Questions from teachers or about teaching the banjo

Marni from Ontario, Canada writes: I have trouble keeping my ring finger -right hand on the banjo surface. I have played guitar for years and always kept the little finger down. When I try to keep the ring finger down on the banjo as well as the little finger- I find I can’t pick at all!!!! Will it be ok not to keep ring finger down, or should I work on keeping it down? Will I run into future problems if I don’t keep it down. The little finger is securly anchored. Suggestions?

Dear Marni,

Just one finger down is OK. That’s actually quite common. Though some people recommend both fingers down (which is what seems to work for most players), I don’t see it as especially necessary. In the book Masters of the Five String Banjo, we surveyed 40 pro players on this topic, and found that 19 (almost half) do not normally plant both fingers.

Just because various well-known players plant two fingers does not mean it’s the only or the best way to sound good. I believe that since different people’s hands are just built a bit differently, what’s best varies from person to person. Good sound and comfort are the determining factors.

Pete Wernick

Gordon from Texas writes: Pete, enjoyed your Note From The Road on the Fall Banjo Retreat, esp your little faceoff with Bill Evans on the one finger/two finger question. Some of us heard him mention this a couple of years ago at Camp Bluegrass in Levelland TX, leading to recurring, intensely learned local discussions, thusly:

a) those who use one finger are immoral and/or of dubious parentage
b) if God wanted two fingers to be used, he’d have made them of equal length and so forth-

Strictly in the interests of elevating this process, could you kindly mention the best known 5 or 6 players on your lengthy list of one-finger users. All would be appreciated and all for fun.

Dear Gordon,

Here’s an edited excerpt from an article I wrote for Banjo Newsletter in 1990:

First, a partial list of banjo players who keep only one finger on the head: Curtis McPeake, Vic Jordan, Raymond McLain, Alan O’Bryant, Roy Clark, Don Parmley, Courtney Johnson, Little Roy Lewis, Marty Cutler, Dave Evans, Marc Pruett, Pat Cloud, Blake Williams, Alison Brown. Interesting note: Doug Dillard rests no fingers on the head (he puts his pinky on the bridge and curls the ring under the hand, resting it on the strings behind the bridge). If strength and accuracy are the goals, these players are hard to beat as role models.

[Note: This information comes from research I did on the Masters of the Five String Banjo book, which unfortunately did not get into the original edition but is in the AcuTab reprinted version now available. Over 40 pro players were surveyed. Of the above-named players, most anchor just the pinky, but some just the ring finger. I assume all this variety is based on the well-known fact that we’re all built (including hands) just a little differently.]

Pat Cloud makes a point of teaching all his students to anchor only the pinky, because the tendons connecting the ring and middle finger keep the middle finger from moving freely when the ring is planted. In my own teaching, I occasionally recommend this advice when a player’s middle finger is picking weakly or awkwardly. Often the results are instantaneously positive.

I think the reason for the popular misconception is that for most players (myself included), anchoring both non-picking fingers is comfortable. We’ve seen Earl and a lot of other players do it, so it qualifies as “normal”. As we all know, however, “normal” is not necessarily the only way to get the job done. Too often “What works for me and a lot of others” translates into “The Only Right Way”. The above list of players, I think, speaks for itself.

It pains me to see aspiring players suffering and feeling anxious needlessly over this misconception. I hear of people taping their hands to the head, tying them together with rubber bands, etc., and I think “What a waste! These people could be practicing actually playing.” I’ve even heard of people giving up the banjo because of their inability to plant both fingers. That really galls me.

At my camps and clinics I regularly get questions from folks very nervous and insecure on this topic because of apparently authoritative advice to the effect that they’d BETTER get their act together and anchor both fingers or they’ll never be able to really play. They are quite relieved to hear my advice, which is:

“Never mind. One finger is enough for stability. Do what’s comfortable and concentrate on sounding good. With enough practice and focus, your hand will find a way.”

