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 ARCHIVED TOPIC: How long does it take to become a "banjo player"?

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JMalmsteen - Posted - 04/20/2013:  21:11:26

I have been at this for two years.  I'm wondering how long it takes to become a "banjo player," i.e. someone who can play banjo in a band or even a jam.  Is five years reasonable? I know some people take naturally to this kind of thing and can become proficient in the matter of a few months, but under normal circumstances if there is such a thing.  I'll post an example of two years in. I recorded this first take after practicing this maybe ten times through, so it's an accurate indication, nothing polished here. At the moment, if I go to a jam, I just bring a mandolin because the banjo players at the jam I go to, sound like "banjo players."  I'm not complaining.  Worst case scenario, I'm a guitar player, so I can always just play guitar, been doing that for most of my life so it's like breathing, but I really do like this banjo thing.  My long term goal with this is to play at jams and bluegrass festivals when I retire in twenty years.

(This is partially in response to reading here that you shouldn't play certain songs if you can't play them up to speed. I can't play them up to speed yet.  We've had the speed discussion, and there is the idea that if you can't play it, don't. I'm wondering how long the "being able to play it" usually takes people.  So, in my head, I think people feel that you shouldn't bring a banjo to a jam unless you can play maybe 70% as well as Earl, from what I've read here)

Edited by - JMalmsteen on 04/20/2013 21:33:49

brunomathilda - Posted - 04/20/2013:  21:37:51


Take your banjo with you.

Watch ,listen,when you are ready take a shot.Till then ,smile and say I"ll pass.

Any way to answer your question.

Years .

But don't let that stop you.

And if I remember well ,you have some fantastic banjos,they have to be play.

Go out and shine.

Best of luck

JMalmsteen - Posted - 04/20/2013:  21:44:35

We saw Don Rigsby tonight and he had a banjo player filling in who has been playing for 38 years. Of course, he sounded like a real banjo player. He had a beautiful Stelling Masterpiece that he let me play. That was a nice instrument. They asked me how long I have been playing, and I said I was pretty new, and they just looked at me funny and said I wasn't new. Maybe not super new, but not "ready to play in a bluegrass band."   I'm wondering at what point, someone who is on stage started to sound like they belonged there. With guitar, I started at 7, and was pretty good by 13, able to play Guns n' Roses Appetite for Destruction solos. I was also able to practice constantly without much to worry about. When I was old enough to play in bands, I was just able to play in bands. It wasn't an issue. I'm wondering with life as an adult, working, and what have you, what the time line will be like for people who have been there.

If anyone can post where they have been at two years or even five, that would be great. Or, direct me to sound files. Maybe I just need more patience.

Edited by - JMalmsteen on 04/20/2013 21:46:56

JimmyBobby - Posted - 04/20/2013:  22:29:22

just play 

TopoG - Posted - 04/20/2013:  22:36:42

Congratulations, Jen.  As long as you want to keep playing and learning the banjo, you are a "bonifide" Banjo Player!!  So your speed isn't up to par or you hesitate on some of the chord changes 'cause it still feels new or...insert any other reason.  Insert all the reasons!  I don't care!  To me, you are still a Banjo Player.

IMO the day you picked up a banjo, learned a few chords, a few licks and rolls, maybe learned to strum out a song or two and said "I want to play the banjo!", THAT'S the day you became a banjo player.


PS  Using the criteria I mentioned above to your question "How long does it take to become a banjo player'?" . . . about fifteen seconds.  To be able to become, in YOUR estimation about yourself, a banjo player, forever.  JMO

TopoG - Posted - 04/20/2013:  22:39:13

And I agree with JimmyBobby.....................Just play!

joemac - Posted - 04/20/2013:  23:07:28

Jens Kruger said at one his workshops , just enjoy where you are with it, don't miss the moment by striving to be further on and concerned about it all. It's an enjoyment thing. I think this is what you may be doing, we all have different learning curves so comparisons are hard to make. Remember , there a folk out there who wish they could play like you do now!!

phb - Posted - 04/21/2013:  00:02:43

Originally posted by JMalmsteen

I'm wondering how long it takes to become a "banjo player," i.e. someone who can play banjo in a band or even a jam.  Is five years reasonable? [...] My long term goal with this is to play at jams and bluegrass festivals when I retire in twenty years.

When I started, I thought five years would be a good time to become any good. Now that I have been playing half that time, I know that I'll never make it in that time. Five years might be enough in a situation where you have hardly any obligations and lots of time for practise. I share your long term goal, though. My line of thought is that I will have been playing badly for 20 years when my kids leave home which ought to be some headstart in comparison to starting in 20 years...

