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How to Read Tablature

Tablature provides an easy way to read and write music as it is played on the banjo, guitar, or other stringed instruments. It has similarities to regular written music (standard notation), but there are many differences also, which make tablature much easier to understand. The tablature staff looks much the same as standard notation, but instead of each line representing a particular note, each line represents a string on the banjo. With a little practice, this method provides a clear and immediate mental image of what you need to do on the banjo.

Here are two measures of tablature:

  • The five lines of the tablature staff each represent one of the five strings on the banjo. The top line represents the 1st string, which is the one closest to the floor when you are holding your banjo in the normal playing position. The bottom line represents the 5th string, which is the short string on your banjo that begins at the 5th fret.
  • The letters on the lines on the left side of the tablature (D-B-G-D-G) represent the tuning of each string when it is played "open" (without holding the string down at a fret with the left hand). Not all tablature has this reference, but it can come in handy. By the way, this particular tuning is standard "G tuning,” which is the most common banjo tuning.
  • The 4/4 after the tuning designation tells you that the song is in 4/4 time. This simply lets you know that there are 4 beats in each measure.
  • Still using the example above, the four 0's on the first line mean that you are supposed to play the 1st string four times. These four notes are all quarter notes and are thus all given the same amount of time (1 beat each). A "0" on a line simply means you are to play the string open. Following the fourth note is a solid line from the top line to the bottom line, and this is the divider for the two measures.
  • In the second measure in the example above the 2nd string is to be played open four times. Get it?

The two measures above are identical. In both measures you should play the 2nd string open three times. The first two notes in each of these measures are quarter notes. The last note in each measure is a half note. The line coming down from the note tells you the time value of the note. The quarter notes reach all the way up to the note, whereas the half note is designated by just a small line underneath the measure. The total time value of the notes in a measure in 4/4 time must add up to 1 whole note (4 x 1/4 = 1). Most banjo music consists of quarter notes and eighth notes. Although there are no eighth notes written in these examples, take a look at some of the song arrangements and you will notice many eighth notes. The eighth notes have stems that are connected to adjacent notes.

If you play the measure above correctly it should sound like the beginning of Jingle Bells . Play it and see what you think.

Written above these two measures of tablature are chord diagrams. Every song has a chord progression. Without getting too technical, individual notes (one tone) combined together in certain ways make up a "chord." Certain chords combined together make up a "key." Most of the songs on this site are in the key of G. The most commonly used chords in the key of G are G Major, C Major, and D Seventh, but these are usually just called G, C, and D (or D7).

Chord diagrams are basically just a picture of where the fingers of your left hand should be holding down the frets. If you hold your banjo straight up facing you and look at the first four frets, that is the picture that the chord diagram is showing. In more advanced playing up the neck of the banjo the starting fret is denoted by a number on the left side of the diagram, but you don't need to worry about the for now.

The first diagram above shows the G chord. Pretty easy, huh? Since the banjo is tuned in an open G already, playing all of the strings open gives you a G chord.

The second diagram shows a D7 chord. Notice how the tablature corresponds to the chord. Try holding this chord with your left hand and playing the measure of tablature. Holding down the notes and getting a clear sound takes a lot of practice but is easy once you get the hang of it.

The metal wires that separates the spaces on the banjo are called frets (1st fret, 2nd fret, 3rd fret, etc.). The D7 chord should be played with your first finger just behind the 1st fret, 2nd string -- not on top of the wire fret and not in the middle of the space, but just behind the fret (which makes it easier to hold down). Your middle finger should hold down the 2nd fret, 3rd string. The rest of the strings are played open.


The second measure in this set shows a C chord. It is a little more difficult than the D7 because you need to hold down three strings at the same time, but once you learn it it is very simple. Form the C chord by holding down the 2nd string, 1st fret with your index finger (just like in D7), then hold down the 4th string, 2nd fret with your middle finger, and then hold the 1st string, 2nd fret with your ring finger. The 3rd and 5th strings are played open.

I should point that when you see these chord diagrams written in tablature, generally you will hold that chord position until a new chord is called for. However, much of the time you will be required to leave the chord position in order to hit certain melody notes, perform certain licks, or whatever. Therefore, think of the chord diagram as a guide to your general position, but be prepared to move around a bit. It is important to remember , though, when you are doing a strum you need to be holding the correct chord for the strings you are strumming.

Practice switching between the G, C, and D7 chords until you are pretty comfortable with them, then let's play some songs!