Forum - Banjo Ben Clark

Memorization vs Reading Tab

In order to go fast, ie > 150 BPM, do you have to memorize the tune? I memorize the songs I like, however, I try not to memorize all the songs I practice as I want to save my brain juices for when it really counts. LOL
What do the advanced players do for practice songs and exercises - memorize or learn to read music fast?

1 Like

RIght? Those brain juices man, there’s only so much of it, so ya gotta use it sparingly, right? I get it.

It’s hard for me to memorize songs too. The songs I’ve played the most do tend to get memorized. Trying to memorize a new song though can be challenging for me.

There’s a great discussion on how to practice, seeing signs of progress and memorizing songs over at:

I’m trying the method suggested by @Mark_Rocka and I like the results I’m seeing so far.


For me, the answer is Yes. Absolutely, Yes. I can’t imagine being able to play the melody to a song at > 150 BPM on the fly, though I’m sure there are people who can do it.

Try not to think about it as brain juices… because you don’t want your brain holding the memory. You want muscle memory. You want to know the song so well you can get through it and look back and think “Wow… I was thinking about something else the whole time.” You’ll know you’ve perfected muscle memory when you can keep playing and have a conversation. That’s where you really want to be.

I’m not exactly an advanced player, but anything I want to know I memorize. Think of each new song as a new tool in your utility belt. You’ll learn something in each one that will make learning the next one even easier.


Hi @JoeB Fast isn’t 150 bpm it’s more like 250 bpm. Speed comes with experience, it’s not really about memorizing vs reading tab. It’s more about working in auto pilot. I am not an advance player but I consider myself good enough to tackle advanced lessons. I study the lessons at a slow speed 50 bpm once I know the tune I increase speed at 5 bpm increment’s using TablEdit up to about 200 bpm depending on the complexity of the lesson. At that speed I am not reading the TAB I am listening to it as I play.

This is something I need to learn…
@JoeB, lots of good advice so far, I wouldn’t think of it as tab vs memorisation, think of tab as a tool to help learn and memorise tunes, it should be used for a while and then stop cuz you’ve learned the tune. What @Mark_Rocka said about muscle memory and playing w/o realizing it or noticing/playing while thinking about something else is important. Fyi your brain has enough memory to last at least a million years if used properly according to Dr.s Caroline Leaf and Henry Wright

1 Like

I normally memorise each measure, or section, as I learn it.
TAB is a wonderful tool for conveying ideas, but it can quickly and easily become a crutch/habit that is hard to break.

I refuse to believe there is limit to how much one can retain. The only limit is the speed with which it is acquired, and this can increase substantially over time as one learns how they best learn.

To a point Mark is correct about it being muscle memory…but I disagree when it comes to arrangements of slightly differing breaks and backups…these you have to remember if you wish to keep an order you’ve worked out.

Speed comes from familiarity and relaxation. Relaxation comes from familiarity.

To expand on the “toolbox” concept:
When you first begin playing music each note/measure is like a hill on a battlefield that must be climbed and flagged. As you fight your way up, it consumes all your attention, so you can’t make plans for the next hill until you win your way up the first.

As you advance, you can work on drawing a map of the entire battlefield (break/song/section) and creating strategies (different combinations) for the next battle, while fighting on that one hill, because you’re already familiar enough with each hill that you don’t have to see it each time you need to recall it.

So while a beginner may struggle to get through a single note or measure, a more advanced player has played that enough times so they can just plan to play it in the next measure or two, because it has become less of a burden to recall, due to their familiarity with it…hope this makes sense…


Great analogy Dave, Being ex-military I have often related my banjo lessons to small arms training but never have I looked at it from a field craft analogy. Interesting.

For some students it’s clearly an uphill struggle to be sure.

1 Like

I wholeheartedly agree with this statement. I know probably > 75 songs across three different instruments and I’m still learning more. I memorize everything I play


I personally just like to memorize the songs I learn so I can play them anytime. It’s more enjoyable to me like that.


Speed is tough to unleash when you’re dependent upon a resource such as tab. To play fast, something needs to be automatic.


For me I practice with the tab but I don’t have the end goal of memorizing it, unless I am learning it for a particular jam session. I recorded Salt Creek for the forum a while back at 250 bpm. It wasn’t crazy fast for me and though I had practiced some, I had not practiced that solo for hours on end. I was just reading the solo almost straight off the tab, but the tab was just triggering muscle memory. Now after 273 takes on that recording session, I have it memorized :sweat_smile::muscle:. I can’t play straight off a tab on first sight at full speed. It takes a while to play fluently off of the tab, and a lot longer to memorize it.

1 Like

Yeah, I’m becoming a believer in this notion.

I gotta tell ya @BanjoBen, you made a believer in me on another issue concerning the foggy mountain roll. When I first learned FMB oh so many years ago, I played that second da da on the second string with my pointer finger, just like the first da da, instead of using my thumb. So when I started playing again a few months ago, I did it the same. Then I saw you make your point in one of your lessons for using my thumb and I said OK, I’ll give it a go. So, I drilled on it for a week even while watching TV. I finally got it and was amazed at the increased speed I had. This was a huge revelation for me so, thanks for that.

I’m vowing to ween myself off tabs ASAP after learning a new song and commit it to memory.


Unclouded Day is an example of where I hesitate to memorize. There are 2 levels with rolls and licks added into it. If I memorize level 2, I am afraid I will have a harder time doing level 3 as my muscle memory will fight me. What I have been doing is going through the tab till I feel I get the point of the exercise and then move onto a new lesson. I might only get to where I can do it at 120 BPM. If it is a song I enjoy - like Old Joe Clark, I memorize it so I can play it faster, whenever, wherever I want.
Do you guys have a different approach than memorization if there are multiple levels to the lesson?

I just treat each new verse / chorus as a new song. For me, this is where listening to Ben playing the song over and over comes in really handy. I’ve found that if my brain knows what notes are coming next, my hands are more likely to get there in time. So, I download the MP3s and listen to them while I’m driving around town. I’m actually doing that right now with 2 songs I plan to learn this week.


@Mark_Rocka…Soooo. you’re driving around town and listening to 2 songs AND replying to these posts???.. Mark, you are a talented guy…:star_struck: i can’t even walk and chew gum without an owners manual…lol…:crazy_face:

1 Like

Hi @JoeB I agree with @Mark_Rocka just work through the lesson and don’t worry about what you can and cannot memorise your brain take care of that. The same is true about speed. When your ready speed will come to you. For now just soak up everything.

1 Like

Yeah, time management skills were never my strength. :wink:

[quote=“Mark_Rocka, post:17, topic:7063”]
time management skills were never my strength
@Mark_Rocka Well, I have a lot of time(on my hands), a few skills(im a legend in my own mind). but never have all 3 at the same time.

I am definitely not an advanced player, but my problem is not remembering tabs.

For me, that’s the easy part.

The harder part for me is to play them cleanly…


My problem is both… :frowning: but getting better day by day with more practice on the clean part.