As a blog writer, I sometimes worry about the inevitable “writer’s block”; so far—three years in—I am flush with ideas, and feel like I will never run out of subjects to write about. Aren’t you lucky? I have become fascinated with the “subject of subjects,” and always have my radar turned on, looking for inspiration. That inspiration often comes from friends and family members; such is the case with this short essay.

I was talking with my good friend and great banjo player Jim Bottorff at the Sacramento Banjorama last weekend, and the conversation turned to Tablature; he is also a five-string player, and commented that TAB is like “choreography” for the fingers (in the case of the five-string, the choreography is for both hands). I could not have said that better myself! With his permission, I will use that analogy to add credence to the use of TAB.

By the way, if you do not already know, Jim has created a wonderful resource for the four-string banjo; his website,, is filled with lessons and related sources, and hundreds of pieces of music, sequenced in MIDI format, and with chord charts. The vast majority of it is taken from the original sheet music, and is thus as originally intended by the composers. It has become my first-resort resource for the chords, words, and verses–plus a MIDI file to play along with–to banjo music. I highly recommend it!

Let me start by saying that you simply cannot beat good old-fashioned musical notation for the translation of the natural musical language into a learnable/teachable form; it is not called “standard notation” for nothing! Learn to read and the musical world is your oyster! It has been my experience that TAB—while showing you how to play the music—will help you learn to read that notation, thereby eliminating the need for any musical crutches.

My goals as a writer/teacher are to #1, convince folks to take the banjo more seriously as a musical instrument (and there’s no better way to do that than to take music more seriously—to include reading the musical language), and #2, provide the written means/encouragement for them to do so. TAB is more than just a “shortcut” (or a “crutch”) to these ends; it “fills in” the information that would otherwise have to be written in. Things like which finger to use on which string and when. It is equally effective at showing single-string runs as it is chords, thereby being infinitely better than the standard chord diagram or “picture chord” simplification (talk about a crutch!). It is simply another way of showing standard notation.

The word “choreography” adds a physical, practical spin to it, and another way to think about it. The music says to dance; the TAB shows you the steps.

Thanks for the inspiration Jim!

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