represents. And there is tablature where the line that the string represents goes through the middle of the number.

Because tablature for banjos has not been definitively standardized, you might see some variations of the fret number above, below or through the line.

The good news is, that it works the same regardless of the number placement.

Either Way is Okay

Some teachers who learned to read music notation frown on the use of tablature. This is understandable to some extent because music notation encompasses all musical instruments. They feel that this is the way music is written and this is what students should learn. There is nothing wrong with this approach.

Some teachers embrace the use of tablature for beginners as a means to make learning the instrument a little easier because it has less “rules” then standard music notation and does not require complete memorization of every note on every string on every fret of your banjo. (Not that there’s anything WRONG with that.)

If you have a banjo teacher who insists that you learn standard music notation, this will be a benefit in the long run though it may feel that it is taking a little longer to learn in the beginning. But if your teacher stays with you through the process, it will open up unlimited sources of music.

If you have a banjo teacher who teaches you with tablature, you will certainly find no shortage of books that are written for tablature to learn banjo songs.

If you do not have a banjo teacher, tablature is likely going to be a little easier to learn and help you learn songs more quickly because you can “follow the numbers” and know where to fret the strings without the memorization required in reading standard musical notation.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

You do not have to learn how to read musical notation or tablature in order to play the banjo. Both are a tool to help communicate tones. Always remember, some of the greatest musicians in the world who were blind from birth never read music. Does that mean they weren’t very good? No.

Music is sound. Tablature and standard notation are just documentation of sound… Nothing more.


Download some of our free banjo tab here:

Logan County Blues
Iron Horse - by Mean Mary James
Star Spangled Banner


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