To me, “you must plant two fingers” has echoes of the old policy of “writing lefty is wrong, and needs to be corrected”. Yes, it’s a minority position, but that doesn’t mean it’s worse. Different bodies are different.

By the way, I have heard Sammy Shelor plants just one finger. You could check that out when you have a chance.

Happy debating!


Kevin from Oneonta, NY writes: Dear Pete, I’ve been having trouble hearing chord changes when trying to play along with CD’s. I need to refer to tab to get it right. Is this tone deafness, or inexperience. I’ve been playing/learning the banjo for about 3 years. I can remember, before I bought the banjo, I had trouble telling the banjo apart from the mix of instruments sometimes. Now I can pick out the banjo with no problem, except… I can’t hear the chord changes very well. Are there any tricks, hints, or training tips to solve this, or am I limited by my ears. Thank you for all the great music & dedication over the years. Pickin’ it up,

Dear Kevin,

The skill is definitely based on experience, just like your ability to pick the banjo out of the mix. But there are ways to work on the skill to develop it more quickly.

It helps to start with two-chord songs and just listen for *when* the chord changes between G and D. An easy way to do that is to get my Get Rolling video ($20), which has near the beginning a cluster of ten 2-chord songs to play along with. Play along with the video, but don’t watch the screen (which clearly shows the chord changes). Listen for *when* the chords change. If you do that right when just using 2 chords, your chords will be right. If you have to peek at the screen, OK, but it’s best to do it by ear. Later in the video is a cluster of 13 3-chord songs, and it’s great training to do the same there. With 3-chord songs though, you’ll also need to guess *which* chord is the next chord. That means trial and error. First listen for when the chord changes happen, then try to guess which chord is right. Watch the video to see if you’re on track. Once you get the changes to a song right, see how quickly you can commit the changes to memory. Play along with the video without watching.

Another method is to take a bluegrass songbook where the songs with 2 or 3 chords (most of them) are noted. Go through the ones you can hum or sing, and without looking at the book, try to guess the chords by trial and error. After you guess, check the book.

This all can be frustrating, but if you start with 2-chord songs and then branch out to 3-chord ones, you’ll start hearing the similarities from song to song. For instance, virtually all songs in G start and end with G, and the next-to-last chord is D (or D7 can be used too).

At my basic banjo camp, and also at my bluegrass jam camps, we spend some time working on guessing and remembering chord changes. It’s a really helpful skill to develop, though it comes in time in any case. Of course, in a jam you can always keep your eye on the left hand of a guitar player who knows the chords. But it’s great not to *have* to look.

Stay with it!

Pete Wernick

Roger on the acutab list wrote: I will be working with a student tonight who has learned all the rolls and he has cripple creek and a few other tunes down fairly good, I’m having a hard time getting him to hear the rhythm and timing. That is something that is hard to learn if you don’t hear it. I have tried chopping the rhythm while he plays and gave him recordings of me playing it real slow to chop and play to but still working on it, any suggestions?

I think the answer is to play along with real music that is done correctly. The ideal thing is to have a recording of the song, at a workable speed for the student, like maybe as low as 70 bpm. If the student just keeps playing along with it, they have to get the timing after a while. If a student isn’t getting it, I’d turn the recording up louder.

Recordings like these are hard to come by. In the last couple of years I’ve done videos providing slow versions of well-known songs. There’s not much else currently available. I’m not speaking of the *banjo* playing the songs, I’m talking about rhythm tracks with singing, for the banjo to play along with.

Since there isn’t much available, rather than try to create slow rhythm tracks for all songs, I decided to *teach* people to make rhythm tracks. They can do that for any song they choose (like band in a box, but sounds better). I do this at every basic banjo camp I present, and I oversee not only the tracks being recorded, but also making sure people can play along with them. On the recording, they either chunk or strum chords (about 70-80 bpm), and sing or at least say, the words, along with the chording. Most people will learn to do this right after a set of tries or two, and then they can play along.

