PHASE ONE: BARE BONES BANJO
Prerequisite: Get a banjo in playable condition (see pages 124-5 of Bluegrass Banjo)
Non-playing assignment: Get a songbook (page 13, BGB), records (pp 138-41 BG B,) strap for the banjo (p 126, BG B). Find a regular place to practice.
- Learn to tune the banjo. If you can’t do it very well, find someone who can teach you to do it. (pp 9-10, BG B) Before playing, you must always get the banjo in tune.
- Learn the basic chords. Learn G, D7 and C (p 11, BG B). When holding each chord, pick the strings one by one to see if each is ringing clear. If not, make adjustments. Learn to change chords in a second or less, continually checking to see that each string rings clear. Work toward not having to look at your left hand while changing chords quickly and accurately.
- Learn several songs. With either a songbook or a teacher, start with songs using just G and D7, then try some with G, C and D7 (pp 14-17, BG B). Brush or strum the strings any way that feels comfortable and sing along, or at least say or hum the words to yourself. To consider a song “learned”, you should be able to play through it smoothly without stopping and without looking at written music.
- Learn some more songs and some more chords. Learn at least a dozen or so songs before going on to Phase Two. Learn how to transpose songs from one key to another (p 12, BG B), so you can learn songs not presented in G in a songbook. This will also enable you to put songs into C or other keys when they’re hard to sing in G.
- Learn chords such as F, A, G7, D, Em, Am, E, and B (page 14, BG B) as new songs require them.Some of the harder chords like F or Am may come slowly. Keep working on them while you move on to later steps.
Goals of Phase One: Develop basic left hand ability, sense of rhythm, sense of chord changes. Build confidence to continue.
Pacing: If you are of average aptitude and have a medium level of dedication (three or four hours a week of goal-oriented practice), you are likely to get through Step 3 within a month or even a week. Step 4 might take another two weeks.
Pep Talk: These few steps will prepare an excellent foundation for learning three-finger picking. However, if you never progress past this point, you can still consider yourself a banjo player and get great enjoyment from playing.
While it’s not a necessary learning step yet, you can now play with other musicians. Doing just that will help your playing in a variety of ways. If you have the chance, do it!
PHASE TWO: GETTING ROLLING
Prerequisite: Steps 1, 2, and 3 above.
Non-playing assignment: Listen to your bluegrass records, especially the banjo playing. Get a set of fingerpicks (p 125 BG B). Observe good banjo players as often and as closely as possible.
- Learn two rolls (p 19 BG B). To consider a roll “learned” you should be able to play it perfectly, continuously six times in 15 seconds, without looking at written music.
- For each roll, learn to change chords once every two measures without breaking the speed of the roll. Work from easier patterns (G, D7, G, D7) to harder ones (G, C, D7, C, G). Make up your own. Learn to change chords once each measure.
- Play some easy, familiar songs from Phase One. Play them just as before, but instead of brushing the strings with your right hand, play one of the two rolls you know. Be sure to play one full roll for each two down-beats. Re-learn several songs from Phase One this way. Before proceeding to the next step, be sure you can play at least two three-chord songs with each roll, without breaking time.
- Learn two more rolls and learn to use them in two songs each (p 19 BG B).
- Learn to vary the strings your thumb hits while maintaining a particular roll (p 21 BG B).
Goals of Phase Two: Develop basic right hand dexterity, develop steady right hand timing. Combine left and right hand moves without breaking time.
Pacing: If you are of average aptitude and practice hard for at least three hours a week, you can aim to get through Phase Two in about two months.
Pep talk: Once you get through this phase you will already be able to impress people at parties, accompany singing with a roll, and provide yourself with endless entertainment.
PHASE THREE: PICK OUT TUNES
Prerequisite: An in-tune banjo
- l. Pick out do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do starting with the third string open (G). That is a G scale, and songs in the key of G use those notes. Learn by sight the notes on the first, second, third, and fourth strings that are in the G scale up to the 5th fret. No need now to know their names.
- Pick out, by trial and error, the melodies to several songs in the key of G. Memorize them.
Goals of Phase Three: Develop sense of melody. Learn locations on neck of most-likely-to-be-used notes.
