How to Read the Rhythm of Banjo Tablature
Banjo tablature expresses rhythm in much the same way as it’s read in conventional music notation, in terms of measures and time signatures. Banjo players typically think of a single measure of tab in 4/4 time as a rhythmic space that’s waiting to be filled by a maximum of eight notes (or an equivalent combination of fewer notes with longer duration).
Each note on the tab staff has a stem attached that indicates the duration of the note. The three note values that you encounter most frequently in banjo tablature are the quarter note, the eighth note, and the sixteenth note.
Each of these notes has a vertical line, called the stem, extending down from the note. An eighth note has either a curled or horizontal line attached to the bottom of the stem, while the sixteenth note has two horizontal lines.
These lines are called flags and distinguish one rhythmic value from another on the tab page. Each note value also has a corresponding rest sign, which indicates a corresponding number of beats where no note is played. This tab shows these three note values with their corresponding rests as they appear on a tab staff.
Determining the value of a note in tablature is just like using grade-school fractions: Two sixteenth notes take up the same amount of musical space or time as one eighth note, and two eighth notes occupy the same amount of space as one quarter note.
A measure in 4/4 time needs to be filled with the equivalent of four quarter notes. This tab shows just a few of the many rhythmic combinations that meet this requirement.
In the beginning, it may be helpful to count out loud (or in your head) “1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and” for each measure of 4/4 time as you play through a piece, letting each note last for its appropriate rhythmic duration.
For example, if you’re counting along in the example tab, you can see that an eighth note takes up the space of one count (either a number or an “and”), while a quarter note takes up the space of two counts (a number and an “and”).