This article was written for teachers but is strongly recommended to anyone at the early stages or beginning of learning banjo.
Banjo teachers, lend me your ears! Are we doing all we can for our students? The ideas which follow may not be typical, but they’re based on experience, and they work. This article will try to convey both my method for teaching beginning banjo players and the reasons for what I do, and what I don’t do.
In sum: Focus your teaching directly on the skills that will enable your students, as soon as possible, to play simple and enjoyable music with other people. And as soon as they’re ready, help your students get together with others to make music.
A hard fact: Most people who try to learn bluegrass-style banjo give up at some point, whether after a few months or a few years. I feel this would happen far less if teachers and instructional materials would help students, from the first lesson, to play simple music with others.
It’s sad and frustrating to see how many teachers and teaching methods set students up for failure, when there are great possibilities for launching musicians. The biggest problem is that they focus primarily on having the student try to memorize note-for-note banjo solos, usually instrumentals. Most new players find even the simplest solos too hard, and play them very slowly and haltingly. Even those who learn to pick smoothly often have persistent rhythm problems because they never have to play in “real time”. This often goes on for months or even years, wearing down the student’s optimism as they struggle to learn a repertoire that amounts to only a few minutes of music.
I suggest they focus instead on skills such as simple right hand rhythm patterns, making easy chords, and learning to follow simple chord progressions in real time. Once a person can do that, making music with other people, or even a play-along recording, becomes possible. The rewards are endless. The repertoire of 3-chord songs is humongous. Songbooks and word sheets, or just watching others’ chords in a jam situation, make hours of music possible. Frustration is at a minimum. Also, this type of learning is more fundamental than soloing, providing a solid foundation which will serve the student well when it’s time to start learning solos.
Since starting to teach banjo back in 1964, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to see what works and what doesn’t. At over 80 week-long instructional camps since 1980, plus many weekend clinics and workshops, I’ve encountered students of all kinds. Many of them had taken banjo lessons, some for years. A great many own one or more (usually many more) teaching methods. The most frustrated students are usually those who, despite learning tabs or other note-for-note arrangements, still don’t or can’t play with other people. The ones who have the most fun are those who can and do play comfortably with others.
If you actually facilitate your students’ jamming with one another, or with the students of a fellow teacher, you will create an unbeatable motivational situation. Any student who learns to jam is unlikely to ever quit playing. Being able to jam leads to motivation to go beyond the basics, and it engenders an optimism in the student that in time, many things are possible.
Motivation is number one
Without motivation we have nothing. It’s the difference between the person who practices and makes progress, versus the one who never seems to “have enough time”, and who keeps coming back without having practiced (you know, the one who eventually drops out).
I assume every student begins with a motivational head start: Maybe he/she just likes the sound of a banjo, or likes bluegrass music itself. Maybe he/she happens to have a banjo and feels an urge to try to play it. We can add to that initial motivation, or we can squander it by needlessly trying the student’s patience. If we help them develop some momentum, they’re hooked. If we don’t, there’s a good chance that sooner or later they will quit.
What’s rewarding for a beginning student? A few favorites:
- Learning something that sounds good, with minimal effort.
- Having a sense of progress (“Hey, I can do it!”)
- Having others witness and congratulate the progress.
Additional motivational fuel:
- Sensing what fun it will be to get better.
- Anticipating how easy it will be to improve.
Yes, it needs to be easy, that’s kind of obvious. All those “________ For Idiots” and “________ For Dummies” books remind us that many people lack confidence in their learning abilities and want clear assurances that learning will be made easy for them. Reasonable enough. I’m the same way. What’s wrong with something being easy? If it’s too easy, just move ahead to the next thing. But if something is too hard, frustration is the result, and there’s a temptation to just give up.
So to summarize: To keep motivation high, maximize:
- A vision of increasing amounts of fun based on progress
- Social benefits of progress.
