How to Use Tablature

Using Banjo Tablature

In many blogs I’ve discussed learning by ear and methods for increasing your ability to hear chord changes. Today I’m going over another popular method for learning, one that’s familiar to most beginners. This method is called TABLATURE or TAB for short.

How old is Tablature?


TAB as a notation system was used as far back as the Renaissance music days with lutes. Yes, it precedes standard notation (aka sheet music).  It came into popularity amongst banjo players with the release of the Earl Scruggs book; the transcriptions done by the great Bill Keith.  Before that, banjo players learned by ear or from standard sheet music (common in the parlor music or classic banjo era).

Is Tablature Bad?

One comment heard throughout the online banjo playing community is that TAB is “bad”, “evil”, or somehow detrimental to your playing.  Yes, if you Learn from tablature, you’re done for, the ghost of Earl Scruggs will haunt you……mwuahhh.

Let’s look into this claim:

My view is that for a given time period (mostly the beginning banjo stages), tab is a useful tool.

However, in order to see continual progress as a musician you need to use other methods as well.   I think as long as you know the limitations, what it is and isn’t good for.  There’s nothing innately wrong with TAB.

tool set
Set of tools and wrenches.

Can you imagine trying to build something with one tool?  To build a cabinet, you need many tools- a hammer, nails, sandpaper, and wood for starters.  In my opinion, to build a musician, you need a variety of methods-Methods to train your ears, visual tools, technical exercises, repertoire, and Backup Development.  TAB is a valid tool, but you better have something else in that toolbox of yours!

How many tools do you need?

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? The goal and task at hand determines the tool, the number of tools you need, and how you’ll use them.

One thing is for sure-if want to play in a band someday then you’ll need to ween yourself off of TAB.  If you want to show up at the local bluegrass jam and blaze off on Scruggs-style banjo, you can’t bring a tab and music stand with you.

Yet, the device isn’t the problem-it’s not understanding the tools limitations.  So, let’s look at those limitations now:

Limitations of Banjo Tablature

  1. It doesn’t train your ears
  2. It’s doesn’t do a great job of conveying nuances like dynamics, tonal contrasts, and true rhythm/timing.
  3. The student can fall into the habit of reading one note at a time and miss the shape of the melody
  4. If you don’t already know the melody, the TAB won’t help you play it better
  5. There doesn’t exist a TAB for every song you will want or need to play
  6. There is no barrier to entry for posting TAB on the internet, leading to inaccuracies
  7. TAB doesn’t teach you how to improvise, create variations, or make up your own material
  8. Many other musicians do not use a TAB system, loss of communication possible
  9. Polyphonic music doesn’t work with TAB, too many moving parts

Elaborating on each Limitation of TAB

1)You must supplement with other materials in order to train your ears.  TAB never claims to train your hearing.

2)Sure, TAB can tell you whether something is an 8th or quarter note, but there’s 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)With banjo tab, a forward-reverse roll looks like an up and down picture.  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)Sometimes people get a TAB and ask, “how can I get a melody from the TAB?”  I’m afraid you are going about it wrong. You’re 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.  They do not know the melody, only notes on a page.

5)There aren’t enough TABS in existence to cover every song.  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.” I was given 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)Since there is almost no barrier to entry for putting a TAB on the internet, this means that a great deal of tabs are inaccurate or poorly done.  Of course, this is less of an issue of the device and more of an issue with the person giving out the TAB.  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 for students brought in from the internet. Some of them are such a mess that the only thing to do is discard them entirely.

7)If you want to create your own music, 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 that encourages or leads to creativity.

8)You have to go beyond TAB to 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)Polyphonic Music isn’t usually a concern for banjo or guitar players.  However, if you ever want to get into counterpoint or playing two rhythms at once, it’s limitation is apparent.

I will end by saying I sell TABS on my website; so, I obviously don’t think they are too bad. 

Evil TAB

However, those are representations of how to play something frozen in space.  How I play something day to day changes (via improvisation).  They serve a purpose in beginners lifes, they can also be useful for figuring out an EXACT version.

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