Tam_Zeb - Posted - 04/21/2013:  00:08:41

Hi Jen

April 2008 I started picking... So I guess I have been at it five years now, but I still have a ways to go. I guess it takes a lifetime of study, enjoy where your at, tomorrow you'll be that little bit better.

I certainly see a marked improvement in what I can do now than what I was doing three years ago. I try more challenging material every week. Stuff I thought was way beyond my skill level three years ago I now find relatively easy. Where I live I don't get much opportunity to play with others so I compensate with audio and video tracks.

The speed thing does come. It's not something I focus on all the time but every once in a while I will sit down with the metronome and just practice my roll patterns. My goal is not so much to build speed but to play smoothly and in time with the click.

From personal experience I tend to think that speed is not really governed by how quickly you can play rolls  I am of the opinion it is more to do with what your doing with you fretting hand. How quickly you move from one position to the next.

When your learning to play, these are thought processes, when you have learned those processes you stop thinking about them and just do it.

When your learning to drive a car your thought processes are split between the controls and the open road. Once you have learned to drive you don't think about the controls you focus on the open road and you trust your brain to manage the controls..

Driving a car involves multitasking, it's the same with the banjo.. If you put your foot down hard on the gas you best be sure you have the confidence to control you vehicle. Thinking in those terms may help you overcome any doubts or fears you may have with your banjo. You don't become a skill driver sitting behind the wheel in your garage you get out on the open road.  

I learned to drive in my twenties although I did have a few unofficial off road lessons in my early teens. I would rank myself as an advanced driver today.

 If it's a consolation to you I didn't start picking banjo till I was 60 - They say that you can't teach an old dog new tricks. So I guess this old dog has shattered that myth.

Enjoy the learning process.


banjoman56 - Posted - 04/21/2013:  02:40:31

Jen, I've listened to several recordings that you have posted and believe me, you're doing great for the time you've been playing. My advise would be take your banjo to the jams and if you don't feel comfortable at first, just play softly in the background. Also, don't listen to those that tell you that you need to be 70% as good as Earl, before playing in jams or bands. That would eliminate everyone but a few professionals.

overhere - Posted - 04/21/2013:  02:41:41

I think the moment you become a banjo player is when you forget about worrying if you’ll make a mistake and just start playing the songs using what you do know and filling in with what you think you know. Also getting rid of the negative visuals your brain is seeing as to who plays it what way and all those little tab distraction things zinging around in your head. Start to listen to the songs your head and heart are singing. Quit worrying about how Earl does it, Doyle, or whom ever, and concentrate on what you can do as your own contribution .
Start by singing along with what you are playing. If what you learned is not working, try using a different roll pattern as you sing. Try to keep a smooth flow as opposed to again how others say it should be played. The Lord knows there would not be all those great pickers if everyone did it just like Earl or JD.
If you think the jam has too many accomplished players then seek out a jam that is more to your liking. Despite the theory that superiority will get you there faster, being outclassed will only discourage. Which apparently already has. To add to that, find a friend near by where you can regularly can get together to play some bluegrass at a level that gives you the assistance a banjo players needs. A good guitar player is invaluable.
You must know, because you’ve played guitar so long that the flow you must have gotten with the guitar is the same flow used for any instrument. Transfer some of that to your banjo playing. If a roll don’t fit use some vamps or pinches until you can figure out what to do.
Encouragement; from what I see you are making good progress and I would say your at the point where your on the door step….perhaps a pro teacher is in order. If you can afford zillion dollar banjos you can afford a few exotic lessons here and there.
Anyway good luck I know you will reach your goals.

pjfolino - Posted - 04/21/2013:  03:25:14

"...don't miss the moment by striving to be further on and concerned about it all".

I like that a lot.

JMalmsteen - Posted - 04/21/2013:  03:46:00

Thanks, everyone. I'm not discouraged, just curious how long it normally takes to be "stage ready" if you have started as an adult. I know it's different for everyone, just curious from those who have been there. The advice here really is useful though. I do appreciate the journey and do have patience. I have taken a few Skype lessons and am not a huge fan of it, I would love to take some lessons in person. There aren't too many banjo players around here. I'm hoping over the summer to take some live lessons. I did contact someone recently about Skype and am willing to try it again. Yeah, having some nice banjos does bring considerable joy to my existence :)
(It's Sunday, I'm also realizing that part of me is definitely violating the thou shalt not cover part of this!)