- A sense that it’s “too hard for me”. (“Maybe I’m not good enough.”)
What else dictates what we should teach our students?
The importance of the social situation
A great many beginning players make music exclusively by themselves. Often the only person who hears them is their teacher, or a family member. This is not natural!
One thing that’s great about bluegrass and banjo music is that so much of it can be reduced to a form simple enough for almost anyone to do it, and do it successfully with others. I use the expression, “The first rung of the ladder is very close to the ground.”
Once a person can successfully combine with others in the making of simple music, a commitment develops. The fun and the feeling of success in that experience builds a desire to improve, to practice.
How to gear your teaching to the social situation
It helps to imagine a situation where a person can play banjo in a group doing something that’s ultra-easy. A few basics:
- Electronic tuner
- Key of G. Female singers may prefer C or D, but it means either playing F or retuning the 5th string.
- Start with two chord songs, using just G and D7 (a 2-finger chord), or C and G (key of C)
- Easiest right hand (simple strum, then later a TITM roll)
- Easiest left hand (simple chord forms near the nut, no F chord or F-shape chords at first)
- Familiar songs (preferably ones that the student actually likes).
- Easy-going tempos.
- Somebody to do the singing.
Start Jamming– Right Away!
Once a person has an in-tune banjo in their lap, why not run through a number of nice G/D7 songs they know and have them strum along? No special technique required for the right hand. Just brush the strings with the thumb or any finger, in a regular downbeat rhythm. If a student is up to it, have him/her try a simple strum: thumb on the 3rd string on the downbeats, the index and/or middle on the offbeats.
Don’t use written music of any sort. It’s better for them to practice listening and watching (skills needed for jamming). They get the chords by following you.
You could start with kiddie songs like “Skip to My Lou” or “Go Tell Aunt Rhody”, or maybe bluegrass classics like “Handsome Molly”, “I’m Going Back to Old Kentucky”, or “My Home’s Across the Blue Ridge Mountains”, “Katy Daley”, or “Little Birdie”. For the over-40 crowd there are songs like “Tom Dooley” or “Down in the Valley”. For country fans, there’s “Take Me Back to Tulsa” and “Jambalaya”. Just have the student watch your left hand and change back and forth at the right time. These are all just 2-chord songs. It’s hard to mess them up!
The point is that, with a teacher leading the way, a student can actually be making banjo music immediately, in the first few minutes of trying. That has got to be a good feeling!
I spin out this initial blast of success and fun with a vision of the future:
You’ll learn one more chord (C, using three fingers) and this will open up a WHOLE WORLD of music, such as at least 80 percent of the repertoire of Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, and the Stanley Brothers– for starters. All that’s needed is someone to sing the song, and the banjo can play along. If the student is willing to sing, or even hum while looking at a songbook, there’s a clear path ahead.
Next will be learning rolls and adding them to chord changes. One TITM for each downbeat. Show how it sounds played slowly, then gradually increase the speed. Have the student strum lightly on each downbeat, and synchonize your roll to the strum.
For extra motivation, you can whet the student’s appetite by doing a slide on the 3rd string with this roll, like the B part of “Cripple Creek”. Do it up to speed, and make it sound great. (You’ll see them smile.)
Stress that a person can play all night long on song after song, with just three chords and a strum or a simple roll. Not fancy, but it’s workable music– a way of backing up singing and joining with other musicians.
I have this definition of “successful musician”: “a person who enjoys playing music”. Nothing more. After all, what is the primary purpose of music? Ability is great, but without the enjoyment, what’s the point? And if it’s enough fun, the person will do it more, and improve.
As Vince Gill sings in his song “The Key”, “Three chords on the banjo is the key to life.”
Teaching The Skills
For the first stage, the student needs to get comfortable with the basics of rhythm playing. Key skills involve knowing:
Chord changes– which chord and when it happens.
Forming chords accurately. Check by picking the strings slowly with the right hand, one by one. Listen for unclear notes, and correct.
