Jim from Alabama writes:
I am a pastor of a Baptist church and have been playing the banjo for a few years but I have reached a place where I don’t know where to go on the banjo. I was shot while working in law enforcement and I can’t use my middle finger on my right hand so I have had to learn with my index and ring finger. I don’t know much about moving up the neck. I can play using all the basic rolls and play songs such as Foggy Mountain Breakdown, I’ll Fly Away, and others, but I want to advance and become more proficient with solos and playing up the neck. What do you suggest?

Dear Jim,

First of all, I’m glad to hear that you are moving ahead with the banjo despite your serious injury. You may know that Jerry Garcia (of Grateful Dead fame), was a fine banjo picker who was missing the end of his right middle finger. He used his ring finger instead, as you do, and sounded just fine.

As for the suggestions you requested, two things:

First, as a starting point for learning more solos, you can just make a list of songs that you would like to learn, and start working out the solos on your own, based just on your knowledge of the melody and chords to each song. I’m guessing you can do this, but if you’ve only learned from tab thus far, it will take a bit of effort to get that up and running. You can let me know whether you think you can do this easily or not, and if not, I can make other recommendations.

Knowing how to create simple solos based on the melody is a very important, often overlooked (by teachers) skill. Once a person figures out how that’s done (trial and error style), it’s time to embellish.

Second, when it comes to embellishments, they can be ideas you borrow from what you already know how to do in other songs (such as FMB), or from instructional materials showing new ideas, whether in tab or in other forms.

I have created a 2-video series called Branching Out on the Banjo, which shows a great many ideas all over the neck, in easy-to-learn form starting with chord positions, and then showing various lick and backup ideas that sprout from the chord positions and various rolls. The videos come with booklets with chord diagrams and tab of everything I play in the video. It’s a powerful way of showing a lot of information, and will keep you busy a long time. The ideas sound good, and are generally reasonably easy to play for a person who’s been playing a while.

The videos can be ordered from my web site, www.drbanjo.com, by going to the “store” section. There is also a lot of other, free, instructional material on the site that you might find of interest and value. You may also want to check out this winter’s banjo camps (one is for intermediate only) under “workshops/camps“.

I wish you luck with your music!

Pete Wernick