Edited by - JMalmsteen on 04/21/2013 03:52:46

PaulB - Posted - 04/21/2013:  04:08:11

i was going to post the ? the other day when can you call your self a banjo player. because i was playing a tune the other day in the club house when some one came in and asked  areyou the banjo player who live,s here ?  that promped the ? when can you call your self a banjo player. the above post have answered that question for me. paulb

beegee - Posted - 04/21/2013:  05:33:38

I think you must serve a 7-year apprenticeship, then take the

Seriously, there is not a line of demarcation.The way to become a banjo player in a band is to become a banjo player in a band. The sooner you start, the more quickly it will happen. It is a journey, not a destination. When I started playing, I found some folks right away and just started playing with them. It wasn't good at the start, but It soon "became" a band. It's in the want-to and then the want-to defines the process. If you are willing to spend the time and money and exert the effort, it will accelerate the process. I know some folks who have natural talent but no ambition and others who have ambition and no talent. Only when you are driven to become  the best banjo player you can be and act on those impulses will you know.

I have been playing a long time, have played with a lot of bands, yet  I don't feel as if I have "arrived" and often wonder where I would have been if I had been willing to give up the security of home and hearth and family and a steady job to pursue my musical inclinations.


PS I just listened to some of your sound files and I think you display a very solid technique. I think the thing for you to do today is to get with some serious pickers and go for it, hard and heavy. You're ready to be pushed.

Edited by - beegee on 04/21/2013 05:49:20

5 finger ninja - Posted - 04/21/2013:  05:58:25

One Ive noticed about myself, if I try to play fast all the time I start getting sloppy. I have to make myself practice slower, steady with a strong attack. The more I do that the more I progress. Then the fast stuff comes out a lot smoother. It takes me a while to warm up though. My goal is to sound like Im warmed up when I first pick it up in the morning. I have a long way to go but it will come.

Your shuckin the corn sounds pretty good to me!

Andyincov - Posted - 04/21/2013:  06:05:03


Originally posted by joemac


Jens Kruger said at one his workshops , just enjoy where you are with it, don't miss the moment by striving to be further on and concerned about it all. It's an enjoyment thing. I think this is what you may be doing, we all have different learning curves so comparisons are hard to make. Remember , there a folk out there who wish they could play like you do now!!

I agree with joe.  It's all meant to be fun so enjoy what you can do and in 2 years time, marvel at how much you've improved

Andyincov - Posted - 04/21/2013:  06:10:38

This was my learning curve

6 months - started jamming with other people badly ( but having a lot of fun)

1 year - jamming starting to improve ( what i mean by this is i started to feel like i wasn't going to pass out when it came my turn to take the break)

2 years in - formed band - thought we were amazing ( we weren't!!)

4 years in - in same band - happy with our progress and now and feel very comfortable picking the five.  Give me 20 more years and watch out ;-)

loved every stage of it so far - can't wait to see what happens next.

SWCooper - Posted - 04/21/2013:  06:15:48

I'm sorry to hear there's jam snobbery. Earl didn't have it. The children of the Opry greats were encouraged to join in from the moment they could throw an arm around the waist of a guitar. There's nothing more transcendent than being in an awesome jam and feeling a part of that wonderful sound, even if you're a small and inconsequential part, and they wanted to get their kids hooked on it early.

You sound solid to me, Jen. If your ultimate goal is "when you retire in twenty years" I think you'll make it at this pace!

Rich Weill - Posted - 04/21/2013:  06:20:46

Jen, as to jamming, your posts here read as if you are postponing jamming with your banjo until you reach some specific level of proficiency.  Not only is that unnecessary, I believe it is counterproductive.  Jamming will help make you the "real banjo player" you're looking to be.  It's not something you do only after you become one, but before.  It may be the number one thing that gets you there.

You don't have to be a fancy picker to jam.  You don't have to know a lot of classic instrumentals (at least not at the jams I go to, which favor vocal songs).  All you really have to know is:  (1) how to find the chord progression, and (2) how to play some right-hand patterns (rolls, vamps, etc.) in time with the beat.  I'll bet you already can recognize the chord progression on the mandolin and guitar, so you're over the hardest part.  As to speed, the faster the song, the simpler the right-hand patterns you play.  Later you'll want to be able to add in the melody, throw in some licks, move up the neck, and so forth.  But you don't need that to start.  It's a process.

How many "real swimmers" would there be if no one was willing to get in the pool until they were already at that level?  A jam is the pool.

