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 Playing Advice: Bluegrass (Scruggs) Styles
 ARCHIVED TOPIC: Does learning a New Instrument Help or Hinder?

Please note this is an archived topic, so it is locked and unable to be replied to. You may, however, start a new topic and refer to this topic with a link:

telepilot - Posted - 01/27/2020:  03:59:53

I am about six years into banjo and I play a lot. I'm only just okay, IMO. Not Super happy with my playing but I have fun and love it. I'm wondering if I were to start learning another instrument, like Mandolin, would that be a negative, positive or neutral thing for my banjo progress? Assuming my banjo picking time remains the same as now.

CarloSc - Posted - 01/27/2020:  04:11:36

I think it really comes down to what works for you, and what it takes to keep your brain interested and keep the feeling of novelty alive.

To give you an example, when I practice a song or a break for too long my brain will go on autopilot and I will get progressively sloppier. Practicing several things at the same time usually prevents that from happening. Sure it takes longer to master any single song or break, but in the long run the overall progress is faster and more fun.

So if you feel like you need something new to keep your brain and your practice fresh, I'd say go for it.

Worst case scenario you can always roll back.

Edited by - CarloSc on 01/27/2020 04:13:46

Texasbanjo - Posted - 01/27/2020:  05:03:03

It would be according to your level of experience on the banjo and how much time you spend practicing/jamming, etc. A new instrument would, naturally, take up more of your time and you'd spend less time and effort on the banjo.

When I first got my guitar (I'd played banjo for several years), I found my banjo sat there while I was learning to chord and flatpick. Same thing with my mandolin: it took center stage until I got to the point I felt I pick it at least somewhat. Each new instrument took less time to learn at least the basics and be able to chord, jam and play backup and maybe a simple break. And yes, the banjo picking suffered.

However, my banjo experience did help me learn new instruments quicker, as I was already aware of chords, chord structure, timing, technique and tone, etc.

rooksbay - Posted - 01/27/2020:  05:07:13

Another option would be to try a new style on the banjo. If you play clawhammer, try bluegrass, vice versa, or try out classic style or old time fingerpicking. I've done that as a way of breaking out of a rut. It's generally a less expensive option, though it can also lead to the need to acquire a new banjo for each style!

kjcole - Posted - 01/27/2020:  05:20:48

Since flatpicking and 3-finger rolls are very different you wouldn't have to worry about learning on one interfering with the other. If you have limited time to practice, then the trade-off is obvious. However, any music theory that you learn on one will transfer to the other. I played banjo for many years before taking up guitar (just like Sherry I went all in on flatpicking and my banjo gathered dust), but the chord-based basis of Scruggs playing helped me in learning to improvise solos on guitar, and then the scale-based stuff from the guitar helped me with the banjo fretboard.

If learning two instruments keeps you motivated and engaged, then that's a win. As for practice time, it's just as much about the quality of the time (intentional, effortful, goal-oriented) as the total time. Plus, in a jam with too many banjos you can pull out that mando and at the very least chop along.

seanray - Posted - 01/27/2020:  05:40:18

Sounds like you play for fun and new instruments are fun.

Playing mandolin will will likely strengthen your fretting hand so when you return to banjo it should play easier than ever.

I always learn new things from other instruments, most of which transfers over to banjo. Music is music and understanding even a little bit about other instruments will make you a better musician.

DC5 - Posted - 01/27/2020:  06:15:20

I play several instruments, all for fun. Every time I learn a new instrument, my previous knowledge it portable, and the new things I learn can improve what I do on the other instruments. If I were planning to make a living, I would concentrate on one and master that. But for me it is far better to be able to pick up something and be able to play it. For example, the instrument that helped train my ear the most was fiddle. Now I mostly alternate between banjo, guitar, and uke, but I have a bass sitting here that needs a lot more attention. Just don't have an amp for it yet.

Richard Hauser - Posted - 01/27/2020:  07:17:32

I think playing rhythm guitar often helps. A good rhythm guitar player is always welcome. And banjo players, especially those who play alone, often neglect playing backup. I also does wonders for strengthening your left (i.e. noting) hand/fingers/forearm.

