How do you use TAB?

In recent blogs I discussed learning by ear and methods for increasing your ability to hear chord changes.  Today I’m going to go over another popular method for learning the banjo, one that’s familiar to most beginners.  This method is called TABLATURE or TAB for short.
TAB as a notated system was used as far back as the Renaissance music days with lutes. It came into popularity amongst banjo players with the release of the Earl Scruggs book, transcriptions done by the great Bill Keith.

One comment heard a lot throughout the online banjo playing community is that TAB is “bad”, “Evil”, or somehow detrimental to your playing.  Let’s look into this claim:

Is this true? 

I’ll cut to the chase- My view is that for a given time period it is a useful tool, mostly in the beginning years. However, in order to see continual progress as a musician you must use other methods as well.  There is nothing wrong with banjo TAB, provided you know what it is and isn’t good for.  

Can you imagine trying to build something with one tool?  To build a cabinet you’ll need many tools like a hammer, nails, sandpaper, and wood for starters.  To build a musician you’ll need a variety of methods as well-Methods to train your ears, visual tools, technical exercises, Repertoire, and Backup Development.

As per usual, context is everything.  If all you want to do is play for family and friends then you’ll need fewer tools.  What are you trying to accomplish? Where you are going determines what additional methods to use.  For example, if you want to play in a band someday then you’ll need to ween yourself off of TAB.

The device isn’t the problem, it’s how it’s used and not understanding it’s limitations.  So, let’s look at those limitations now:


1)It doesn’t train your ears.  You must supplement with other methods for ear training like playing along with recordings, singing melodies, and learning songs in multiple keys.  TAB never claims to increase your hearing abilities.

2)It’s poor at conveying nuances like dynamics, tonal contrasts, and true rhythm/timing.  Sure, it can tell you whether something is an 8th or quarter note, but there is more to timing than that.  Sometimes players play slightly behind or ahead of the beat.  Sometimes certain notes are faint on a recording; other notes are very loud. TAB isn’t good for learning those nuances.  Even if the TAB has dynamic markings, fingerings, and lots of “signals,” it still doesn’t give you all of the nuances needed. A good recording and lots of listening plus TAB is much better than TAB alone.

3)The student can fall into the trap of reading TAB one note at a time instead of viewing shapes.  For example, a forward-reverse roll looks like an up and down picture in TAB.  Once you recognize this you can read eight notes at once.  The student should not read one note at a time; instead, see shapes as right-hand roll groupings.  Shape-reading is precisely why I can read a piece of TAB I’ve never seen very fast. I’m not reading one note at a time; I’m reading lots of notes at once.  This is why I also have my own system of teaching students in the very beginning that involves no TAB.

4)If you don’t already know the melody or hear it in your head, then the TAB won’t help you play the melody better, especially in a roll-based song.  Sometimes people get a TAB and ask how can I get a melody from a TAB?  I’m afraid you are going about it wrong. You are supposed to know the melody before you look at the TAB, preferably to the point you can hum it, then when you play the TAB you naturally accent the melody or words.  Listening comes before the TAB.  A lot of people try to learn a song they haven’t listened to enough and it results in mechanical sounding music.

5)There aren’t enough TABS available in the world for every song you might want or need to play.  This is where learning things by ear or other methods comes in handy.  I remember years ago a known artist I was working with gave me his CD and said, “Learn it.” He gave me no charts or any help.  If I didn’t have good ears I wouldn’t have kept the job/gig.  If you are in fact TAB dependent it will reduce your repertoire capacity sooner or later.  You can only memorize so many songs before the brain stops taking them in.  You learn a new one and then you forget an old one. Perhaps a problem many of you are familiar with?

6)TAB is widely available, sometimes for FREE.  Since there is almost no barrier to entry for putting up a TAB on the internet it means that a great deal of them are inaccurate or poorly done.  Less of an issue of the device and more of an issue with the person giving out the device.  I feel like the quantity vs quality does in fact hinder many people in the learning process and indirectly leads to limitations.  I’ve corrected numerous TABS students brought in from the internet. Some of them are such a mess that the only thing to do is discard them entirely.

7)TAB does not teach you how to create variations, improvise, or make up your own materials.  Other methods are necessary for this.  In other words, it shows you a final product but doesn’t tell you WHY the artist choose the notes or HOW to use the materials to make something of your own.  It’s not much of a tool encouraging or leading to creativity.

8)If you work with other musicians many instruments do not use TAB.  You have to go beyond TAB to say sheet music, chord charts, ear training and more to communicate with other musicians on other instruments.  If TAB is the only thing you know it becomes a limiting device where communicating to other instrumentalists is concerned.

