Questions of broad interest to banjo players, or other music lovers
Umberto Capasso from Italy writes: My current study on banjo takes about an hour 30 up to 2 every day when I‘m lucky. I divide this time in 2 time blocks:
1 — for Learning
2 — for playing
Into time block # 1 the time is divided into :
1a — play a pattern on the entire fingerboard (for stretching my fingers, and possibly different pattern every time )
1b — play the circle of 5th
1c — learn new song from a Hatfield book
1d — learn new song from another book ( from Acutab for example)
The time block 2 is reserved for playing the song that I am learning. Would you be so kind to tell me if my method of learning is correct?
Do you have any suggestion for building speed ? If not, do you have a suggestion for boost my learning and do you have a suggest for building a strong and accurate right hand?
It’s good to hear you are working so hard on the banjo. Any practicing you do will help you progress. If I heard you play and talked with you about your goals as a banjo player, I could make better suggestions than I am able by way of e-mail. (I do this at my banjo camps, and would welcome you to consider coming sometime.)
I do not think of any practice pattern as “correct” or “incorrect”. I try to make sure I (and students) can execute some pieces as perfectly as possible with excellent tone. For many, this means they need to practice for tone and clarity on easy pieces to be most able to get an excellent result.
Much of what people decide to practice should be based on what music they will be playing with other people. To me, this is the best material to practice. I prefer it to scales, circle of 5ths, etc.
To practice for speed, use a metronome or rhythm machine to see how fast you are going, and learn to play something perfectly at some speed, even if very slow. Once it is perfect, then increase the speed gradually. When some mistake starts happening due to speed, make a repeating exercise out of just the part where the problem is until you can do it smoothly and correctly at the speed where it had failed. Then resume increasing the speed on the whole piece until another part fails, and repeat the process.
There is much to say about a “strong and accurate right hand”, but again practice is the key of course. Make sure every single note you play sounds good, and go as slow as you need to in order to listen and concentrate.
Good luck with your learning!
“Dr. Banjo”, Pete Wernick
Howard R. writes: I am enjoying it banjo than I can say, but become dissatisfied with my sound every time I hear your phase-shifted stuff. There is something about it that is deeply satisfying. I spent my professional life studying human auditory function and would give a left eye tooth to know why that sound produces such an interesting response.
I too find the phaser sound quite satisfying, and also wonder sometimes why that is. I think partly, the added low frequency gives it a feeling of depth. I used the phase-shifted sound on my 1977 album Dr. Banjo Steps Out, and it got a lot of surprised and mostly good reactions. I used it throughout the Hot Rize years, but kind of sparingly, as I felt it fit only a limited number of songs (including two of our “hits”, Shady Grove and High on a Mountain). I still use it occasionally when it seems to fit.
How can I get the phase-shift sound in my playing? Is it done by playing through a mic into a phase shifter or with a pickup on the instrument? In a word, “How do I do it?”
No need for a pickup, but a good mic with good low end response will help. To hear it, you need to play it into headphones that block the actual banjo sound, which would make it hard to hear the phased banjo sound. It can be recorded, too, and then nothing but the phased sound can be heard. I use a phaser I got in 1974, which is still made as a reissue (MXR Phase 90) but not with the same sound, unfortunately. I have been able to imitate the sound on some other devices, but it takes some careful tweaking.
In other words, I would suggest you try what’s now on the market and see what you like. You could go in a music store where they sell such gear, bring a good microphone and good headphones and set up to play into a good amp. You can turn the amp volume down and use headphones for monitoring. Often effects like phasing (also called flanging, and similar to “chorusing”) are combined into units with many effects. But the single-effect boxes are much cheaper. You don’t need to play anything fancy, just a few chords and a little picking, just whatever you play.
From Marni from Ontario, Canada: Thwak….Thwak…. I keep hitting the surface of the banjo with my thumb pick. I tried cutting it down but now I have trouble not missing the string totally. Is this a common problem? Any suggestions on how to correct?
Yes, it’s pretty common. A few suggestions: The path of your pick needs to be re-routed. Length of the pick is not the issue. You just have to avoid hitting the head. Going slowly, pick the string in a way that sounds good and doesn’t hit the head. Do that over and over, slowly at first, and gradually add in other fingers picking other strings. Keep adding new moves and speed gradually while listening for the sound of the pick hitting the head. You can beat the problem if you’re vigilant about it, creating a new habit, being careful not to settle for the return of the problem. (If you forget to be vigilant, the old habit usually quickly returns.) It takes time, but after a while you naturally hit just the string and not the head.
Tony K. writes: I am a huge Hot Rize fan and had the good fortune of seeing you guys three times at the Ryman Auditorium in 1996 and 1997. They were the best shows I have ever seen. You took me and my cousin backstage to get our posters autographed at the ’97 show and we will never forget that. Thanks a lot. I am really looking forward to the new live Hot Rize album. I miss seeing you all at the Ryman. Charles Sawtelle’s passing was so unfortunate. He was awesome. Do the remaining three of you get together for shows any? I hope to see you all again someday. I will sign off by saying thanks for all the wonderful music that you create.
Thanks for the nice message. As you might have noted on the web site, the new Hot Rize live CD is due out hopefully in September. It’s good stuff and will make a very nice record and memento of the way we were on stage. Tim and Nick and I got together for some Charles memorial concerts in ‘99 after he died, with help from Peter Rowan and once from Jeff White. Last year we even did a private party with Ronnie McCoury on guitar. In each case it worked, and was enjoyable and sounded a lot like the way we’ve sounded in the past. Of course, there’ll never be another Charles, but there are still the 3 of us, who can recreate the sound in a satisfying way. Maybe once the new record is out we’ll think about booking some more shows. We’ll see. Thanks for asking.
Mary writes: Please advise!!
I have been playing the banjo fairly successfully now for about a year. Last month my husband got the bluegrass bug from me and decided to turn his violin into a fiddle. The dilemma comes when we try to jam as I cannot hear the banjo at all!! I should mention that none of my instructional aides told me I had to learn with picks! So, now I am trying to play with finger picks, it’s going alright but I have lost a lot of dexterity and have this annoying clicking sound as my picks hit the drum below the strings. He says if I ever REALLY want to play the banjo, I better learn how to do it the RIGHT WAY. I say he should learn to listen to the other instruments he is playing with and shut up a bit. Who’s right? Can you save my marriage?
It’s sort of fun to be able to say, in the style of family counselors, “You’re both right.”
First off, yes, bluegrass banjo is played with finger picks. I’m surprised your instructional aides hadn’t mentioned that. It makes all the difference when trying to reproduce the sound of our hero, Earl Scruggs, or any other bluegrass banjo picking. Of course, the banjo can sound good with the picks off, but it’s not “the” sound. So except when you’re purposely trying to be quiet (so as not to wake someone in the next room, for instance), always use the picks when practicing, jamming, etc.
As an aside, any time you find out that a teacher or book or video leaves out such important info, it might make you question that information source overall, and look elsewhere.
Regarding the annoying clicking sound, that can indeed be jarring, and it’s due to your not being used to the picks. Your finger motion is based on what has worked best without picks, and your fingers need to do some adapting. That will happen quite naturally in time, and your sound will clean up. It especially helps if you are aware of, and bothered by, the pick noise. Your wish to hear a cleaner sound will cause you to make slight adaptations in the way you pick, until the desired cleaner sound starts happening. Sounds mysterious, but that is actually the way people tend to solve problems of pick noise!
Now about your advice to your husband to quiet down: Not withstanding the above information and suggestions, yes, you are right to take the position that when playing with other musicians, everyone needs to be sensitive to volume. That means that when someone is playing a solo “too quiet”, you should quiet down. My rule of thumb, and I think this is generally accepted, is, “If you can’t hear the other person soloing, quiet down until you can.” It’s not inappropriate to encourage the other person to play louder, but until they can, the others need to adapt. In your two-person situation, I think this would apply.
It’s funny, 99% of the time, it’s usually the banjo player who needs to be told to quiet down. Often, banjo players don’t realize how loud they are, because the banjo sounds much quieter to the ears of the player than to someone on the other side (in front) of it. One day you might find yourself having the opposite problem to what you have now!
Last note, husbands and wives playing together has its own special rewards and challenges. Unlike most musical situations, there are fewer inhibitions to being critical of one another, so it’s possible that more critical things may be said in the course of playing together. Even if well-intentioned, this criticism can eventually de-rail the general fun of music-making, so it’s important that the partners be as considerate and reinforcing to each other as they would be to other musicians. If you can make good music together and keep growing in the situation, there are wonderful rewards to be had, but it can be a challenge even for happily married couples. I’m really glad that Joan and I have, over the years, developed a good musical relationship. Like any relationship, it takes work, but it’s well worth it.
Don’t let the obstacles get in the way of having a great time jamming with your husband!
Dave from Surrey, England writes: Dear Pete, During the latter part of last year, I purchased a copy of your video “Beginning Bluegrass Banjo”. The problem I have is replicating the sound that you get with your banjo on the video.
I have spent a lot of time (and money) on different strings, bridges, picks, tailpieces and heads, and even used a protractor to set up bridge angles, but I cannot get that sound. In the video, you recommend GHS strings – I have tried those too, but still cannot get that crisp ringing sound that you have.I would appreciate any information that you could give me to replicate that lovely sound.
Please could you let me have the following information about the banjo that you play in the video? I would like to know:
make and year of instrument.
make and thickness of banjo head.
what bridge you use.
what strings you use.
what tailpiece you use.
My banjo is a Gibson Mastertone Earl Scruggs standard, which I bought last year from Mandolin Brothers on Staten Island, NY .If it means changing my instrument to get the sound as in your video, I would be happy to do so.
It’s flattering to be asked such a question in such a thoughtful way. There is a lot to say about banjo sound, and it’s one of the reasons the book Masters of the Five String Banjo is so thick! You can get a pretty thorough idea of my opinions and choices re banjo tone by reading the interview with me in the book. Both the interview and the video tape you have are from 1985, so that should work nicely. The banjo I used from 1966-1988 is a Gibson RB-1 from the early 30s. I used a standard Remo head, GHS strings (10, 12, 16, 24, 10), Price tailpiece and custom, pretty thin bridge. Although in 1988 I got a different “main banjo”, my tonal taste and the concepts behind getting good tone are the same.
In 1988 I got a new Gibson Granada and started using it as my main banjo. I put a thicker-than-normal head on it, 11 thousandths, made by Ludwig. I had a bridge made of 11/16″ height, shaped very similarly to a standard Gibson bridge (made by Grover). I still use the same gauge GHS strings, and the tailpiece is a standard Gibson Presto style tailpiece.
Tone starts with a clear idea of what you want to hear, and it happens when the picker works hard to get it. Most of the result is thanks to the right hand. Developing a strong but sensitive touch is critical. Factors like: just how hard to hit, and how far from the bridge, and with what picking motion, are hard to describe exactly, but are guided by the picker’s idea of what sounds best. You just have to experiment. After a while, experimentation leads to forming habits in getting the sound that pleases you the best.
At my intermediate and advanced banjo camps we work a lot on tone. Most people would get better tone if they just dug in a little harder, but that doesn’t mean louder is simply better– it has to be controlled and stay sweet. But digging in more tends to project a bigger tone, and then it can be modified to less volume by altering the touch. It takes time, but it’s worth it!
Good luck getting your best tone, and I hope to help you with it in person some time. (I will be performing at the end of June in England at the A-1 Festival in Peterborough).
John from Arkansas writes: I have a problem singing and trying to play at the same time. Except for simple strumming, I cannot play the banjo while I am singing. Do you have any advice?
It’s ok not to roll, and in fact some of our best singer/banjo players, Ralph Stanley and Alan O’Bryant, often play little or nothing when they sing.
If you want to hear a roll, a basic TITM keeps the rhythm nicely and requires minimal concentration.
Most people, though, do a “chunk”, which means holding an F-shape version of whatever chord you’re on (F-shape at the 5th fret = G, 10th fret = C, etc.), and picking 2 or 3 strings on the offbeats, then muting them with the left hand slightly releasing the strings. For a more regular feel, the “boom-chunk” is the same thing, but adding the right thumb hitting the 4th string (boom) on the downbeats. That right hand boom-chunk pattern becomes quite natural, and if the left hand gets handy with making the F-shape and moving it to the right fret at the right time, it’s another good way of providing good rhythm and the sound of the chord while not distracting yourself too much.
Bill Hutton of Colorado Springs signed up for Intermediate Banjo camp and writes: Would like to learn additional licks, etc. Any suggestions.
Probably the easiest way to learn licks is from instructional materials such as tablature books and videos. Learning “in person” is ok, but it’s hard to remember more than a few notes at a time, so a written version really helps. Along with any tab I strongly recommend having the recorded source as a reference. Use the recording to listen for the licks you want to learn, then find them in the tab, and listen to the recording for reference while learning the tab.
On my web site, www.drbanjo.com, I offer tabs you can download (click “instructional“). Also you can click “store” and check out quite a few instructional materials. There is a good variety of tab books, and a CD play-along set with tab. My 2-video set (“Branching Out on the Banjo” vols. 1 and 2) is filled with instruction about knowing the neck, and various right hand patterns. Along the way you learn a lot of licks and learn how to make up your own as well, based on knowledge of the instrument. Those can all be ordered off the web site. Certainly I also recommend the Earl Scruggs book and the records those tabs are taken from (Foggy Mt. Banjo album and the 4-CD Bear Family Flatt & Scruggs 1948-59 set, available from County Sales).
Banjo Newsletter is the most extensive source of banjo tablature (www.banjonews.com). Lately they have also been putting up MP3s of the music for which they print the tabs. Their back issues go back over 25 years, and they have thousands of tabs you can look up in their index for particular tunes.
That should help you out! Can’t resist saying that many of us bluegrass pickers who got started in the 60’s and earlier had zero instruction material and tab to go from. It was all by ear, listening to records. That is still a great way to learn, but slow!
Richard B., from New Mexico writes: I have been playing for about a year now and have the opportunity to play with a church group during an evening service.
