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 Playing Advice: Bluegrass (Scruggs) Styles
 ARCHIVED TOPIC: whats the best way to learn?

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bobbybanjo12 - Posted - 10/29/2008:  16:27:45

i play the guitar and the mandolin, but the banjo is seeming to be a bit harder to learn for me. i also dont spend anywhere as much time on practice tho. can someone tell me some good ways to practice, like how you started playing and what kinds of stuff i should be learning. oh i was also wondering about how to play banjo for rythym, do most people jsut pick the same chords the guitar is playing and jsut do simple rolls or how does it work?

twentyINCHwheel - Posted - 10/29/2008:  17:07:56

Buy "Earl Scuggs & the 5-String Banjo" by Earl Scuggs (aka the "black book").

Others will probably will (rightly so) recommend other books/learning methods, but the black book has been the standard for... well, since it's been out. Do find the most recent version, preferably with the CD. The original version of the book had numerous mistakes.

2000 Gibson custom shop RB-3 Wreath Top Tension
1970 Vega V.I.P.
2006 Deering Goodtime 2

Banjocoltrane - Posted - 10/29/2008:  17:14:52

Originally posted by bobbybanjo12
like how you started playing and what kinds of stuff i should be learning. oh i was also wondering about how to play banjo for rythym, do most people jsut pick the same chords the guitar is playing and jsut do simple rolls or how does it work?

You should learn your G, C, and D chords in at least two positions if you haven't already.
Then learn tunes, with progressively more difficult rolls....there is A LOT to banjo picking my friend.....just pick one thing and try to master it whatever it may be

frmertd - Posted - 10/29/2008:  17:44:49

my advice is to GET OUT NOW WHILE YOU STILL CAN. stop, don't play it. Otherwise you will end up like the rest of us!!!!

Lowell Patterson - Posted - 10/29/2008:  18:23:19

Bobby my advise is to get a good teacher, at least until you are well into the banjo. I didn't do that and I developed some bad habits, and I still have a lot of them. About playing rythem on the banjo, that is harder for me than diong the turn around breaks.

BigJohnSC - Posted - 10/29/2008:  18:45:21

Murphy Method-Beginning Banjo Volume 1.
This will get you playing songs quickly.


Tundraman - Posted - 10/29/2008:  18:51:21

Three best ways are... jam, jam and jam

Pickin a 2004 Hatfield Special (#4)
from the frozen tundra of Pasadena.

eagleisland - Posted - 10/29/2008:  19:15:42

No magic bullets.

1) Find a good teacher.
2) Practice, practice, practice.


"I was halfway to Old Kentucky when the drugs began to kick in." - Hunter S. Monroe

Brian T - Posted - 10/30/2008:  10:16:21

There are several things that you can try as a starter: Find a good teacher and take lessons. Buy and work in Earl's book. Murphy Method. DVD video lessons. That's 4 things. The Law of Thirds says that one of those will be most productive for you. Learn chords. Try to find and play with other people. Try Clawhammer. If you want to play Scruggs-style, there is no substitute for hours and hours of roll practice, playing tunes or not. I've put in about an hour a day for the past 8 months, so I'm qualified to say that I feel really clumsy, the tunes are puzzles but fun, playing by ear is beginning to emerge and I am not bored in the least. Learn to endure bad jokes about your "drum-on-a-stick."

We do not know where we are going.
Nor do most of us care.
For us, it is enough that we are on our way.
Le Matelot

mbuk06 - Posted - 10/30/2008:  10:44:45

...there seems to be a theme developing here. It fits with my experience of learning too so my suggestions aren't going to be much different:

a) practice
b) find a good teacher
c) jam when you can

oh, and

d) have fun!

''Don''t worry about the world coming to an end today. It''s already tomorrow in Australia.'' - Charles Schulz

zeeway - Posted - 10/30/2008:  10:50:19

Third vote for Murphy Method Beginning Banjo DVD Vol1.

sjyokel - Posted - 10/30/2008:  11:40:37

It's much easier (IMHO) to look like you know what you're doing on the guitar. Banjo is completely different. Start from the beginning and work your way through whatever beginner method works for you...the same rolls and licks you learn in those songs will come in useful later when you're learning backup (there is no "rhythm" banjo in bluegrass's usually called backup).

But, you can always vamp if you're jamming and need to have something to do. (If you don't know what vamping is, there's your next new topic to post).

