Questions applicable to beginning and novice banjo players.
Banjo picker writes: Question for you about jams. If I am leading a song, an instrumental, and no one else knows or wants to take a break on it, what do you think is a reasonable number of times to run through it without hogging too much of the floor. Is three times about right or is there any pat answer?
My quickest answer is that if you want to play an instrumental that no one else knows or can take a break on, you may want to skip it altogether. At jams, it’s best if everyone gets a chance to shine, and if there are people present who can improvise breaks to easy songs, that gives them that chance. Instrumentals are much harder to improvise breaks on (the breaks are longer length, and the instrumentals are typically played faster than typical songs). But if people urge you to “pick one” even if they can’t take a solo on it, make sure they can follow the chords before launching into it, then go for it. Three times is probably about right.
When it comes to songs, as long as you’ve picked one that is not too hard to follow, it’s not so bad if it’s one no one has heard before. But you need to make sure there’s a dependable way for everyone to follow the chords. For guitar players introducing songs, that’s little problem– everyone can recognize, or should be able to, guitar chords. For banjo players, though, most people can’t follow their left hand chording, so you need either:
- A guitar player in the jam who knows the chords, which everyone can then follow, or,
- A run-through or two where you preview the song to everyone while calling out the chords. Some people are pretty good at singing the song and inserting chord names where they belong, substituting for song lyrics. Such as: “Yonder stands little F, with a G glass D her G. She’s drinking away her F while G a D G.”
These kinds of protocols are really helpful at jams. If people don’t know how to do them it can quickly increase the discomfort level of the novices in the group. If people do them well, everyone’s confidence and fun level goes way up. Your asking the question in the first place is a good sign that you are gaining experience and have your antenna up.
For lots more practical hints about making jams work smoothly, check out my new Bluegrass Jamming video.
Mike C. writes: I am interested in your bluegrass jamming video, but I noticed that it does not come with banjo tablature. Would the tab for the 17 featured songs be available separately? I have been playing for a relatively short time and have not yet learned to play many of the songs that are on that video.
I don’t expect that the tabs of the banjo solos will be made available. Many of the songs we played can be found in tab books and collections. But the more important skill to develop is the ability to “fake” some sort of solo, even if it has very little of the melody in it. Just keep your right hand moving, doing rolls and whatnot, and whatever licks you can insert where they fit. It’s more important to gain experience doing that than to master exact breaks you learn from tablature on a large number of songs.
I recommend learning a few simple breaks from tab before trying to do it yourself, but once a few tab breaks have shown you the way, you’ve got to try it on your own. Exact tab arrangements do have their place, especially classic versions of classic songs, but to get fully up and running, you need to work on the skill of “thinking on your feet”. So put on the video, and when the place comes up in each song where the band is just playing backup for the home viewer/picker, give it a shot. You’ll notice that Nick Forster plays a simple solo on guitar right before the play-along part, so you can see where he gets the melody (2nd, 3rd, and 4th string are tuned the same as a banjo) and get a few hints that way. I recommend rewinding the video (put it on “shuttle” if you have the capability) to the beginning of Nick’s solo and then on through the play-along part. Doing that several times will help you a lot.
For more instruction on how to make up solos, see my Beginning Bluegrass Banjo video and pages 22-32 of my Bluegrass Banjo book.
Calvin H. writes: I am a beginner. I took lessons years ago for a short while. Put the banjo down for a few years and currently trying to get started back again. I have a few instruction materials. Some of which are easy to understand and some are not.I am also taking lessons again and I believe he is a better teacher. My church has a great praise band. Several guitars, etc. and I would like to play with them. I have tried to follow along but I dont know what a Em#, C2 and all those fancy chords are. My Earl Scruggs instruction book does not have them nor does my teacher know them. My teacher told me that a banjo could not be played with other types of music. I would truly like to learn to play bluegrass and well as accompany other styles of music. I would like to learn differnt chords. I would also like to know what are the different styles of banjo playing. 3 finger, melodic, clawhammer, jazz etc. How do these styles sound? What are good resources that are reasonable? Thanks.
Wow, Calvin, You’ve asked some good questions there. First, I want to tell you I strongly disagree with your teacher’s statement “the banjo could not be played with other types of music.” I’m assuming he means it’s only for bluegrass, but I must refer to Pete Seeger and many others who play great banjo as part of many many different musical styles. Please don’t assume that to learn an instrument you have to take lessons. They often help, of course, but not all good musicians are good teachers, and they can actually lead a student toward discouragement if they aren’t careful in what they teach.
You might try Pete Seeger’s instruction book and recording(s) that come with it. Consult the classified ads in Banjo Newsletter. You can get an issue from them free by mentioning my name. Their web site is banjonews.com. You will also see a lot of items advertised that will help answer the questions you asked me. Their site also has music downloads of different kinds of banjo music, and you would enjoy those I’m sure (as well as getting proof positive that the banjo is versatile). Learning banjo is a long journey, not easily summed up in one message like this.
Another note, the chords you gave names for don’t really exist by those names. But I think Seeger’s book, as well as various others, do show how all sorts of chords are played, and once you learn the ones you need for the songs you want to play, you could sing through the songs while changing chords as efficiently as you can. That would be a good start learning to play those songs.