The problem is that they have been together for 5 yrs. and have a fairly large playlist. I only see the songs for the one hour we practice and don’t have time to really get them down.
Many of the songs use the more complex chords such as C9, F#m7, etc., or are in a more difficult major key, so I have trouble keeping up with the timing. I very much want to play with them, but am feeling rather frustrated at the lack of progress and support. What can I focus on to improve my playing to a level where they will feel I’m ready for performance?
Tape record all the practices. If you don’t have a written source of chord changes, have someone call them off into your tape recorder as the song goes along. If there are still problems with the chords, ask one person who knows them to get with you and your recorder some other time than the group practices. Once you know the chords, figure the melodies out by ear and see if you can produce a melody-oriented solo. Or at least, find a way to accompany the songs on your tape and sound smooth and rhythmic while adding the sound of the banjo.
By the way, 7ths and 9ths are embellishments. You can play C instead of C9, and F#m instead of F#m7. It will sound just fine. But you may not substitute a major for a minor.
I’m also somewhat frustrated when I play some good background rolls, and the guitar picker leans over and says, “not really a banjo song, is it!” (we were playing Proud Mary).
Proud Mary has been done bluegrass style with the banjo rolling pretty fast. It does work, though it’s not in “typical bluegrass rhythm”.
A lot of people don’t understand banjo playing. Scruggs style is a pretty unique thing, so the guitar player probably is not too hip to it. Just make sure it sounds good, and maybe someone else will be more positive.
I am using Bluegrass Banjo as well as Ron Greene’s accompaniment dial for 5 string.
Not familiar with Ron G.’s method. Bluegrass Banjo should give you a good foundation, but it’s up to you to figure out the specifics of the songs you encounter. If you come to banjo camp, that’s the kind of thing we can work on.
Good luck with your picking, and fitting in with these folks!
Kent, whom I met in August at Bluegrass at the Beach in Oregon, asks: Just what is it that makes a song or an arangement truly Bluegrass? For years now I have been thinking that it was mostly due to the timing, rhythm, and pulse.
This is a toughie that lots of people would answer differently. If you have my Bluegrass Songbook, that question gets addressed by quite a few of the singer/writers I interviewed for the book. A lot of it has to do with the pulse, but waltzes and slow songs can also be fit into bluegrass just fine if they don’t sound too “heady” or “complicated”. Pete Rowan said it well in the Songbook when he referred to bluegrass as one of the kinds of music that is made in a state of energy and simplicity. That’s why a bluegrass band can borrow certain songs from other genres and still make them work. The instrumentation and the vocal style is part of what makes the song sound “bluegrass”. Or you could take a bluegrass classic and do it in a way that would sound quite un-bluegrass. Remember, energy and simplicity!
Good luck with all the music,
Bob W. writes: I’m a beginning banjo player that has benefited greatly from your instructional videos and website.
My question has to do with traveling with the banjo. I have to fly to my parents this Christmas and I’m very nervous about checking my banjo with he baggage handlers. I can imagine my banjo will be treated like those suitcases in the old Samsonite commercial where gorillas (baggage handlers) flung the bags around and beat them on their cages. I don’t think I can treat the banjo as carry on luggage since it probably doesn’t fit into the over head storage area. My banjo is brand new and I paid a nice chunk of change for it. Is there a way to protect my instrument from the airlines?
Thanks for your help
This is a question I’ve been asked enough, a few years back wrote a summary of everything I know on the subject. I think it still holds true today, though size restrictions for carry-ons may be a problem in some cases. Since I don’t carry on my banjo on (I have a flight case, and check it), I don’t have direct experience with that. Here’s the article. No guarantees of course, but it sums up what I know.
Flying With Your Banjo by Pete Wernick
There’s no one “standard procedure”. On the plus side, banjos are typically quite sturdy and even standard hardshell cases are strong enough to afford very good protection and, especially with a few precautions, to give you high odds of no problems sending it through baggage. However, there are horror stories, most involving neck fractures, particularly at the headstock. Such damage is caused by careless/rough handling in baggage.
Generally when checking a musical instrument you are required to sign a waiver agreeing that the instrument is packed inadequately (regardless of how well you’ve actually packed it!) and that the airline is not responsible for damage except to the case. However, if the instrument is then damaged and it’s clearly due to bad handling, there are cases of successful claims in spite of the signed waiver. Think of that as iffy, though. Bottom line is: How unthinkable is it for you to have the neck of your banjo broken? Some breaks are easily repairable, some would mean the neck would have to be replaced.
You’ll improve your odds against damage checking a banjo through baggage if you:
- Avoid connecting flights when possible (in favor of direct flights), as that will cut down on the amount the instrument is handled.
- Loosen the strings enough to take the tension off the neck (leave enough to keep them holding the bridge in place), as a neck under tension can break more easily.
- Put some padding such as wadded cloth or plastic bubble wrap underneath the peghead to cushion it. Also, a towel rolled up to an inch or two thickness can be squeezed around the outside of the shell, resting on the flange, to absorb side impact that would otherwise be absorbed mainly by the resonator.
- Put “Fragile” stickers all over the case, even the bottom.
- While checking it with a skycap, emphasize the need for careful handling, and add a tip. This will up the odds of good handling at least on the way to the plane.
- Use a flight case, which combines a solid outside shell with lots of padding inside. These give excellent protection, though they’re expensive and bulky. Something to consider if you fly frequently.
The alternative that trades some inconvenience for total safety is to carry the banjo on with you and put it in an overhead compartment. At airports where carry-ons have to fit through a certain sized opening, a normal banjo case will go through, but some airlines have strict size requirements for carryons, with length of the case a possible problem. If you check with them by phone you’ll probably be told it’s too big. But at the airport it might not be a problem. A standard case will fit easily enough in the overheads of 727’s 737’s etc. if you are one of the first to use the compartment. To be sure of available space would normally require early boarding. Carrying on the instrument means no special packing is necessary– it’s as if you had it with you on a bus.
If you board too late to find space in an overhead, ask an attendant to help you store it in a closet. (Sometimes an attendant spots it and tells you it will have to go in a closet.) This may be no problem– or if the attendant isn’t feeling helpful, or it’s a crowded flight, a problem. You then have two choices: 1. Insist, saying it’s fragile, delicate, important, etc. and not taking no for an answer (there’s almost always someplace it can go, though your insistence may cause noticeable grumpiness). Choice 2: Let them “gate check” it which means tagging it and adding it to the baggage being loaded underneath, after which it’s treated like baggage. If it’s gate checked, it’s then time to do precautions 2-4 above.
John R. from Santa Fe writes: How do I know if I am physically capable of playing the banjo at bluegrass speed (120 or more bpm, i.e. at least a full roll/second)?
I am almost 53 and started playing a couple of years ago. I play a few times a week for maybe 30 minutes, some weeks almost every night and some weeks not at all because I am away from home on business. Recently I decided I just had to get my speed up, so I turned on a rhythm track from my keyboard and find that I can play a forward roll and an “in and out” roll at 110 bpm. Rolls that include a backwards portion are slower. I can play simple songs at maybe 90 bpm but it seems that to play at well 120 bpm I should be able to do straight out rolls at probably 150 bpm. It just doesn’t seem that my fingers move that fast.
So, how do I know what I am physically capable of? When do I call it quits and find another instrument? I love the banjo and bluegrass.
First of all, by no means should you quit if you love it. Many good players just can’t play fast, which limits what they can play, and sometimes whom they can be comfortable playing with– but they can still enjoy playing really neat music on the instrument. No reason to not try. Your chances are good. Possible proof:
Yes, 120 beats per minute is 8 notes a second, which sounds fast, at least verbally. But a second is kind of a long time — if you hurry you can count to almost 8 in a second. Try drumming your three fingers on a tabletop 3 times a second. That should prove to you you can move your fingers that fast. Of course, to have them learn patterns well enough to play them at that speed does take time and work. But lots of players older than you can do it, and the chances are that you can too.
Over a period of time, work on raising the speed by tiny increments above what you’ve established before. Even improving 1% a week will amount to a noticeable change after a couple of months. Like any exercise, you can tone your muscles, and speed and agility does come with practice.
At my banjo camps we often work on this. I usually have a person take a song they like and already play cleanly and want to play faster, and subject the song to this program of increasing speed. Often there’ll be a weak spot that sounds bad when played at the faster speed, even while the rest of the tune sounds ok. That weak spot needs special practice. I often start the person at a slower than normal speed so they can really make sure that part is mastered well enough to be flawless, even if at the slow speed. First step is to make a practice loop that can be played uninterrupted repeatedly along with a rhythm device. Often there is something awkward going on that needs to be smoothed out before the section can be played fast and cleanly. Once it’s smoothed out, it ceases to be the weak spot, and the whole tune can now be played comfortably at a higher speed.
It might take a while to work out these flaws, but once they are worked out and the piece can be played very well at slower speed, it’s often easy to just do it all faster, with good results.
Enjoy your picking (whatever the speed).
Robert writes: Pete, I recently bought a new Deering Boston banjo and am seeking advice on what kind of 5th string capo to install, spikes or the sliding type.
This is a good question. There are advantages and disadvantages to both solutions.
Cost: Spikes are cheaper for materials and probably installation too. The 5th string capo of choice, made by Shubb, is perhaps $40 or higher these days.
Convenience of use: To me the Shubb is more convenient, as the capo lever slides into position and tightens right down next to the fret, without getting the string out of tune. Most arrangements with spikes pull the string out of its path, requiring additional tuning, and retuning once you are done using the spike.
Playability: Spikes are easier, as when fretting the 5th string with the thumb (up the neck) the Shubb adds a little width to the neck, a bit of an obstacle, but people get used to it.
Defacing the instrument: Most people prefer the small holes for the spikes in the fingerboard to the larger holes in the finished side of the neck required by Shubb installation. Additionally, the Shubb covers the dots on the side of the neck, making it harder to read them.
For me, the convenience of use/accurate tuning issue trumps all the others. As a professional, I highly value anything that reduces tuning time and increases reliability. In Masters of the Five String book, the players we asked seemed to favor the spikes by a clear majority.
I hope this helps! Good luck with your picking,
Brendon writes: Your no-fail beginning video is awesome. When I do the accompany roll along w/ the 2 and 3 chord medleys my right hand tends to cramp or become tired. Is this normal? What warm up exercises can you recommend and for how long should I do them for? I currently practice for a half an hour a day and would like to work up to at least two half hour practices per day.
I’m very glad to hear the video is helping. The cramping and tiring is pretty normal at first, but you should check whether your hand is positioned uncomfortably, or is tense in any way. That could be affecting it. Experiment a little to see if it works better with a bit of relaxation, or slightly different hand position. Otherwise, it’s just a matter of the muscles that control the fingers getting stronger, which comes naturally with time. I don’t know what to suggest as warmup exercises, as the rolls you’re doing are what some people do as a warmup. Try doing them a little more slowly at first, without the video running. I’d say just a few minutes of that, and then try playing with the tape. It should get easier in time.
Best of luck with learning the banjo!
John M. writes: Pete, how often do I need to replace the strings on my banjo? I’ve been playing for a little over a year, practicing about 3 hours a week for that time. I’ve noticed some discoloration of the strings over the head, it looks like rust. Does that mean it’s time for a change?
Sure does. Most people who play regularly would be well advised to change strings several times a year, maybe every 2 months. You play more than most people, so you might benefit from changing strings more often. Once you change strings you should hear a nice difference, maybe a little too bright at first, but then a nice lively sound until the rust and dirt and little bends the frets put in the strings dull down the sound. You can always check that by running a finger underneath the string, along its length and see how smooth or uneven it feels. Especially under the 4th string, you’ll feel the unevenness, due to the winding of the string being dented or breaking.
Besides sounding fresher, the banjo will also stay in tune better with new strings, as the overtones of old strings get a bit out of tune, causing the notes to never sound quite right.
Some people leave the strings on for long periods and enjoy the plunkier, less bright sound. I wouldn’t rule that out if you find you like that.
Another point: For people who pick hard, older strings are more likely to break, especially the first.
If you like the strings you have on the banjo now, take the instrument with you to a music store and have them measure the string gauges, and get some sets like that. If you want to experiment, try a light gauge and a medium gauge set and see how they feel and sound.
Good luck with your picking!
Brian writes: I am considering purchasing a new banjo, and I wanted to get your thoughts on radiused fingerboards. Does your banjo have a radiused fingerboard? If not, have you ever tried one out that does have this option? Any comments you could provide would be most appreciated.
My banjo (and all banjos I’ve owned) doesn’t have a radiused fingerboard, but I have played a number of banjos which do. It’s hard to make a comparison that I could really believe in, as there are a number of variables. The biggest is what the tonal difference would be. Since the neck mass and the action changes, that can affect tone. Hearing what someone else’s banjo sounds like is not the same as hearing what my banjo would sound like with the radiused fingerboard. Unlike most setup experiments, this one would not be so easy to undo and redo a few times to check the effect. It would need to be played on stage as well as off, alone and in a group, etc. to make a good comparison.
Comfort-wise, radiused fingerboards feel fine, but I’m not really tempted to switch, as I’m satisfied with my banjo the way it is, and I do suspect it would change the tone.
Since you’re thinking of a new banjo, it would be best if you could compare two similar banjos of the same brand, one with the radiused fingerboard, one without.
Zach, a recent Basic Skills Banjo Camper, writes: I’ve been working on some Kingston Trio songs, and they’re definitely not in G but I’m having a tough time telling what the chords are. I can pick out the accented melody notes, but that doesn’t seem to necessarily identify the name of the chord. I believe you said that all that would do is identify a chord that has that note in it, is this correct?
Find the last melody note and identify its pitch (count up the frets on that string from the nut by half-steps, e.g., three frets up from the open G would be Bb). That tells you what key the song is in on the record.
If it’s a key like Bb or A where you can use the capo on a lower fret and then play in G, then do so, and there you are. I recommend sticking with such keys where you can do your figuring in the key of G. But if it’s C or D you can play along using G tuning and playing the chord progression (when you find it) in the key of C or D. Other keys like E or F would require both a capo and playing in D. Remember with any use of the capo, you’ll need to tune the fifth string accordingly. But you’ll be on less familiar ground figuring out melodies and solos in those keys.