And yes, follow the chords the guitar player is playing (until you've learned a little bit of theory or develop your ear enough to go off on your own).

thetexan - Posted - 10/30/2008:  12:10:08

OH YES THERE IS a magic bullet! Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. And it's called a system of methodic study and practice.

By strickly adhering to a methodical, systematic regimen of practice, study, drills and more practice you can allmost guarantee your success at learning the banjo. What frustrates and retards most learners who progress at a rate unsatisfactory and unsatisfying to themselves is a haphazard, catch as catch can approach to learning this instrument.

Most people say practice, practice, practice. I say, in addition to that, system, system, system! What that system is is another topic. But whatever it is, and there is plenty of good advise on this subject, whether using instructors, tabs, books, drills, or jams, design a system that teaches in a systematic manner, that covers all areas of banjo playing knowledge and be consistent in your devotion to following that system.


Edited by - thetexan on 10/30/2008 12:12:34

Richard Dress - Posted - 10/30/2008:  12:40:36


(What follows applies to the newbies who for some reason or the other don't have a real live back and forth teacher.)

I think that yours is an important observation and should be a topic on it's own. There is so much instructional information out there right now that the real problem with learning to play the banjo is selecting just the important learning material and a formula that shows us how to put it all together.

There are a number of different systems out there, also. And the problem of selection comes up again: "which way is the right way for me?". Should I pick the Murphy Method, the Janet Davis method, Homespun Tapes, or what? Many of the newbies are posting questions like that. If they don't choose the proper disciplined approach, they will wast a lot of time and ability.

I am sure they could get some good advice from the many teachers on the hangout if they would post a sound file that could be analyzed. Sound files posted at BHO are not really just there to be admired for their virtuosity; they are a wonderful tool for helping developing banjo players get some very useful feedback. If my sound file is perfect, then I can get no useful feedback from the members. My time is wasted and the listener's time is wasted. They pat me on the back and help reinforce my false sense of accomplishment.

What I am trying to get across here is this. Use the BHO sound file option to help you become a better banjo player. It's easy to do. A USB mic can be purchased for the price of a couple of Happy Meals.

chazmataz - Posted - 10/30/2008:  13:06:38

Richard, Tex - all valid points. I think y'all are picking up on the original poster's words as seeming sort of broad, scattergun, casual, so to speak.

bobbybanjo - also read the other thread on teaching myself.

Remember the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz - The correct path depends on where you want to go.

What is it you want to accomplish with the banjo?


Brian T - Posted - 10/30/2008:  13:42:39

Is it possible to come up with a "grocery list" of what might be called "elements of practice", playing components that should not be missed in each and every practice session?
So, a list would be needed for each of what, four or five "styles" of playing?
Each day (each practice) for Scruggs-style, I do half a dozen different rolls over and over 10X each, (thanks to various BHO posters for those). Then each of those with a variety of chords. Then some tunes 2X that I like to think that I can play. Then some tunes that I'm really having a struggle with. Then chord along through some tunes that, some day, I'd like to be able to pick as well. No particular order.
Suppose I got interested in CH, what does a quality, daily practice session consist of?

We do not know where we are going.
Nor do most of us care.
For us, it is enough that we are on our way.
Le Matelot

Richard Dress - Posted - 10/30/2008:  14:31:52


Banjo Newsletter periodically runs a series of beginner articles. These topics you are asking about are always addressed one way or another. Sign up and wait or get some back issues of "Beginner's Corner".

And I imagine you will get a lot of answers from the list, as well. We could be more helpful if you put up a sound file.

I would guess that what you describe as practice is a pretty good plan.

rstieg - Posted - 10/30/2008:  15:23:12

Well, I learned from a combination of Janet Davis' YCTYB, Murphy Henry DVD's, a few early lessons from a very good local instructor (Bill Evans), Bill's Acutab UTN backup DVD, and a wide variety of other books and DVD's, but mostly from those first 4. I've also attended camps and enjoyed them a lot, though I'm not sure I learned a lot from them. Once I got through the first year or so I started going to a regular jam twice a month, and that has also a huge help. Now I also run a slow jam twice a month.

Personally I think it's critical to get a good book that starts with the basics and progresses through various songs and styles, adding licks as you progress, which is how the Janet Davis book and (I'm told) Jack Hatfield's Bluegrass Banjo Method Volume 1 work, and possibly a few others. That really helps you to develop a proper repertoire of licks that are so much a part of bluegrass banjo, or at least Scruggs Style. So I guess I'd say I'm a proponent of trying a lot of different things and focus on what seems to work best for you.