Among other things, making this tape forces them to play rhythm behind a song. That is a good skill to check a player on. If they can’t do that, then what are they doing learning to pick leads? The teacher needs to be sure they can do that. After that, playing with the recording by rolling along and just staying with the chord changes, is another important skill to solidify. By then, getting the sense of the rhythmic demands of the lead break should be a lot easier.

Re the metronome, most timing problems are not a matter of important slow-downs or speed-ups. They are when stumbles or uncertainties happen and the picker goes on without regard to the beat, and especially they are when a person doesn’t realize he/she has added, or left out, some notes or spaces. In that case, a metronome doesn’t help nearly as much as a recording of someone singing/saying the song (note that I’m talking about songs, not instrumentals) in correct timing.

Now, if the person has trouble singing and chording in time, then I recommend the metronome. Each strum goes on a metronome click. That works well. Then … can they keep that timing while changing chords and singing/humming/saying the words?

I feel this set of steps is a fail-proof method if the student is willing to do the work.

The entire method is spelled out on a two-page sheet I distribute to my banjo campers. It’s also available to print out from my web site, JUST CLICK HERE (also can click to Teaching Beginners article Rob mentioned). I am happy to offer these articles as a public banjo service. I love it when it helps someone start to really play and jam with other people!

Pete Wernick

Bob and Julio on the list, write: I just have to pay attention and just release the pressure from the 3rd fret as soon as I am done with it.


Here’s a trick: Do not move your *entire* hand when doing this slide; rather, plant your hand securely, and just slide with your middle finger. Stretch it as far as it can go and the feather-off will happen automatically. with a little practice it becomes quite natural.


My two cents:

Even though Earl’s book and other teaching materials refer to the slide as 2-4, it rarely is. You can see that just by observing almost any pro or experienced picker. What really happens, is that the A# is muted by the finger lifting (just as when shopping chords), so the string contacts only the fingertip instead of the hard surface of the fret. Just as that happens, the open 2nd string B is hit, taking over for the sound of the sliding note.

The sound of a 2-3 hammer-on is about the same as a slide. Both are suddenly changing the active fret from 2 to 3, and I don’t hear any difference, and don’t differentiate in my playing or teaching.

A common beginner problem with either move, but especially the slide, is that the player doesn’t make clear contact with the 3rd fret. The “feathering-off” advice Julio gives makes good sense, but only if the 3rd fret is contacted clearly. Many basic level players lift off as they head toward the fret, and essentially mute the string before it makes its sound at the 3rd fret. This makes the playing sound choppy and incomplete. A hammer-on is less likely to do that, and can still be lifted back off at the right time to mute the string before it has a chance to clash with the open 2nd string.

And by the way, if you don’t have compensation on your bridge or nut, there is *not* a good match of the 4th fret of the 3rd string with the open 2nd. Which is why many players only slide to 3, then mute. That is unlike the slide to 5 on the 4th matching to the 3rd open, or the match of the 2nd string 3rd fret with the open 1st. Those notes *do* match up, and are often heard as good unisons, not needing muting of the fretted string.

OK, that was more than two cents, but I hope it’s helpful.

Pete Wernick

Glenn on the AcuTab discussion board, asks: I would like to here from some of you who have successfully used some of the backup videos, book, etc.

I am at an early intermediate stage, playing some by ear. I need some material that will not be beyond my level and that will be given in understandable terms. I am familiar with some of the material out there from the net, however I have never heard anything from folks who actually used the instruction material. In other words I am not interested in investing in another book for the sake of building a larger library. I want something that I can invest some time with and see results.


I am strongly of the mind that one doesn’t learn backup from tablature, but from actually being in picking situations and doing whatever works.

Here is my one and only rule for backup:

“Of all the things you know how to do, do what best suits the music, moment to moment.”