Once you’ve found the key, start with the 1, 4, and 5 chords in that key (In G, it’s G, C, D). If you hear what seems like a minor chord, try the 2 minor or the 6 minor (Am or Em in G), the most likely candidates. Using the main melody notes to guide you should work well, but indeed the melody note is not necessarily the name of the chord, but a member. Naturally, not all choices work, but it’s a way to narrow it down while letting your ear guide the decision.
Any hints for finding melody notes more rapidly by ear? I know he accented note should be in the chord, but how to tell which one rapidly so that the roll can be modified, etc.?
Find and learn the melody notes before you start to combine them with rolls. The more you do that, the better your guessing will get, to where you can make a lot of correct choices on the first guess. Then if your rolling is flexible enough, you will be able to play melody-based breaks more spontaneously.
Is this where more time with scales would be helpful? Should I be spending time with minor or non-G scales for songs which I know aren’t in G?
A scale can help to at least identify notes that are likely to be used in the key you’re in. No need to practice them for fluency at this stage. I would advise to stick to songs in the key of G, and use what you already know about likely note choices, to keep the job of finding melodies streamlined. I wouldn’t venture into finding melodies and soloing in other keys until G opens up for you. One project at a time!
I’ll be getting together soon with as many as three of the other banjo campers. Hope we can keep it productive. Any suggestions will be appreciated.
Play through the group of three-chord songs we recorded on the last day of banjo camp. See if anyone can solo, or at least take breaks consisting of rolls and very limited content. See if you can show your progress on any solo you’ve been working on. It’s a great idea to get together, and four people is an ideal number. Go easy on any songs that have tricky chords, and be sure to have word sheets handy to make it easy on the singers.
Zach from Colorado writes: I’m afraid my practice sessions haven’t been as structured as I’d intended, always seeming to drift off toward “noodling”.
Noodling can be good as a way of taking a mental break while keeping your hands on the instrument, making friendly sounds. But I recommend having specific short-term goals, and keeping a written list of them in your case for ready reference. After you notice you’ve been noodling for ten minutes, you’re probably ready to re-focus on some exercise you’ve named on your short-term goal list.
Mike writes: I stopped playing for quite a while, & now that I’m trying to get back into my music I’m having trouble with my middle finger only. When I was younger & playing before I stopped, I could play pretty well (not bragging), but I could play well enough that I had plenty of confidence in my playing. I have plenty of control with my thumb & index but that middle one is driving me nuts. Any advice?
Very sorry to hear that you are having this problem! My first thought:
Let your ring finger off the head if that’s comfortable. It may free up the middle for better motion. Some books/teachers recommend against this, but a great many respected pro’s do it. I say, do whatever works.
It’s always good to keep shifting things around, trying different positioning, until you hit something that works (sounds good and is comfortable). Then just stick with that.
I suggest you take some time to play something relatively easy, very slowly and accurately, and keep a close watch on that middle finger. As soon as it misbehaves, repeat what you were playing when it did that. Keep the pace slow, so you can focus on just what is happening. Then repeat that phrase while concentrating hard on keeping your middle finger in line. If it stays in line, go a little faster. When it misbehaves, repeat what you did before. That method could conceivably fix the problem in time. In any case, it will give you a better view of it. Does it only happen on certain types of rolls, is it better for some kinds of playing, etc. Knowing when the problem occurs can be a very helpful step, and then you practice keeping the control as you slowly work on the problem area.
At my banjo camps I can take a look at someone’s hands as they play and make better suggestions than I can in an email. Or if you know of a good banjo teacher, you might ask for a short consultation about this problem.
If it just won’t go away, perhaps it’s a physiological problem where a nerve is not firing right. There you would have to go and get diagnosed by a specialist.
Last ditch alternatives: Try leaving your middle finger out of the picture and pick with your ring finger instead. Some people who have been forced to do that due to serious injuries etc. have overcome the handicap that way, and can play quite well. Another alternative: 2-finger picking, which can sound great and pretty similar to Scruggs-style if done well. Then there’s clawhammer and other banjo styles.
But hopefully one of the earlier-mentioned methods will work. If you try them, let me know how it went.
Best of luck!
John K. writes: I’m left-handed and have attempted to play both ways (I have a left handed neck as well as a right). Naturally I have better coordination with my left hand, but since both hands are needed to play, I have always wondered if it makes a difference. What do you recommend to your left handed students?
I’m sure there’s a difference between picking righty and lefty, though I don’t know from my own experience, as I’m a righty. A fair number of lefty musicians have learned to pick righty and you wouldn’t even know who they are, as almost everyone picks righty. I am pretty certain that lefties just get used to it and can get as good as their practicing allows (that’s the main factor). My Hot Rize buddy Tim O’Brien writes and throws left-handed, and has a great right hand on mandolin, fiddle, etc. That’s just one example. I have seen just one pro banjo player pick lefty — Don Lineberger, who played with Bill Monroe for about a year in the mid-60s and made a few recordings with him.
One compelling reason to pick righty is that you can use a standard instrument. That means you can borrow others’ instruments when that’s appropriate, and when you find a good instrument you may want to buy, you don’t have to have a special neck made.
At this point in your playing, you can make the choice without having to undo any habits. I recommend the right-handed picking choice, if you can get comfortable with it.
Best of luck with both hands!
Owen, a very talented 11 year-old banjo player from North Carolina, who recently attended banjo camp with his dad, writes: Hi Pete, I have the flu this week and had to perform at the talent show at school. This got me wondering what you do when you’re sick and have a show to play. Thanks. Also, I really have enjoyed listening to the On a Roll CD.
It’s good to hear from you. You didn’t mention how the show went. I’d like to hear about it (or did you stay home sick?)
When you have a show to play, it could be said you’re in “show business”, even if you’re not getting paid. If you’re in show business, there’s a saying, “The show must go on.” Which means you do it even if you’re sick or not feeling good, or there’s a hurricane, or someone important to you just got hurt or even died. That’s all because putting on a show is about being part of LIFE, and life includes both hard times and good times.
Most performers don’t even tell audiences they’re having a hard time, because they don’t want to spoil the situation for them by making them uneasy. They put on their best face, and just go ahead and play. Often, miraculously, they get a surge of energy when it’s about time to go on, and they do fine. This has happened to me a number of times, and it typically happens for performers.
Last November a very close friend of mine died suddenly on the same day I was scheduled to perform in a show that I also had put together and had promoted myself. I knew Frank would understand if I performed anyway and in fact, would not want his death to cause the cancellation of a show. I was so sorry he had died, I felt I had to share what happened with the audience, and did it before I even played. I dedicated the show to Frank. Everyone understood and it turned out to be a good show.
If it turns out that you have to play even when sick, just do your best. Even if you’re the only one who knows you’re sick, just keep it to yourself and do your best. In show business, your main job is to give it your best and enjoy it and the people. With your talent and your good personality, I think you’ll do fine.
I’m looking forward to seeing you again soon and hearing you play. My best to your dad.
Warren from Thunder Bay Ontario, writes: Dear Dr. Banjo. I have a Fender Delux 5 string and was wondering if changing the strings to either a different make or firmness would change the tone. I am looking for a crisper tone and am not sure if it is the strings, the banjo make, the skin or my playing. Any suggestions?
Everything you’ve named has a possible effect on the tone. For added crispness, the most straightforward changes are:
- Tightening the head. Go around the brackets one by one, tightening each a little at a time, then check to see how you like it. If you want more or less crispness, tighten or loosen to taste.
- Changing the strings. Strings on more than a few weeks have a good chance of sounding dead (especially if played a lot, or in humid climates).
- Lighter gauge strings generally have a clearer high end, though they can lack “stoutness”. Something to experiment with.
- The player can be a big factor (“It’s not the car, it’s the driver.” — Allen Shelton). This is a large subject, but picking a bit closer to the bridge will crisp up the playing. It can also kill the warm part of the sound, so adjust carefully. Same with picking angle and hand position. The best thing I can say about that in a short space: Play something easy at an easy tempo and try to concentrate on the sound only. Then try different positionings, style and angle of pick attack, etc. When it starts sounding better to you, stay with it and make it a habit!
- Banjo make is certainly a factor, but generally, if the player practices with clear intention to improve the sound, usually he or she can get pretty close to the intended sound on any good banjo. Setup and picking factors as discussed above will be most of the equation, with type of banjo affecting the ease of getting there.
Other setup factors include bridge material, shape, and thickness, tailpiece height, head thickness, and probably many more. Generally, thinness and tightness go with crispness. A big subject.
This is the kind of thing we work on a lot at my banjo camps. Hopefully you’ll be able to come sometime.
Best of luck with your sound!
Reinhard writes: Dear Dr. Banjo: Hope all is well with you! I’m going to be playing River of Life in the key of F (or at least it starts and ends on an F). I’ve tried a few adjustments of the G string capo only and also the regular capo plus the G string capo in various positions. So far I haven’t hit on a configuration that I’m happy with. Any recommendations?
If it starts and ends on F, it is in the key of F. The main three ways I know to do this are:
- No capo. Hit the chords (F, Bb, C are the 1, 4, 5) and roll for backup. For lead, find the melody (the root note, F, is found on strings 1 and 4), and try to make it work with rolls. That’s the hard part.
- Capo 3 and play as though in D. The 1, 4, 5 chords are D, G, and A. For playing in D with no capo, the fifth string is usually raised 2 frets’ worth, to A. For F, you’d raise it 3 frets (like the regular capo) past that, so it’s a C. Hopefully you have spikes or a 5th string capo for that. Don’t tighten the string 5 frets’ worth!
- Capo 5 and play as though in C, with C, F, and G the main chords. Fifth string is raised 5 frets.
All three of these might be good options. I like #1 and #2 best, as they allow the low F note into the sound, which gives it more warmth.
Joe from Illinois writes: I have a Johnson 080-18 bracket beginner’s banjo. I’m having a ton of fun learning from it.
String choice is just like quite a few other setup variables (head type and tension, bridge type, height, thickness, etc. etc. My standard answer is: experiment till you find something that seems the best, and go with it. (At least until you change your mind!)
If you want a crisper sound, the most likely way to do that is to tighten the brackets around the head, to add tension. Keep the tension even all around by tightening all the nuts a little at a time as you go around. Check the banjo sound periodically to check it out. When you like it, you might want to keep tightening a little to see if it gets better. If you go too far, loosen back till you hit optimum. Don’t worry about breaking the head. You really have to Crank to break a plastic head. And even if you do, they’re not expensive to replace.
Let me know how it goes.
Frequently asked question: I find it hard to sing and play at the same time. What do you suggest.
The topic of playing while singing comes up pretty regularly at my camps, and I’ve learned important lessons about it from Scruggs and also from playing in Hot Rize. Before Hot Rize started, I was proud of my ability to roll while I sing. In Hot Rize, I was encouraged to not roll. When I said, OK, I’ll vamp, the suggestion was, don’t even vamp. This was startling at first (what will I do?). They said, just hold it. I was a bit peeved at first, but the wisdom of the idea came through after a while.
By my not playing, I could hear myself sing that much better. They could also hear their own singing better, so we all could really zero in on the harmony blend (we always sang on a single mic, and still do). Another, sort of hidden result, is that the listeners get a vacation from the sound of the rolling banjo at least a few times per song (at least those with a trio). So when you start up again, it’s more refreshing than when you always hear the banjo, and sometimes it’s louder.
Listening to Flatt and Scruggs records, you often don’t even hear the banjo. He’s often vamping off-mic, keeping the band rhythm together. Then when you hear him start his solo, he’s ALL THERE, and the contrast is pretty exciting. Maybe one verse per song has clearly audible banjo backup (the lead instruments took turns doing that). Sometimes in their show, Earl was not even on stage, or playing guitar. I started remarking on that after Hot Rize added the Red Knuckles part of the show. When Hot Rize would return after Red, the audience was good and ready for more bluegrass, and banjo. Watching out for the audience’s sound-fatigue factor is pretty major in my book.
Last point: Listening to recordings of your shows is the best way to find out what’s working and what’s not.
Denny Saldusku writes: I recently saw that someone had bent the tips back on their fingerpicks, is this the norm or are there other ways to use them as I am straight?
There is a wide variety in the way picks are worn, twisted, bent more, straightened, etc. Earl Scruggs and Bela Fleck bend them the way you’ve described. There are definitely other ways that work, as shown in the photos of many pros’ hands and picks in a book I cowrote called Masters of the Five String Banjo. The book is not currently available, but should be soon. It deflates many myths to the effect: This is the best way, the right way, what everybody does, etc. It’s actually pretty subjective.
The main thing is to pick!
John Kilbourn writes: I’m a re-newed beginner and have been using your tape “Beginning Bluegrass Banjo” for the past several weeks. I’ve noticed that with your rolls, when played at a slow speed, you play with uneven spacing between notes, which I think some call bounce. I believe that Paul Hawthorne calls it a “mantra”. I don’t have the necessary equipment to slow down your fast stuff, but if I did, would I find the same uneven spacing between notes? My real question is, as I learn to play the rolls and all songs, should I play with this bounce or with the so call “machine-gun” playing where each note is equally spaced? Thanks for your time.
That’s a perfectly reasonable question, for which I only have a partial answer. My guess is that the “even-spacing” way is what works for most players when playing up-tempo. Also, the uneven spacing that you observe when I play the rolls slowly is not intentional. The learner can play it evenly, which is probably better.
So-called “bounce” is up to the player, and most especially up to the other players whom the banjo player is playing with. If they don’t agree about rhythmic feel, something needs resolving, since the goal is to sound “locked in”.
When I play, I don’t analyze my playing in terms of bounce or “straight time”. I play by feel. I listen closely to the lead singer and other players, and try to fit in. When I play a banjo tune, I expect them to do the same. Good backup is really mostly about listening and asking yourself at all times, “Is this the best I can do to help this group sound its best?” When I play leads, I try to lay down a solid groove and be steady.