Rich Weill - Posted - 04/21/2013:  06:26:00


Originally posted by SWCooper

There's nothing more transcendent than being in an awesome jam and feeling a part of that wonderful sound, even if you're a small and inconsequential part

Amen to that -- except "even if you're a small ... part," you're still not "inconsequential."  You're always adding to the overall sound.

JMalmsteen - Posted - 04/21/2013:  06:38:57

I know this might seem ridiculous, but I haven't experienced a "bad" banjo player at the jams I have gone to. They are all "real" banjo players. You could take any one of them and throw them in a band. I'm truly impressed by this. There are so many talented banjo players out there. Even when we see bands perform, I can't believe how good they are. So, that's where I'm getting the, "I had better be able to play really well before I bring a banjo" thing from, since this is all I have seen, great banjo players (okay, I think once I saw a not so amazing banjo player at a jam, but that was the exception). So, I'll play mandolin or guitar at a jam, have even messed with an upright bass since I can play electric bass/fiddle, but banjo has been the instrument I have this hang up about and the thing I practice most, go figure.


Edited by - JMalmsteen on 04/21/2013 06:43:42

Ira Gitlin - Posted - 04/21/2013:  06:51:42

There's no set number of years. In any case, it's not the years, its the hours. I mean, Bela and I are the same age (we almost went to high school together in NYC) and both started playing banjo around the same time (age 14), but the difference is in the number of hours each of us has put in since then--and in our individual temperaments and outlooks. And there's no one set of criteria that defines whether you're a banjo player. In addition to having started playing relatively recently, Jen, you came to bluegrass from outside. A hypothetical person who'd been listening to bluegrass all his or her life before taking up banjo as an adult would come to the enterprise with a whole lot of bluegrass cultural knowledge that you may still be in the process of acquiring. On the other hand, that hypothetical person may struggle to acquire some of the technical and theoretical knowledge that you already possess.

Rich Weill - Posted - 04/21/2013:  06:54:36


Originally posted by JMalmsteen

I know this might seem ridiculous, but I haven't experienced a "bad" banjo player at the jams I have gone to. They are all "real" banjo players. You could take any one of them and throw them in a band. I'm truly impressed by this. There are so many talented banjo players out there. Even when we see bands perform, I can't believe how good they are. So, that's where I'm getting the, "I had better be able to play really well before I bring a banjo" thing from, since this is all I have seen, great banjo players (okay, I think once I saw a not so amazing banjo player at a jam, but that was the exception). So, I'll play mandolin or guitar at a jam, have even messed with an upright bass since I can play electric bass/fiddle, but banjo has been the instrument I have this hang up about and the thing I practice most, go figure.

The best banjo players I know personally are also the nicest.  Many teach, so they know how important it is for you to take these initial steps.  Even if they don't teach, they all remember what going through these formative stages was like.

Don't let this worry you.  Just take out the banjo and play.

arnie fleischer - Posted - 04/21/2013:  07:04:37

Hey Jen, when I saw you at the LRB show last week I told you that your sound files demonstrate that you're doing everything right.  Now, you need to jam -  with your banjo, not your mandolin, not your guitar.  

You seem to be your own toughest critic.  That can be a good thing because you're aware of what you need to work on, but it can also hold you back by making you overly tentative.   

If what I've said, and what Rich and others have said, still doesn't encourage you to try a local jam, consider one of Pete Wernick's jam camps, Banjo Camp North, or something similar.

You need to get out of the house!!

marcel - Posted - 04/21/2013:  07:12:43

Hey Jen, I've been playing for about 21 months now and have made satisfactory progress that I'm happy with. However, I always want more, but I know I have to give more. I have always enjoyed facing challenges, especially those that are surrounded by the illusion of impossibilities. This is part of what makes me tighten my boots and drive on even harder than what the general consensus may, or may not be.

People say, and advise all kinds of things here at BHO and otherwise, some accurate, some not so accurate. The only solution is to play, and enjoy putting each piece together on this grand puzzle. Its so great to get on the other side of a bridge your working on, especially if you been trying to get to the other side a while!

Typically, I will average around 3 to 4 hours of playing a day. However, the first time I allowed myself too enjoy playing all day I was really happy with my discoveries. So I always get at least one day out of the week that I play all day for 6+ hours of really focused playing. These longer playing sessions have allowed me to discover more than I realized it would, right or wrong.