- Changing chords quickly
- Changing chords without looking at the left hand
- Following chord changes by watching another player
- Remembering chord changes
- Anticipating chord changes.
- Maintaining steady rhythm while changing chords.
- Aligning rhythm properly with phrasing— the right number of strums per phrase, especially pauses in the lyrics between lines of a song.
These skills all come with practice. This is where students really need you to monitor their progress, to be encouraging and to congratulate them on their success.
The above steps amount to creating a musical foundation for your student. Keeping rhythm and following chord changes may be easy for some, but it is definitely not something to take for granted in your students. Be sure they are on solid footing before you move on.
How to Scout Good Jam Opportunities
Now it is most appropriate to help the student find some people to play with and start putting their skills to work.
Maybe the student already has a situation like that. More likely, he/she has a less-than-ideal jamming situation available, such as one where the level is over their head and where there is less-than-ideal attitude toward novices. Even if the experienced players try to be supportive, it’s still an intimidating situation. Being a wallflower/ wannabe in such a situation can actually be more discouraging than helpful.
What makes a good situation? Mostly, the presence of a person who can accurately sing a variety of banjo-friendly songs at comfortable tempos (70-90 beats/minute works well). Just one person like that is all a banjo player needs to get launched as a jammer.
In a pinch, you can be the student’s jam partner. But better they should connect with another musician or two or three who can enjoy and benefit from playing with a banjo player.
There are many people out there who could fit this need. The question is, how to find them? A few ways: Through music teachers, by scouting in person at festivals and jam sessions, and even by scouting through advertisements, such as index cards on music store bulletin boards.
If you’re a music teacher with several students of compatible abilities, you can arrange a group “jamming” lesson. You can show one person how to roll while the other strums. If you can get one or both to sing, using lyric sheets or songbooks, it won’t be long before they’re self-sufficient. Also, you or your student can call a guitar teacher and ask for help in finding a basic-level guitar player who’d enjoy jamming with a banjo player. The student could even offer the teacher a finder’s fee for their help, well worth it.
An added benefit to any teacher whose students are learning to jam is that now the students are likely to get a burst of motivation, which makes them learn better and be less likely to quit.
Scouting for good jam partners can be a lonely pursuit, but since the goal is finding just one good match, it’s worth the effort. Since the people who would fill the bill are likely to be “closet” players, they are sometimes hard to spot. Look for people who attend jams or festivals with instruments that they never seem to take out of the case. Strike up a conversation: “Do you play that?” When they say, “Not very well,” you can say, “Me neither. I play pretty slowly but I know some easy three chord songs. Want to play a little?” That might be all it takes.
Any way a teacher can facilitate their students’ finding jam buddies will pay off big time. It will go a lot farther than having them learn one more tab!
First Solos — Songs Are Best
It is definitely not time for the student to be taught Cripple Creek! It’s rare for a beginner to play the A part of Cripple Creek correctly– they almost always miss their timing on the double-length slide that must anticipate the first beat. It typically results in speeding up, breaking the comfort of a steady rhythmic feel.
Another popular but out-of-place choice is Blackberry Blossom. This one is way too hard, but I think teachers give it because it is pretty, even when played haltingly, and makes the student feel, a bit falsely, that they’re “on their way”. In reality, to play it correctly and at typical speed, is a long-term project, and one whose benefits don’t easily generalize to other tunes.
Speaking of which, even a nice and easy tune like “Doug’s Tune”, while a confidence-builder, does not easily generalize to other pieces.
Solos to songs tend to use common notes and licks that transfer easily to solos for other songs. Solos to songs are generally half the length of a typical two-part instrumental. Well known and well-loved songs such as Red River Valley, Will the Circle Be Unbroken, You Are My Sunshine, and Worried Man Blues can be learned in much less time than almost any instrumental, and have much more utility to the next steps of learning.
