Banjo tabs is common terminology you’ll come across many times when learning or familiarizing themselves with the banjo. Tab is the abbreviation of Tablature. While many beginners first learn to read chord charts, learning how to read banjo tabs is another skill that can help you grow as a musician. Easy banjo tabs are just as widely available as easy chord charts too!
This is a system used in the reading and writing music for mandolin, guitar, banjo and most other instruments. Tablature is used by players that do not like reading the traditional music notations written by chords. In fact, large bands and orchestra’s use tabs exclusively.
How to Read Banjo Tabs
While this guide is specific for how to read banjo tabs, it applies to any instrument you’ll play. This is nice since you’ll be able to take your knowledge here and apply it to any instrument you’d like to learn in the future.
The tablature system entails the use of a single line for every string that the musical instrument has. For example a guitar ( or a six string banjo) would have a tab with 6 lines, the standard five-string banjo would have 5 lines and a four string banjo, fiddle, or ukulele would have a tab with 4 lines.
The fact that both a standard notation piece of written music and a tab both have a horizontal line representing each string is about the only thing they have in common.
Banjo tabs will have a letter written on each line (string) before any of the notes are specified. These letters correspond to the note that that open string will be tuned too. For standard tuning, you’ll see a GDGBD pattern where the low G is the string attached to the neck.
The next thing to note is the (4/4) that is placed next to the open string notes. This is the ‘time’ of the piece of music. As a beginner you’ll normally see a lot of 4/4 and 6/8 time, while more advanced musicians can deal in very complex time signatures.
Reading Individual Notes
The next thing we’ll look at is how an individual note is signified on a banjo tab. A number is over-laid onto a string to represent the fret that should be held down, this of course, represents a note.
Standard Notation for a C Chord
Above you can see the standard C major chords in traditional, or standard, notation. In this notation, the G chord would be played with all strings in open position.
In the Banjo tab we showed above (and below) you see the tab for both the G and C major chord. The first measure is the C chord.
The number ‘2’ is written on both the open D strings, signifying that you need to hold down both of these strings on the first fret. To complete this chord, you’ll notice the ‘1’ on the line representing the B string. Lastly, the ‘0’ on the high G string means you’ll be leaving this string open!
The 2nd measure represents the G chord, with all strings played in their open positions.
The Benefits of Banjo Tabs
Tablature has the benefit of not only showing which note a musician is required to play, but also where and when to play that note. If you are looking at banjo chords, this information is left out. Whenever you are using conventional music notation to play a song, you are required to know exactly where on the banjo to locate each musical note.
Conventional notation leaves the player to have a thorough understanding and knowledge of every note on all frets for each of the strings of the banjo.
While knowing all this can be very advantageous, but it is a daunting task for players that want to learn just a few things to play one or two easy songs as a hobby and have fun.
For instance, when you are playing a song that requires you to play the F note that is above the middle C. There are four different places to play this F note in G tuning on a standard five-string banjo.
One can play this note at the fifteenth fret of the fourth string, at the third fret of the first string, at the tenth fret of the third string, or at the sixth fret of the second string.
Granted, normally a beginner will play this note as close to the nut as possible, but it is slightly more vague than tablature. This can be very confusing because the player might not be able to know exactly where to play this note using the conventional music notation.
In comparison, banjo tablature will tell the player exactly where to play the note and which finger of the right hand to use when doing so. In banjo tabs, the player will see the number 3 on the 1st string which show them that they are playing a fret.
It is important to note that it does not matter if one learns to read music notation and then use this knowledge to play the banjo, or use the tablature to learn to play the banjo. You will be able to play either way, it’s simply a different way of mapping out the song!
Learning via Banjo Tab Books
Using the tablature music notation make learning to play the banjo easier for beginners because it provides them with something of a roadmap to playing the instrument.
Banjo tablature is what is mostly used to write most of the popular banjo instructional materials available on the market. This notation is preferred because most beginners find it easier to learn compared to the conventional music notation.
While most books will prefer to use one notation or the other, some will include the conventional music notation just below or above the tablature. This helps the player see the conventional music notation equivalent of the banjo tablature they are using.
If you are shopping around for songbooks, we recommend ones that use this approach. It is great because it helps the student see exactly where on the banjo the notes are in relation to the standard music notation. While this is not a necessity, it can be fun and informative for the students. We’ve got a few recommendations for you below!
Common Banjo Tablature Variations
Depending on who has written the notes down you may see some variation with tabs. Common adjustments are a fret number written above, or below, the line that is represented by the string. There has also been tablature where the line that is represented by the string passes through the middle of the fret number. The point to take note of here is that it does not matter how the tabs have been written as long as you have an idea where to look, and what each symbol means, it all works the same.
Standard Music Notation or Banjo Tabs?
There are very many schools of thought when it comes to deciding whether to use the standard music notation or banjo tablature to teach musical instruments and when learning to play the banjo.
Some feel that the standard music notation system is the best option because it is more common and encompasses all instruments of music. This approach is completely acceptable.
Other individuals belong to the school of thought that embraces tablature, especially when teaching banjo to beginners. The main advantage here is that banjo tabs have fewer rules compared to the conventional music notation.
Tablature also does not need the player to memorize each note on each string on each fret of the banjo.
When learning using the standard music notation, do not worry if it takes a bit longer to understand at first. Remember, once you understand the notation, it will help you in the long run, especially if you intend on learning many other different musical instruments.
Chord charts for banjo are often easier to find than even the easy banjo tabs, but people like Ross Nickerson and Banjo Tabs both provide great resources!
The Final Note
The banjo tablature is excellent for individuals that are beginners or that are considering learning banjo without the help of a teacher. Learning how to read banjo tabs is a little bit of a process, but you definitely can achieve it!
You can find a great selection of tablature resources out there. This just starts to scratch the surface of our knowledge on banjos, so make sure to check out the rest of our banjo articles!