To elaborate:

If you know how to roll and how to vamp, and how to play quieter and louder, and know the main chord positions both up and down the neck, you have a pretty full tool kit. If you know how to play a few short licks that go with a G chord, that you can use as “filler” licks during spaces between lines or after lines in the singing, that’s a good extra. These can be the same G licks you find in many lead breaks.

Playing music with other people is like having a conversation. Once you know a little of the language you’re trying to converse in, you can have a conversation. As you converse more and more, you’ll learn to have a better conversation. You learn from experience, not from memorizing a big phrase book of phrases other people use.

Pete Wernick

Cindy from Florida writes: I don’t know if you remember me, but I was the Florida girl in your January 2001 Banjo Camp. Although I struggled through it, now 3 years later it all comes full circle.

The reason that I am asking your advise is because a very interesting (horrifying) thing happened to me. I’ve been playing now for 4 years and have recently done some gigs. I know that I’m not at a “Damn Good” grade yet, but I am finally “there”, if you know what I mean. I know over 40 songs by heart and can play them confidently and well…that is until this week. All of a sudden, I have “lost” everything that has been in my head regarding banjos. Even if I open one of my old books, I have usually added something so different to the song that I can’t even follow the books. My last jam was horrible (me and ‘the boys’ jam every week and sometimes we really are Damn Good.)

Has this ever happened to anyone you know before? I have worked so darn hard that I am besides myself. I am practicing very hard and I am praying it will come back.

Thanks for listening and any advise will be appreciated.

Yes, I do remember you. I’m so glad to hear that you’re “there” and regularly jamming, even gigging!

To the extent that you want to be able to play your memorized stuff exactly as written, I would think that you can reclaim that by picking a song and reviewing it carefully.

What you describe as a problem is maybe not really a problem. Songs are not to be “learned” by simply memorizing a tab. Songs are to know the basic melody and possibly carefully learn any special licks that go with the song, and then allow it to come out differently as it will.

I often make the analogy to language. When you describe, say, what you like about your house or job, you make would make certain points. A minute later, you might make the same points, but the sentences would come out different. You can count on it! But the meaning would be the same either way.

There are *lots* of ways a song can be played. The idea is to sound fluent and smooth, with nice tone and carrying the melody. That can be done infinite ways on the same song. Earl Scruggs once told me he has no idea how someone can play a song two times in a row exactly the same way. You see, real Scruggs style playing really is like a language, with your brain working to make your mouth say things virtually spontaneously. That is very different from reciting a poem or phrases from a phrase book.

So what may be happening, is that a different part of your brain is taking over for the “memorized solos” part of your brain. I think there is some value in exact memorization, but the “speaking the language” process is much more important and real in your life as a musician. You have been interacting with other musicians, and letting your brain take care of some of the details while still focusing on the main musical elements of melody and rhythm.

From what you say, some of it may be coming out wrong, perhaps timing-wise. If that’s true, you might need some time to establish timekeeping by more attentiveness to the melody and proper timing of the song itself, and not just “executing the arrangement”. In other words, it’s like relearning grammar when going from memorized grammatical sentences to speaking on your own. Instead of your brain being occupied with “following orders” (the tab), it can switch to following the melody itself, and the musicians around you.

So it could be, this is all a good sign that you are getting to a better “there”. At least, that’s what I hope. Please let me know if what I am guessing squares with what you think is going on.


Paul writes: Over the past few months I’ve joined the ranks of the non-band-affiliated banjoists of the world, so, except for the occasional jam, I’m playing with myself (so to speak). I think playing with others on a regular basis is in my near future (next few months sometime), especially if I can find a fiddler.

The sooner this happens, Paul, the better for your focus. You will start to work on *the stuff you do with your regular picking partners*. Whether in a band or just a regular jam, the critical advantage is that a regular repertoire gets developed, and then you are naturally motivated to focus your efforts on improving on your ways of playing that repertoire, both lead and backup.