A short list of recommended first tab solos
“Bile Them Cabbage Down”, is a song and favorite, and also a definite confidence builder, though a bit atypical compared to most bluegrass songs. It is a song, but can be played as a tune. If taught as a one-roll (TMTIMTIM) song with the first note and the following index notes staying on the melody, it is a fine introduction to using that forward roll.
On my Beginning Bluegrass Banjo instruction video I teach four different rolls by applying each one to an entire song. I use classics: Shady Grove (alternating thumb), Handsome Molly (Foggy Mt. Breakdown roll), Big Ball’s in Boston (forward), and Worried Man Blues (forward-backward). These build confidence, and though quite simple compared to most basic solos, they do get the melody out. They show the students in a general way how the melody can be brought out with different rolls.
A few slides are required to play these tunes correctly. The teacher needs to monitor how the first arrangements are working, timing-wise. Things to watch out for:
- No fair starting and stopping. Work to keep the song moving at the right pace, in real time, even when mistakes happen.
- Rolls staying steady at 8 notes per roll, no aimless rolling along outside of the 8-note form (for now).
- No “re-locating” one’s spot in the song. That is, no jumping ahead or falling behind due to the wrong number of notes played along with a certain part of the song.
Once a student is rendering these tunes acceptably, it’s appropriate to try a few tablatures which combine the simple rolls. Simple songs with melodies found on the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th strings are best. Melodies on the 3rd and 4th are best, because the thumb falls there naturally, and any roll can be started on those strings (only some can start on the 2nd). My Bluegrass Banjo book offers simple versions of four familiar songs: She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain, Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Ballad of Jed Clampett, and Worried Man Blues.
If these are working all right, it’s time for a student to start creating arrangements on their own.
I first have a student try to find the melody on their own. Once they think they have it, I review it and make sure it’s plausible.
Next comes the big assignment, combining melody and rolls. This is a rather complicated trial and error task, one usually requiring quite a bit of patience and persistence despite frustration. This bridge of skill and understanding Scruggs-style bluegrass must be crossed at some point, and with a few memorized tabs under a student’s belt, I feel now is the time. A teacher can review and point out problems in the arrangement. Working through the problems will result in success at some point.
To assist a student with the challenging task of creating a rhythmically correct solo, I first have them make a play-along rhythm tape. They sing or audibly hum (or just say the words) in time while playing the simple chord changes. Ideal speed is about 70 or 80 beats per minute. It’s good to repeat the chord progression behind the solo at least five times in a row, to help them stay focused as they keep trying, and not have to rewind the tape. Computer programs like Band In a Box can make this task easy, if the student is able to practice in the same room as the computer. The demand of keeping up with an accompaniment in real time forces the student to avoid typical pitfalls such as frequent stops, starts, hesitations, and other rhythmic flaws. When the arrangement can finally flow, in time with the play-along recording, the job is done and it’s time for congratulations! The student has every reason to believe that this solo will really work in their jamming situation.
If the student has been doing all right up till now with the steps of learning, and has found people to make music with, there is enough of a reserve of motivation for them to endure the frustrations of this critical learning stage. You have given him/her enough foundation to make the task as easy as possible, but now it’s like walking or running or riding a bicycle– by doing it enough, the student will just “get the hang of it”, and put it into the “automatic” part of their brain, where the parts of what they’re doing blend into larger units that the conscious mind can learn to control. When the student comes out the other side of this process, they’ve “learned the style” and there’s no turning back. They’re hooked! Now they just have to build that soundproofed practice room or woodshed.
The observations and recommendations in this article are distilled from almost 40 years of teaching experience with a few thousand students. While I can’t claim they will fit everyone, they have worked for a great many. If the student really wants to play, these methods should keep the path as clear as possible, moving one rung at a time up the ladder, with a minimum of frustration and a maximum of optimism. I hope you’ll try these ideas with your own students. Let me know how they work, and what other ideas you have which may help our students learn to be successful musicians.