By and large, banjoists nowadays use tablature rather than musical notation in order to convey what’s going on on the fretboard. This hasn’t always been the case, but since the advent of bluegrass, and the inclusion of the banjo into the fold of instruments used in this musical genre, we have grown accustomed to seeing not only banjo, but also mandolin, guitar, etc. tablature as the standard means by which we communicate musical ideas in bluegrass.
But this is a different thought process from actually reading music. Whenever I hear the question “Can you read music?” I usually think instead of questions like “Can you read music for the banjo?”or “Can you read music for the piano?”. I think this is the more appropriate question and here’s why.
People don’t usually learn tablature to the point of being able to sight read it as someone would with standard musical notation. Although I have seen some folks who can indeed assimilate tab very quickly. I just use tab to the extent that I can either get it memorized by rote (which is good material for later improvisation), or else just enough to get the idea and then adapt it to my own existing left and right hand techniques. Reading music in standard notation, on the other hand (no pun intended), involves a two-step process of learning:
1 – Instantly identify the notes in sheet music.
2 – Instantly place the correct finger at the correct fret and string to make this note.
Eventually, we get to the place where we no longer think about this as a two-step process. Our hands have learned it and we instantly place our fingers when we see the notes on the staff. At this point we can say we have learned to read music for that particular instrument. In addition, we are also half way there with learning to read music for another instrument; we already have part one accomplished.
We bluegrass musicians know well the advantages of tablature. The main one I’m thinking of right now being that we don’t have to think of just which D above middle C we need to fret, for instance. There is only one choice in tablature, unlike standard notation, which simply gives you the note – you figure out how to fret it yourself in standard notation.
But it’s that very deficiency, if you will, that allows us to be able to sigh-read music much more easily than with tablature. That is, to be able to take a piece of music and instantly start playing it (after the mandatory training to get there, of course). For stringed instruments, where we have a choice of where to fret to make most individual notes, notation doesn’t pretend to say how you produce that note; it just tells you which note to produce. As we learn the basics of sight reading on our instrument, say, on the mandolin, we make the assumption of using only the first 7 frets. This constraint allows us to learn to sight read more easily than if the constrain were not there. Tab doesn’t have that constrain there (use only the first 7 frets, for instance) and so that freedom makes it harder to sight read with. Someone could come along and learn to sigh read tablature, perhaps, but by it’s very nature it doesn’t lend itself to instant production like standard notation.