We have been programmed for the 60 day plan, the 90 day plan, the one year plan etc, for so long that we have forgotten about the life long plan of choosing to enjoy the ride, no matter the challenges.

Besides, all I'm doing right now is making ALL the mistakes I can until the only thing left is right! big


JMalmsteen - Posted - 04/21/2013:  07:22:30

School is almost over (we are done the end of June) so all I plan on doing this summer is playing banjo, well, that and planning for another two new classes at another grade level. I'm going from teaching college, to teaching seniors physics, to teaching seventh graders math and science next year! Today I'm done with the school work, so nothing to do but make sure my husband has food for the week and practice banjo. It's definitely easier when we are kids and don't have obligations.

Everyone is right about just getting out of the house. I'm just intimidated by the other really good banjo players. I guess I need to get over it and take the banjo, maybe work up to playing more banjo than mandolin. Last time I took the banjo, someone literally handed me a mandolin ('cause I just sat and watched and didn't take the banjo out until the crowd watching dispersed).

Banjophobic - Posted - 04/21/2013:  08:04:28

After seeing you keep clinging to that mandolin in various posts like this, I'll throw out some 'tough love' for ya Jen-cool. If you want to become a 'banjo player', then clinging to the mandolin as a security blanket wont get you any closer to the goal. How long does it take one to become a jam banjo player? That would be as soon as the person starts playing the banjo in jams-all kidding aside. How good a jamming banjo player you are depends on how dedicated you are in repeatedly  jamming , i.e. your dedication to it. Hows playing a mandolin all the time in jams going to further you skills as a jamming banjoist ?

Taking this further, as in a band, requires you to spend even more time jamming with the banjo and band practices with it. You do not have to be 'great' to be in a band. But being in band, even if its just a local mediocre one, will teach you how to be a banjo player. Its on the job training. Jamming is also invaluable training and avoiding it will only cheat you out of the learning, plus its fun. 

You either want to be a banjo player or you don't-period. I don't believe in coddling my students who profess to want to be a good banjo player. In the end, all the hard work has to come form you. The intestinal fortitude to tough it out and put in the 'required' sweat is what it takes for anyone to get good on any instrument. So, as I tell my students (lovingly of course), get off your keester and jam and get in a band. wink

Dave1climber - Posted - 04/21/2013:  08:30:35

I have been a banjo player all my life, just didn't know it until I got my first banjo two years ago, now I just need to get my hands to do what I hear in my head.  More Jams and less excuses.

wizofos - Posted - 04/21/2013:  08:40:58

Jen, I am probably the worse person to comment here as I have no interest in jamming or playing in a band but years ago one of my kids brought my guitar to me one evening and asked me to play so they could dance and sing. I later realized that I was a guitar player since I now had some fans, even if they were 3 years old.

I guess that I will be able to say I am a banjo player when and if someone ask me to play so they can dance and sing.

That is my criteria to be called a banjo player.

It seems to me that you have to decide what criteria you find appropriate to your goals.If it is to jam or play in a band then that is your criteria to become a banjo player. It sounds to me that you are already a Mandolin Player, you have been asked to play and someone offered their instrument. I would consider that a pretty high compliment.  Perhaps that is how you will know you are a banjo player, when someone offers you an instrument or asks why you are keeping yours in the case.

CreekRunner - Posted - 04/21/2013:  09:11:22

Hey J. I go to a very informal jam every Friday night. There is a very good banjo player there who also plays guitar as well as a couple of banjoists who are very rank beginners. For the most part I just play backup in the background. But on occasion, I get to  play a lead (somewhat slower than standard) that actually sounds good.

So far I have played Banjo in the Hollow, Blackberry Blossom - Janet Davis' simple version, Bill Cheatum, Bile Them Cabbage, Train 45, and this past week Cripple Creek.All slower than normal versions but still fast enough to be recognizable or even close to correct. This has been over several weeks with usually one song per night and the rest playing backup.

All the songs I feel comfortable with I have been playing the longest so I have played them the most. I think it's muscle memory and note recognition. What ever it is, I think it pertains to Earl's teaching "play 1000 times". I am also learning Shucking the Corn but will not even attempt it now in a jam.

I know it's hard and frustrating, I really know this, but we got to just keep pickin' and one day, maybe. This post is motivation for me as well.

