Forum - Banjo Ben Clark

TAB vs. "By Video, By Ear"

Hello all,

I’ve been using this site for some time and am slowly progressing. Somewhat intermediate beginner.

I tend to view Ben’s video for a lesson once, then just use the tab to practice with, usually cutting out the banjo track and just playing along with the accompaniment track (have terrible Internet).

But I hear (read) this is bad and one should never use tab. Locks one in, stifles creativity. Hmmm…

Any thoughts on this, especially with how to put it into practice with Ben’s site?



I’d say it depends on how experienced you are. If you’re fairly new to Banjo, you probably want to stick to the video as much as possible. You’ll pick up little tricks and left hand fingering that you won’t get from tab.

If you’re more experienced, the tab is fine. In fact, a couple of times I’ve found left hand fingerings that worked better for me than what’s in the video. Not to say it’s better over all, just better for me. I wouldn’t have found them if I’d stuck with just the video.

That being said, for every fingering I’ve discovered that worked better for me, there are probably 5 that I’ve had to go back to the video to see how Ben plays it because I just wasn’t getting it.


Hi Jon

As a distance learning student with no easy access to a good knowledgeable banjo teacher all I know about playing banjo has come from the Internet, Video and DVD tutorials, audio recordings and tab books. Like you I’ve read all those arguments about Ear vs Tab vs Face to Face methods over on the Banjo Hangout. Some got so heated it was like watching a shoot out between the Hatfield’s and the McCoy’s.

Over time I have formed my own opinions about the Teachers and the Hangout Experts that spend so much of their valuable time debating the pros an cons of this well worn topic with no clear outcome. I would much rather play banjo than debate different teaching methods. But having listened to their widely misleading advice for nine years I got tired of the rhetoric and stopped being an active member of the BHO. I’ve tried pretty much ALL of those teaching methods and spent a small fortune in the process. I feel I am now in a reasonably good position to share my knowledge and experience and leave it up to the reader to decide what method/s work best for them.

I took to learning the banjo ten years ago this month just a few months before I turned 61. I was off work recovering from a fall, and I’d been trawling YouTube when stumbled on a clip of Murphy Henry teaching Banjo in the Hollow. In truth it was that very video clip that inspired me to rush out and buy a cheap bottle top banjo. When I got home I got straight to work and by the end of the day I was playing Banjo in the Hollow with no prior experience of playing a stringed instrument.

In case your not familiar with the Murphy Method. Murphy doesn’t use TAB in her teaching method but she does have incredible communication skills and can explain in detail what she is doing, her method is all about teaching the student to LISTEN. Most of the teachers I have come across that use TAB as a teaching aid tend not to have that same level of communication skill and mostly skip through an explanation leaving it up to the student to figure out the rest by themselves using TAB. Most of their TABs are in small print making them hard to read, their TABs don’t sound out the melody making the learning process frustratingly slow.

In the beginning Murphy had been using TAB to teach banjo but soon made the observation that some of her students really struggled with TAB much like a child might struggle to read the printed words from a book.

You may have observed such a child trying to sound out the letters of the alphabet to form words, sentences etc. It’s really difficult for some children to grasp the concept of reading and it doesn’t make that task any easier when the rest of the class are laughing and poking fun. So you may begin to see a similarity with a banjo student starting from scratch working from a printed TAB.

Murphy had a banjo student whom she had started working with but Murphy or the Student had gone off to another town, possibly college, The student didn’t want to give up banjo lessons so Murphy began recording her lessons on audio cassette tapes and mailing them off. Over a period and through this exchange of audio tapes Murphy discovered her student was making better progress without the aid of TAB and tried the same experiment with her other students who equally showed a marked progress. So this is how the Murphy Method got started. Murphy later produced video taped lessons to demonstrate what she was doing with her fingers on the banjo and made the process of learning so much easier for the rank beginner. From my observations other teachers seemed to be threatened by Murphy’s success and tried to downplay her process by referring to it as Canned Lessons, By Rote and Closet Picking. Clearly the Murphy Method was having some impact on their business model.

When I started out I tried both Method’s, The Murphy Method and the Janet Davis TAB books which other BHO students had “Highly Recommended”. In the beginning I really struggled with the TAB books and audio recordings that Janet Davis had produced. To me the task was just too daunting trying to learn to read TAB, listen to the audio CDs and at the same time trying to figure out where to place my fingers on the fingerboard and which strings to pluck so I put down the TAB book exercises and focused on the Murphy Method where I continued to make steady progress.