Since backup is not your concern right now, I’d just advise to keep the roll even and mostly get it into muscle memory as a comfortable and mostly unconscious set of motions.
Best of luck in learning!
Brian writes: I started playing back around 1991, and always used National brand thumbpicks (white or tortoise shell). They sounded great and didn’t seem to wear down in a way that affected their tone or performance. Sometime in the last 10 years or so, it seems that National changed the plastic material they use in their thumbpicks, and (in my humble opinion) the new ones don’t sound nearly as good. Do you notice a meaningful difference in the sound you get from different thumbpicks? And do you have any recommendations on which brand seems to deliver the best tone and don’t seem to wear down poorly?
I have not noticed a difference in the sound. Some are scratchier (which certainly can be a bad part of the sound) than others, but I don’t hear variety in tone quality from pick to pick, at least of the same general shape. The scratchiness of the material is based on how the pick material wears, so maybe that is what you’re referring to. I find that scratchiness goes away as the pick is used regularly, especially if lubricated with a bit of oil from the side of the nose (really!).
I don’t have recommendations for which picks produce best tone. In any case, tone depends mostly on a lot of other stuff than pick material. I have a long term supply of picks made in the early 90s that look like Golden Gate but don’t have the imprint, and seem to be better material. The Dunlop “tortoise” look plastic picks seem good.
When it comes to tone, the main thing is to want it bad, and keep that attitude as you play. It will come.
Best of luck,
Rick S. writes: I wonder what you would suggest to get a beginning banjo student to pick harder. His fingers seem rather limp and therefore he does not get much sound out of the banjo. I have suggested tensing his right hand a little more and anchoring a little more firmly to get a little sharper “attack” on the strings. But I am not sure that this is really the greatest advice. If you have time, I would appreciate any suggestions.
When a student just won’t dig in, I start doing a lot of encouraging. Have the student pick something easy, that they know cold. It could even be a roll, or at the most basic, a 1/5 pinch. As they play it continuously, tell them to keep playing louder. If they are especially weak with one finger (index) tell them to play that finger ESPECIALLY loud.
At this method’s most basic application, the student should play just one string as loud and clear as possible. Just an open note and make sure it sounds strong and has bite. Keep encouraging. My bottom line is to tell the person “If you can play it quite a bit louder on this next hit, imagine (vividly!) that you will receive one thousand dollars. Imagine it vividly, and now pick. Sometimes it will be amazing how loud they can pick (time-tested technique at banjo camps)!
Then say, Let’s see if you can do it again…. And again…. And again– but without having to strain to do it. A good big attack on that string, feeling relaxed and strong..
Then, the pinch, then a roll. Always has to stay strong. Then a TITM roll with a slide on the 3rd string. After a while, a habit will form of making sure that every note comes through. Once a player knows a piece, they should practice it slowly at first, making sure to get all the notes clear. Easier said than done!
This stronger type of playing will backslide between lessons, but if you regularly spend some time refocusing and reenergizing his roll to be louder and clearer, the good sound will develop.
Best of luck!
Charles writes: I have a quick question which no one locally has been able to help me with… When tuned in standard G and playing let’s say a D chord (Not D7) can you pick the standard 3251 pattern or since it’s a D chord do some of the strings (SUCH AS THE 5th string) not be played.
I guess better put is… Can you always play the 3251 regardless of what chord is being played?
That’s a perfectly good question, Charles, but the answer might sound obscure. My answer is “Do what sounds good to you.” That may mean playing the 5th open even on a D chord (a la Scruggs in the Ballad of Jed C.), or avoiding the 5th (the 4th, D, sounds good), or going lighter on it. Whatever seems to work in the situation, guided by what sounds good to you.
Do some of the strings not belong with certain chords?
Most people would say yes indeed, but to be more broadly correct: Some notes will be harder for some people to accept than others. Those that are actually part of the chord will sound best, but sometimes a non-chord tone will add what could be called an interesting/appropriate flavor (or “bad sound” to some). The latter would be a judgment call, which might vary depending on who’s judging, what the mood of the song is, etc. Chord tones are the 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes of the scale of the chord. Example: the 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes of a C scale are C, E, and G. Those three notes combine to make a C chord. With G it would be G, B, and D combining for a G chord. Et cetera.
The note G is the 4th tone of a D scale, so it’s a dubious fit. But Scruggs makes it sound likable with the D chord in Jed Clampett. Generally, an E chord with the open 5th string G sounding, is considered nasty. But Tony Trischka uses it to good effect on his tune Bloosinee (Blues in E). So “belong with”, or “can you play” can end up as judgment calls, not necessarily hard rules.
Main thing is, keep picking — and listening!
Bob, on the list, writes: I bought a cheap violin mute for $2.25, a Tourte, and it sounds great for the muted sound I want to achieve on the banjo (when I want it to be quieter). I think if I buy one more and put them both on the bridge, it will be even better. I mention this because I hear you recommended something like that.
Well, I have recorded with a mute, actually a pair of mutes, as pictured in my Bluegrass Banjo book. It makes a very quiet, sustained, almost velvety sound. The second mute is a small one that just goes on the end of the bridge by the 5th string. Most violin mutes only mute enough of the bridge for a 4-string instrument and so the uncovered part allows that string to sound harsher than the others. I just used a small piece out of an old tire, with a notch cut in it. (My dad made it for me when I despaired about losing my store-bought Jascha Heifitz violin mute, which was a less crude version of the same thing.)
The sound is very attractive, but so quiet it can hardly be heard over more than one instrument. The touch required to get that lovely sound is so light, and the sustain is so full, that you end up playing with a different touch than regular bluegrass three-finger picking. So it is not really good practice for your right hand. I prefer to think of it as a different instrument with the very non-banjo-like quality of sustain, which can allow you to do soulful note bends, vibrato, etc. Something banjo players never get to do. But watch out for getting hooked on it when you really want to be working on your “regular” banjo playing!
When I need to practice quietly, I just take off my picks and pick up my Goodtime banjo. That does sound like a banjo, and you can work on remembering something or making something up, or giving your left hand a workout.
I have long used an Elton violin mute (heavily weighted cylinder with clips mounted on it), plus my little notched piece of tire. Once I thought it would be cool to get two Elton mutes, weld them together and have the clips really cover the whole bridge. It sounded bad. One nice way to quiet the banjo and still retain some normal tone is to put a clothespin on each end of the bridge, parallel to the head. That works nicely, though I like that Elton/notched rubber the best.
That’s my take on mutes!
Banjo camper Fred from Texas writes: Any suggestions about finger pick noise? Photos show the tummy roll my mirror ignores the same way recordings listen to the rasps and clatter my ears filter out. Rasps and clatter. When I asked Pete about striking the head with my thumb pick he suggested, “Just don’t do that any more.” Maybe that’s the best answer here too.
Well, thumb pick hitting the head really is “stop doing that”. The trick is to have it REALLY MATTER to you. If you avoid it with the same clear-headedness you avoid, say, walking in traffic against the light, it just won’t happen. So the trick is to really notice it and convince yourself that it’s “BAD”.
As for the rasps you mentioned, that’s similar, but it’s not as simple as changing the path of the pick, as with thumb pick hitting the head. Using a little natural oil (gathered from the hair, or lacking hair as I do, the side of the nose or behind the ear) tends to lubricate the pick and help it wear to the point that there’s less friction. It also has to do with the way the pick contacts the string, especially the crispness of that. A quick pick doesn’t have much time to make noise, while a slower pick slides a bit along the string. My most effective way to get rid of pick noise (once I’ve got my nose oil in place!) is to just be aware when it happens, and “somehow” try to make it go away. My hand probably makes small, unconscious adjustments, with the desired results. Again, the trick is that you have to notice it and have it MATTER. That is key to correcting any bad habit.
Hope this helps!
John, from a U.S. Army address: I am looking for some guide as to when I should restring my banjo. I have heard so many things which probably have some merit such as when the string breaks, when it sounds flat, when it feels rough. Quite frankly, the only thing I have noticed is that some of the strings begin to sound tinny after a while.
There is so much variation between banjo players on so many factors, that I often stay away from rules of thumb that get too specific (such as: every ___, or every ___ hours of playing time). Like many things, it’s up to personal taste. But I do think many people leave them on too long, where they sound duller, are more prone to breakage, and become harder to tune, due to the overtones becoming out of tune, due to wear of the strings.
Probably the best guide is to listen carefully to the difference between old strings and the new ones once you put them on. I personally like the sound of fresh strings. The brightness of the wound 4th is usually the first thing to go, and then the general banjo gets slowly less bright (which some people like). When it becomes hard to tune, then it’s time to change. The sign of this is when your electronic tuner says it’s right, but it still doesn’t sound right, and the chords sound out of tune. That’s the overtones being out of tune.
I practice one-and-a-half to two hours a day, jam every Monday night for 4 hours, and jam every third Saturday for 5 hours. Actually the jams are more of a band that plays country, country rock and bluegrass for Senior Citizen Centers. I started with a new set of strings in January and have restrung once to date. I know this is stretching the time frame.
You’ve got that right. For anyone playing that regularly, two months is pretty much a maximum. For you, I can only recommend that you use your judgment as to how soon to change strings, comparing what you have with the “fresh string” sound.
Keep picking! Sounds like you’re having fun with it.
John writes on Banjo-L: I am playing with a local ‘megaband’ group this year that includes 75 instruments. In a group that big, it is sometimes difficult to hear your own instrument. Has anyone rigged up (or do you know of) a device with small earphones that magnifies the sound of the instrument you are playing so that you can hear what you are playing?
In banjo camps, when people tune, I always have people rotate the banjo so the head is facing up (dobro-like). People are amazed how loud the banjo “becomes”. I point out that it REALLY IS that loud, and that we banjo players tend to be oblivious of that. To hear a banjo well after, say, a luthier has done setup work, I always point the banjo at a wall a few feet away, and judge the sound by what I hear “bouncing” back at me.
Perhaps the answer to your dilemma is to have a flat, reflective surface angling the bounce of the banjo sound toward your face (ears). Maybe something as small as a clipboard or an empty music stand, positioned correctly, would make a significant difference. That might be all you need. Let me know if it works.
Jay writes: I would like to ask a question regarding my thumb because it is one of my biggest hang-ups right now. I can’t seem to get it moving as it should in order to pick cleanly and with any speed. I have tried every avenue I can think of and it still refuses to cooperate. I have been told that I need to keep it turned up (arched) on the end but that seems to put so much tension in my hand that it only holds out for a little while then gets stiff etc. I have been told to not think about it at all but how do you do that and still maintain proper technique if you just let it go and play sloppy? I honestly think that if I could work this out that my playing would turn around but so far I have no solution . have you heard of this before and do you have any advice?
I sympathize with your problem! Part of the problem is that you have been given advice that doesn’t take into account that people are not all built the same, and that there is more than one way to get a good result. So many people supposedly “in the know” know one way that works well for them or various, or even many, other people, and assume it’s the only way. Amazingly enough, not too long ago in America (less than 100 years ago) people who were left-handed were taught that wasn’t acceptable and had to write right-handed. (Stupid!) This unfortunately carries on with various dogmas in banjo society.
My only dogma is: It has to SOUND GOOD.
I assure you there are many ways of striking a string with a thumb pick that sound good. You need to find the one that is comfortable while producing good sound. It takes experimentation and patience. Start with just slow, single hits with the thumb, with your hand in a comfortable position. Move it around various ways, still playing JUST your thumb, on different strings, slowly. As soon as it sounds good, note the position. This might well be the answer. Of course, the other fingers also have to be positioned to achieve good sound consistently and comfortably. Trial and error will give you the best answer. Then stay with that as you slowly play rolls, then some slowish versions of some of your easiest pieces. Don’t accept sloppy sound! It might take a while for everything to fall into place, but don’t pick an uncomfortable position in hopes that it will get comfortable. May or may not happen. If you find a position that seems to work but is awkward, you might try it for a while to see if it gets easier. Avoid pain!
I think this will work for you before very long if you don’t rush through it. Just stay with it, and know there’s a good solution waiting.
Once things seem to work cleanly and comfortably at slow speed, gradually move your speed up in pretty slow steps (like 5 beats/minute at a time, never more than 20 on any given day). Keep it clean, keep it comfortable, or don’t speed up! Over a period of time, this correct and comfortable position will lock in, and playing faster and staying clean will be an attainable goal. Don’t forget, everyone has trouble playing fast and clean, and it takes practice!
If you feel you’ve truly hit a wall in spite of following the above advice, it’s time to go to a hand specialist and see if the problem is actually physiological. But I think that is quite probably not the case.
Please let me know how it works out.
UPDATE Nov. 16, 2007: As of the last year or two, there is now a tuner that fulfills the seven criteria listed below. It is marketed under the name Meisel and Intelli (note, not Intellitouch), and has been widely adopted in bluegrass circles. It’s squarish and small with a good swivelable clip, and an easy-to-read green backlit display. And it’s inexpensive, often selling for about $30. I’ve also seen a similar tuner sold under the Barcus Berry brand name. This is now the tuner I recommend and use in all but the most demanding situations.
Banjo camper Bob Saladino writes: When I was at your camp in Boulder last month, you were trying to get a battery for your new Korg AW-1 miniature electronic tuner. I’m assuming that by now you have gotten it working and have had a chance to evaluate it. Are you satisfied with it? Would you recommend it to others?
I just bought a new banjo and thought about putting a Wittman on it, but I have used one of those before and have mixed feelings about it. I think I recall seeing a Wittman on your banjo last year, so you’re the perfect person to ask for a comparison with the new Korg unit.
Your question is a perfectly timed opportunity for a new product evaluation for my web site, so this will be it:
I can now give product reviews to five tuners, having used three for years, and now using a fourth. I also have tried the Intellitouch, but not for very long, as its appearance/inconvenience doesn’t meet my needs. Many other tuners are both not instrument-mountable and not quick and precise enough.
