How to Read Banjo Tabs

While music is mainly meant for the ears, writing it down on paper makes playing it easier, especially for beginners. Being able to read banjo tablature, also known as a banjo tab, will make you a better player in no time.

So, we’ll help you learn how to read banjo tabs in an easy way. All you have to do is read on!

How to Read Banjo Tabs

There are seven factors you should know about if you want to interpret banjo tabs correctly. Here’s a roundup of them.

Horizontal Lines

At first sight, you’ll notice that a music tab looks similar to a standard notation.

The horizontal lines on a banjo music tab indicate the strings. The upper line indicates the first string, while the lower indicates the fifth. The lines between them indicate the second, third, and fourth strings. However, this only applies to a five-string banjo. So, for example, if you’re playing a four-string banjo, your tab should only have four lines.

Vertical Lines

These lines indicate the measures of the musical piece. Each line indicates the end of a measure. While you can’t translate a vertical line to music, they’re essential to help you keep time during playing.

Time Signature

A time signature is often written on the far left side of the tab. It’s easy to differentiate from the other numbers on the tab because it’s written in fractions. Knowing the time signature of a song is essential because it lets you know how many notes are in each measure.

For instance, a 4/4 time signature consists of four quarter notes in a measure. A vertical line should take place after the last quarter note to indicate the end of this measure.


Frets on a banjo tab are written in numbers. So, for instance, if you see a two written on the top line, you’ll need to play a second fret on the first string. On the other hand, if you see a 0 on any line, this shows that you don’t need to press any frets while playing this string.


You’ll find the tuning of the banjo written in letters on the left side of the tab. The letters are often written vertically next to the strings. So, if the song requires the Open G chord tuning, you’ll see the letters D-B-G-D-G written in this order from top to bottom. However, seeing D-C-G-C-G shows that you should tune your banjo to the double C chord tuning.

If you aren’t familiar with banjo tunings, you can use chord diagrams.

Hammer-Ons and Pull-Offs

A hammer-on note is indicated by an H letter on the tab, while a pull-off note is indicated by a P letter. If you see an H on the first string, this means that you should hit the string using your fretting hand and press it down to breed a particular note.

Note that if you’re right-handed, your fretting hand is the left one, and the right hand is the picking hand.

A pull-off is a hammer-on in reverse. In other words, instead of pressing down the string, you’ll pull your fretting hand finger off of it. You can play these notes using your middle finger, index finger, or even the little one.


Slides are indicated by the letter S on music tabs. If you see an S letter between two notes, you should slide your hand from the starting fret to the ending fret without pulling it off the banjo completely.

Suppose you see a one and a three on any horizontal line with an S letter joining them. This means you should press the first fret and play the note, then slide your finger to the third fret.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do Bluegrass Banjo and Clawhammer Banjo Tabs Look Similar?

Yes, they do. Bluegrass and clawhammer banjos are played in different ways using different fingers. But translating music into a tab is pretty the same for all instruments.

What Is the Difference Between Half Notes and Eighth Notes on Banjo Tabs?

A half note consists of two beats and is indicated by a circle around the fret number and a vertical line extending from it downward. Meanwhile, an eighth note consists of half a beat and is indicated by a vertical line extending from the fret number and ending with a curved line.

To Wrap Up

If you find playing the banjo by ear challenging, we recommend you use music tablatures until you master your instrument. A tab will help you determine how to play a song correctly, which frets to press, and what tuning to use. Not to mention, reading one is easier than trying to play a song by ear!