Let’s assume you have mastered the essentials of playing in time, in tune, and changing chords at the appropriate time. Beyond these bare basics which are generally agreed to be necessities of musicianship, “even experts may disagree” over which musical qualities are most important to cultivate. As a clear indication of this, the judging criteria of the many banjo contests around the country are not at all standardized, and are sometimes hotly debated. And of course, not all banjo playing can be judged by “contest” criteria. There are skills that apply only to playing in a group context.

Probably the most complete and sensible set of contest skill criteria I’ve yet seen was compiled by Rod Bellville for use at the First Annual Minnesota Bluegrass Festival in 1978. I present it here as a starting point for a list of valued musical qualities for you to check yourself against. By selecting some areas you think are most important for you to address, you will start the process that will help you set up a practice program for yourself that will lead to your improving in those areas. Here are Rod Bellville’s “Criteria for Judging”:

  • Tone quality.
  • Delicacy and finesse and sensitivity to the musical qualities of the tune.
  • Time and rhythm, i.e., playing in meter, not necessarily rigid, but flowing and free from balkiness, clumsiness, and erratic unevenness. Credit given to sensitive nuance of rhythm, syncopation. Music should not seem stiff, jerky or mechanical.
  • Dynamics, use of loud and soft variation, interest and emphasis.
  • Tuning and playing in tune.
  • Execution. Relative freedom from mistakes, rattles, buzzing, scratchy or unpleasant tone or sloppy playing.
  • Originality of interpretation and improvisation, pleasant and interesting, not shocking.
  • Difficulty. Credit shall be given for technical mastery.
  • Comfortable appearance on stage while performing, freedom from unpleasant gestures, postures or expressions; showmanship.
  • Effective use of microphone. It is the contestants’ responsibility to make their performance clearly heard throughout.

This list is pretty thorough for contest playing, but it doesn’t cover some areas which would certainly be considered part of what makes a “complete” banjo player:

  • More repertoire (more banjo tunes, instrumentals in general, songs for which you can play a solo)
  • “Drive” (volume, verve, authority)
  • Ability to play in different keys (C, D, E, F)
  • Ability to play in different tempos
  • Ability to make up interesting solos
  • Sing harmony parts
  • Back-up skills
  • Speed
  • Ability to learn new ideas more quickly (from tab, or other musicians or records)
  • Recognizable style and sound
  • More licks
  • More knowledge of musical structures (“music theory”)
  • Improvisational skills, spontaneous “thinking on your feet”

Rod Bellville’s list mentions “Difficulty… technical mastery”. This could be interpreted to imply mastery of a variety of difficult moves or techniques. Some categories of challenging techniques:

  • Melodic style
  • Single string style
  • Right hand triplets
  • Fancy pull-offs
  • Difficult right hand patterns, such as backward rolls
  • Incorporating syncopations

This is a pretty long list of possible practice goals, and of course you can add anything else your heart desires (jazz, Irish tunes, D-tuner techniques, etc.). In time, hopefully, you may put in some work on all of the areas listed. But for the present, how do you decide on a few of the highest priority areas to concentrate on? Some of the choices will be determined by your goals as a banjo player. That is, with what kinds of players do you want to play, how formally or informally, whom if anybody are you trying to impress, and so forth. Since everybody wants to be “good” and to improve generally, which of the above goals, if you accomplish them, will do the most to make you more “good”? In whose eyes? Your fellow musicians? Contest judges? A potential girlfriend? A semi-knowledgeable bluegrass audience? Or just your own?

Everyone is likely to answer these questions a little differently. Give each question some thought and see what it implies for your learning priorities. Once you have your goals set and prioritized, you’re in a better position to make meaningful progress.