Good luck,


Ybanjo - Posted - 04/21/2013:  09:39:16

I know the question that you are seeking, and I don't see many of the replies directly addressing it. I have (and still do) go through the same thought process that you are. I started playing late in life (after retirement), and was told that I would never play like I could if I had started in my 20's. So, I keep wondering if I'm where I should be, all things considered?? I don't want to be compared to that 16 year-old that is killing it after 6 months of lessons! Also, my big question (and maybe yours too) is how good I can reasonably get. I've been playing (taking lessons) for 3 years. I do belong to a jam group and we get together every week for a couple of hours. All of us are in the same boat.... started playing late in life, and would never play with anyone else under other conditions. Our teacher got us together, and it was the best thing that could happen. There is one other banjo player in our group and I am probably a little better than him. We all make mistakes and are doing our best to learn how to "play" through the mistakes without loosing timing. That's something you will never learn to do without playing with other folks. Quite often, we will try to play a tune that I'm really not up to speed on, but we give it a try anyway. After a dozen or so starts, sometimes we just have to agree to wait till next week and let's see if I can get it a little better. Main thing is that nobody takes it too seriously. It took all of us at least a year of playing to get to the point where we admitted (to others and to ourselves) that we don't play perfect!

More direct to your original question... after 3 years, I can play a few dozen tunes, and every so often some don't have mistakes. I don't get concerned about mistakes as long as I play through it. Almost nobody notices a mistake unless you loose timing. I don't have good high-speed playing, and I don't really think I ever will... too much mileage, and too much arthritis in my hands.

Smurf2dope - Posted - 04/21/2013:  10:04:53

I too am in a similar position.  Last night I was told "if you gonna bring that thing around here, people's gonna expect some fireworks". My response was "I gotta learn up some tunes before I get the matches out." Seriously though.....

A couple pointers that helped me out,

-Pick out a tune and own it inside and out.  Doesn't matter what it is (I used Boil them Cabbage just to break the ice).

-Kick that tune off so you can set the tempo at something comfortable for you. It will inevitably get faster but hey you passed the baton early so who cares. 

-Be able to play a variety of backup and try not clashing with whomever is taking a break.

Even if the rest of the night goes horribly and the rest is over your head, at least you get to hang your hat on something to build on next time. 

I also might suggest bringing your crappiest, cheapest, worst, or most humble banjo. For me at least, it relieved some of the mental anguish over meeting the expectations set by having a great ax. (Works with golf too)

Hope that helped 

JMalmsteen - Posted - 04/21/2013:  10:28:37

That seems like a good way to start. I'm sitting here working on the upper break to Shuckin' the Corn and it's coming along enough to make me happy right now. Maybe this could be the song if I practice it a bit. There's no singing required. That's another thing at the jam I'm at. If you start a song you are expected to sing it. Ugh. There is just so much pressure- kick off the song, play backup, sing it, know what's going on with the breaks, end it somehow. Banjo is still not in my comfort zone so it's a lot. I can start with a song and just playing backup on the other stuff. They also expect you to take breaks. Passing isn't looked on highly over there. This is the one jam I can get to on weekends. They are great musicians and we get a whole bunch of people watching. So it's the "don't look foolish in front of them, and don't look foolish to whoever is watching." A girl with a banjo in of itself is unusual here. I'm usually the youngest one there, the only female, and I feel like there's a lot expected from me, or, that there is nothing expected from me. So if I do this, I want to sound like a "banjo player."  I have gone with a Goodtime which is also looked down on since it's not a bluegrass banjo.  Going with a good banjo does raise the hopes that you will be decent, I totally see that.  Maybe if I don't go with something that says Gibson on it. I'm sure if I take the Yates, no one will know what it is anyway.

Man, I am getting so stressed out over this. I seriously went on here just wondering from the people who have been playing for a while and started as adults, how long it took them to sound like a real banjo player who could play on stage.  I see now that jamming is a requirement.  There is a large part of me that doesn't want to bring my banjo until I am great, can play backup flawlessly and can lead songs, do kickoffs, etc.  I was wondering how long that normally takes someone.

Edited by - JMalmsteen on 04/21/2013 10:34:14

Beardog - Posted - 04/21/2013:  10:34:16

If somebody calls you and says "Hey Jen, grab your banjo and get over here, we are gonna jam some", then you are a banjo player! smiley

It won't be long after that, folks will start asking you to show up to play gigs with them, and shortly, you will have to start turning down requests to happens sooner than you think!

Ybanjo - Posted - 04/21/2013:  10:39:10

Jen, seems to me that you just might be looking at the wrong jam group for you, at this stage. Are there any other groups that you could play with, even if they aren't an official jam session. Maybe just some locals that want to make some noise. Much less pressure.