I hope you will browse a little on my web site and consider getting either my new Get Rolling video, which presents the rudiments of music making and bluegrass picking, and/or Beginning Bluegrass Banjo, which is a more complete video course starting from scratch moving through many of the basics of bluegrass style. Both will present a lot of material that I think you’ll find useful.
Best of luck learning banjo!
M. Ray from Greensboro, NC writes: I’d also like to become familiar with reading tab as well. I know a little about tab but would like to know more.
Well, there’s not much to explain. It’s a pretty clear set of principles, but there’s a need to practice at it to become more fluent. Very few banjo players become fluent enough to sight-read tab, the way a lot of piano or violin players can. A certain amount of fluency helps, though, to make sense of Scruggs style, which is not a linear melody, and needs a bit of speed to sound coherent. At camp I can review the principles of tab-reading if enough people need it, but I think of that topic as something that can be learned mostly from a book (Most books have a “how to read tab” section.) I do have some helpful hints, mainly that you get hold of a recording of the tabbed piece, and listen closely. You’re looking for more than reproducing a sequence of notes. Tone and feel are a big part of the musicianship. We work on that quite a bit at the camp.
Eric writes: I’d like to get one of your instructional videos and wonder which one you’d recommend for a beginner: the Level One or “Ultra Easy”. What’s the difference between the 2 tapes? I took a couple months of lessons using a Goodtime II banjo, but only learned simple chords and started to learn tab reading. My instructor didn’t teach rolls or 3-finger picking with picks during the lessons because he wanted me to learn the basic chords first and then progress to right-hand coordination.
Thanks for the advice and the music. Hot Rize got me started in bluegrass and your banjo got me interested in playing the instrument.
Good to hear you’re working on the banjo, and that I helped get you interested. I think you might as well start with the Getting Rolling (Ultra Easy) tape since it is cheap and you will definitely get $20 of value from it. You won’t learn a lot of technique, but it is great help to learn to play along and make chord changes in real time. You can work up to doing basic rolls along with the tape, and it will help you feel like you’re playing real music (which will be true!).
The other tape I think is also a fine value at $30, and is a much more thorough intro to bluegrass banjo, including more rolls, licks, simple and then harder full-song arrangements, how to figure out a solo on your own, etc. A pretty well-packed 2-hour tape, comparing well to the cost of lessons, and always available for replay.
May as well get both!
Shannon writes: I enjoy your banjo playing very much. I am beginning to play the banjo, and love it. What are some qualities to look for in a Banjo instructor? I have a teacher, but I often feel that he’s interested only in the monthly check!
That’s a big question. I think a lot goes into good teaching, but in the big picture, it can be distilled into a few points:
- Knowing what is appropriate to teach each particular student (tailored to the most essential, do-able, and desired skills for the kind of playing the student wants to do).
- Ability to show the student clearly how to learn each skill, through a proper amount of repetition, written or taped help, and tactful correction as the student is learning.
- Providing a certain amount of friendly interest and patient but persistent expectation, to spur the student’s motivation to practice and improve.
A teacher does not have to be a great musician, or even a highly accomplished one. He/she just needs to know more than the student, and to know what to teach and how.
Banjo Newsletter will be printing in the June issue a pretty big article I just wrote about how I think beginning banjo players should be taught. I hope banjo teachers will take my ideas to heart, as they have worked very well for years for my students. Students like yourself might also benefit from reading the article, since in effect it’s you who are in charge of your learning program. You can hire or fire a teacher according to whether you think he/she serves your needs.
Without summarizing the article, I’ll just say here that the main point is to show the skills that will enable the learner to play music with other people, starting at the simplest level, and gradually moving up. Learning to play simple rhythm on simple songs is not hard, and if a teacher can group a few beginners together, they can have fun jamming right away, which sparks the motivational fire and builds success on success. Instead, most teachers give tablature to memorize, for solos that the student will have a hard time putting to use in a jam session. Some students can learn all right that way, but many find it a struggle, and lose motivation to practice.
I have two videos for beginners. One is brand new, called “Get Rolling“, which provides over 20 easy songs to play along with, in graduated degrees of difficulty (all relatively simple). I made it so easy that truly anyone who tries can play along. As they progress, three-finger rolls are added in, and get the student hearing and feeling the rhythm of bluegrass picking. The other video, “Beginning Bluegrass Banjo” is a 2-hour course starting from scratch, on the fundamentals of the style, including showing how solos are created, and showing many of the most important rolls and licks. You can find out more by clicking “store” on my web site.
If you find a teacher who is nice and is willing to work with you in the style of my videos, I think you’ll have some good help there. The main thing is, have fun and keep practicing!
Dale writes: I’m still a quasi beginner. Is it good/helpful to learn music theory (as Dan Huckabee suggests in a recent Banjo Newsletter article) as a beginner? Do you have any suggestions on a good resource for this? What about learning chords and how they fit in? Any help appreciated.
Glad you asked. I generally believe in knowing what is “important” to learn and what is not. I see only a very small amount of music theory as being necessary to the early stages of learning banjo. Otherwise I see it as sort of (temporarily) wasted effort when there are much more important things to master, and a possible source of needless discouragement if a person does not easily absorb music theory-type material.
For the fundamentals of playing, and what I consider the appropriate steps, see my Bluegrass Songbook, Bluegrass Jamming video, and Beginning Bluegrass Banjo video. I feel these (and my Bluegrass Banjo book) state well what I think is efficient and fun learning. This would include “chords and how they fit in”, which is about all the music theory you need to know for now.