Pacing: There is a great deal of trial and error here, which can be frustrating. For some it will come much slower than for others. Natural aptitude or experience (especially at singing or playing a melodic instrument) has an influence here. However, with coaching, even someone with very little natural ability should be able to develop this skill in a few weeks by spending an average of a half-hour a day on it. Include both Phase Two practicing and Phase Three practicing in your practice sessions. Both are prerequisites for Phrase Four.
PHASE FOUR: PUT IT TOGETHER AND PICK TUNES THREE-FINGER STYLE
Prerequisite: Phases One, Two and Three (Optional: Phase Five)
Non-playing assignments: Get a capo for playing along with records in the key of A (pp 125-6 BG B) . Listen very carefully to records featuring good basic banjo playing. Learn how to read tablature (p 18 BG B).
- Learn two elementary solos from tablature (pp. 25-28 BG B). Commit a measure or two at a time to memory. To consider a song “learned” you should be able to play a 16-measure solo in 25 seconds, smoothly and accurately, without looking at the tablature.
- Carefully read and play through the segment in Bluegrass Banjo (pp. 22-25) about constructing an arrangement to Coming Round the Mountain.
- Try to construct an arrangement of your own the same way. Use one of your favorites among the simpler songs you worked on in Phases Two and Three.
- Check the accuracy of the arrangement. Have a music teacher or someone else you trust musically tell you whether your arrangement is melodically and rhythmically correct. Correct as necessary.
- Construct arrangements of two more tunes.
- Play your arrangement of a song along with a recorded version of that song. The recorded version could be a home recording with you or someone else chording along on banjo or guitar.
- (Optional) Learn some more elementary arrangements from tablature.
Goals of Phase Four: This phase is the critical point where in my estimation a person crosses the magic line over to “bluegrass banjo player”. Using a three-finger roll to play a simple melody line surrounded by other notes, is the essence of the bluegrass banjo style. At this point you’ve got it and everything else is embellishment!
Pacing: Since this learning step is a jump in learning, and not based just on memorization and practice, it is hard to predict how long it may take someone to truly learn it. For a somewhat dedicated student it shouldn’t take longer than a year. It could take as little as a week or two if you’ve got the momentum and you’re gung-ho.
PHASE FIVE: BLUEGRASSY LEFT HAND EMBELLISHMENTS
Prerequisite: Know how to pick at least two tunes from Step 3 of Phase Four, straight through without having to look at tablature. (Note: As noted in Prerequisites to Phase Four, it’s possible that slides, hammer-ons and pull-offs may be learned before Phase Four. However, for the sake of reaching the Phrase Four plateau as soon as possible, it may be easier to tackle these left hand techniques after the basics of picking out tunes are learned.)
- Learn how to hammer-on, first on a single picked string, then as an embellishment on the first note of a roll (p 29 BG B). Be careful that the hammer-on doesn’t affect the even right hand flow of notes.
- Learn slides the same way (pp 29-30 BG B).
- Learn pull-offs the same way (p 31 BG B).
- Learn some stock licks using hammer-ons, slides and pull-offs. (pp 29-36 BG B).
- Incorporate some of your newly-learned licks into arrangements you are working on from Phase Four.
Goal of Phase Five: These left-hand techniques combined with the hard-won right-hand knowledge gained in Phase Four are what makes your playing sound like bluegrass!
Pacing: If a somewhat dedicated student avoids rhythmic difficulties adding the new moves in, it shouldn’t take more than a week or two to incorporate them comfortably. As in Phase Four, it’s a good idea to have a better player listen to you and let you know if you have rhythm problems.
PHASE SIX: NECESSARY LICKS
Prerequisite: At least three arrangements with left-hand embellishments learned and comfortable.
- Learn more stock lead-in licks, tag licks, endings. (pp 38-45 BG B).
- Apply each new lick within an arrangement.
- Revamp your arrangements to include lead-ins and tags wherever appropriate.
Goal of Phase Six: These licks are the last link in constructing convincingly bluegrassy arrangements. You now have the skills to do the main things required of a banjo player in a bluegrass band: play along in rhythm and take a solo. You are no longer a beginner! From now on you can think of yourself as intermediate level. To become advanced technically now just means learning to sound better and learning more material. In a manner of speaking, having built your boat, you are now ready to put it out on the river.