For years now, I have been eagerly awaiting arrival of the Ultimate Compact Instrument-mounted Tuner. The state of the art keeps inching ahead, but we’ve still not found the *ultimate*. The ultimate would be instrumented-mounted and have:
- Instant, exact, unwavering reading once the attack has registered
- Easy sound isolation of the instrument being checked, total isolation if possible
- Easy readability, even in direct sunlight
- Battery-operated, with automatic shutoff
- Calibratible to outside 440
- Not an eyesore or an inconvenience if always mounted on the instrument (allows strap to be tucked around)
- Inexpensive, easily available
The Korg AW-1 ($59.95) mounts on a banjo *only* with a certain type of clip invented and marketed by Gryphon Stringed Instruments, a music store in Palo Alto, CA. They sell the special clip (sort of like a springloaded toilet paper axis, notched at the ends to clip onto the rim brackets) for $15, with clear instructions. I found it physically tricky to mount, but now it holds the tuner in a convenient place.
The tuner is like a lot of tuners that often give an ambiguous, drawn-out first response, and need to be tried again to get a sort-of-believable answer. That means I can’t use it when tuning *must be exact and fast*, like most gigs. A bummer, as it means for most gigs, I need to bring my no-longer-available Conn Strobe Tuner, which is large, fragile, hard-to-pack, and must be plugged in — the kind many luthiers still use.
But for most conditions (indoors or shaded, not requiring a fast and very exact answer), the AW-1 is a good tuner to leave mounted on the banjo, thanks to its tiny size and great convenience. So I’ll use both it and the big Strobe sometimes, and sometimes the battery-operated (but not mountable) Boss-12H, which is the quickest, most reliable battery-operated tuner I have seen.
Comparing the AW-1 to the Wittman:
- Instant, exact reading: Both are poor in this respect, often requiring more than one hit on the string to get a clear answer, and usually not quick. The Wittman gives a slightly more exact answer when given the time. Intellitouch also poor, Boss 12-H better, Strobe wins hands down.
- Easy sound isolation: AW-1 wins over Wittman, with an easily-switched-on Piezo pickup that gets sound directly (or if preferred, from a tiny mic). About a tie with Strobe, 12-H, Intellitouch.
- Readability in any light: Wittman wins, as the display is just red or green tiny LEDs, readable in any light environment. AW-1 is a non-backlit screen, slightly cluttered display. Wittman also wins over the Strobe, which is not easily read in sunlight. Wittman ties with 12-H. Both slightly ahead of Intellitouch.
- Battery-operated: They’re both battery operated, but the AW-1 has automatic shutoff, a very big advantage, and an easy-to-replace battery. That advantage is shaded a bit by the battery’s rarity, a dime-sized item only findable at stores like Radio Shack. The Wittman uses a good old 9V, but that has to be mounted *inside* the banjo, supposedly by velcro on the resonator (which tends to not hold, especially with airline flight case handling). I ended up taping the 9V to the coordinator rods inside the banjo so it wouldn’t keep coming loose. But then when the battery gets spent (can easily happen if tuner gets left on, as by the strap flipping the switch when you put the banjo away), it’s a hassle to change it: remove and replace the resonator, untape and retape a fresh battery. Now I should mention that the Wittman does have a sort of battery-left-on signal: It keeps flashing red lights whenever it hears anything, which does tend to get your attention.By contrast, the AW-1 rarely needs a battery change, and the change is simple to make: pull the tuner off its clip, open compartment on back, and battery slides in and out. Spare batteries are a few bucks, and one or two can be kept in your case compartment. All in all, the AW-1 wins this category, over the other competitors except it ties with Intellitouch.
- Calibratable: The AW-1 is, and quite easily; the Wittman isn’t. This is not important for most people, but it is for me when I play with Flexigrass, as we tune to the 442-tuned (no, I don’t know why) vibraphone. Ties with other tuners. Most are calibratible.
- Not an eyesore or inconvenience: Neither the AW-1 or the Wittman is either, which is part of why they both beat the Intellitouch and my Conn Strobe Tuner for most situations. The only howevers: Both tuners are mounted where I normally tuck the strap when casing my instrument. That can turn the Wittman on (and drain the battery) or nudge the AW-1 off its clip. The two tuners are about evenly rated here, well ahead of the larger Strobe and 12-H, and the uglier-on-instrument Intellitouch, that still has to be put away when casing the banjo.
- The AW-1 and Wittman tuners are both priced at about $60, though the AW-1 really should have the $15 clip from Gryphon. Slight edge there to Wittman (and Intellitouch) with 12-H a bit more, and the Strobe not available except as a used item, plus costs there probably at least $200. Both tiny tuners take some doing to install. But small cost differences and installation are one-time factors, and in my mind, minor considerations when making such an important choice.
My 1979 Conn Strobe Tuner, used throughout Hot Rize days, and on into the 21st century, is my tuner of choice for gigs where I MUST be right in tune, as quickly as possible. Disadvantages: Must be plugged in. Must have wheel turned manually to note being checked (and wheel needs larger letters). Must be shaded in full sunshine. Large and fragile, with fixes costing over $100, only available by ONE company, Petersen, in Illinois. And so must be packed with padding when traveling. But since it gives me an INSTANT, EXACT, EASY-TO-READ, UNWAVERING answer, it beats all when seconds must be saved, and exact tuning is a must. If this tuner broke, I would find another one on ebay and buy it ASAP for important (i.e., most) gigs.
Bob, for you and people like you, valuing convenience and price, and rarely needing extra-quick, precise tuning, and rarely needing to use it in direct sunlight, I would recommend the Korg AW-1 somewhat over the Wittman, and the others. For those willing to use as their one tuner one that does not mount on the instrument, the 12-H wins, as it has all but auto-shutoff, and works more quickly accurately, and in any light. Or a person might have the AW-1 for most situations and the 12-H for backup.
So says Dr. Banjo! I hope the above helps.
Susan from Ontario writes an interesting email: Hi Pete. As a banjo player, I guess I would be at the advanced end of intermediate with a fairly good bluegrass repertoire in hand. Lately, though, I have been jamming a lot with musicians outside of the Bluegrass world many of whom have no knowledge of bluegrass at all but like the sound of the banjo well enough to be interested in seeing what happens when I sit in. I have been playing a lot of acoustic blues, “bar” blues, motown, and (strangely) funk. I also sing in a community choir of 140 women and bring my banjo with me each week and find (I hope, tasteful and) interesting ways to accompany songs ranging from “Lean on Me” to “I Got the Music In Me” to “Save the Bones for Henry Jones”.
Playing music outside Bluegrass may seem like a strange tangent but there isn’t that large of a bluegrass community here (at least not in the winter) and I somehow kept meeting other kinds of musicians.
My reason for writing is twofold; First off I want to recommend this to any of your readers/students who want to stretch themselves. I have quickly learned a ton of new chords, different chord progressions, and am dealing with different expectations about how instruments (and vocals) can or should blend.
I am hoping, though, that you might have some suggestions about bands/banjo players I could be listening to (yeah, yeah BESIDES Béla) who play in musical genres outside of Bluegrass. I am not talking about bluegrass versions of pop songs – there are tons of those and some are interesting and some are not really.
I guess that, while I am incredibly pleased with my progress in experimenting with new sounds, I would like the reassurance and/or inspiration of hearing what others have done/are doing.
What you’re doing with the banjo is breaking new ground, and I understand how gratifying that can be. I’ve done a fair amount of playing with non-bluegrass musicians, and I can generally find a place to fit. In many cases it really can enhance the music, but I advise to keep in mind that that should be first in your mind, not just your own fun in experimentation. You seem to be doing this, but it’s still worth a reminder.
I have played with rock bands (mainly on bluegrass-type tunes, but once in a wide-open “jam” situation with Phish), Dixieland, folk, Cajun, blues, jug band stuff, chorales, etc. In each case you have to keep well aware of what the band needs to make its music work, such as different ways of feeling the rhythm, which instrument is rhythmic center, what volume breaks and accents should be, etc.
As far as good examples of recorded music with 5-string included, I can recommend any of the old recordings of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, with Bill Keith on banjo (late 60s), and a relatively unknown guy from New York named Curtis Eller, who aims for a turn-of-the-century “circus” sound to his music. You can Google him and get one of his records.
Rogerio Santos and various others play Bach and other classical composers on banjo and a lot of it sounds great (but hard). Jazz, like Béla stuff in general, is scary because it really requires a thorough knowledge of scales and modes, chord substitutions, etc. to sound fluent. I think Bela does it really well, but I don’t aspire to head that way.
Tony Trischka is another fearless character who can and does put himself in a variety of non-bluegrass settings and pulls together a lot of new and interesting music. His record World Turning is a masterpiece to me, covering an awful lot of bases. Then there’s his Christmas record, Glory Shone All Around. At his live shows he does a Beatles medley and lots of wonderful stuff mostly outside the boundaries of bluegrass. And of course he’s also a great bluegrass player.
You might want to check out my stuff with Flexigrass, or either of my two solo albums. There’s a lot of stuff that comes out of my head, that I have recorded with bluegrass instruments (or not) that doesn’t really sound like bluegrass. Flexigrass (formerly The Live Five) music does visit funk, old jazz, swing, and various as-yet-unnamed styles, and as you indicate, it’s a thrill making it work and thus creating good new sounds.
I think the main thing you need is the right attitude (“If there’s a way, I’m going for it”), which you clearly have; plus as much aesthetic sensitivity as you can muster while your main concentration is on following the changes. There’s a lot to learn, and as you have discovered, you can learn a lot just by trying to make something happen.
When you do the above, then revisit bluegrass, you get a sense of how demanding bluegrass can be, especially to other musicians who aren’t familiar with it. It’s something you have to keep in your brain and fingers regularly, or it can get pretty rusty. But knowledge of and interest in other forms (such as Earl Scruggs has always shown, from back when he added Farewell Blues and Bugle Call Rag to the bluegrass repertoire) can do nice things for your bluegrass playing.
Keep it up, and have a ball!
Reinhard from New Jersey writes: Dear Pete: This is difficult to articulate in an email, so I hope you understand what I mean.
Often, I will inadvertently pick a string, not with the ‘pick’ part of the thumb pick, but with the part that wraps around my thumb. This is especially so, when I play in front of others and am a bit nervous. To remedy the problem, I put a little piece of tape on my thumb and that part of the pick. It is not an ideal solution. My question is; are you aware of a commercially available thumb pick that wraps farther around the thumb? Perhaps so that the ‘wrap around’ part tucks underneath the thumb print area?
Thanks in advance for your response, and thank you for all your wonderful videos. I enjoy them all especially the Blue Grass Jamming Video. A few months ago, I was in Columbia, South Carolina and visited Bill’s Pickin Parlor. It is a laid back place for local talent to do their thing and reminded me of the ensemble in your video.
Thanks, Reinhard. The problem you have is pretty common. All banjo players hate when that happens!
I came up with a pretty simple and complete solution to the problem some years back. That is to use heat and pressure to curl the very end of the curling, “grabbing” end of the pick, turning it inward at a bit of an angle.
With the pick curled in at the end, it will never stick out enough to catch anything. Additionally, the slight grip from the in-turned end into the thumb actually acts against the pick rotating, which can happen in summer when hands get sweaty. So that little twist on the end of the pick is an improvement in two ways. I think thumb pick makers of the future will catch on to that some day, and make picks like that to begin with.
To do it yourself, you need just enough heat to soften the plastic, applied right to the part you want to turn. I find that heating needle nose pliers a few seconds in boiling water does the trick quite well. Heating the pliers ends directly with a flame might get them too hot, where they’ll actually melt the plastic on contact, rather than just making it pliable.
It’s probably a good idea to practice the technique on a pick that you don’t care much about, until you get the hang of it. After a bit of practice, it will take just a few seconds per pick, and you can but that little extra curl in a handful of picks in about the same time it takes you play a song or two. Be careful of hot surfaces!
Try it, it works. Bothersome problem, easy solution. Then start picking again!
Noam, a promising teenage banjo player I met in Israel, writes: I haven’t bought a new banjo yet but I hope it will happen soon… I’m thinking that after I’ll buy the new banjo, I’ll make my current banjo a four-string and learn to play some Dixieland which I like almost as much as bluegrass… hope it will work with a second-handed (well, more like seven-handed…) lousy ol’ banjo who’s supposed to be a five-string.
Sounds like a good plan, though you don’t have to do anything to the banjo itself besides remove the 5th string. One of the two styles of 4-string banjos in dixieland is plectrum, which is the same length neck, and tuned essentially like standard C-tuning on a 5 string (as in Home Sweet Home or Farewell Blues): C G B D. So the chording is no different than the 5 string in C tuning.
The other style of 4 string banjo (and it’s a more common style) is called tenor and has a shorter neck and a different tuning. You could go ahead and put a tenor neck on your old banjo, and work on tenor that way. But it would be a lot simpler to just use your existing banjo in plectrum tuning, and learn the strumming and flatpicking work that plectrum players do. It’s quite similar in sound to tenor playing, and the way it’s played (sound-wise and right hand technique-wise) is pretty much the same. If at some point you decide actually learn tenor, you can then learn the chords that go with its different tuning (the pitch intervals of the strings are the same as on a mandolin and so the chord shapes are like mandolin chords, but since the individual string pitches of the tenor and mando tunings are different, the same positions are not the same chords.)
If you do this, you’ll be one of the very few players who learn how to play both types of banjo, 4 or 5 string.
I like Dixieland too, and have sat in with Dixieland bands over the years, just using my 5 string in G tuning. I leave my finger picks on, and mostly using my ring fingernail for “down” and the index pick for “up”. When it comes to soloing, I just do that as well as I can Scruggs style, and then the big problems is contending with their typical keys like E-flat and B-flat and such.
My affection for Dixieland is part of why I started Flexigrass (formerly The Live Five), back in 92. I still love playing with that combination of instruments, and I blend my favorite aspects of bluegrass and Dixieland (and other sounds) into the band’s sound. It’s fun!
Have a great time with your picking, and write when you get your new banjo!
Jam camper and “jam hero” Bob, from New Jersey, writes: If you have tips on memorization they would be much appreciated.
