Most banjo music is conveyed in tablature (tabs) as apposed to standard musical notation and since all of the lessons I’m posting rely heavily on tabs I thought I might include a quick run down on how to read it. Tabs are usually thought of as bit easier to read since they basically show you where to put your fingers on the strings. Hopefully this lesson will help you really understand tablature from the complete basics to the finer details.
The horizontal lines represent the strings with the first string (d-string) on top. The number on a given line tells you what fret to press on a given string and a 0 means to play the open string. An easy way to understand how the lines correspond to the strings is to let the banjo slide down on your lap. The first string will then be furthest from your body just as the top line of the tabs would be.
As seen here:
You should also know that tabs are read from left to right. When 2 or more notes are on the same vertical line they happen at the same time. In the example below the notes are played in order with the 4th being 2 notes played at once.
Above a line of tabs you will often see letters that represent the chords for the song. These may give you a clue as to how to set up your hand to play the tabs but it may not always be that cut and dry. The chord really has to do with the harmony of the song. They can often give us a clue as to what’s going on in the tabs but they don’t necessarily mean that you need to set up the chord shape to play the tabs.
This example has G over the first measure even though not all the notes correspond to the G chord. The 2nd fret not on the 3rd string is part of a moving melody and doesn’t change the fact that a G chord works over the whole measure. The second measure has a C over the first half of the measure and a D7 over the second half. You can use the regular C fingering and switch to D7 for beats 3 and 4. You don’t really ever play the 4th string so it would be up to you if you want to put down the whole C chord or just focus on the notes that are being played. I would put down the whole thing generally.
Not all tabs will denote the exact timing of each note but the best ones do. The timing is represented by the lines above the tabs. To begin to understand the rhythm diagrams you need to know where the beat is. Much of the music played in bluegrass will be in 4/4 or 3/4 time. Common time or 4/4 time means that there are 4 beats in a measure and that the beat is counted on quarter notes. In tablature quarter notes are counted on plain vertical lines like so:
Eighth notes are counted by adding an & between each down beat and are represented by a flag connecting 2 vertical lines. So a full 4/4 measure would be counted “1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &” and it would look like this:
The next subdivision is the 16th note which is represented by a second flag. The 16th note halves the 8th note and it is counted by adding a syllable between the numeral down beat and the &. One beat would now be divided into 4 parts and would be counted “1 e & a”. A full measure would look like this:
Occasionally you will see a dot next to a given note value. The dot means that the note is worth 1.5x its normal value so a dotted quarter lasts for 3 eighth notes time. This can also be represented by leaving an empty eight note. I tend just to leave an empty eighth note but either way works.
Another type of subdivision that comes up a lot is the triplet. When you play 3 notes in the space of a quarter note that is a triplet. The fiddle tune Big Sandy River usually kicks off with a triplet:
Hammer-ons, Pull-offs, and Slides
I like to denote slides with an angled line connecting 2 notes. this makes a slide really easy to differentiate from any other type of ornament. The beginning of Cripple Creak features the slide:
Hammer-ons and pull-offs are usually expressed with a curved line connecting 2 notes. You can infer which it is by whether the first note is higher or lower. Here is another excerpt from Cripple Creek, this time I included initials indicate whether it is a Hammer-on Pull-off or Slide:
There is definitely more to reading tabs than what has been described here but this should at least be a good reference to get started. No amount of explaining is going to help as much as just picking up the banjo and getting to it. The more you read the easier and faster it will be. Try not to rely on tabs to much though. The quicker you can get a tune in your head and fret off book with it the better.
If you have any questions about tab reading feel free to ask in the comments. I’ll probably update this at some point with more info and videos to accompany the tab examples.