JMalmsteen - Posted - 04/21/2013:  10:45:01

I don't know anyone else to play with. On Long Island, there is a jam once a month, but I am in PA. There will be a lot going on over the summer. I have played banjo with these people maybe three times, after everyone has left. I have lived. I don't want to do it in front of a whole crowd. There is a once a month jam that I went to once to watch. You have a whole bunch of people playing, and then maybe three times the amount of people watching. I don't want to learn during what seems like a live performance. There are literally tables filled with people and they watch the ten or fifteen people who take turns leading songs. Once again, senior citizens mostly, I am typically the only female, the other women I have seen can either strum a few chords on a guitar and sing, or just sing without playing an instrument. I want to be taken seriously, so I do want to start out on banjo only if I can play and sound decent, so I won't be a beginning joke. The jam thing has a lot of baggage attached for me. Even though I have hid behind a mandolin, I have not brought a guitar, and only will play guitar if someone wants to try my mandolin. If I was really hiding, I would just hide behind a guitar.

Ybanjo - Posted - 04/21/2013:  10:50:23

Just a suggestion.... I bet there are several other people there (the observers) that feel just like you do. If you could ask around the group, I bet you could find at least a couple of others that might like to get together for some "experimenting", with no pressure of an audience, or fear of screwing up.

stickfigurine - Posted - 04/21/2013:  10:50:40

Jen, a lot of your banjo-related stress seems to come from trying to measure up to your well-practiced jam group. Why not start your own beginner-friendly jam?

This is how I am solving the same problem. I'm finally moving back to SF - today, in fact - and I already have several friends meeting for our first jam session on Tuesday. I'm sure we will sound horrible but I'm also sure we're going to have fun. I plan to check out some of the public jams in the bay area, but it's a lot easier to feel comfortable around friends who are also learning.

Smurf2dope - Posted - 04/21/2013:  11:19:15

It's definitely not fun being in over your head.  (I know all too well) You are probably not alone at that jam.  If you feel like you are not part of that circle you could try starting your own little circle.  There is usually at least one or more other players on mandolin or guitar or whatever that are struggling to keep up also.  

It's no fun feeling like or being made to feel like you are holding the group back. Another "trick" somebody shared with me is to force a smile.  It will help distract you from stressing about being good enough during the song. Listen to the pulse of the group, but don't think about keeping up. You brain works better when it's not busy explaining to you what's going on. 

JMalmsteen - Posted - 04/21/2013:  11:33:25

I think I'm just going to have to risk sounding not as good as the good guys and go. We have broken off into other groups, but with my mandolin. So, there has been more than one circle, but the group I went with, they were all awesome.

Anyway, here's the second half of this song, upper break. This is where I am in life now on banjo. I'm happy enough. I now know that the banjo has more than five frets. That's something I didn't realize for a good year or more. Hah.

Shuckin' the Corn high break


Va Picker - Posted - 04/21/2013:  13:18:05

I think John (Banjophobic) makes a terrific point. I play 4 different instruments but am not great at any because I'm not focused on the one I really want to play. I've found that splitting practice time between two or more instruments doesn't make me really good at any. But I'm sure there are some out there that can learn multiple instruments at the same time successfully.

banjoak - Posted - 04/21/2013:  13:19:07

To add to what Rich stated - one thing I notice - some folks get caught up in the amazing and more complicated playing of really good players, believing they need to do something that impressive to be a (banjo, fiddle, mando) player; somewhat wanting to skip other steps. The other approach is to play something simpler but really solid, really own and "sell" that simpler break - the focus is to make sure it sounds like music.

As far as the others, and not looking foolish in front of them; they have been playing for a long time, they aren't expecting you to sound as impressive; they know you are just starting into it, again IMO, if you do something solid yet simple, I don't find most folks look down at that.

I agree that playing in a band is really good training. Again, it doesn't have to be amazing banjo playing, just get the job done. With that also think about getting some small little gigs. That will give a little pressure to work on it (a little is good as a motivator). Not talking about a long multi-set gig, or on a main stage at a festival. There are lot's of low hanging gigs; short duration; and in front of folks who are not BG aficionados; not critiquing your banjo playing against the way Earl did it. Senior Centers, playing for kids, the homeless shelter - they are pleased to have music, (most don't even know really what BG is, or care if it's "right").  There are also gigs that the music is a bit more in the background, ambiance - picnics, fundraisers, awareness events, various "runs"  - no one is really sitting and listening like a concert, many there is not even really a stage or amplification. Of course you still want to do your best you can, and work on doing it better; just they are really pretty low pressure, and great training.

