Tab- How to get off it for good

When you sit down to learn a song, whats your process?

Do you immediately search for a tab to learn from, or do you try to pick out parts by ear?

If you have followed me or have studied with me, you may have gotten the impression that I'm completely anti-tab. That isn't necessarily true. I do think that tab can be helpful in learning bluegrass tunes/concepts or techniques, but only if you've done the listening homework beforehand. Repeated listening is important to correctly learn any piece of music - with or without the aid of tablature. 

One thing before getting into the nitty gritty- it's not going to be easy. I'm note saying it won't be fun overall, but there are going to be moments when your frustrated. That's part of the journey, and every single person learning by ear gets frustrated at some point.

If you want someone to hold your hand and give you the next piece of tab for you to learn, leave this page because it won't be fulfilling for you. BUT if you're determined to take your banjo player further than ever, then keep reading.

From my experience, I believe that the tab-based musician will approach a certain point in their development where they can make one of two choices: 

  1. Keep doing the same thing they've been doing (and ultimately not improve), or
  2. Challenge themselves by getting away from tab as soon as possible and unlock the key to faster learning, improvisation, writing tunes, and becoming a higher level player. 

No one but yourself can determine when the right point is for you, but the sooner you can ween yourself off, the better and here's why:


The number one thing that gets in most budding bluegrass banjo players' way is their reliance on tab for learning tunes and their stubbornness in regards to getting away from it. I've had students with real potential not improve because of their unwillingness to put away the tab and practice learning by ear.

The thing is, when I listen to a banjo player I can tell if he/she relies on tab to function, or plays from a "hearing" place.

That "hearing" place is where the best improvisers and melody players go to do what they do, and it's from that place where they blow you away and inspire you to play the instrument.

The really cool thing is that everybody can get in that zone, and everyone can cultivate their playing so they're always playing from that place. 

Every single thing that you learn and internalize by ear gets stored in a mental database that you'll be able to access when you need to. When learning from tab, your hands may learn how to play something, but usually it's lacking the melodic and rhythmic foundation that comes with hearing something and playing it back.


These are suggestions based on my research and interest in helping people learn by ear. In most cases, you won't see immediate progress. You must stick with these practices for a while before seeing the results manifest in your playing. Many students don't see the change they want because they don't practice a specific concept for the right amount of time.

  1. Sing - If you can't reproduce the banjo melody with your voice, then how should you expect to play it on your instrument? After all, the banjo is simply an extension of your creativity, and the clearest way to check yourself is to practice singing melodies. While you sing these melodies practicing visualizing your left hand playing the notes on the fretboard. Sing everything you play, and make it an essential piece to your practice routine, especially if you're currently trying to get off of tab.
  2. Learn by ear - This may be an obvious one, but if you've never done it before, it's not going to be easy to learn melodies by ear. The good new is you get better at what you do most often. If you're learning every song from tab, you are telling your mind that you should be improving your reading skills(and that isn't an extremely useful with the banjo). If you're trying to figure out a lick by ear, you're strengthening that skill, which will lead to proficiency in rhythm, timing, improvisation and so much more.
  3. YouTube! - Using videos is an amazing middle ground for learning by ear. You can see and hear what the teacher is doing, and it's not as difficult as just using your ears. I release weekly videos on my YouTube channel that demonstrate the song both slow and fast so you can learn by ear. It's a great place to start!


Over the past year, my opinion on using tab has morphed quite a bit, and I can see some benefits to utilizing it in your practice routine. I just think so many people have developed negative practices when breaking out the tab book, and once you start that its a bit difficult to alter because you feel like you're saving time, you can't learn by ear, etc...

  1. Tab is great for fingerings - Use tab to get you started with melodic/single string scales. It's a good way to make sure you're putting your fingers in the correct place.
  2. Check yourself on a transcription you're working on - If you're learning a song by ear and want to make sure you're playing the notes where the original musician played them, then tab can be helpful. 

I'm cautious of writing more about the benefits of tab, because ultimately the best way for you to learn music is through using your ears. Like I said before- getting off of tab is a process and it may feel counterproductive at first. Trust me in saying that you'll be so, so, so much better off if you can put the tab away for good and use your ears. 

I'm here for you, so if you have any questions about learning or practicing post them in the comments below.

I have some questions for you:

What song are you going to learn this week? How will you learn it, and can you sing the notes before you play them?

Can you make yourself a learning by ear schedule, where you take an hour a day to practicing transcribing from recordings or YouTube?