Tablature (often called “tab” for short) is a simple, written system of musical communication. Although it looks very similar to standard musical notation, it’s quite different in many ways and much easier to learn and use.

The Lines

You’ll notice that, in the example above, we have five parallel lines running laterally across the page. Each line represents a string on your banjo:

  • The line at the bottom of the tablature (G) is your 5th string
  • The second line up from the bottom (D) is your 4th string
  • The third up from the bottom (G) is your 3rd string
  • and so on…

Notice that the 5th string, the short string on the top of our banjo, is represented at the bottom of the tablature. This can seem counterintuitive to some people. Don’t make the common mistake of reading the tab “upside down”!


The Numbers

The numbers on the lines represent the fret(s) to be played by the left hand.

Tablature is read from left to right; just like you would read music or a book. To make sure you understand, let’s try a simple example using a familiar melody:


You Are My Sunshine


Reading from left to right, play the notes indicated in the tab above and you should start to hear the first couple of phrases from You Are My Sunshine.  (You are my sun shine my on ly sun shine…)

See how that works?


The Other Stuff

What about all of the other stuff? What’s with the lines, symbols, fractions, and what not?!

Well, a lot of the symbols, lines, etc that you see in tablature are borrowed directly from standard written music. So, if you know a little bit about how to read music, that’s great; you’ll be able to transfer that knowledge to your tab reading.

If you don’t know anything about reading music, that’s great, too! Just ignore every symbol, line, and circle that you don’t understand. You’ll be fine as long as you remember these three things:

  • Tab is read from left to right
  • The lines represent the strings of the banjo
  • The numbers represent the fretted notes on the string


Some More Stuff

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention:

The m and t letters underneath the notes represent which finger of the right hand should be sounding that note.

m = middle finger
t = thumb

*note: I use my middle finger to strike the strings, some folks use their index. If you use your index then, for you, m = index. Make sense?


That’s It. You’re Good to Go

If you understand these basics, then you’re ready to use tablature to supplement your banjo learning. I use tab as a learning aid in almost all of my lessons so, if you’re using any of my materials here at Play Better Banjo or at Online Lesson Videos you’ll have plenty of opportunity to hone your tab reading skills as you go!


A Cautionary Message

Tablature is a great tool for banjo learning and for communication between student and teacher but it can become a crutch if not used properly.

Make it a point to memorize all the music that you learn to play. After you’ve used tablature to learn a song or idea, then focus on committing that song or idea to memory.

Do not get into the habit of reading from the tab while you perform the music!

This is okay when you’re first learning a piece but, remember, the ultimate goal is to play from memory. That’s all I’ll say on the subject for now. You’ll probably hear more from me on this subject down the line. Sufficed to say:

Tablature is an invaluable tool that can do wonders for your learning and comprehension. Just make sure you train yourself so that you don’t need the tab in front of you in order to make some music.

Alright. I’ll shut up now.





5 Responses to “Tablature – What is it? How do I read it?”

  1. Tyler Lane

    Hi! I am 15 years old and an intermediate banjo player. I have and play minstrel banjo, but because there are not a whole lot of lessons on minstrel banjo, I am trying to learn claw hammer and apply it to my minstrel. I know they are a lot alike but I can’t strum my banjo like clawhammer because the tuning is so much lower. Anyway, where can I get the tab to cripple creek. I watched your YouTube video and loved it, but I can’t find the tab on your website. Thank you!

  2. John Keen

    Ryan do have any more information on reading Tabs. I was wondering what some of the symbols mean.
    Also very hard to learn the techniques of hammering on the strings. Lots of it on YouTube, but even with glasses on and up close I can’t pick it up. It’s a bit like your suppose to basicly already know.
    I worked with Carpet for 25 years ,can show you plenty of tricks with carpet but music skill are hard learnt for this old guy.
    My doggee wrist is doing more overtime than it has for decades getting to some of those chords, but we are getting there very slowly.
    I’m probably doing better with the Banjo than I was with the Uke even though every bit of learning has been hard earnt Ryan.
    I’ll never be much good at it but reckon I be able to suck many in with it it and I do enjoy my playing it.
    Thanks for your lessons.

    John Keen

    • PlayBetterBanjo

      Hi John,
      Sorry for the late reply…I’m much better at answering emails promptly…I always miss thesee comments!

      Anyway, I say just keep on pushing forward and checking out as many teaching resources as you can and, eventually, the technique will start to fall in place for you.

      If you have more questions and want a quicker answer…just send me an email.

      Take care,


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