These instruction materials can be ordered from the Store section of my web site.
Andy from England writes: 1. How useful is a 5th string capo or spikes? as I haven’t started jamming with anyone as yet and don’t really know if it’s something to consider when playing with others, or is it an item I wouldn’t use that often?
As soon as you are in a jam session and someone says “Let’s do this one in A”, you will want the 5th string capo or spikes. That plus a regular capo makes it possible to play in keys like A and B while playing “as if” in G. Very useful. I recommend your getting hold of my video Bluegrass Jamming, which will give you a chance to jam “safely” in private and get used to the skills you’ll need, including playing in keys other than G.
2. What are these d-tuners that I keep hearing about? How useful are they? Are they just a quicker way to get to altered tunings?
D-tuners are ingenious devices to allow retuning while playing, or quick retuning to a particular (D) tuning between songs. The repertoire that uses them is not very big, and in reality, d-tuners don’t get a lot of use from most pickers. Not at all a necessity for a novice picker.
Jack writes: I’m a rank beginner and i’m trying to decide between bluegrass banjo, the book and cd, and beginning bluegrass banjo, the video. are many of the songs the same? I think that might help me. I guess I was suprized to see that the video does not include a book. should I get both?
In general I recommend the video over the book, though the book is valuable in a lot of compatible ways (almost no duplicate songs). The video concentrates completely on the needs of a beginner, which the book does in only a few sections (then it teaches intermediate and advanced technique). Also, video in general is a great teaching medium — split screen closeups, you see everything. There is indeed a booklet packaged with the video, with tablature for everything I play on the video.
The book has its own value, especially with an extensive section on records, and various other valuable appendices. There are three full-band play-along tracks on the CD, which should be helpful, with breaks based on tab in the book at different levels of difficulty, that can be dialed in or out with your stereo balance control. I think both items are an exceptional value, with a great deal of teaching that’s in the ball park of a single lesson or two. So I’d recommend the video first, and possibly both.
Good luck with your picking!
“Pounders” in Alabama writes: Hey Pete, I have just about mastered your Get Rolling tape. I’ve really had a lot of fun with it and I am very anxious to go farther.
Where do need to go from here?
Congratulations on getting rolling! I bet it’s satisfying. So I presume you can roll along with the tape using TITM. You might try some of the other rolls shows.
The next tape would be Beginning Bluegrass Banjo, a 2-hour tape that will get you into soloing, first easy solos, and you end up making them up, using familiar licks.
And also you mentioned in the Get Rolling tape that you have a jamming tape that is slow and I maybe could play along with. Can you give me some info on where I can get the next tapes that I need?
Yes, Bluegrass Jamming would be very useful in many ways. There is lots of information on my web site, www.drbanjo.com. Click here for the video descriptions.
Thanks and let me know if you are going to have any camps this year that are anywhere close to Alabama.
I have jam camps in NC in April and KY in June. You would qualify, and this would be a great chance for you to start jamming in a “safe” environment. See the web site, right at the top of the home page.
Good luck with your picking!
Stephen from West Kent, United Kingdom, writes: Dear Dr. Banjo: My query relates to page 10 and 11 of the book your examples of D chord show three fingers I M and P covering 3rd string 2nd fret 2nd string 3rd fret and 1st string 4th fret……where as other books also cover 4th string at 4th fret using four fingers?
These are both D chords. I use the one with the open 4th whenever I can, as the low resonant D on that string supports the rest of the D chord more nicely than when it is fretted at the 4th. That note works fine in the chord, but it is not the strong, rich D that is the fundamental tone of the chord.
The 4-fingered version of the chord is very useful as a moveable closed chord position that can be used anywhere on the neck to make different chords. For instance, that D shape moved up to the 7-9 frets becomes a G.
I hope that helps.
D. Gilray writes: I can tab out songs but it would be a lot easier to follow a book or material that is set up for a beginner.
Lately I have been making a point to say to every teacher of beginning banjo players who’ll listen:
Consider teaching the basics of musicianship BEFORE teaching tabs. That means, keeping time and changing chords correctly when a song is being played. Most of the playing a new student might do successfully with others will be relatively slow jamming on SONGS, not instrumentals. Help get your beginning player confident at learning to play correct chord progressions in time, just by looking at the chording hand of a guitar player. That is preparation for what he’ll actually be doing. Once that is in place, teaching breaks to easy songs using tab works great: Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Worried Man Blues, etc. These arrangements are much likely to be mastered to the point of *actual usability* in real jams than instrumentals, which are almost always harder. Remember, most people jam mainly on songs.
This is the quickest path I know to achieving the multiple goals of:
- Having fun
- Feeling a sense of progress and thus staying motivated
- Developing a solid music foundation for all the learning to come
- Making it possible for a person to have the fun/reward of actually jamming
- Making it easier to play tabs in correct time, because a sense of timing has already been developed.
This philosophy is given in some detail in an article I wrote for Banjo Newsletter not long ago, called Teaching Beginners. It is based on my experience teaching beginners since 1964.
There is a lot of other free beginners’ material on the site, as well as a way to order my two videos for beginners. The one called Get Rolling is designed to be as easy as possible for a beginner, teaching the above principles with a bunch of 2- and 3-chord songs.