I had spent a lot of money buying the TAB books and I wanted to get some return on my investment. I think I must have voiced my opinion on the use of TAB on the BHO during one of those turbulent debates as it was around that point Geoff Hohwald offered to help. Geoff uses TAB in his teaching method but like Murphy Geoff has excellent communication skills and it was through his teachings that I learned to read and apply TAB to my banjo learning skills.

After about five years in I felt the I had outgrown the Murphy Method I had worked my way through her entire DVD catalogue and had acquired a good grasp of the fundamentals. I felt was ready to move forward and focus on learning more advanced material. The problem being that all the advanced stuff I wanted to learn was in printed TAB format. I was back at square one struggling to learn from TAB books.

Fortunately for me a little Red Haired Boy named Banjo Ben appeared on the scene right when I needed him most who just happened to possess all the attributes and skills that I seek from a great teacher. He processes awesome communication skills, he teaches using all three methods video instruction, by ear with the aid of accurate TABs that sound out the melody. And in addition provides light entertainment to keep the learning process exciting, interesting and a joy to learn.

Let’s put things into prospective here Jon. TAB is not bad, it wont kill you. It is what it is, a learning tool. Used wisely it can enhance and develop your playing skills to a much higher level. Used in conjunction with the Video tutorial By Ear method it is a fantastic aid to learning a stringed instrument.

TAB dependency is a term I have heard banded about on the BHO, some folk who read TAB from a printed form may develop a dependency, personally I have not experienced this and I am too old to worry that I may become addicted to TAB. If learning from TAB really concerns you don’t use it! if your still not sure, you may care to read this review about TablEdit and the Nubie I posted some months ago.


Different people are geared to learn in different ways…visual, auditory, written instructions,

My advice is try all and use what works best for you.


In a nutshell… I concur with Dave

1 Like

Everyone is unique, and as others have chimed in, you will need to experience what works best for you. I originally (many years ago) learned by ear. After several years of not even taking my mandolin out of the case, I am electing to work with tab and Ben’s videos to instill and reinforce the fundamentals of music (theory, beats, timing, etc.). I will most likely migrate back to learning by ear, but for now I am intensely focused on a different approach in an effort to rid myself of bad habits that I acquired many years ago.

1 Like

I appreciate all the instruction! I’m to play backup at our Memorial Day Lawn Celebration for my incredibly talented grand kids, 12 and 13 playing fiddle and mandolin and winning competitions in NC. Was told to just vamp the chords; couldn’t find that term on Ben’s site, so I asked the Internet. That landed me on Murphy Henry’s site, and the admonition to abandon tab.

Did seem rather extreme to me. I do use the tef files, eventually turn off the banjo track and just play along with the accompaniment, and, of course, slow it WAY down at first. But after reading Murphy’s explanation for no tab, I do think that I need to turn the monitor off after awhile and not rely on the tab. I’m thinking that it may be why I have such a hard time memorizing these simple beginner tunes - I need to turn the monitor off and plow through it.

And, just discovered that I can download Ben’s videos with this new site! Duh. Probably take an hour or so to get one downloaded with the incredible network we have, but then I could really use it the way he intended, and let him be a real teacher. I do agree that Ben has all the varied resources needed.

BTW, concerning Ben’s tabs and the default 100% tempo. I assume Ben sets this, and expects that one should work to playing the piece at that speed. If so, Man that’s fast! My old 58-year old fingers well never make it. But no matter. As someone said on another thread, it’s not how fast one can play, or how perfectly, and definitely not what others may think of your playing. It’s all about having fun and making music. Cool!



Hi Jon

You will learn all about chords and how to vamp here in the lesson Intro to Banjo Backup

Vamping kicks in around Lesson 4. TAB accompanies the lesson

Learning to play Banjo is a journey, It takes time no matter what method you use. As I explained earlier Murphy doesn’t use TAB and she doesn’t want her students to write stuff down because she believes it hinders a students progress. She is quite strict in her approach but she is a fantastic teacher and you have to respect that’s the way she does things. Other teachers take a different approach.

As regard to Ben’s lessons, The speed he sets is the goal he would like you to achieve. It’s the speed he plays in his demo. Is it possible for you to play at that speed? I believe so, if you put in the practice. Start off slow and build speed gradually by increments of 5 bpm.

If you use TablEdit you can adjust speed. On the top Menu click on Midi from the drop down Menu click on Relative Speed use the slider or enter a new value in the percentage box. Click OK to close the box and your good to go. When it comes to playing at speed age is not an issue it’s an excuse. I am 70 and can play many of Ben’s lessons up to speed.

