Learning Banjo Without Tablature

Breaking away from tab and learning to play banjo without tablature by Ross Nickerson

Breaking away from tab and learning to play banjo without tablature is very important for many students learning banjo in today’s environment. For those of us who started in the 70’s, or earlier, we love tablature basically because we had none or very little when we started, and it was a lot easier than slowing down records or hunting far and wide for someone who knew proper technique.

Speaking for Banjo Teachers from our era, in our enthusiasm to make things easier for students, we proclaimed; No problem, we’ll save you the trouble. We’ll tab it out for you, life will be so easy, we will save lots and lots of time learning this from records and we will neatly organize and deliver this to you to with easy to read, note for note tablature!

What I’m afraid we overlooked in our enthusiasm to make things easier and I have come to discover, is many of us knew how to “play the banjo” and then later used the tab to learn more songs and techniques. When we learned something from tab we already understood, chords, how to plow through a song or chord progression without stopping, keep a roll going and finish a song. We also had taught ourselves and developed our skills threw reps and muscle memory, not from reading and reacting to tablature on a music stand. Now as I teach workshops, what I teach most is a bit of a back track. I am on a mission to help students use tab correctly, play without tab and get their eyes out of the book, so to speak.

Let me make it clear, I love tab for learning songs and techniques, but make it doubly clear it is not intended for use when you are playing songs or even very much of your practice time.

The trick is to develop your playing ability and skills away from tab and use the tab to quickly pick up, licks, techniques and songs, then put it aside and PICK!

Get what you learn from tab in Muscle Memory, quick… then. Turn the page over and try it…SIMPLE.

I have a five step process for learning a song from tab, that I sincerely hope will help you.

If you were my student, this is how I would teach you a song using tablature.

Learn the chords to the song first
The first thing we would do is play through the chord progression of the song with a simple roll or rolls. We will get from the beginning to the end of the song without stopping or dropping the rhythm, in most cases until you can do this, we do not move on. Being able to do this gives you the feel of the rhythm of banjo playing which is top priority and it also gives you some place to go or fall back on if you later lose your place recalling the tab.

Count the timing in the tablature
Next I have the student count out the timing in the tab out loud. 1 2 3 + 4+ etc. I have spent many a lesson with students who go home practice diligently hyper foucsed on playing the right “numbers” and completely forgetting to read whether the note is an 1/8th or 1/4 note. We’ll get the timing in the tab straight, right away.

Explore where the left hand or fretting hand is going
We’ll go through the tab and explore where the left hand or fretting hand needs to go. You simply can’t sight read and see the right strings to pick, the frets to play, the fretting hand fingers to use, the timing all at once, we need to learn this separately before trying to sight read a tune. This is particularly important when learning up the neck solos.

Study the arrangement and look for repeated measures
Most songs are chock full of repeated sections and repeated measures. In your average 16 measure song there are only 9 or 10 unique measures. Find and understand them first before sight reading. You should also understand where the A Part and B parts are, or verse and choruses in the song before sight reading the song one note at a time.
Find the most difficult or least familiar licks or measure in the song and give them all the attention they deserve

In addition to discovering how many unique measures there are, it will be easy to see which measures or phrases you already can play, and more importantly the measure and phrases that look the most difficult to you. Attack those sections and give them the reps and attention they deserve before sight reading. Most sight readers may get through a song ok, then get to a difficult section and just stumble through it and never take the time to really work it out. You might need 50 reps on one measure but the rest of the song only 10 reps, does that mean you try to play the whole song 50 times to get those 50 reps on the hard part? That’s just not sensible.

Learn the song in phrases and keep turning the tab over.

Now let’s take on the song, we’ll learn it in measures or phrases, (a phrase could be two or three measures strung together, a small section that has a natural beginning and resolution spot) Each time we play the section, we’ll try it a couple times and then turn the tab over, we’ll keep doing that till we develop the muscle memory needed. Then move on to the next measure or phrase.

Now! We can sight read through the tune and attempt to play the song.

Even when sight reading a song, go right back to turning the book over many times and trying it without it.

Remember your primary goal on the banjo is to provide a steady rhythm without pauses or breaks so when you lose your place in the arrangement, which you will! Its imperative that you get in the habit of keeping the rhythm and  picking going at all costs. Fall back on the rolls and chords until you remember what you memorized in the tab and get through the song without stopping.

For me with students, it can be boiled down to a pass/fail system. You pass if you get through the song without stopping, no matter how many little gaffs happen, and it’s not a success if you stop and try to fix things. When you stop you’ve then stopped providing a rhythm and essentially you are not playing music anymore. Bluntly said…music without rhythm is not really music at all.

I hope this advice helps. In all my Song Books I explain this process more thoroughly, along with memorizing tips and many other things to help you learn easier.  On My DVD How to Practice Banjo, I demonstrate this process too along with lots of other practice tips. My DVD Playing By Ear and Learning the Chords demonstrates in lots of detail how to play through the chord to songs, recover from mistakes and improvise over chords.

Thanks, Ross Nickerson

More Resources

Playing By Ear and Learning the Chords
How to Practice Banjo DVD
The Banjo Encyclopedia “Bluegrass Banjo From A to Z”
Banjo Play Along and Practice DVD
Essential Banjo Licks DVD
Other Ross Nickerson Books and DVDs