I hope you’ll check it out.
A discussion on the Beginner Banjo yahoo discussion group include someone quoting a statement that 95% of people who start banjo give up before they learn.
John, an experienced player and teacher, writes: Part of that quitting percentage has to do with lack of will power in some cases. Many people attempt to play thinking that it will be a” 4 week course, then off to the Opry” scenario. When they realize it takes TIME to learn to play, they often aren’t willing to put forth the serious effort. Sometimes their schedule is too full of major responsibilities, other hobbies and such, to give it the attention it deserves.
I know what you’re talking about, and I agree with you about the obstacles. But there is a way to help these people practice enough to make the banjo a good part of their lives, AND maybe inspire them at some point to do all the hard work it takes to actually learn bluegrass banjo.
I make a clear differentiation at the start of all my camps aimed at novices:
“You can learn to play any chording instrument (banjo, guitar, mando, dobro, bass) in a very satisfactory way for simple bluegrass jamming, with only a few weeks worth of effort. If you want to play Scruggs style well, be prepared for a lot more effort. But let’s tackle the easier part first, since it’s the first step anyway.”
That easier way is about correctly chording along in time, while a bluegrass song is being sung. Most songs are just three chords, and a collection of 3 to 6 chords will take you through the large majority of bluegrass songs, with a choice of keys, even. All it takes is someone to sing a song, which can be right out of a songbook. Banjo technique other than chording (I mean the easy chords, including the 2-fingered D7 and no F-shapes) and strumming is welcome, but *not at all necessary*. How many people have had a great time singing along with a guitar or banjo or piano singing favorite songs? MANY. Don’t assume that strumming and chording is not a hugely worthwhile goal. It gives people a sense of accomplishment, ability to make “the sound of a banjo” that they love, and the best step toward more ambitious playing.
So as teachers, I say let’s get that part done first. Facilitate by actually getting those people together — almost immediately (second lesson). Start with TWO-chord songs (see the large list on my web site, under Instructional). This is how I show people at one-hour festival workshops that it’s NEVER too late to learn to play banjo. The many non-banjo-player onlookers stay riveted as several novice banjo players follow me easily on songs like Little Birdie and My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mts. When I ask them to sing (though they’ve never sung the song before) I get the majority of the gathering involved, and I know some of them wonder why they never realized how easy it is to get started.
Many of these folks would *like* to play Scruggs style, and I clearly inform them that it takes quite a bit of work, comparable to learning a foreign language. (The right hand has to learn to work like your mouth does when you speak, without conscious direction of the individual components.) But then I hasten to inform them that if they love the sound of the banjo and would like to play music with other people, there is definitely a way, and it won’t take them long at all to learn enough technique to do that. Then once that’s done, they can start Scruggs style just by replacing the strum with a TITM roll.
The beauty of this approach is that it gets the student having fun and feeling accomplishment almost immediately… while also laying a solid musical foundation for the hard work that is to come, should they choose to take that extra step. If a teacher can create a small group out of a few people who match up, and one or more of them can sing songs (looking at a songbook is fine … for the singer only), they can jam for as long as the singers hold out. For many people, if they drop out of lessons right there, but continue to jam, I know I’ve given them something huge that they’ll have for life.
I feel that the social situation of jamming provides the “will” you speak of, the motivation to do more than just playing chords. That comes naturally from the jam sessions, where people start wanting to improve, just to contribute better and to impress the others.
For what it’s worth, this is the situation I was in when I started to play music. My best friends would play and sing easy folk songs on guitars and banjos, and I just wanted to fit in. I would practice at home with a songbook, learning the changes so I could function better at the next jam. It worked well. Then I started thinking, if I could learn some of that Scruggs stuff, they’d be amazed. It went from there.
You are right about those teachers that only give complicated tabs and no other learning tools. Hopefully it will change with your help.
Well, I appreciate your endorsement. But I’d also like to clarify that I don’t think it’s appropriate to give ANY tab at first. It’s more important just make sure people can change chords quickly and smoothly (learning that F is hard, so I save that till later), and without having to look, so they can keep time on slow and easy songs. Getting those skills down can take some people a good while. As they learn that, I take care NOT to distract them with tablature or any music-on-paper except for chording. A TITM roll can be shown easily, when appropriate, without tab. If they want tab, I would tell them they’re not ready, but they will be soon, at which time they can learn other rolls in tab, to substitute for TITM. After they can do that comfortably, then it’s time for a simple tab like Will the Circle Be Unbroken or This Land Is Your Land. Note: a *singing* song, no instrumentals! (Definitely not Cripple Creek, which is not only easy to screw up, but many of the moves don’t go easily into other songs.)
When you’re trying to build a tentative beginner a solid path to walk on, you raise the bar only very slowly on them, to make sure they clear it most of the time. Keep them and frustration (“It’s so hard, I just can’t get it.”) as far apart as possible. Hook them on jamming first. What they learn from tab should be *useful* as soon as possible, in actual jam situations, so that when they “get it”, they can USE it, to impress their buddies. The work part will frustrate many of them, but now they have a lot more motivation to see them through. Compare that with the level of motivation necessary to tough out learning a tab when they have no place to use their newfound ability, other than 15 seconds of glory in front of a teacher or family member.