My energies are dispersed among trying to keep sharp with the songs I already know and improve my technique with them; learn every break from the Foggy Mountain Banjo album; learn a lot of Alan Munde’s fiddle tune breaks from the Festival Favorites album; learn JD Crowe’s breaks and backup from the first JD and the NS album; practice scales; learn how to play in the keys of C and D; learn how to play up-the-neck backup … and the list goes on and on. I’m doing something differently virtually every day, and it’s getting a little chaotic. Well, at least I’m playing …

The fact is that at the age of 48 and without any hope of becoming a star banjo player, I still want to become a killer picker. And I don’t have time to waste. So I end up doing a little of everything, and end up getting nowhere fast. My middle name is now “Plateau.” I’m tempted to dump everything and just focus exclusively on one song, like Ground Speed or Munde’s Bill Cheatam, but I fear I’ll bore myself to death, as well as drive my wife to drink.

Without having to have a plan, you’ll find that your efforts go into the songs you are expecting to play in front of others. Cleanup work is at least as important as memorizing new stuff. When you really look at it closely, almost everything needs cleaning up. Good, clean, tasteful playing, even with a limited repertoire of licks and moves, is what most people look for in a banjo picker — not knowing every song and lick in the book. Licksters do well in competitive jam sessions, but good players have the best leg up in band situations, or jam situations where good sounding group music is rated above individual accomplishment.

I’m looking for some sage advice on a practice plan that embraces both focus and variety. Classical musicians in many conservatories are required to learn certain classic pieces in a set order of increasing difficulty. Is there a good standard progression in bluegrass banjo — not just what I like (I like too much) — but say, learn FMBanjo to speed one tune at a time, then move onto JD Crowe? What’s the best way to learn an incredible amount incredibly fast and (incredibly) not forget it all?!

The answer to the last question is to get in a group (again!!) and gig as much as you can. You’ll sure end up learning those songs. If you have time to work really hard, use it for cleanup. Same if you jam a lot on a large repertoire. But face it, you haven’t been playing since your teens, and you can’t make that up in terms of repertoire in a very short time, not when you also have a day job and otherwise busy life.

As for a gradation of difficulty, go ahead and grade them for difficulty if that helps. Clear playing at high speed is difficult, as are correct and good-sounding executions of all sorts of licks. There is no standard progression. Just play what you know, and discern for yourself what you find hard. You can play any song an easier or a harder way, your choice. But if you’re working on tabs of other people’s breaks, you can judge what’s easy or hard.

Now, what is “cleanup”? That’s my term for eliminating flaws in your playing. Not just some, but all, if you are really serious about playing. If you can’t play a certain piece perfectly at the required speed, then you can constructively occupy lots of practice hours. The Loop Exercise Method I taught at the camp you attended (which can be found on this site under The Doc’s Prescriptions under Instructional), is my most streamlined method of conquering technical or memorization problems.

I have often pushed one hand or the other to pain, trying to conquer physical limitations on what I’m trying to play. When I hit pain, I stop that move and work on something that might give pain to the other hand. Then switch again later.

I keep a list of up to 10 things that are the highest priority for me to work on. I can soon enough start crossing things off the list, but then of course I always add, too!

I hope all this helps, Paul. Definitely part of what will settle you about this is to accept that wants are not needs, and that if you really do want big improvements enough to put in the time, they will start happening.

But most important of all — Find some people to play with regularly! And have fun!


Steven writes: Hey Pete, greetings from Boulder. Can you recommend any instructional materials out there for learning to play by ear? I’ve been playing for about a year, making reasonable progress with Janet Davis’ book, but tab just isn’t doing it for me, it’s a little too restrictive. I can’t afford lessons but I thought there might be a good video or book out there explaining the process of how to learn by ear.


I’m glad you’re concerned with learning this skill. Bluegrass music depends on the musicians knowing how to pick things up by ear.

