Alberto from Milan, Italy writes:

In my opinion without tabs it’s very difficult to play a piece. For example, when I listened the first time “Nashville Blues” or “Reuben” I was in panic!! Because I listened a different tuning of the banjo (D minor , D major) and if a  novice player does not  know how that tuning is structured I think he will take long time to learn without a tab or he will never learn very good.


It’s good to hear from you. I will try to be helpful.

Of course, if a piece is in an unusual tuning, that can make learning by listening somewhat more difficult.

It’s always a good idea to listen first to the END of the recording, to make sure you know what key the tune is in. The last note, and the last chord of a song will tell you the key. Once you know the key, you can guess what the chord changes are, and knowing which chords happen when gives a smaller choice of possible melody notes. The important notes are almost always among the notes in the chord itself that is happening at that point.

I like the melodic section of “Earl’s Breakdown” as performed by Eric Weissberg in the soundtrack from Deliverance, but despite my effort I can’t play that tune because I have no tab. I can’t go on after the opening notes.

When I used to figure out pieces from recordings, I remember it was a slow process. If you can play the song back at slower speed (there are now computer programs, and special CD players that can do that), that helps. What I recommend is to listen only to the very first part that you do not know, and then turn the sound off quickly. If you know the first three notes, listen to the first FOUR, then turn the sound off, and see if you can hum that fourth note. If you can, then find it on the banjo, and learn how to play it with the first three. As I said, this is slow, but it works. This method is spelled out in more detail in my book Bluegrass Banjo in the chapter “Using Records to Learn”.

What’s your opinion on tablature?

Tablature is a wonderful thing, but too many people use it instead of learning the skills of listening and learning how to fit in with music. They don’t try to develop ear skills, and those are more important than learning how to read from a printed page. Bluegrass banjo is not easily memorized, and in fact, good players typically do not memorize things exactly note for note. If a person only can read or memorize tablature, then they may be lost without it.

In real bluegrass playing, the musicians take note of the chord changes, and fit in with those as they also try to find melodies to use in their soloing. Most songs played are ones they’ve never tried to solo on previously. So they have to guess. Those with the most experience guessing do it the best and the most quickly. People who only play from tablature have no way to fit in unless they’ve perfectly memorized the song.

Once someone knows how to play, having developed ear skills, then tablature is something that can be used quickly and effectively to learn specifically how another player played a certain piece or part of interest. It’s a great way to learn some of those details, exactly with no guesswork. Also, if a player makes something up that they really like, they might want to write a tab of it to help them remember it. So tablature can be quite useful.

But I encourage new players to use it very sparingly, so that they can develop ear skills.

I hope this helps!