Some real help in this area might take a longer conversation, but I can give a few (perhaps obvious) ideas. For help, it might be a good idea to google “memory help” or something like that. There would be gazillions of entries, I’m sure.
What has worked for me with song lyrics is to try to keep a clear head. Don’t try to learn lyrics while playing guitar. Give the lyrics your full concentration. Learn a little at a time until it’s down pat. Look at paper as little as possible. When you have something down clean without looking, go for the next piece the same way. Third step is to combine the two parts, still no looking unless you’re stumped.
Keep working it like that. Take a break at some point, and then see if you can call everything back. You may get stumped and need to look. Practice the hard part some more, till it’s fluent. Then another break, and test yourself again. Don’t move on until each segment passes the test.
The next day (or practice time), review what you memorized. Did you get it the first time? If not, go back for more review. Use the original source as needed, but reestablish your ability to do it fluently without any help. Then take a break, and check to see if you still have it.
Keep reviewing and building this way. The process gets easier as your mind gets used to the task. It’s a great mind exercise, and of course it’s a practical matter for someone who wants to sing songs.
If you have any sort of regular commute, that’s a great time to work on this. A lot of people learn foreign languages while commuting!
Enjoy it, Bob, and stay in touch.
Marvin writes: I am a guitar player but love the bluegrass banjo sound so I purchased a Dean 6 string banjo from Musician’s Friends. I am debating if I should return it and get a five string or not, and if it would be worth the trouble of learning to play a 5 string in order to play some of the songs that you can not play on a 6 string in EADGBE tuning. Try as I may, even with finger picks, I can not get the fast banjo sounding roll on the six string, and I am about out of time for exchanging the instrument. Can you enlighten me. Thanks.
On a banjo, the 5th string AND the first string are both often heard as “drone” strings. The first lick of Foggy Mt. Breakdown needs both the open 5th and 1st to sound like the lick we all love. If you substituted the low guitar E for the high 5th banjo G, that just isn’t a good trade, if you’re trying to sound like Scruggs style banjo picking.
I’m not saying a banjo tuned in 6-string guitar tuning doesn’t or can’t sound “good”, it just won’t sound much like the banjo sound people love. Perhaps someone has created or will create music that needs a 6-string guitar-tuned banjo to be played “right”. Maybe you will be one of those people!
So whether you keep the 6-string or not, if you want to sound like a banjo, with the famous Earl Scruggs roll, you’ll need the five-string version with the high string, or thumb string, as John Hartford liked to call it.
Mike writes: I have your first video, it’s great…I am catching on fast. You mention the fact that a “compensated bridge” is needed, to get the third string in tune. My third string is out of tune when fretted (sounds mostly ok when open). I have an Oscar Schmidt OB-5. If you have a solution on your site, please point me there. The sound is so sharp (when fretted) that it wrecks the chord. Sorry to be so thick, but I am new to the banjo.
You’re not thick at all. The compensation issue is tricky to understand, and most people just avoid thinking about it.
Compensation of the 3rd string by lengthening it at the bridge does indeed mean the 3rd string frets accurately as you fret it going up the neck. Lack of compensation is even audible as the string frets sharp even at the 4th fret — which is why most players avoid playing the “unison” of the 4th fret of the 3rd string with the 2nd string open. Most banjo players have ways of avoiding using the 3rd string up the neck when its being a little out of tune will stick out. They will find the same note on the 2nd string (a few frets higher) if the exact pitch is important.
Since compensation tends to cure this problem, why don’t all players use compensated bridges? For those, like myself, who are looking for a certain banjo tone, it’s because of tone quality. Many of the compensated designs seem to disrupt something about the “popping” sound quality of the banjo notes, that straight bridges tend to not disrupt.
The fact that “our leader” Earl Scruggs and many of his closest imitators don’t use compensated bridges is probably still pretty influential in why they are not “standard”. My hunch is that if a bridge design came out that combined optimum sound with good compensation, then a lot of players, myself included, would use it. Compensation of banjo bridges is still a pretty new thing, having been introduced maybe 30 years ago. For a while, there was only one design, which not many people liked the sound of, but in recent years, there have been more and more designs, and that shows promise for the future.
In the meantime, most players just avoid the most obvious problems with the sharp fretting of the 3rd string, using the method described above.
Robb writes: I play and enjoy banjo and bluegrass but have also worked at the other bluegrass instruments and different music as time has passed. I continue to play (in order of time played of late: mando/guitar/fiddle/banjo/piano/trumpet) I am a talented ad lib player of all these instruments – but believe I could be so much better at just one were I to stick to it alone.
My question: Is it that multi-instrumentalists are neurotic insecure admiration hounds or are single-instrument players boring unimaginative zealots? AKA: Does it feel better being really good at everything or being the very best at one thing?
…seriously considering trading it all in for one really good…something.
This is not an easy question to answer simply. I’d be able to answer better if I heard what you sounded like on each. One thing I’ll say at the outset – how would I know what it is to be the “very best at one thing”? A bit of overstatement there, but the reality of course is that you’re referring to the syndrome of “jack of all trades, master of none”.
Multi-instrumentalism has a lot of good facets, including empathy for other players, and an understanding of the music mesh that is possible in groups. Some knowledge gained on one instrument has a good influence on musicianship on another.
Tim O Brien in the current (March 06) issue of Acoustic Guitar, has some good points to make about playing three instruments, and recommends playing each at least a little, every day, if you want to stay up on it.
There’s no doubt that to be “taken seriously” on an instrument, some very specific study of the existing masters is called for. Not knowing some of Scruggs’ key repertoire, for instance, or knowing it only in a half-baked way, is a tipoff to some that you haven’t done your homework, and are not to be taken as seriously as if you had. Then again, that factor might mean little to some others, especially if you are in a band that does a lot of your own material, and doesn’t try to play Ground Speed or other classic repertoire.
So you can see, the relevant factors spread out in different directions, especially when it comes to “impressing others”.
When it comes to just pleasing yourself, as a person with a certain amount of time on Earth, I’d say, do what your heart tells you. If you aspire to something that will take work, think of it a bit like a purchase, only this purchase is made with Time, not Money. Some people will just look at some possible skill and say I’ve GOT to do it, and I will spend the Time, therefore. Others will realize they can’t make such a commitment.
Some people will say the above, and then find themselves not really applying themselves. Maybe they have a case of JDDD (J.D. Deficit Disorder), and can’t focus. Some multi-instrumentalists are like that. Then there are the Tim O Briens, Skaggses, Bushes, etc.
I hope that’s enough to help you figure it out! It’s really for you to figure out.
Dave asks: In your videos while playing rhythm, I have a hard time knowing which version of the chord I should be playing. Does it matter whether I use a barre or other chord shape and where on the neck it is?
As long as you make the correct chord (chord name that is), it’s not critical which version you use. As you get more familiar with each chord’s sound, you may start *choosing* the one you like best in each situation. That is your choice, and it depends on your personal taste.
You do explain the various things a player can be doing, but when I hear what you are doing it is rolls and such that my crappy beginner banjo does not even make those sounds. How do you know when to use what? Is there a method to your madness that does not require 40 years of experience?
This and similar videos are not directed at banjo players specifically, with the intention of teaching a variety of banjo backup techniques. It IS intended that in the videos, you have the opportunity to observe what I do, and get a sense of when I prefer to chop or roll, go up the neck or not, etc. These are just personal choices I am making, which are not planned or practiced, and might be different each time I play the song. Lots of alternatives are quite acceptable. The idea is for the player to constantly be responding to what’s going on in the music, and do the best thing to fit the music at each point. This is learned through experience, and it’s also a good idea to watch experienced players and get a sense of why they make they choices they do.
My Branching Out on the Banjo series lays out a great many techniques, from basic to adventurous, which give a player a good “palette” of backup sounds to work with. Most of what I do on the jamming videos can be referenced to things I show on those videos. A lot of it is more involved and advanced than you would be currently advised to try to learn, so I would advise for now to just do what you know, and as your knowledge of the neck and the sounds you can make grows, you’ll probably make more interesting and varied music.
Susie writes: Why are most of the songs in the bluegrass song books (I have the Bluegrass Fakebook) in the key of G? I also noticed you mentioned this on your website. I learned to play the mountain dulcimer 20 some years ago and most songs I learned were in the key of D. I also sing better in the key of D. I am having some difficulty embracing the G concept because I love to sing and G is just not a good fit for me. What is with the emphasis on G?
Regardless of the key a book or person chooses to present a song in, each singer doing the song still has to make the key choice on their own. Keys given in songbooks are arbitrary, and keys picked by professional singers are according to how their own singing range works with the requirements of the range of the song.
My own Bluegrass Songbook‘s, and others’ emphasis on the key of G reflects the then-reality that most bluegrass singers were male, and most male voices are comfortable with most bluegrass songs in G, or perhaps slightly higher keys like A or B, which can be played easily on guitar and banjo with only a capo and the knowledge of how to play in G.
In reality, every singer picks the key for each song that best suits him/her (with some allowance for the versatility in keys that they and their fellow musicians can handle). In bluegrass, as in most music forms, the same singer might sing in a variety of keys, depending on the range of each song. At some point every musician needs to learn to *transpose*, to put each song in its optimum key.
Assuming a knowledge of transposing, in my songbook, I could have just given the chord number values, as in 1, 4 and 5 chords (I’m guessing you may have heard of that terminology for chord changes — also covered in my Songbook), or I could have picked a key, with transposing left to the individual singer. I mostly picked G as a default, based on the knowledge of what usually works best for the typical male voice and what’s actually the most common key in bluegrass.
There’s a lot more on this subject in Bluegrass Songbook, in two of the appendices, especially Singing And Playing In The Right Key For Your Voice. It discusses the historic precedent for the common use in bluegrass of the key of G and its “capo-able” variants such as A and B.
Jack writes: At 65 years, I now experience picking the 4th string accidentally when playing up the neck (ie Sally Goodin). Shortening the blade of the thumb pick does not help. Respacing strings or radiased fingerboard–what are the solutions for this thumb pick problem?
Hitting the wrong string is a problem that does not suggest to me a cure in terms of gear. So I would not call it a “thumb pick problem. The path of the thumb is not correct, and that’s what needs fixing.
With problems of this sort, I make exercises out of the problem section, repeating over and over and making sure to ONLY play it correctly, no matter how slowly. Establish the *good* habit, and build up speed, making sure it doesn’t backslide. When it seems to be working correctly, put it into context with a larger section, especially including the part *before* the problem section. Make a loop exercise out of that (if you’re unfamiliar with my Loop Exercise method, see my web site under Instructional, the Doc’s Prescriptions), and build it up to speed with NO mistakes. If you backslide, go slower until it’s very consistent, then raise the bar again.
Keep this up till you get it consistently right at the proper speed. Repeat as often as necessary until at some point the improvement will “stick”.
Without seeing you in action (and probably even if I did), that’s about the best I can suggest.
Best of luck!
Danny writes: Can you give some guidelines for tightening the head? I’ve heard that you should tighten it until the nuts squeak as you tighten them. Is that right? And how often should I expect to need to do it? Months? Years? Thanks for your time.
Dr. Banjo says: This is an important subject for banjo players to know about. A great many banjos could stand a tightening of the head. After a head is first put on, it will loosen up a bit, and needs a bit of tightening in the days to come. Often, that’s not done, and in time the sound gets a bit duller. Many banjo players like their banjo’s sound more after the head’s been tightened a bit.
How tight to make it should not be done by any guideline other than how the player wants his/her banjo to sound when played. I suggest going around the bracket nuts in a circle, tightening just a bit (1/8 or 1/4 turn max), and then putting the resonator on, and playing the instrument with picks on, to get a sense of how much more to tighten, if at all. If it starts sounding too trebly, you can just back off the nuts a bit.
When the instrument sounds the way you like it best, it’s time to leave it as is, reattach the resonator, and commence to pick! For me, the optimum point seems to be when the nuts feel as snug as they can be with just finger pressure.
A plastic head loosens very slowly, so I’d say a good idea is to ask yourself every so often if the head might stand tightening. That is, does the banjo have a tendency to sound duller than you like? Probably tweaking the head just a tad once or twice a year will keep it the way you like it.
Mary writes: Ben has been recommended for the Governor’s School for the Arts. Through this program, he would spend 3 weeks on a college campus this summer, and be eligible for college scholarships. He would have to audition. The only glitch is that they want him to sight read. They said it wasn’t absolutely necessary, but preferable.
There’s a joke, which in banjo terms, goes, “How do you get a banjo player to quiet down?” “Put some sheet music in front of him.”
Bluegrass should be understood clearly to be a kind of music that is not normally transmitted by sight-readable writing. Rather, ear skills and an (even intuitive, non-verbal) understanding of basic music theory are what count a great deal. and these are present in all good bluegrass musicians. Many conventional music teachers don’t understand the difference that way between bluegrass and other varieties. Most music teachers would be totally baffled to hear a Flatt & Scruggs recording and to be told that no one in the band could or ever did read music. Bluegrass people need to be able to assert their different orientation without embarrassment. Most music teachers are not apt to understand, but playing a recorded example might impress them.
Best of luck to Ben in that program!
Steve writes: Hi Pete, I’m a novice player thinking about buying one of your “jamming” video. I’ve been learning by tabs for ~ 2 years now but have hit a standstill, fairly bored with just playing isolated solos. I thought your videos might give me a good start to trying to get jamming with others. I don’t know which one would be appropriate though.
Is there a real skill level difference between “Bluegrass slow jam for the total beginner” and “A guide for newcomers and closet pickers“?
Yes, Steve. The Slow Jam is truly for “total beginners” — correctly labeled “ultra-easy/no-fail”. Literally anyone with fingers can play! The tempos are quite slow (60-75 beats/minute), to keep it easy for those slow at changing chords. The video has 17 favorites, starting with several 2-chord songs, and moving up to 3-chord ones. The entire video uses just four chords: G, C, D, and A, but they are used for songs in keys of G, D, and C. All videos feature male and female lead singing in appropriate keys. There are no gaps provided for trying a solo. (view trailer)
On the Closet Pickers one, with the greenish cover, the tunes start slow and very simple, and gradually pick up speed toward the middle and end of the video. “Soloing opportunities” are provided, meaning the band goes into “backup” mode for one solo per song, and the viewer at home can try to put it a solo there. (view trailer)
At this point in your development, you should try mightily to see if you can make up your own solos to songs, even if they don’t perfectly follow the melody. You’re long past the time where you should have started trying this. Memorized solos don’t get you to the place where you can really play the way “real” players play. In other words, you have to start learning, so to speak, to write your own paragraph, not just memorize paragraphs others have written.