There’s a Homespun video out called Playing Banjo By Ear, or some such, by Bill Keith. I have never watched it, and can’t vouch for it, unfortunately. That’s the only thing I have seen like that.

I teach ear learning as well as I can at my jam camps. A lot of it is based on just practice. One of the best exercises: Get a songbook with familiar songs in it, and pick one with just three chords. Now, close the book and try (trial and error style) to GUESS the chords, both when they change, and which ones they change to. With only three chords to guess from, your choices are limited, and you might find you can do it, at least some of the time. If that’s hard, go from the list of 2-chord songs on Once you think you have it, then peek at the answers, and review the correct changes. If you can do it at all, keep doing it, and your ear for chord changes will slowly improve.

Finding melodies by ear is another important ear skill, and the trial and error method is the main way to go there as well. If you can carry a tune, hum or sing along with the right chords for a song, then start at the top and see if you can find the melody notes, one by one. Go slowly, and as you get each note, then hum from the beginning up to the one you don’t know yet. Hum just that one note, and look for it, keeping in mind if it’s lower, higher, or the same as the previous one. If it’s higher, move up the string, or switch to a higher string, and so on. Slow going, but it brings results.

If you have trouble carrying a tune in the first place, that’s a more fundamental skill that you should probably work on first. Try chording along with familiar songs from a songbook, and singing as you chord. Important: Most of the main melody notes are actually among the notes that comprise whatever chord is going as that note is sung. So if you hold the chords they tend to pull your singing toward the correct note (which is likely right there in the chord).

Likewise, when finding melodies on the instrument, start with the correct chord. Often the main melody note will already be sounding as part of the chord.

Sorry there’s no “just follow these simple exercises” answer to your question. It’s trial and error, basically experience, that gets you there. Ear skills are *very* important in bluegrass, and you can’t just learn them out of a book. Having a patient guide (needn’t be a banjo teacher) can be a good help, telling you when you’ve got it right or not (but not too quickly), and helping you out when you’re in left field.

If you can’t carry a tune, have a look at the newly posted article on under The Doc’s Prescriptions, “Learning to sing in tune“.

Best of luck with your learning!


Bob H. writes: I’m learning the F shape, D shape, and Barre chords up and down the neck but still can’t switch chords quick enough. Is there any advice or practice drills you can give me that might help me along, and what chords should I know for the jam camp?

First of all, you can get an awful lot done with G, C, and D7. After that, it’s good to learn D, Em, and A. A 3-finger D is fine, no need to use the 4-finger shape that works as a movable chord shape.

The F shape is important but it’s not easy. The way I tell people to practice it is to alternate repeatedly between an A chord (very different from the F shape) and the F shape. You’ll have to constantly re-form the F shape and that’s the essence of what you need to practice. Change chords back and forth, and settle into a steady pace, like a rhythm. However slowly you need to do it to get the F shape RIGHT, that’s how fast you should do it.

To check for correctness, don’t just strum the chords, but play the strings with a slow “rake”, so you can hear each string individually. If you’re not getting clear tone on any string, correct your fingering until the tone is clear. Very gradually, try to increase the speed of your chord changing. Look at your left hand to see which fingers are the slowest and least accurate. Have a little talk with each problem finger, and tell it you expect it to hustle more, and be there correctly when it’s time. Then watch it and see that it does just that!

Working with a metronome helps here. You could set it to 30 (a change every 2 seconds) and see if you have to move it to a slower tempo, for it to match the time your hand needs to do the job right. Once you determine the speed your fingers can do it, stay at that speed for a while, and concentrate on making it right every time. You’ll probably need to rest your hand after a minute or two, as the muscles, that haven’t had to work so hard before, start complaining.

After a rest, do the back and forth, A to F, some more and see if you can increase the metronome speed slightly. Glare at the problem fingers, probably the ring or pinky, and tell them to hustle. (“Get there FIRST!”)