Regarding practice, the idea of a system is probably a good suggestion (within reason), though I know some people are a lot more organized than others. I've always been pretty consciencious about practice and still average 7-10 hours a week of practice plus playing time (jams and gigs), and I think that's really critical as well. I suspect it's probably rare for someone to progress well enough to be satisfied if they're only playing 3-4 hours a week or less.

Pleasanton, CA

The truth is a moving target... perception is more important than reality... everything is relative...

Edited by - rstieg on 10/30/2008 15:25:36

thetexan - Posted - 10/30/2008:  18:17:27

Brian and Bobbybanjo,

Yes, there is a fairly simple formula to creating a strategic plan of study and practice for the banjo; a sylabus. This applies to just about any subject you wish to learn but I will constrain my points to the banjo.

First, you have to decide, deep within, just how much you want to learn the banjo. I will compare this to the piano, Do you want to be able to just play some chords as accompaniment, become a piano teacher, be able to play the piano in a church, or become a concert qualitiy pianist? Each require a different level of committment and stategy. Just how much of a master of the banjo do you want to become? Let me give you a hint. To be like Ron Block, J.D. Crowe, Tony, or even a good band banjoist you are talking on the level of an 7, 8, or 9 on a scale of 1 to 10. Let's say you want to be really good, competent, and be a welcomed addition to any jam session rather than a shy, no-confidence, player who always sits in the back of a jam session and never really excells.

Now, you have to create a plan of action to learn. Without going into the detail of this, let me just say that this plan will start with fundamentals, and keep building systematically upon what you already know; a step by step process.

Here is an example. First a few chords, then changes between those chords, just left hand. Then some rolls to make those chords come alive. Then some other chords. Both up and down the neck. Then more rolls. Now connecting licks and basic licks. And so on and so onl

Each step adding to and building upon what you have already perfected. Slowly and methodically. Every day adding to your knowledge. Little by little consistently and methodically. Then scales and the study of scales. This is very important because it opens up the fingerboard to you. On and on. It never stops. You stop when you think you know enough to fullfill whatever dream you have. Practice and practice. It never stops until you say "uncle".

There are dozens of books on the market that present a method of learning for you. Earl's, Janet's, Tony's and on and on. What you are doing is buying their "system" but make no mistake about it, what they all have in common is that they present a system of learning. And most are very good.

But you can also expound upon their basic sylabus. For example you can delve into a detailed study of the fingerboard and scales. Or position 3 and 4 licks and chords. You design something that interest you. Just stick to it consistently. 10 minutes of practice a day is better than 1 hour a week. 30 min a day is better. And two hours a day is really what it's gonna take to jump start your studies.

I have written extensively on the subject of learning systems. Here are a few previous topics where I have posts that deal with this very issue.. There are dozens others and I will leave it to you to research further.

I hope this helps.

Yes, there is a grocery list of things to study and work on and an order to do them in. There are many sources of advise and info.

Here is the best tip of the night. I will capitalize this since it is so absolutely critical to your success.


I say this not to discourage you but to give you and others a sense of reality, and, in fact, encourage you. There is no magic pill or bullet. Just dedicated, and fun, toil and persistence, and the wonderful reward that awaits you on the other side.

Now, go out and add youself to that list of fine players. We are here to help.


P.S. In fact, this formula is a "magic bullet" in a way, as I stated in the earlier post. It is magic in that there are guaranteed results. If you take this magic pill (ie. dilligently and methodically follow a system of study and practice) YOU WILL GET GOOD, and much faster than you would imagine!

Edited by - thetexan on 10/31/2008 11:56:57

Richard Dress - Posted - 10/30/2008:  19:59:08

Again Tex passes on a treasure chest of good information. His "Best Tip" is right on the money. This Tip applies to students with banjo teachers, as well as with those BHO members like bobbybanjo22 who are struggling to make it by themselves.

sjyokel - Posted - 10/31/2008:  07:38:16

Dang straight. Tex always does have good advice...even if it's not the kind you want to hear.

Tex, I'd be interested in seeing your idea of a syllabus. I bet that would start some great conversation right there.