I should note, this is not a simple task. It may take you a while to make up solos that follow some of the melody and come out in rhythm. But I assure you, this effort is worth it, because it’s an absolutely essential skill for real-life bluegrass playing.
In real-life jam sessions, it’s common for players to not have a worked-out solo for a song, yet the more developed players can always come up with “something” on the fly. This is in itself a skill, and indeed even if you have worked out a solo for a song, it’s not always simple to suddenly retrieve it exactly the way you memorized it.
So part of the skill of learning to play bluegrass is to be able to come up with something even when you’ve not prepared. You can practice this skill with the jam videos.
The Intermediate jam video has speeds a bit faster than the “closet pickers” one, but still moderate compared to many typical jam sessions. The tempos center around 100 beats per minute, and the chord changes aren’t particularly tricky, though a variety of keys is used. On this video, the viewer is given two chances to solo on each song. (view trailer)
I hope this helps.
What will really help is, once you’ve gotten comfortable jamming with the videos, to venture out into the real world and find a jam you can fit into, and start getting real life experience. For useful hints on how to connect with suitable-level players, go to the Jamming Tips page on my site, and click the blue button saying “Can’t find people to jam?“
It’s at that point that I think all your efforts will pay off and you’ll feel like a “real” banjo player!
Best of luck!
Bill writes: Hi Pete, I’ve been teaching myself the Banjo for about 9 months now and I just recently did some maintenance on my instrument. I put on new strings, a new bridge, adjusted the head and oiled the fretboard. Everything sounds great now except the first string has an annoying loud vibrating sound (which goes away when I play with a capo). Which one of my actions could have caused this and how can I fix it? Thanks.
That sound is known as a buzz. Buzzes can come from different places. The nut (0 fret) is a suspect because the buzz goes away when you capo. But the new bridge is also a suspect. Buzzes on open strings can often be traced to the bridge slot. If the edge of the slot, where the string exits to the fingerboard, is rough or ill-defined, the string is essentially bouncing on and off some hard material when it vibrates, and that’s what causes the buzz. The cure is to file (you need a special, very thin file) down into the slot to level off the “exiting” part, so that the string sits snugly at the edge of the slot, nothing to bounce on and off of. By the way, even under magnification, a rough edge of the slot is hard to see. But filing the slot down does work. If the problem is in the bridge, then probably the reason the buzz goes away when you capo is that the string is a bit more angled down, and fully seats in the slot. Also, be careful that the bridge is standing upright and not leaning toward the neck. Sometime in tightening strings, the winding of the 4th string kind of grabs the top of the bridge and tilts it toward the neck. That turns the end of the slot to another “bounceable” area, and the quick fix is just to retilt the bridge to its upright position.
Hope that helps,
I have received over recent years a number of questions concerning finger disabilities, where a formerly-working finger becomes uncoordinated and stops working as well as it had. This can be a heartbreaking change for a committed musician, as the letters below indicate. While I wish I had a fully satisfying answer for these musicians, I can only offer a few bits of advice and some possible ways of addressing the problem.
I offer these letters partly to let people know they are not alone, and that even one of the best banjo pickers ever, Tom Adams, has had to face this problem, which in his case was diagnosed as focal dystonia. More information about FD.
S.O. writes: I am 44 years old and have been playing the banjo for 24 years. I practice for at least an hour a day and consider my skill level to be advanced. Recently I have noticed that my right hand is not as accurate or as nimble as it once was. For some reason it has become difficult for me to do a reverse roll, a forward-reverse roll, or any picking pattern that involves using the middle finger followed by the index finger. The problem seems to be mostly with the accuracy of my index finger – missing notes, lacking touch. I do fine without picks, but once I put the picks on I seem to have this problem until I have played for 15 to 20 minutes.
Also, I am noticing that it takes me longer to warm up, and warming up is much more critical than it used to be. I used to be able to rip right into fast songs. Now I have to build up to them. If I play a gig it is essential that I practice for 10-15 minutes backstage before going on. If I have layed off practicing for a week I can hardly play for the first 30 minutes.
I know you recently turned 60. Is this just one of the downsides of getting older? Are these common complaints? Any suggestion? I don’t consider myself to be arthritic in the least.
Dee writes: Pete, ever heard of a picker whose right thumb and index “go bad”, causing difficulty “pinching” the strings (like in flint hill special when you go to the “c” chord) and in hammer ons (like foggy mtn breakdown), catching the tip of the thumb pick in the back of the index’s finger pick resulting in the thumpick and fingerpick sailing across the stage? my speed is also effected.I have been evaluated by 3 hand surgeons who don’t have a clue what’s going on (I don’t have carpal tunnel). After picking for for 42 years, I’m about READY TO HANG IT UP! . Any advice??
So sorry to hear of this problem. It certainly reminds me of what one of the banjo greats, Tom Adams, contracted a few years ago, called focal dystonia. His index finger became erratic, to the point that he has chosen to play only two-finger style in public. This was a serious loss for the banjo world (Tom quit his illustrious lifetime career as a full time player, and got a “straight job” for the first time in his life), and of course a cruel blow to Tom himself, though he does do some public playing still.
I can’t tell you details on this, but I have a friend who got focal dystonia and unlike Tom, managed to beat it with a sustained effort over a long period, and maintain his successful career performing mostly on fingerpicked guitar. If you’ve not heard of focal dystonia, I guess the thing to do would be to “google” it and check it out as thoroughly as you can, to see if that may be the problem. If you have already done that and feel stymied, I would be willing to put you in touch with Joe, who is a nice guy and would try to be helpful. But I’d say first thing would be to explore the available literature to see if f.d. matches your symptoms. The condition is apparently pretty obscure, so it wouldn’t shock me if three doctors hadn’t heard of it. Also, the problem for both Tom and Joe was I think limited to the index finger, so maybe that means it’s something else. Just guessing here, obviously.
I’m sorry I can’t be of more help. I wish you the very best with this problem. You know, we all lose our abilities at some point or another, especially thanks to just aging. Saying goodbye to abilities (and people) you’ve been attached to for a long time seems to be one of the hardest parts of life. But we all have to do it; it’s inevitable — some sooner than others. I humbly offer you the suggestion that you might find solace in all the time you were able to play in a much more satisfactory way, if in fact you no longer can do that. Undeniably, there is still a lot you *can* do, and I hope that if nothing can be done about your condition, there is a great future for you doing something from that set of things that you still can do well and with pleasure.
I wish I could offer you more than these words, but that’s my best for now.
Jim writes: Lately however I have discovered that I simply cannot do a forward roll in any kind of playing speed, I trip all over myself with the index finger and it has gotten to the point where I just think I will give it all up.
I’m very sorry to hear of the trouble you’re having. Without seeing you actually playing, and working with you in person, it’s hard to get a good grasp of the problem. Is the tripping with the index finger a new thing, or a characteristic of your playing for a while?
If it’s a new thing, then it sounds like something more in the neurological category. It might be good to see a neurologist, and show him the problem by taking your banjo with you.
Before you consider actually abandoning hope of playing banjo, I’d hope you would consider styles of keeping rhythm that don’t require three fingers. Simple strumming can be very appealing with an in-tune, nice sounding banjo playing behind singing. True, this is not the dream of a bluegrass banjo player, but for many, the simple sound of a nicely strummed banjo is far better than not playing music at all.
There are a lot of handicapped people that find ways of playing music that are immensely satisfying, to both the player and to listeners. They usually involve accompanying singing, so if you do sing a bit, that could be a very positive route to consider. If you don’t sing much, but would like to, I assure you that is a very learnable skill (there’s an article on learning to sing in tune, on my web site).
Without hearing you and working with you in person, I don’t know what else to offer. I’m sorry I can’t give you a simple and sure-fire solution, much as I would like to. I wish you the best of luck in finding a way to keep going on the banjo!
Jon writes: I’ve enjoyed and referred to “Masters of the 5-String Banjo” for years. My question is, have you given any thought to authoring “Volume II” now that we’re well into the post-Bela era? I would love to see the same treatment given to the new generation of masters, such as Scott Vestal, Sammy Shelor, Jim Mills, Robbie McCoury, Jeff Scroggins, Chris Pandolfi, Jens Kruger, Matt Menefee, the list could go on and on.
It would be a great book. I have been asked about this a number of times, and my consistent answer is that I’d like to see someone else take that job. Having done the first book, I know how much effort this can take, and it may surprise you to know that the payoff was pretty low for the time spent. As a labor of love, I’m certainly glad and proud to have done it, but the next book will have to be done by others. A couple of competent people have considered doing it but have shied away from the work involved.
If you know of anyone seriously interested in doing the follow-up, I would welcome hearing from them. It’s a great way to have interesting conversations with banjo heroes, and learn a lot in the process.
Steve writes: I’ve been jamming at festivals for years, on the guitar, that is. I know how to build a solo on the fly. So, when I started the banjo I got kinda good kinda fast. To make a long story short, I have screwed myself up royal! My right hand has become a real mess! I’ve tried to play too fast too soon. Now, like a bad golf swing I’ve got to un-learn my right hand and start over, which is really a shame ’cause I can improvise pretty darn good.
Help me a little: I play slowly not allowing myself to play any faster than good technique will allow. Playing quietly seem to be a good thing too. I still feel very tight and constricted (I’m sure thinking about it too much, making it feel tight). If I let myself “go” I quickly go back into bad technique (thumb out of control, every thumb knuckle moving everywhere, that is) and all hell breaks loose.
You are wise to practice slowly and quietly, working on setting a good habit.
I define good technique as the thumb, (which is the real root of my problem), in the hitchhiker position with as little “swing” as possible, the wrist slightly tilted down, and my hand pretty much parallel to the head. Do you agree with this?
If you mean the thumb is straight, with minimum “travel” distance, yes, that’s a good standard. Also, the hand parallel to the head is one workable position. Different people hold their hands different ways. What you’re looking for is:
- Good, consistent sound.
Those can happen with a variety of hand positions, and your job is to find what works for you, that meets those criteria above!
Do you have any exercises for keeping that right hand in control.
Just play really simple stuff, even with NO left hand at all. Then gradually add SIMPLE left hand, allowing you to keep paying attention to how your right hand is doing. Best to work on a measure’s worth of music at a time, not a whole tune. This is to allow maximum attention to the working and sound of your right hand. Taking time to make sure the sound is good and clear and smooth, regardless of how slowly you have to play, is the important step to take.
Once you’ve got a good consistent thing going at slower speed, you’re ready for gradual increments (playing along with a metronome or rhythm machine that can be slowly notched up is very useful here). If you’ve solidified good habits at slower speed, they should survive the raising the speed a bit at a time. Don’t rush that. Make sure you stay in control, or regroup at slower speed.
I need to keep it in control and get it feeling loose at the same time. This is very demoralizing!
Try breathing! As you play it slowly, check out how relaxed you are. If you’re a bit tight, just keep playing while also letting things relax. That should work. Playing easy stuff slowly, while keeping relaxed and breathing gently should make it easier.
Thanks, for the site, while I’m at it. I read your “stage fright” thingy the other day, very helpful.
Good! Good luck on the banjo right hand. It’s worth taking the time to get it right early on. Make every note count, clear and clean, and your music will sound good. Resist the temptation to go barreling ahead and after a while you’ll end up with a good, dependable right hand.
Alberto from Milan, Italy writes: In my opinion without tabs it’s very difficult to play a piece. For example, when I listened the first time “Nashville Blues” or “Reuben” I was in panic!! Because I listened a different tuning of the banjo (D minor , D major) and if a novice player does not know how that tuning is structured I think he will take long time to learn without a tab or he will never learn very good.
It’s good to hear from you. I will try to be helpful.
Of course, if a piece is in an unusual tuning, that can make learning by listening somewhat more difficult.
It’s always a good idea to listen first to the END of the recording, to make sure you know what key the tune is in. The last note, and the last chord of a song will tell you the key. Once you know the key, you can guess what the chord changes are, and knowing which chords happen when gives a smaller choice of possible melody notes. The important notes are almost always among the notes in the chord itself that is happening at that point.
I like the melodic section of “Earl’s Breakdown” as performed by Eric Weissberg in the soundtrack from Deliverance, but despite my effort I can’t play that tune because I have no tab. I can’t go on after the opening notes.
When I used to figure out pieces from recordings, I remember it was a slow process. If you can play the song back at slower speed (there are now computer programs, and special CD players that can do that), that helps. What I recommend is to listen only to the very first part that you do not know, and then turn the sound off quickly. If you know the first three notes, listen to the first FOUR, then turn the sound off, and see if you can hum that fourth note. If you can, then find it on the banjo, and learn how to play it with the first three. As I said, this is slow, but it works. This method is spelled out in more detail in my book Bluegrass Banjo in the chapter “Using Records to Learn”.
What’s your opinion on tablature?
Tablature is a wonderful thing, but too many people use it instead of learning the skills of listening and learning how to fit in with music. They don’t try to develop ear skills, and those are more important than learning how to read from a printed page. Bluegrass banjo is not easily memorized, and in fact, good players typically do not memorize things exactly note for note. If a person only can read or memorize tablature, then they may be lost without it.
In real bluegrass playing, the musicians take note of the chord changes, and fit in with those as they also try to find melodies to use in their soloing. Most songs played are ones they’ve never tried to solo on previously. So they have to guess. Those with the most experience guessing do it the best and the most quickly. People who only play from tablature have no way to fit in unless they’ve perfectly memorized the song.