Regular work on this exercise will definitely yield results. When the F shape goes on quickly, you can change chords more quickly, with less looking needed. That’s a very important skill for backup, because if you have to look at your left hand, you can’t look up to see the chord changes the guitar player is doing, which you have to follow.

Keep after this problem, and it should improve noticeably in just a few weeks. Good luck, and happy jamming!

Steve writes: When I first got started with the 5-string I could afford to practice 4 to 6 hours a day. I normally would spend 1 hour dedicated to the right-hand, 1 hour on left-hand technique (scales and such) and the remaining hours on repitoire.

Life has changed and time for practice has become much more scarce. I still shoot for at least 1 hour (90-minutes if possible). Some days its only 30-minutes.

Pete, can you give me some guidance on what could be done within an hours time that would amount to effective practice?

Very good question, Steve. I’m guessing you’re an intermediate or advanced player. If that’s so, I hope you have people you play with regularly. If that’s so, then you probably have a regular repertoire you play.

If that’s so, a great way to improve is to pick specific solos you want to play better.

I recommend learning to play the melody correctly, in detail. Focusing on that elusive goal tends to bring things into perspective generally. If you can play any exact melody, with the demands for the timing of the notes to come out right, is a challenging exercise.

There might be nifty phrases or licks you can incorporate with your break, along with the melody. Put your composing skills to work to blend just the right combination of the exact melody, along with some special ornamentation. Work on composing a well-put-together solo for the song.

Now work on *cleaning up* that break — or any break that you play regularly that has some annoying flaw(s) in it. Make loop exercises out of several of the weakest points.

The loop exercise method is explained in detail in an article by that title in the Doc’s Prescriptions part of this site. Using that method tends to strengthen your hands, improve coordination and accuracy, and just happens to yield better sounding solos and playing overall! A pretty good payoff, I’d say.

Last point: Part of just about any practice session, I recommend be general “goof off” time, where you just play for fun, and work on getting a nice sound out of the instrument. This is “bonding” time, and well worth it, both for the fun, and the improvement of your ability to “make it talk”.

Enjoy it, and let us know how it goes, Steve.


Jeff writes: I love the Bluegrass Songbook, lots of great songs and singing info. I’m a banjo player and need some advice on incorporating rolls into the melodies. Any help is much appreciated…

You’ve asked a very big question. Learning to do this is the main project of my week-long Basic Banjo Camp. Everyone who’s ready selects a familiar song from an approved list, and finds the melody by ear. Then they practice playing through the chord progression while rolling. Some of the melody notes will fall right into place, such as when the thumb lands on the 3rd string to start the last roll of the tune (back on a G chord) and the melody note, G, naturally pops out.

With the ability to have the thumb hit different strings when its “turn” happens in the roll, while still keeping the roll going, some additional melody notes can fall into place, since for instance, so many of them happen at the beginning of measures, when the thumb is usually “taking its turn”.

Some rolls are better suited than others to allow the thumb to hit a string right at a time a particular melody note happens, and some rolls give the thumb the freedom to start a roll on the 2nd string. So learning to use different rolls at different times is part of the key to including melody notes.

There’s more to it than that, but that’s a taste of some of the processes that are involved. It’s a lot to keep track of, which is why the first attempt at doing this can take several days of concentrated work. The process is largely just trial and error, and by doing it in a supportive context with a guide like myself helping along, most people who are ready for this step succeed by the end of the week. A fair number do it soon enough to allow them to start another tune. The second attempt always goes more quickly, and as I promise the campers, by the tenth time you are doing this it tends to take minutes, not days, to get a passable arrangement.

