How to Read Banjo Tablature - dummies

By Bill Evans

Tablature (or tab for short) is the written form of music for the banjo. Although tablature uses quite a few elements that are also found in conventional music notation, tab imparts information that’s specific to the banjo, such as what string you play and whether that string is open or fretted. Tablature is a part of almost every instructional book and CD set.

And although tab never replaces being able to play by ear, it enables you to cover ground more quickly when learning a new piece of music and allows you to double-check what you’ve learned by ear. Therefore, it’s a great idea to take a little time to get acquainted with reading tablature.

Finding notes on banjo tablature

The big difference between banjo tablature and standard music notation is that although both use five horizontal lines on the staff, the lines on the banjo tab staff represent the five strings of your banjo. The top line corresponds to the banjo’s 1st string and the bottom line represents the banjo’s 5th string, with the second, third, and fourth lines from the top standing for the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th strings on your banjo.


Need help in remembering which tab lines stand for which banjo strings? Note that the visual orientation of the strings on the tab staff is the same as what you see as you look down on the strings while playing. From this point of view, the 1st string is the string that is farthest away (and is “on the top” of the tab staff) and the 5th string is the closest (and “on the bottom” of the tab staff).

In banjo tablature, you also see numbers on each line. These numbers represent the notes you play, as shown in this tab. The line that the number sits on indicates which string you play and the numeric value tells whether to play an open (unfretted, indicated with “0”) or fretted string.


And this tab displays what the G, C, and D7 chords look like in tablature. The b below the tab staff indicates a right-hand brush.