Once someone knows how to play, having developed ear skills, then tablature is something that can be used quickly and effectively to learn specifically how another player played a certain piece or part of interest. It’s a great way to learn some of those details, exactly with no guesswork. Also, if a player makes something up that they really like, they might want to write a tab of it to help them remember it. So tablature can be quite useful.
But I encourage new players to use it very sparingly, so that they can develop ear skills.
I hope this helps!
Joe in Wisconsin asks: Do you have any suggestions as to how my bar chords will sound true and clear?
The problem of course is that you have four strings pushing up, and just one finger pushing down, trying to make secure contact with the fret in four different places. That’s a lot of gripping power from the hand muscle that gets used. It can build strength in time, but that is one reason why sometimes when a bar chord might be called for, I instead finger two or three strings individually at the same fret, and make sure to pick only those strings with my right hand. Another advantage to that is not having to rotate your whole hand, just to get the side of your index finger into place. Economy of motion.
It’s that second string when I hold all four strings down. I don’t have that problem if I hold three strings down.
The usual method of dealing with unclarities in the sound is to keep shifting things around until something works, and then work on being able to do “that” easily and quickly, the first time you try. Since everyone’s hands are different, there’s no set anything about this. Just: keep trying for good sound. The fact that you cared enough to write is a good sign. Good tone comes from *caring* about good tone. Which is what led me to the solution above.
Best of luck with your picking!
Alex writes: I have played a Stelling for a long time and I like it very much, but I’m shopping around for another high quality banjo with different tonal characteristics. I’m thinking of a Huber. Do you have any advice for me? Any other brands you think maybe I should look at?
I tend to like Gibsons. There are many now to choose from. Deering makes some nice sounding models, as does Ome. I have heard some good sounding Kel Kroydons and Recording Kings. Quite a fine choice nowadays, certainly including Huber, and there are more I haven’t named.
Ideally, you would go to a showroom and try out a lot of the choices. Unfortunately, it’s hard to find such a thing. Curtis McPeake in the Nashville area, and Elderly Instruments in Michigan carry a large stock. Otherwise, it can help to go to places where there are a lot of banjos being played, such as a festival or a banjo camp. If you are forward enough to strike up conversations with the owners, you might be able to try their banjos and get some advice.
All that said, be aware that there are two really big variables besides the banjo itself– the player and the way the instrument is set up. Such things as head tension and thickness, and type of bridge can make a pretty large difference in the way a banjo sounds, and those variables can be controlled by the owner. Then it’s up to the player to create the sound he/she wants with careful use of their hands! I believe that a good player can get a good sound they like on any of a variety of banjos, and that will happen once they acquire that banjo and start coaxing their favorite sounds from it.
Sorry I can’t be more specific than this, but I hope it helps!
Jim in Texas writes: I’ve been looking for a good discussion on the relative merits of string gauge choice on the web, and am surprised to find very little of it. When I started playing, someone tried to convince me that “serious” banjo players didn’t play lights. That mediums were for real banjo players. I started playing lights when I had inferior banjos as I found that they produced a brighter tone from a non-responsive tone ring. I started playing GHS JD Crowe lights and have used them ever since. I’ve always gone on the assumption that heavier strings were a) louder, and b) harder to play, in that you had to impart more energy into the string in order to get an equal response to a lighter string. I’d love to hear your thoughts on all this. To me, it’s about feel, but it’s also about what we all have as our own preference as to what the banjo should sound like. I remember you playing my light gauge, low string height, arch top Doug Dillard style banjo, which you could make fret buzz almost immediately. I, on the other hand, playing tight to the bridge a la Dillard, could hardly make sound come out of your Granada, so I know technique also plays a huge role here.
Anyway, if you’d choose to do a discussion of string gauge and your experiences, thoughts, etc. on this topic on your site, I would sure appreciate it!
I can talk about that, and my experiences, but on one hand I have “what works for me,” and what I’m more apt to want to talk about is “advice”, which turns out to be nothing more than “do what works for you”.
I think you’ve got it pretty well pegged. It’s just a personal preference, with no certain prescription for what is good and likeable for everyone. Mediums do tend to give stouter tone, and less of the highest high end. Lights have a certain delicacy and lightness which I sometimes find very appealing. But finger pressure and distance from the bridge are part of the equation and they can have a dominant effect, allowing the player to play in a lot of different “voices”.
Sharon, grandmother of Harry, writes: Strange as it sounds, my autistic, left-handed, 8 year old grandson has developed an interest in blue grass music and specifically the banjo. His indulgent father has purchased a banjo and sent it to him. It is actually a guitar/banjo. I assume we will have to have it restrung for the left-handed, (which I have been told is a fairly simple process) but can you recommend any instructional videos for a beginning left-handed child? He is strumming some and picking a bit, but don’t want him to form bad habits if he really wants to stay with it. Maybe he will, maybe he won’t, but he learns very quickly and I have no musical experience with which to help him. Do you have any advice?
A guitar banjo is not a banjo. The tuning of a banjo as a 5-string instrument including a short, high-pitched 5th string is critical to the identity of a banjo. The guitar banjo is a hybrid for people who know how to play guitar and don’t want to adapt to the realities of a banjo, and yet still get some kind of “banjo” sound. The lack of the short, high 5th string undermines a critical aspect, and banjo technique and teaching are then not relevant. The person would learn guitar technique and it would come out sort of like banjo sound.
If your grandson really likes banjo, I suggest he get a real banjo.
If that’s not in the cards, approach a guitar teacher for advice. Some would suggest restringing, some would say he could play “upside down” like Jimi Hendrix and others, and some would say he should play right handed even if he’s lefty. I’ll stay out of that one.
I hope I don’t sound too negative about a guitar banjo. Good music can be played on it. But almost no one has it as their main instrument. It’s a novelty, and it’s not a fixture in any kind of popular music.
If a person learns real banjo, they can fit into various folk and bluegrass music that traditionally includes banjo.
If the prospect of your grandson getting a real banjo becomes possible, I welcome you to get in touch again. The two choices are “lefty banjo” (can be found, but not common, and so rare that he will only be able to play his own instrument and no one else’s), or see if he can learn to play righty, as many lefties do. The upside down option is not really possible with a banjo.
I hope the above info helps you understand the choices.
Kenny from Georgia writes: I’m a guitar/banjo player in a four man “folk-grass gospel” group. I’ve been playing banjo for about a year and a half, basically self-taught. I sing back-up or lead on almost all of the tunes we perform. I’d like to be able pick more rolls and just in general add a better banjo sound to our song list, but the harder licks require so much attention and I find that the singing and playing are hard mix. Can you give me any suggestions other than “practice, practice, practice”. I already do a lot of that. I’ve noticed that most banjo players don’t do a lot of singing, but then again, I haven’t seen all of them, so maybe there’s something I can do to blend the two together better. Thanks for any help you can give me.
The key is to start small. Practice keeping a simple roll going (TITM is a good choice because the “inside” thumb notes align with the two beats in each measure). Forward-backward is a good roll because of its symmetry. I would stay away from using a roll that “crosses measures” as you want the banjo roll to be *part* of what keeps the timing effortlessly together, not a potential distraction.
If you can keep the roll going while, say, talking or thinking about something else, that’s a good sign. Needs to be in muscle memory, like what to do with your feet while walking and also having a conversation. If your feet can do it, so can your fingers, just need enough training!
Now try singing over the roll, and make sure your singing is not “corrupted” by the roll. The roll has to be independent enough so that the normal nuances in your singing are not affected. If you start phrasing your singing according to notes in the roll, that’s not good. But this step should work out with practice.
As for putting in nifty licks, try doing that mainly *between* singing phrases:
Roll in my sweet baby’s arms.. (nifty lick) Roll in my sweet… etc.
Whatever you find hard to do (you mentioned the harder licks), don’t do until and unless you’re comfortable. An uncomfortable singer is not who you want singing lead! When singing lead, you’re carrying the band, and if the banjo player drops out a bit at that point, well, think of that as a tasteful “doesn’t have to be heard all the time” banjo player. You know, Scruggs often could not be heard behind Flatt’s singing, and that certainly didn’t hurt the music, as it enabled other pickers to be heard more.
With all that said, it should be mentioned that two of my favorite singers over the years have been banjo players, Ralph Stanley and Alan O’Bryant. Both would practically stop playing while singing, leaving the accompaniment to their very competent bands. Some banjo players chop chords the way a mando player would, and there are some who can sing effectively even while rolling and even while doing fills. The late Billy Edwards was famous for that, and he was an excellent singer even while playing full-out banjo. But that is rare.
Hope that helps.
Discussion on Banjo Hangout, July 2009:
Mike Moxcey in Colorado writes: If you’re just starting out, turn off the metronome.
It is a far more useful tool for intermediate/advanced players. It can give you a rhythm to explore syncopation over the top of and can get your bluegrass roll timing down exactly correctly.
But it’s just one more thing that gets in your way when you’re starting out and trying to learn chords and stuff. Read Wernick’s BNL column last month for a second vote. I personally think a metronome is counter-productive because 1) it takes time to learn to use properly, time that would be better spent learning proper chord formations and far worse, 2) it trains you to listen to the metronome instead of to yourself.
NINJO writes: I always enjoy MInstrelmike’s input but I have to disagree this time. At least practice your right hand rolls with the metronome even if you are not doing anything with the left. The sooner you can lock in your rolls the better. The left hand will catch up when the right is locked in. Give yourself one month of doing nothing but rolling your right hand with a metronome (beat machine etc.) for an hour a day and you will be in there. In kung fu we spend a couple of months standing on one leg for 10 minutes at a time before we learn to extend the leg in a kick. Why? Because when the foundation is built solidly, the kick is unbelievably powerful. You need to build the foundation of picking before your music will be kicking. Just one opinion.
I think NINJO’s statement about firming up the rolls is excellent and insightful.
But I stand firm on not wanting to trouble a beginner with a metronome. I agree that a person should firm up the rolls. But playing along with a bland “click” does not feel like playing music. It seems more like “discipline” than “fun”, and I believe in making music, even practicing, as fun as possible (as long as it gets results). I can see a Kung Fu person being comfortable doing lots of practice of rolls just to a disciplinarian click, but most people want to have fun when they play.
So there is a more fun way of practicing rolls, and that is to play along with any simple and slow and correct music. That’s why I created three play-along jamming videos using very simple 1-4-5 chord progressions and slow tempos played by real musicians doing real songs, which thereby also builds repertoire and the ability to follow chord changes (multi-tasking).
If a person is at the very beginning, I also did a video called “Get Rolling” which goes very slow and starts with a bunch of TWO-chord songs, which is only one step up from playing a roll on a G chord.
Another alternative is to use a slow-downer computer program or CD player to play along with any song you like. Make sure your roll is synchronized to the beat, change chords at the right time, and have fun!
Joe writes: Lately I’ve been tuning my banjo to the “D” tuning. I noticed that every time I try to do this, I always have to touch up the rest of my strings. Is that normal or do I need to fix something on the banjo. I was going to by “D” tuners to save time tuning but if I have to adjust all the strings anyway then I probably won’t buy them. Could you please give me some advice on what I might be doing wrong.
You’re not doing anything wrong. Most banjos’ necks are thin enough and flexible enough that the natural “bow” in the neck (a very slight concave bend resulting from the collective tension of the 5 strings pulling on the two ends of the neck, something like an archery bow) is influenced by strings being loosened or tightened a fair amount.
If you loosen both the 2nd and 3rd string for D tuning, the neck ends up straightening a bit, its natural tendency, and that pulls the other strings sharp. That would happen whether or not you use D tuners. It’s even possible that after tuning the 2nd and 3rd as exactly as you can, then having to retune the other strings can then make the 2nd and 3rd a bit out of tune and needing a slight touch-up.
Having the banjo as in-tune as you can get it really does help the music sound better, so taking a lot of care with the tuning is a good idea.
A thicker neck on a banjo, or using light gauge strings reduces the effect described. And tuning generally is helped by a bit of lubrication (such as graphite powder) in the slots of the nut, to let strings slide freely and not get hung up by friction in the slot, when a string’s tuning is changed.
Hope that’s useful.
Dr. Banjo writes: Ask Dr. Banjo #26 addresses a number of issues about flying with your banjo, but here’s some more info:
A non-pro player can include his/her banjo to homeowners insurance, and in many instances it’s covered for travel damage or loss. Pro players would need a significantly more expensive type of instrument insurance for appropriate coverage. But of course protection of the instrument is the real goal…
Because there are a fair number of horror stories about banjos damaged in plane travel, some people think a special case is necessary to travel with a valuable banjo. The following is the best of my understanding, which I offer not as “ultimate truth”, but informed by a lot of experience:
If you’ll be carrying the banjo on, there’s no special need for a super strong case, in fact a gig bag can be better since it’s more compact and lighter. Just cause you’re on a plane doesn’t mean it’s in any special danger if you just carry it on and off.
Putting the banjo in baggage (as I almost always do, with my $700 Gary Price flight case), is not a typical option with a non-flight case… BUT if the banjo is packed properly, it’s extremely unlikely anything bad can happen to it. The most likely problem to happen is that the headstock can get snapped off around the nut… not due to altitude, pressure, temperature, but just plain rough handling, coupled with a case that doesn’t fully and firmly support the headstock both above and below. So with bubble wrap or hand towel or other cloth you can wrap the headstock to fully and firmly fill all the available space, and thus support it on all sides. Even some pro flight cases are not designed with this protection built-in, so there are horror stories about bad things happening even in flight cases.
The other precaution would be to roll a thin towel pretty tight like a long tube, and tuck it around the rim, tightly filling the gap from the rim to the inside of the round part of the case. This removes the chance that if the case takes a lateral hit, the resonator would take the brunt… instead it gets transferred to the thick laminated wood rim, which can withstand about anything.
For putting in baggage, loosening the strings makes good sense as it removes tension from the neck, which is theoretically more likely to break if under tension. It would take a mighty big hit to do that, though… Think of what it would take to fracture a baseball bat packed in a hard case!
Mostly, the best advice I have when traveling with a banjo is — try to play it a bunch, wherever you take it! When retightening the strings, check that the bridge is in the right place, so it plays as in-tune as possible, and then … play it pretty!