Tablature: What is it? How do I read it?

Updated: May 25


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 all of my lessons (except for the Beginner Clawhammer Crash Course) so, if you’re using any of my materials here at Play Better Banjo 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.



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