Murphy’s approach is to get her students to LISTEN and WATCH whilst learning without any other distractions. Ben’s approach is to employ other skills LISTENING whilst READING and WATCHING

Both methods work. If it helps you to memorise a tune turn off the monitor.

As a student of the Murphy Method. I broke the rules and wrote things down. It didn’t cause me any harm. You got to apply a bit of common sense.

If you really want to learn to play banjo go to Ben’s Beginner Learning Track and work your way through. There are no shortcuts to learning to play banjo.

Hi Jon, Sounds like you are going to have a fun and memorable Memorial Day! I wanted to remind you of the “muted Chop” (vamping while muting the strings). Its a great way to stay involved if you lose your place or, like me, just get tired out. I think it adds a nice percussive effect… You can even roll on the muted strings. No matter what you do it sounds like you are going to have a blast!

One more to chime in. In my case, I spent 30 or so years dorking around with the banjo, doing the same basic songs from TAB. At some point I could play them through on memory but it took forever to do that. Fast forward to a couple of years ago and I decided to get serious, got an old Gibson and that inspired me to get to work. Still using TAB but I started playing every day and used the Internet (Ben’s site, etc.) to find material. Then I started playing with others…suddenly most of what I knew went out the window. Now I had to keep in time, know back up, work up the neck, play songs I’ve never practiced. Something had to change. So I’m in the middle of the transition from TAB to ear. Its hard work, for me at least. But I can see the light…starting to find the melody and build a break around the cord structure. I now use the TAB to get ideas for breaks and build up my lick library. So my advice is learn how to read TAB but start playing with others as soon as possible.

1 Like

I have been learning the banjo for about 1.5 years. I still have a ways to go, but I play in a jam every week. As others have stated, everyone learns differently. Having tried videos without tab and videos with tab, I can tell you that I learn better without the tab. When I rely on tab, I see the tab in my mind as I play the piece. I have no idea where the melody notes are, what the chord changes are, etc. I just play the piece note for note just like reciting a poem. AND just like reciting a poem, if I forget just one little piece, I am thrown off and cannot finish it. Similar to what happens if you forget a word in a poem, it is really hard to finish the poem. I discovered this after memorizing about 6 songs I learned from Banjo Ben site. I used the TEF files to practice until I knew the songs really well. I went to my first couple of jams and got nervous and could not play through the songs I had played a thousand times at home. However, songs I learned by just watching the video without tab, I could play without getting hung up. I saw the banjo being played in my mind’s eye and not a tab sheet. I rarely mess up those songs. Having played in many jams now, I can tell you, you need to know the song in several ways. You need to know the melody, chord changes, and phrases. The melody tells you which notes to emphasize. Without that, you are just playing every note at the same volume and it is more difficult for the listener to recognize what song you are playing. You need to know the chord changes because you will be doing your rolls within that chord when you are not hitting melody notes. And you need to know the chords because you will play backup to them when you pass the song around in a jam. You also should at some point start to break the song into phrases. This could be a single measure or it could be several measures. The beauty of a phrase for banjo players is that it defines the space we have for a lick. You can replace phrases with various licks that will fill the same space. That way you can play the song differently each time to add spice and variety. One more thing, if you do play in jams, unless you have memorized every song being played in the jam, there will be a lot of songs you do not know. It is easy to play backup to those songs if you know the key and can identify the chord changes. However, you will have to learn to play by ear if you want to be able to play a lead/break that follows the melody. When new, you are not expected to be able to do this, but as you progress, it should be your goal. That is what I am focusing on now, is learning how to hear a melody, play it on my banjo, and add rolls and licks. @BanjoBen shows you some of this in his build-a-break lessons. I would love to see Ben do a build-a-break lesson without any tab. That is the process you have to do in a jam. Hear the song, identify the chord changes and melody, then create your own break to it by the time it is your turn to play. I love Banjo Ben’s site and I learned a lot from it. However, I agree that dependence on tab will hold you back. It held me back until I could start playing by ear. Now I use tab just for ideas on different phrases or licks.


Hi Joe, I hear what you say, I started out with the Murphy Method and learned several tunes that way. Every Build-a-Break lesson Ben has created can be learned by ear, Just don’t look at the TAB. The TEF file is a great tool to help you learn By Ear. I play along with the TAB listening through headphones. Sometimes I look at the TAB in the initial stages but once I get a sense on the melody my focus turns to listening.


This is the best explanation I have seen so far, thanks so much for sharing your experience. This gives me a lot to think about.