Brian T - Posted - 10/31/2008:  12:16:48

Thank you Tex. With the luxury of retirement comes the ability, at last, for ME to plan what I want to do (and when). Strange sensation to be in charge, at last. I hope to read all your posts in the above list and take notes. Yeah, this will take work. Done hard work before, lived through it. I'm finding more and more that rolls, as stand-alone little things, have their own sound-sense to me. Like words, they seem to have individual voices. Moreso than 6 months ago. I confess that I have a blank music book that I put those in when I find them. Example: Bela Fleck's intro in Rodney Crowell's number: "Earthbound."

I listen to Sirius ch65/Bluegrass most of the time. One thing that I hear in banjo playing technique (and it applies to all of the above), is that the pickers accentuate certain notes in a roll but other notes seem to be played more softly. If a measure/bar consisted of just simple 8 x 1/8 notes, is there a plan for which notes are to be played more loudly,forcefully?

We do not know where we are going.
Nor do most of us care.
For us, it is enough that we are on our way.
Le Matelot

thetexan - Posted - 11/12/2008:  12:03:53


The quick answer is yes. Im not avoiding a solid answer but here is the simplistic answer.

Someone wants to learn 'bounce'.
They hear something they like that's bouncy and want to learn.

First step is discovering why you dont sound like that now. What about what you are doing is not producing bounce.

Second step is discovering the recipe for having bounce. This is academic in nature and can be understood even by people who dont know how to make it happen.

Third step is discovering what you need to do to create the bounce.

Here is the important step. Create a drill that is designed to fix whatever is in the way of you sucessfully sounding bouncy. It may be something you wouldnt expect. Such as the way you normally tap your foot, or the way you count to yourself or the way you simply think about the song. It could be anything.

The point is, before you can solve a problem you have to correctly identify the problem. And anything that stands between your present condition and the place you want to be can be listed as a problem.

And, remember, problems can, in turn, be divided into smaller sub-problems, each one requiring its own solution and drill. This is how I teach someone anything, including banjo.


moparbanjo - Posted - 11/12/2008:  23:46:28

If your not concerned so much about the melody and just wanting to pick, learn the alternating thumb pattern, and cords and go picking, its boaring but it will get you out of the house right in the jam, till you can learn more rolls slides ect...


robin jones - Posted - 11/13/2008:  06:03:14

Find a good teacher. If that's not an option work through the Black Book while keeping in mind the right hand is the key. As your right hand comes together learn tunes, fill in licks, and endings and before you know it you'll be up and running.

RJ''s Flatpicker Hangout Home Page

"I find your lack of faith disturbing." Darth Vader

ValleyBoy - Posted - 11/13/2008:  11:15:40

Originally posted by thetexan

P.S. In fact, this formula is a "magic bullet" in a way, as I stated in the earlier post. It is magic in that there are guaranteed results. If you take this magic pill (ie. dilligently and methodically follow a system of study and practice) YOU WILL GET GOOD, and much faster than you would imagine!

That is the true prescription to success!

Nothing beats personal one-on-one instruction!
Learn to Play Bluegrass
Hensley''s Bluegrass Music

steve davis - Posted - 11/13/2008:  15:21:42

You gotta want it.

"If it sounds good..."

budforte - Posted - 11/14/2008:  03:07:20

There is a magic formula. It is called "Magic Banjo Dust". Take one big WHIFF, ADD TWENTY THOUSAND HOURS OF SYSTEMATIC, CONCENTRATED PRACTICE, and eventually you will get pretty good.

Morgan Monroe Militia.........Sometimes you gotta fight back!

KevinP - Posted - 11/14/2008:  03:30:23

I've been trying to play by ear more lately. I'd like to be able to jam better and I'm hoping that will help. It just takes a lot of time and practice to learn all the rolls and licks and then figuring out how to use them in songs. You'll have to try different approaches and see what works best for you.

Just when you think it can''t get any better, it just keeps getting better.

Edited by - KevinP on 11/14/2008 03:33:05

Ryanhere - Posted - 11/15/2008:  07:31:02

I started with a Sammy Shelor tab book and learned every song note for note. You'll probably forget some of it as time passes but you'll get a lot of great licks under your belt in the process.

I would give an effort to practicing each day if possible. Just a few minutes a day on your banjo will really help you to progress quickly. has a lot of great tablature books.

When it comes to playing rhythm you'll want to learn how to vamp or "chunk" on the banjo. You're just picking the same chords as the rest of the band and also throwing in some extra chords to help lead the rest of the members in your jam.

Have fun picking!


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