Sorry to be ranting on this subject, but it’s truly a lifetime goal of mine to see that banjo teachers (and all bluegrass teachers) teach more effectively. We’ll have more players having more fun, and fewer people who gave up in failure, feeling they wasted time and money. I don’t believe in blaming failure just on the student. They had enough will to get a banjo and show up and pay money for help.
So many teachers blame the student, saying they’re slow to learn, unrealistic about goals, lack will, and don’t practice enough. I say, let’s assume that’s true, and let’s ALSO learn how to harness what can truly motivate them (musical social situations) and let that motivation then carry them to achievable goals that will give them the glory of knowing how to play banjo, even if they never tackle Scruggs style. There’s plenty of satisfaction to knowing how to chord along while people sing. The lose/lose situation can turn into win/win.
Give it a try. Offer group lesson (or two or three) to a few of your beginner students, and show them how to play and sing some easy songs, just strumming. If someone is good enough to do TITM while chording, great. See what happens.
My full length article addressed to teachers about this can be found on my web site, DrBanjo.com.
My best wishes to you, John, and all the other concerned teachers and learners out there!
John writes: Pete, What’s a really simple explanation of vamping? Thanks.
Vamping is a rhythmic style of picking while chording. The chords typically are closed (that is, all 4 fretting strings fretted). The banjo plays either boom/chick (downbeat/offbeat), or when an instrument like bass or guitar is providing the “boom”, it might just do the “chick” (offbeat).
Either of these is called vamping. When doing the “boom”, the thumb usually hits the 4th string alone. The other, chording part includes a slight relaxing of the chording fingers, to quickly deaden the strings right after they sound their tones very briefly. The strong sound being quickly muted leaves a lot of space to hear what’s being accompanied, while still providing a good rhythmic groove for the singer or soloing player to follow. To mute the strings, all that’s needed is a slight relaxation of the grip, so the strings naturally lift off the frets. When touching the left fingers only, the strings are muted.
For examples of me using this technique, you can see it easily on my Bluegrass Jamming video. When playing along, you can just copy me and I’m sure you’ll get the hang of it. It’s a very common and useful backup technique, one that should be used by banjoists more often, as a roll can sometimes “step on” a soloing instrument, and can wear out a listener when heard constantly, even in the background.
Hello. I am a 43 year old from Liverpool in England. I have been playing guitar for almost 30 years, mainly playing acoustic rhythm, some classical guitar and occasionally blues lead jamming. I have just purchased a Collins bluegrass banjo and can pick up the basic chords relatively easily. I want to be able to play music such as Dueling Banjos and Foggy Mountain Breakdown like a seasoned banjo player and am quite frustrated that I cant!!! Could you please recommend the best instructional book/video to purchase, in order for me to reach this goal.
Keith Davenport – (frustrated banjo beginner)
Being frustrated is nothing new to banjo players. If you just got your first banjo, you will see that even your years of experience on other instruments won’t give your right hand that much of a head start on becoming *fluent* in Scruggs-style. It’s like a language where a great deal has to be committed to muscle memory where it can then be called on almost effortlessly. This effort takes all but *extremely* talented musicians several months at the least.
If you’ve fingerpicked the guitar, you’ll see that to a degree, that actually creates an additional obstacle, which is over-reliance on guitar-type patterns when you should be switching to Scruggs patterns in your brain. The thumb works entirely differently in the two styles, where in Scruggs the thumb’s biggest job is to get most of the melody, even on the 2nd string at times, with an occasional hit of the 5th string.
Sorry for all the “bad news” above, but with 40 years of banjo teaching so far, I am confident I am telling you right. I know it’s disappointing for an experienced musician to hear this, but I am trying to help you have realistic expectations.
I will recommend to you my video Beginning Bluegrass Banjo, which will present all the main elements of the style, slowly, and help you integrate the elements a step at a time. That will get you playing a number of relatively *easy* pieces, and the more you work on them, the easier they will actually become. Be sure to adamantly resist falling into guitar patterns that “sort of” work, but are not real Scruggs style.
When you feel ready to tackle FMB and DB, you can then use the Play Along Banjo CD/booklet that I did for Music Minus One years ago. Both pieces are played at typical fast speeds (164 and ~140, I think, about 11 and 9 notes per second respectively) on the CD, and the main breaks for each are tabbed accurately in the booklet. You could start by just learning the tabs, with reference to the recording, and if you can reach those speeds, playing along with the record, with me removed from the sound by way of your stereo balance control.
There is no short cut to being able to do this, unless you think of focused practice as a “short cut”.
If you want to do it strongly enough, you will do it. But don’t underestimate the effort, as many do.
The very best of success in your quest!
Rich writes: I’ve been learning clawhammer, both by myself (with the Ken Perlman book and Bob Carlin tapes) and with some neighbors who I discovered are closet pickers. I’m very interested in bluegrass style as well. My wife has offered to get me your Beginning Bluegrass Banjo tape for Hanukkah, and I’m enthusiastic. I have two questions first, though. Since I’m relatively comfortable on the banjo, could I start here instead of “Get Rolling”?
Yes, you can skip “Get Rolling“, as it’s really just to get you started, though I have found that even people who’ve been playing for a while might still need work on making chord changes and keeping the rhythm going in real time, that is, with no hesitations, stops and starts. Get Rolling starts ultra-easy, with just strumming expected. The bar is raised when the viewer is expected to keep a roll going as they change chords. When it’s time to change chords, it’s time to change chords! No getting around that in the real world, and a play-along recording is sometimes an ideal way to instill that reality in a person before they start trying to play with others.
