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Mickey Cochran's Introduction to Banjo Tablature

Edited by Paul Race for Creek Don't Rise?

Editor's Note: Between 1999 and 2004, Mitchel "Mickey" Cochran posted an extensive collection of free musical instrument lessons on his web page. Sadly, we lost Mickey in 2011. After e-mailing surviving family members for permission to repost some of Mickey's most popular materials, we have begun restoring them to host on these pages. (Please see the Introduction page for more information on that effort.)

This page is Mickey's explanation of how to read Tablature written for 5-string banjo. - Paul Race

"How to Read Tablature for 5-String Banjo

By Mickey Cochran

Tablature is one of the oldest forms of written is a visual approach to reading music that gives you an exact position of slide placement on your instrument's slideboard. There are many advantages of tablature that many are not aware of...for instance, if you use different tunings, tablature does not deviate from the standard number positioning; whereas, standard notation has to be re-learned for every tuning. Additionally, standard notation requires a roman numeral positioning to denote where to place your slides. Tablature is much more direct. Ultimately, it's best to become well-versed in both standard notation and tablature.

5-String Banjo TABLATURE:

Each line represents one of the banjo strings. In this 5-String Banjo tab representation, the top line represents the "D" string...the next below the "D" would be the "B" string...the next below the "B" would be the "G" string...and the next below the "G" string would be the low "D" string...and the next below the low "D" string would be the high "G" string...So visually, you're looking at the Dobro strings, as represented by these lines, as upside down.

The "T", "I" and "M" represent which right hand fingering to utilize as you play the notes.
T for thumb
I for index finger
M for middle finger

In the below Em Chordal Study example, you'll see the "T", "I" and "M" above the Tablature...this indicates that all notes are played with a downstroke of the thumb and upstrokes with the index and middle fingers. You'll also notice the two dots and double line at the beginning and end of this passage. This means that the piece is to be repeated after reaching the two dots at the end...after reaching the two dots at the end, you'll return to the two dots at the beginning and repeat the passage one more time (or indefinitely if it's an exercise).

Chord diagrams are located above the standard this example, you'll see the Em, D, C and B chords...notice the numbers to the right of the D, C and B chords. This indicates which fret position to play the chord.

If you see numbers below the tablature, this would represent the beats per measure. For instance, a 1 2 3 4 would be counted out evenly as beats...If you were to tap your foot in a rhythmic manner as you count to four methodically, you have the beat of the piece. In the above example, it would be 4/4 timing. This means, within every measure, you'll want to count out 4 beats as if you were tapping your foot (measures are divided by the vertical lines on the music staff)

In the case of waltz timing you would have a count of 1 2 3 for each measure. You'll notice also the line that separates the two measures that run vertically through the tablature. This line divides each measure so that you can always tell how many beats are in a measure. If this was a waltz (3/4) piece, it would look like the following Dobro tablature (as a 5-string banjoist, you'll find very rare occasion to play waltz timing...even so it's great to know):

Adding Notes to the Tablature
We will now incorporate notes to the tablature which will be represented by numbers on each line. Following is a simple Banjo exercise that incorporates the numbering we are discussing. Each number will represent what note to be played. For instance, a number "5" means to place your finger on the fifth fret. A number "4" would mean to place your finger on the 4th fret of the string being represented by the line it's placed on...for the below example, you'll notice that within this chordal exercise you have a G to C chord progression...on the C chord, at the 3rd measure, you'll see the numeral "5" on three of the top lines. This is simply played by laying the index finger flat on the the fifth'll be covering all four notes indicated on the chord diagram above the standard notation...and only playing the top three strings as indicated in the tablature. The chord symbol above the standard notation indicates this in a diagram with "5fr" beside the position where the index finger lays flat.

A "0" would mean the string would be played open without fretting. Here's an example of a forward/reverse roll played with all open strings.

The above exercise takes you through a roll pattern in a 4/4 timing. As you're tapping your foot to a count of "4" you'll also notice that you'll want to count 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & to cover each measure's total beats...the in-between notes will represent the off "and" beat between each tap of your foot. Each downbeat would be a thumbstroke with your right hand or middle finger; each off beat, represented by the "&" symbol, would be played with an upstroke with your right hand index finger...(unless you're left handed and then you would be picking with your left hand).

How to read the number system (tablature)

Notice that each string of your banjo is represented by a line on the tablature staff. Picture these lines as the strings on your banjo. The very top line is the bottom string of your banjo. The bottom line is the top string of your banjo. The numbers on each line represent where the string is to be played. For instance, a "0" on the top line means to play the D string open. A "2" on the top line means to play the D string at the 2nd fret. In the following exercises, all strings are played open...notice that the only number on the tablature is the numeral "0". These studies are all played in the open position, without fretting, so that the focus will be on the picking ensure that you're not distracted with having to work both hands at the same time.

There are 4 beats to each measure...for each measure count out four beats as if you're keeping the rhythm by clapping your hands or tapping your foot.

Note: Keep in mind that you're trying to keep these notes played evenly without faltering. There are no pauses between the notes. Start off slowly and keep the timing even.

Thumb = T
First Finger = I
Second Finger = M

Copyright ?1999-2004 Mickey Cochran


Mickey's instructions are as valid today as when he wrote and recorded them years ago. Here's hoping that you find them just as helpful as his original followers did back when he was interacting on a daily basis with them.

Please contact us if you're hitting any brick walls and we'll try to help you get therough them.

Best of luck, all, enjoy your music, and support the arts.

Paul Race

And when you're ready to move on, click Lesson 1a: How to Hold a 5-string Banjo"> here to go to the next online lesson.

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All text and any illustrations and/or videos within the white box above are copyright 1999-2004 by Mitchell Cochran. All other materials, illustrations, and content on this web page, including the text reformatting and illustration restoration within the white box are copyrighted ? 2016 by Paul D. Race. All rights reserved.
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