Forum - Banjo Ben Clark

Musical Survey funny black marks or numbers?

Hi Folks,

Just curious. Due to a very mean upbringing, I never took up an instrument growing up.

When I got out of the house, I took up guitar, but only played by copying others.

When I started to play banjo, I only learned TAB- numbers and lines. Never learned notation.

How many folks out there are like me and don’t know how to read Notation? Only TAB?

Benefit analysis? Pro Con?

I think I am too old now to learn Notation as I find TAB works well for me mostly. Still wondering if I should go through the music theory aspect of this site.


I learned musical notation at school back in the 1950 long since forgotten.

I think learning to read musical score is a skill well worth learning - TAB is a great tool for banjo, guitar and mando since it’s easier to learn.


Many times I find notation easier to read than tab…It can show relationships between the notes that tab doesn’t, which can help us recognize a scale, lick, or chord much faster.

It’s a skill worth learning…I messed around with it here & there for many years but really started learning and using it about 4 years ago. A musical score can tell you a lot about the music that isn’t included in tablature.

For banjo I might stick to tab, but for guitar, mando & fiddle I like notation, but can deal with either.


I agree :+1::+1::+1:


What Dave said above ^

With that said: The point of any notation is to allow the reproduction of music. Tab does that quite well. You CAN determine the same relationships Dave talked about through tab, it just takes a little more work.

Regardless of if you ever learn to read notation, good theory is worth the effort. By "good " theory, I mean stuff that applies to what your normally play. I haven’t ever sat down and intentionally used the Locrian mode. On the other hand, knowing what makes a major triad and a minor one, that’s essential. Keep learning those essentials. Some of it won’t click until the future and that’s ok.

In a nutshell: tab can get you playing the notes quickly. That’s a good thing. As you keep playing, try to learn more.

As a side note, I used to be able to sight read multiple instruments. I didn’t use it so I (mostly) lost it. I am re-learning to read standard notation on piano (bass clef is my problem area). Why? I don’t know… it just seems like a decent use of my time. Keep having fun and pursue what interests you!


I used to have fun telling people I never learned to read… music. Most of what I play is by ear. A big chunk of what I’ve learned is from tabs or videos.

Sometimes I wish I had taken the time to learn notation, but I know me. I’m lazy, and if something doesn’t come quick, I move on. I’ve tried to learn it several times, but it just never happened.

Long story short, I think most people can get along just fine without notation. It’s not until you get to serious professional level that it can make a difference, and even then, there are exceptions.


In the long run. Each of us has to figure out how we, as an individual, learn best.

It is an advantage to have a smattering of knowledge on each type of approach IMO.

I just try to use what works best for me at the time. sometimes its video, others it might be audio, or written out in either tab or notation…I’ll use any of them…Usually I find a combination of approaches seems to speed me along best, like slowing a video and have it written out…for someone else that may be different.

I use different methods on different instruments also…For example, on banjo I’d exclusively use tab, but almost never for fiddle. …just what works for me…


There’s really no right or wrong answer and ALL of the replies are very good ones. It just depends on what matters most to you in your music.

Personally, I’m more interested in achieving better technique than actually learning theory. I simply don’t have enough time to put forth the effort right now to learn theory and practice better technique. So, I choose the latter. Theory is important but does you no good if you can’t do anything with it. Maybe someday when I can retire, I’ll work more on theory.

I would say do whatever makes you happy and always try new things that are a little harder than whatever you can do now… Challenge yourself and enjoy playing an instrument!


I’ve heard you play… If you were lazy, you wouldn’t be able to do what I’ve seen in your videos you’ve posted. You’ve simply made a choice on what you’d prefer to work on.

I’ve done the same thing and I too wish I would have learned notation and theory… But, I’m good with it…


A man after my own heart :+1::+1::+1:


Always enjoy these type of exchanges more than anything. Is tab lazy @Mark_Rocka unsure it doesn’t easily lend to note length but you can always add scribbled notes on your own work. I used tab and then wrote the note names below such that I could learn to move them in key or further up the neck. Did this because was avoiding learning scales by Rote.

This also added to the Smattering approach as I now know a lot of scales but not through repetition. Think I know the important parts of the scales!

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I can find my way through notation but can quickly pick up a tune from tab. So tab is how I tend to learn. I find notation helpful when there is no tab! I have a couple of books that have songs I want to learn but aren’t specific to one instrument.

I also cheat at jams! I can look at the notation and recognize the first couple of notes of a melody while I’m strumming and give myself a better chance to not start my break on a clunker of a note!



I initially started out with tab, but found it too slow of a learning method and switched to doing almost everything by ear. I find it easier to slow down a video of a performance and copy what someone’s fingers are doing than read through a tab trying to learn a break. Tab can be a very useful tool when you can’t pick out what someone’s doing, though, which is why @BanjoBen’s lessons are the best of both worlds- he slows down the performance, explains it thoroughly, AND gives you an accurate tab to work with.

I just started learning fiddle, though, and was advised that standard notation would help. I’m hoping that it won’t be too difficult since I mainly recognize phrases by intervals with numbers in my head rather than note names. I’ll let you guys know how it goes once I’ve learned it.

I’d encourage anybody who’s struggling with tab or notation to experiment with learning by ear. My reasoning behind this: Tab is arbitrary to your instrument; standard notation is less arbitrary, but your ear is universal. I’ve found that recognizing intervals by ear has made me a better musician overall, and it’s also very freeing not to be reading music.


Thank you Fiddle wood for the insight, I will think about it very much.

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thank you all for your input!!

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@DLS Wow, you’ve gotten some insightful responses! The only thing I would want to add is that learning notation and going through the music theory aspects of this site are not necessarily one in the same. Certainly knowing and understanding basic notation would be needed for more advanced music theory than what is presented here.

However, I feel the vast majority of the music theory that has been shown on this site was designed to be very basic, and can be understood and potentially beneficial to anyone who wants to learn to play music…regardless of whether they can read notation or not. It can’t hurt to go through it and stop anytime you feel it gets over your head…you can always come back and pick it up where you left off as you experience builds!


I never learned to read music for a similar reason. My parents agreed with John Lennon’s Aunt Mimi: “Playing the guitar is all very well, John, but you’ll never make a living at it.”
Music was never encouraged and frequently discouraged.
Well, I am beyond the age of any chance of making a living at music, but I’m in that sweet spot of playing and learning music for fun, personal enrichment, personal pleasure, personal enjoyment.
So I will not berate myself for not knowing notation, and I will not feel miserable if I never really understand musical relationships.
But when I decide I want to learn these things, I will do it because it is fun & interesting.
BTW: “Playing by copying others” is what those funny black marks or numbers are all about anyway!


I think you have the potential to do amazing things without reading music. There are many world class musicians who can’t read music. (though knowing how to read music is a huge benefit).

However, if you are in a concert band or symphony, know how to read music is a necessity, because there are so many instruments. It would be very difficult for dozens of musicians to all play a song by ear, or with tab and all stay together.



Think this collaboration covered all what we have been talking about.

RIP Trevor Bolder, Lee Kerslake and more recently Writer Ken Hensley