By this time, I have two good other play-along videos (“Bluegrass Jamming“, and “Bluegrass Slow Jam“) where a lot of full songs are done by a full band. I would recommend getting either or both of these, and learning to follow chords while rolling, along with the other backup ideas presented.
Secondly, I’ve gotten conflicting advice about trying to do both. Some people say it would be too confusing, others that it would slow down progress in both styles, while a third see them as complementary. What do you think? Is there an advantage or disadvantage to trying to learn both styles at the same time?
The three-finger Scruggs style is a challenge not to be underestimated. Fluency in it is pretty comparable to learning a foreign language fluently. A number of partly-unconscious systems have to work smoothly together, and it’s not just a “single pattern”, or a “memorization” thing. Real fluency, like what happens in a spontaneous spoken conversation, is necessary before a bluegrass banjo player is “there” as a competent player at the intermediate level.
Many people on that journey have opted out at some point, basically because “it’s hard”, and they get discouraged. There is no way for me to know whether you would be one of those people, due to the “dilution” of your efforts with clawhammer. If you stick with both, they will probably help each other, though you’d probably go faster in one style if you just stuck to that style. Some things work about the same with the two styles, so that is synergistic. They’ll both get you concentrating on rhythm and melody, which is all to the good.
I don’t think there’s any real harm in trying to do both simultaneously, but be on the lookout for whether progress in one or both quests seems to be suffering from the dilution of efforts, and if that is happening, pick the one you feel most hooked on, and save the other for later.
Jerry writes: I am a beginning banjo player and have been playing 3 years since my retirement in 2003. I would be interested in purchasing the tablature for the John Hartford song you played today about what becomes of a riverboat man.
I think it’s called Where Does An Old Time Riverman Go. You should be able to hunt it down by title on Google.
As for tablature, I don’t make any written record of most of what I do, and it’s not simple for me to produce. Perhaps by searching on Google, you might find a tab for it.
However — I always recommend that a banjo player first learn the melody (by ear), finds it on the banjo, determines the chords (the melody actually dictates the chords), and then learns through trial and error how to play the melody while keep the rolls going. This is what I do on each and every song I play.
Because of the widespread use of tablature, many players seem to think that learning to play a solo break on a song is normally learned from tablature. That’s not true. Most players play breaks based on their own understanding of the melody, using their ability to “interpret” a melody in three-finger Scruggs style. They don’t go from memorized tabs, nor do they “think” in tab. So players are advised to cultivate:
- The ability to find a melody on the neck of your instrument, quicker the better.
- The ability to place melody notes within rolls, to produce a recognizable melody played Scruggs style.
If you don’t know these processes yet, I suggest jumping in, though the way is not “cookbook”, and much trial and error is involved. That’s how real banjo playing skills are learned.
At my Basic Skills Banjo Camp in Colorado in January, these are some of the main skills we work on. Also, my instructional materials such as the Bluegrass Banjo book and the Beginning Bluegrass Banjo video address those skills.
In any case, Joan and I do the song in D, where a lot of this melody is found on the 3rd and 4th strings. Once I found that, I tried the rolls and chords with it, and kept playing around with it till the melody notes came in the right places! That is my standard procedure, and I recommend it.
Susie writes from Indiana, before attending a jam camp, asked: Many of the songs in the songbook (and on the pages you sent me) I don’t know since I come from more of a folk-music background. I have a lot of bluegrass CD’s but not many of them have these songs on them. How important is it to KNOW the songs v.s being able to play along with?
Good question, Susie. The answer is: It’s much more important to know how to play along with a new song than to know many songs. Naturally, it’s good to be familiar with popular bluegrass songs, for easy and confident playing when they come up. But there will often be unfamiliar songs, and the ability to quickly learn the chords and melody is a very useful skill.
Kurtis writes: Pete, I purchased slowjamming and would like to do more than just strum. I can do 3 or 4 diff. rolls but can’t fit them in with your jamming. Can you suggest some good right hand picking or rolls that I can use on the slowjamming video. I can’t figure out your right hand picking from watching you on the video.
It happens we’re about to do a backup video, where I’ll show a lot of what I do on the video that you have.
Any roll you know will fit to the beats we’re doing. The speed is about 70 or 75 beats a minute, with TWO beats per 8-note roll. Just make sure every roll starts where there is a beat. Listen to the bass notes for where the beats are located.
If you feel you need more guidance than the above, you might try getting my one-hour video Get Rolling, which shows exactly how to synchronize rolls to a typical bluegrass rhythm. The speed on the two videos is about the same, so if you get the hang of it with Get Rolling, you can then play along with both videos.
I hope that helps!
Duane writes: Pete, I have one of your jamming video (A Guide for Newcomers and Closet Pickers). Great Stuff. I’m about to buy the others. Do you have banjo tab for the tunes on your videos? I’ve only been playing for a couple of years now and I’ve found it difficult to work up breaks for some of the tunes. Also, some of the tabs I’ve located are highly ornamented and stylized (Sitting on Top of the World by Shelor, I think, especially).