9)If you want to convey multiple parts as in polyphonic music you can’t really put two separate parts on a TAB like you can say the Grand Staff with Treble and Bass clefs.  Not a biggie with most banjo playing but if you ever want to get into counterpoint or playing two rhythms at once it’s limitation is apparent.


1)You don’t have to take the time to sit down and learn it one note at a time by ear. It’s written down and you can see it quickly.  It saves you time.  Great for those who naturally don’t have good ears.

2)It tells you EXACTLY what fret to put your fingers on, unlike sheet music that may tell you a C note but doesn’t tell you which string to play that C on.  It’s great at conveying exactly where to play a note.

3)TAB Allows you to have a copy of something you played or arranged; this is a great thing to have if you forget it.  Having a written copy is good for referral many years later (One of the many reasons, I write out my original music in a notebook)

4)If you are interested in a particular player you can get many of their TABS and see if there are similarities between what they played on multiple takes of the same song or if they used the same vocabulary on many songs.  You can, of course, do this aurally but it’s good for visually oriented people to see it.  This saves lots of time.

5)It is particularly useful in certain musical situations like the following.  Do you want to learn a Bach Piece?  Well, the most common way of doing this is getting the Sheet music and transferring it to TAB.  The incorrect method would be trying to learn one of Bach’s Partitas by ear.  As important as I believe having good ears are I don’t think “learn it by ear” is always the best answer.

6)Sometimes SEEING things on paper makes it easier to improve it.  I write out many things in my music notebook in TAB format.  Sometimes I use it as a writer would; I put it down on paper and I edit or add things.  I do this mainly with composing or solo banjo arranging.  You can write out something you played and make little notes on what you like or don’t like.

7)Readily available, an advantage and disadvantage.  There are TABS everywhere, so, easy to find.

Now that we know the advantages and limitations what can we do to use this tool properly?

What are some ways to get the most out of TAB?

1)Go through the TAB and pull out licks.  You pull licks out according to the chord they work over.  For example, If you see something “cool” over the C chord then pull it out as a lick and apply it to other songs you know that contain a C chord.  When possible take that lick and move it around to other keys/chords.

2)See the big picture-Look at the TAB and see the overall structure of the solo.  Did the player use different licks over the same chord?  How did the solo begin and end?  Did it start simple and build into the complex?  Did it move from low to high?  Try to incorporate these things into your own playing.  The point is to find out the logic behind what the person played.  You are zooming out instead of zooming in.

3)Don’t read it note to note with bluegrass/folk songs that are in a roll-based style. Read the ENTIRE roll as one big piece of information.  You do this by associating specific rolls with specific shapes and contours.  More on this later

4)Take multiple TABS of the same song or even break and compare them, try to play mix n match with all of the material.  You can create a multitude of variations on one song from just two different breaks.  The key is less memorizing and more understanding.

5)Most importantly, Listen to the recording a lot.  If you use the TAB with a recording you will get much more out of it than if you try to play something with no reference.  When I ask students, “Did you listen to the recording?” and they respond, “Yeah, twice” I know before they try to play it that it won’t go well.  The listening is more important than the TAB.  As you listen, pay close attention to the dynamics, accents and timing.  Basically anything the TAB itself can’t tell you.  Makes notes on the TAB about what you hear on the recording that the paper doesn’t tell you.

Some personal experiences

When I started I did indeed learn from TAB for a bit, I didn’t have naturally good ears so it was helpful for me.  At the same time, I will tell you had I only learned via TAB and never moved on I would not be the player I am today.  It was not until I started spending at least an hour every day playing along with recordings and going to jams every chance I could get that my playing took off exponentially.

Even as an Intermediate player I remember going through and stealing licks and pieces from TABS, things I’d see in the Banjo Newsletter or some specific artist’s TAB book.  However, at that point, I understood what to do with the material I was getting via TAB and I had turned mostly into an ear player.  I was using any material I got via TAB to create my own variations and to increase my vocabulary.  I used the material to find out the how and why behind player’s I liked.  In order to determine the how and why’s sometimes training in theory is helpful.

I strong believe everyone needs to understand what the purpose of TAB is, what it won’t ever do for you so you don’t wind up disappointed.  I believe if you truly want to get beyond playing note to note, having a repertoire of over thirty songs, getting to the point you can teach yourself then you have to get beyond learning only from TAB.

A big part of that is moving into learning more by ear, by picking things up at jams and from others.

My goal is to not tell you which tool is best, my goal is to tell you what each tool is good for and how to get the best out of that particular tool.

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 Happy Learning!

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