In time, your fingers learn the “language” of Scruggs style, as I call it, and analogous to the way your lips and tongue work to produce words, you become unconscious of the processes at work, and just “think” the language as your hands carry it out. Getting to this level is a very meaningful goal for any fledgling player. It typically takes a couple of years to reach this stage if the effort is focused and not off on distractions, such as learning lots of tabs by rote. There is little value at this stage in memorized learning of what other people have figured out. It’s easier to do, and the results are more predictable, but learning to “recite” someone else’s ideas is *not* the same as “learning to speak in Scruggs style”. You have to learn to write your own paragraph, is the way I put it.

Now I’ve outlined the journey, and it’s up to you to do the work or not. It’s not easy, but if you stick it out, you will get there, and it sure is a blast once you’re “there” and you get to take breaks at jam sessions on songs you don’t even know that well.

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“?

play along bluegrass music jamming video

See this comparison of all 3 Play-Along Bluegrass Jam Videos!

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!

Tom asks: I am interested in playing banjo. First off i have been playing guitar for 12 years..will my background in guitar apply to the banjo any?


Lefthandwise, very much so. Guitar players’ left hands are usually more developed than banjo players, thanks to more strings and the need for more agility to get around.

Righthandwise, guitar finger picking is almost a liability in some ways. The patterns that work well on guitar are just not the main ones that a banjo picker might use, and learning new ones when the old ones “sort of” work, tends to be hard for many people. They fall back on guitar habits and never really learn Scruggs style.


Al writes: Hi Pete, I have been taking lessons for four months. I can play three songs by memorizing the notes.


I wish people would stop teaching banjo this way! There are much better ways, and learning to memorize lead arrangements before actually learning to play in a simple ensemble is cart-before-the-horse, and actually counterproductive in some ways! Please read the article on my web site called Teaching Beginning Banjo Students. If the article makes sense to you, please print it and give a copy to your teacher. If you are “sold” on the principles I offer, then I recommend that you actually insist your teacher teach you that way, or quit lessons. (Sorry, I know it sounds harsh, but I don’t think teaching to memorize notes is “the way”.)

I have a musician friend that wants me to join in his jam sessions.

This is a very nice invitation, but as you realize, you’re not ready to participate. My advice below is aimed at getting you ready ASAP to accept and enjoy that opportunity.

I don’t have a clue on how to fit into his group and play along. I see that you have a new video out for back up. Would you suggest at this point it might be a good idea to try this?

Absolutely. I recommend you get both that and the video called Slow Jam for the Total Beginner (both available on my web site), and start playing along with the Slow Jam. You’ll see, it’s not hard once you get the hang of following chord changes (something you should have already been taught).

The backup moves shown on my Backup Video (based on what I do on the Slow Jam video) are good to know, but you can play along with really a minimum of technique (a strum is OK) and still be part of the music. Depending on how the jam is structured, you may be comfortable doing just that, a bit outside of the main jamming circle. That is how a lot of people learn the ropes of jamming.

Or should I give it more time with just my lessons and continue on the way I am?


I feel like I would like to start opening up my possibilities and learning as much as I can. I’m not familiar with Bluegrass Music in general. I am actually new to it. This makes it a little more difficult like a foreign language. I have been listening to allot of CD’s over and over and over along with a Satellite Radio Bluegrass Station.

That is excellent. You’re definitely helping yourself there, and familiarity will come in time of course.

I also have been recording my lessons.

Never a bad idea, but as you can tell, I don’t think the lessons thus far are where your effective learning lies, unless your teacher changes methods. Eventually the memorized arrangements will have their benefit, but so far, I think you’re spending a lot of time on something that won’t translate into any help when you’re jamming.

The thing to shoot for now is learning to follow chord changes fluently, and as soon as possible, learning to roll or vamp, smoothly and in time, with easy bluegrass songs. At that point, you’ll be able to fit into the jam (at least to the extent they play easy songs, reasonably slowly), and have quite a bit of fun. If your teacher can help you learn to play along with the video, that would be very helpful.

Please let me know what you think. Thanks.

That’s what I think, and you’re welcome! I hope you can follow my advice, and if so, let me know how it goes.

Pete Wernick