You need to come to my banjo camp, where one of the main orders of business is to learn to create your own solos based on melodies of songs. Learning a lot of these from tab is not going to get you “there”. At some point you have to learn to write your own paragraph, not just memorize other people’s.[Update 9-09:] Please check out my latest video, Make Up Your Own Banjo Solos. In a sense, it is about “teaching you how to fish” instead of “selling you a fish”. Some of my instruction materials have tabs for solos on some of the songs on the jam videos, but you’d be better off seeing what you can come up with on your own, and by just watching/listening to what you hear being played, and making your best guesses. Best of luck!
Tom asks: Overall do you think the banjo is a hard instrument to learn?
It’s very easy to learn how to make nice music on a banjo. Only four strings to fret, and easy strums available. A simple TITM roll makes a good sound for accompaniment.
To play Scruggs style, I’d say that’s hard. It takes determination and a focused commitment. I compare it to learning a foreign language (with your hand, not your mouth).
Enjoy your music,
Tom asks: How much time do i need to put into my banjo playing each day?
That’s not for me to answer, but you. The more time you spend (IF you spend it well), the better you will get, faster. You can figure out how that works for you. If you want to get noticeably better in a year, try practicing an hour a day. I recommend focused, goal-oriented practice blended with just enjoying yourself. Please read my instructional materials for ideas on what’s the most productive way to practice, and what will bring the best results. Carelessly guided practice doesn’t bring the results that smart practicing does.
Deb says: Pete, is it possible to learn banjo at home? I am 52 years old and have just received my first banjo. It is something that I have wanted to do since I was a little girl. Is it possible to learn on my own? What do you recommend? There are no banjo instructors anywhere near my home.
Congratulations of finally getting the chance to play banjo. Your eagerness is great motivational fuel, and it’s important you use that “fuel” wisely.
In my opinion, it’s not necessary to get a teacher when you start out. There are good books and videos to help the beginner get started. First you need to learn to tune the thing (electronic tuners, for as little as $20 or 30 make it easy. I recommend a good little clip-on one sold under the name Intelli or Meisel.)
Then you learn a few chords and get comfortable changing chords smoothly. Once you can do that, you’re playing! Use any strum at all for the right hand (OK to just brush the strings with a finger or thumb) and follow the chords to a song. Next you learn a 4-note roll pattern, then later, 8-note roll patterns and change out the strum for rolls, still changing chords at the right time.
This process is outlined on my “ultra-easy” video Get Rolling, which is only $20. Once you feel ready to tackle Scruggs style, there’s a full beginner’s course (Beginning Bluegrass Banjo), as well as some play-along Bluegrass Jamming Videos that would be quite helpful. In terms of economics, these items can show a banjo player a tremendous amount of material at low costs.
A teacher is often not necessary, though one can be very useful if the student needs guidance in using the videos. If you find you would like some guidance, a non-threatening but musically knowledgeable person who appreciates bluegrass would be the best choice. You could try a guitar teacher, for example, and show what you’re working on and ask, “Is this right?”
For more information and ordering the videos, go to the Store section of DrBanjo.com. Also, the beginning banjo player can find a lot of free material on my site, including an article summarizing my recommendations for learning, “Teaching Beginning Banjo Players”. It’s in a section of the site under Instructional called Beginning Banjo Player Resources. I can’t recommend strongly enough that you read this article. My ideas about learning bluegrass banjo are different from most teachers’, and I think you might save a lot of time getting more directly to real playing if you follow my advice.
I hope the above is of some help. Have a great time with your new banjo!
Banjo Bill in Washington writes: Just reread your latest column [Jan. 2008, Breaking Out of the Intermediate Rut]. Great info. Gary did a perfect job describing me as well as himself. Your answers are superb. A secondary question arose for me:
Think of: “Boil dem Cabbage down”-Now I don’t know how to describe the melody of this tune well. When I dissected this tune the first time, I realized it is repetitive (understatement)-playing in either G or A lead me to using the Foggy mtn brkdwn roll to accent the B notes, but it still is not melody perfect! I am not sure you can play this melody perfect. I am not sure you would want to do such. At any rate, this repetitive melody note is one area where I have difficulty fitting it into a roll.
Be aware that Scruggs style is pretty forgiving when it comes to perfectly rendering a melody right in there along with the rolls. It’s an ideal to get it just right, and many pros can do that, but when you’re getting started, go with an approximation. If the note is being held, hit it an extra time or two as part of the rolls.
The other problem (major) I have is actually figuring out the melody. I can hear the melody in my head, but as soon as I hit any note on the banjo, I get lost almost immediately. Any help with the initial melody discovery would be immensely appreciated.
Sing the song along with the chords, and start hunting the main melody notes. Most of them will be found as members of the chords you are playing (1st, 2nd, 3rd or 4th string open when a G chord is going; and when a D is going, one of the notes found when the D is fingered). When you get lost, go back to singing along with the chords, to get reconnected. It’s trial and error, so be patient. The more you work on it, the faster it becomes to get the notes.
In my Bluegrass Songbook, the melodies are presented in a form of tablature that covers the banjo’s 2nd, 3rd and 4th strings. You can select a song from the book, and try to figure it out yourself — but if it doesn’t come easily, you can peek at some of the notes and then go back to figuring it out yourself. That will give you an easier way of getting into this skill. In time you’ll see, a lot of the same notes keep getting used!