John makes a valid point about one instrument. But, for myself (and others) especially in playing in a band context; that I could play other instruments let me ease into playing in front of others; I didn't have to start with being able to play hours on the new instrument; just focus on a few songs; then a few more.

Edited by - banjoak on 04/21/2013 13:23:23

maryzcox - Posted - 04/21/2013:  14:03:28

Please remember that playing the banjo is not all mental--in fact it is more physical than mental--small and large motor muscles need to be trained as well as your ear.

Lots goes into playing a banjo well--even more to play on stage cool

My guess is if you want to be a good recreational banjo player--it would take you about the same amount of time that it would take you to become a solid recreational tennis player--one capable of playing and winning weekend local tournaments.

After your playing is sound--to be a good stage player probably takes as much time as it does to train to be a good actor.  

If you stay in good physical shape (exercise daily--eat a good organic diet--think like an athlete) and take acting lessons at the same time--it will cut the time in half of however long it will take you to become the banjo player you want to be.  

It will also help if you take music lessons on a different instrument than banjo to help you with timing and to become more musical.  Dancing lessons help too :)

Best wishes,

Mary Z Cox

Rich Weill - Posted - 04/21/2013:  14:27:36

And don't forget that, if you are playing in time with other musicians, the results will be much better than anything you play at home.  Even a jam solo is not really a solo.  The others are filling out the sound to create something more wonderful than you could ever do alone.  

[In fact, on his "Banjo According to John Hartford" DVDs, John spoke extensive about what he called "ghost notes" -- fill notes you actually can skip because they duplicate what the other musicians with you already are playing.]

Ybanjo - Posted - 04/21/2013:  14:38:50

What Rich said is very true! Quite often I get flustered and miss several notes completely! I just finger along and get back in where I know and feel comfortable. If your backup is doing their job, and not stopping, then almost nobody will even notice when you aren't playing. I've even had times when I pause because I lost my place, and the other pickers didn't even notice that I didn't play several notes in a row! Backup is a good cover for lots of really bad mistakes! Good backup can even make me look good! :)

Tam_Zeb - Posted - 04/21/2013:  14:43:41

HI Jen

I find playing along with this video to be a great confidence booster, Jamming at home helps prepare you to jam with others. It doesn't need to be breakneck speed to sound really good. When I am asked what I want to play I say Amazing Grace please. It surprises many when I start picking in 3/4 time at my steady slow pace. Guitarists love to play slow waltz time and I am sure as a mondolin player you love to play triplets in 3/4


ARBanjo - Posted - 04/21/2013:  15:13:44


I think your question is "how long will it take before I'm good enough to play with a band/ in jams."  For me, I don't think I really started improving until I started playing in jams.  I played for YEARS with little improvement.  It took playing with others in a band setting to really "kick in" my progress.

Paul R - Posted - 04/21/2013:  15:32:53

Jen, you've been given some mighty good advice here. Get out there and play.

Don't be intimidated by the "good" banjo players. You can probably find some pickers at your level, but you raise your level by playing with "better" pickers. As someone said about slow jams, you just learn to slow jam. Find the balance between social compatibility and an acceptable musical challenge. Are the players at your jam really that snobbish, or is it your fear talking?

Mary says it's mostly physical, but the mental affects the physical. You're letting the mental get in the way. I was like that singing at the open mic jam. I was terrible, until one week I picked a song I knew really well and belted it out. They must have thought I'd gone to the crossroads. Nope. I've had quite a few years' experience singing solo and in groups. I went with what I knew well and used my strengths. I used what I knew, not what I thought they expected me to know.


I recall a visiting high school band playing at my elementary school. My daughter's high school band had a couple of sax players who were already at a professional jazz improvisation level. But this band didn't have any soloists. They played nothing fancy or complicated. They did the simple things, but they were tight. They played as a unit, and, in that way were very effective. Sometimes, you don't have to be fancy to be good.

Your strengths may partly consist of banjo licks, but you have a lot of other musical experience. Draw on that. It's not like you're a total musical beginner. You've had experiences those other people have never had. Glory in that, and bring that confidence to your playing. If you allow yourself to be intimidated, well, you're letting it happen. Go for it!

JMalmsteen - Posted - 04/21/2013:  15:56:23

There's a lot of wisdom here. And to think, I was hoping for an answer like five years or seven years. I appreciate that the real issue has been made obvious. I appreciate everyone's time.

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