Best of luck,
Dwight in NY writes: I started last August with the banjo and lessons last November. I will meet the cord requirements for your July camp in Oak Hill, NY. I have not been to a jam camp and my question is, would it be better for me to attend a banjo camp first or does it not matter?
Jam camp is actually a better first camp, since it lays down exactly the right foundation. Playing banjo is normally done in a context of other instruments, not solo, so by jamming in a novice-friendly context, you can get comfortable doing “the real thing”. The banjo camps I do for basic level concentrate on both jamming (though we do it all-banjo, which is slightly odd) and especially on the skills of “faking” a solo and most especially, constructing a viable Scruggs-style solo on your own. The latter is easiest to do once you’ve had the prep of playing with others.
So you may well want to plan on the NY jam camp in the summer and the Basic Banjo Camp in the winter.
Banjo camper Don W from Arkansas asks: How about a list of “What to Play at the (fill in the blank…retirement home, kindergarten, etc) When You First Play in Public and Nobody Will Pay Much but They’re Grateful Anyway”. At this year’s Intermediate Banjo Camp, you rattled off a list of songs, many of which are not on the standard let’s-learn-this-bluegrass-tune list.
- Ballad of Jed Clampett
- Cripple Creek
- You Are My Sunshine
- Home on the Range
- Good Old Mountain Dew (not for kids!)
- This Land Is Your Land
- Worried Man Blues
Thanks for the suggestion,
Mindy from Pennsylvania writes: I recently started playing the banjo and would like to attend jam camp. Do you require a person to play the D chord with four fingers? I’m pretty fast with the other chords but I’m still slow using the four-fingered D chord. Thank you.
I’m glad you asked. Absolutely I do not require or even recommend a 4-finger D chord. Many people seem to think that D is “supposed to be” a 4-finger chord, but it actually sounds *better* as a 3-finger chord, leaving the 4th string open. The open string is a low D, after all, so that chord sounds fuller than a 4-finger D. I suggest using all but the ring finger, leaving it free to play the 4th string (or the 3rd) when and if the melody calls for it.
The 4-finger version I guess is often taught because unlike the 3-finger one, it’s a movable position, usable at other locations as an F chord, G chord, etc.
In the key of G, the easy 2-finger D7 substitutes fine for a D. But that substitution doesn’t work in the key of D, where the D7 is not interchangeable with D. BUT… there’s an easy alternative D chord, a simple 2-finger D, like the 3- and 4-finger versions but where both the 1st string and the 4th are left open. That D chord is not the best-sounding one, but workable.
The key of D is well-worth getting handy with, generally needing only D, G, and A. It’s the most workable alternative to playing in G, and is often used when the singer can’t easily sing a particular song in G. That’s why our “required chords” list is G, C, D, and A. On the banjo G and A are pretty darned easy, and the easiest D is easy too, so we have the bar set as low as possible to make it easiest for people to come and learn how to jam.
Kerry in Denver asks: I have a 30-year-old banjo that’s barely ever been played. I’m going to take it in to a guitar shop to see if they can repair one string and tune for me, or show me how to tune.
Changing a string is pretty simple, which you could learn by watching someone else do it the first time. You should get all new strings (about $5) because old strings sound worse and are more prone to break.
Tuning is also quite easy if you know what the notes are (G, D, G, B, D) and buy a simple tuning clip-on device to guide you. The music store you go to for strings would have them (about $25). The videos mentioned below will show you how to tune.
I have beginner books but I’m starting from scratch. I can read sheet music (I play piano and used to play french horn). What’s your advice on getting started?
I suggest 3 videos for starters:
- Get Rolling. One hour, VERY easy, confidence-building play-along based on the simplest 3 chords, and some easy right hand stuff. You are playing music instantly, and laying foundation. Playing over 20 songs in the process.
- As soon as the first is getting too easy, you’re ready for Beginning Bluegrass Banjo, which is a full course in the basics. Two hours, will take you months to get through, and gives the rest of the foundation.
- Slow Jam for the Total Beginner. Two hours, 17 full length songs played slowly by a full band, and you practice following along. This is good practice for being in a real (slow) jam, and builds confidence for actually getting together with others.
Do you give private lessons?
Only to professional players or to people who’ve taken a banjo camp from me. The above 3 videos cost $80 total, comparable to the price of a lesson, and offer FIVE HOURS of very helpful instruction, a much better place to start.
I see the next jam camp in Boulder is November. How skilled are folks that attend?
In general, not very skilled at all. I require only that a person can change smoothly between 4 chords, G, C, D, and A. Not too tough! Some just barely qualify, others are fairly skilled, but they all do fine playing together. You have plenty of time to practice up and get qualified, and then some. I do recommend the camp, as a continuation of the skills from the first 3 videos.
No hurry getting through all this material, but it’s there for your reference.
Last point, you mention piano and french horn and sheet music. It’s undoubtedly helpful to have played music before, probably means your rhythmic and musical senses are pretty well developed. But be aware, bluegrass is NOT reading-based music. The skills are much more ear skills, and being aware of chord progressions — at first you learn to follow chord changes, then you are able to “hear” and anticipate them. Then the fun begins when you can elaborate in all sorts of ways within the chords, and learn to find melodies by ear and incorporate them.
I hope this helps. If you start by getting the videos mentioned and getting strings and a tuner you could be up and running within the week!
Have fun, it’s a great time once you get going.