There are times when another banjo player is not needed, or there are just two banjo players, and the other guy is "the big dog". One of those folks who is so darn good you are afraid to take your banjo out of its case.

Owen - Posted - 01/27/2020:  10:18:06

Lots of people disagree with me, but I see skill transference in proportion to innate musical ability/aptitude.  If you have some, it will transfer.  If you don't have some, that too will transfer.   Good luck.

steve davis - Posted - 01/27/2020:  10:29:49

I started banjo,guitar and mandolin at the same young age at home.
I tended to spend most of my time on banjo,but it is very refreshing to pick the other instruments.
I think they help each other rather than hinder in any way.It's all good.
It's very appreciated by other jammers if someone can fill in the guitar or mandolin part.
Just having a good chord rhythm chop goes a long way.

Alex Z - Posted - 01/27/2020:  12:25:06

"I'm wondering if I were to start learning another instrument, like Mandolin, would that be a negative, positive or neutral thing for my banjo progress? Assuming my banjo picking time remains the same as now."

With that assumption, and your current status with the banjo, all positive.  You'll have more fun and there can be some skills transfer both ways.

The only situation where a second instrument would be negative is a the highest levels of musicianship.  For example, if a concert pianist wanted to take up the organ.  The feel of the organ keyboard is different from the piano, and therefore similar but different learnings may interfere with each other when going back and forth, at least for a while.  If the pianist is going to give a piano concert, he/she won't be practicing up to it on an organ keyboard.

I know, I know.  Someone's going to post that "I play the banjo and the sackbut, and going back and forth doesn't bother me at all, so you're wrong."  smiley   Good for you that you can enjoy both instruments.  

Red Squirrel - Posted - 01/27/2020:  12:36:05

You won't learn as quick on either instrument per say since your interest and practice time is divided. It shouldn't do you any harm though either!

I personally love all instruments and have quite a variety. Never regretted trying a new one.

Mooooo - Posted - 01/27/2020:  12:37:49

As long as you keep regularly practicing banjo, learning a new instrument will be beneficial. If you stop picking banjo and focus on another instrument entirely, your banjo picking will suffer. Just keep a good balance and you will probably become even better while learning a new instrument, because it will help you think in new ways. Have fun.

Paul R - Posted - 01/27/2020:  12:56:30

Time considerations aside, I think taking up a new instrument is quite beneficial. It gets you out of the box, and, if it doesn't transfer particular skills, gives you a "freer" mindset. I found that taking up banjo helped me to improve on the guitar, my first instrument.

However, context is important. I've always wanted to improve my playing, and other things, such as getting out and performing and jamming, and exposing yourself to new musical ideas, also factored in.

darryl k. - Posted - 01/27/2020:  13:55:51

Yes. Go for it. I play banjo, guitar and noodle a bit on the mandoline. That's how I keep the music alive and fun. There are days for each and days when each is boring, or just sounds like ####, or something won't stay in tune. Pick up something else and you're off to the races. Come back to that same instrument the next day and love it.

I write quite a bit and find that every different instrument has its own songs, songs which I never would have found on another instrument.

And if you do any gigging it's a huge bonus, especially solo.

Edited by - darryl k. on 01/27/2020 13:56:49

stanleytone - Posted - 01/27/2020:  15:21:19

tricky question . what works for one person may not work for another. of course time on another instrument takes away from banjo. if you have a solid grounding on banjo then it shouldnt be a hindurance. i think rhythm guitar is the best alternate instrument to learn. its usually the first .it was for me

NewBlackDak - Posted - 01/30/2020:  07:59:41

I came here to ask this, and what do you know! I inherited a beautiful sunburst 1985 Martin D-35 that I started messing around with this week. I find out I know a ton of guitar chords already, just from playing with guitarists. The flat-pick is weird, but it's probably just getting accustomed to it(ala fingerpicks).

steve davis - Posted - 01/30/2020:  08:07:58

You'll notice players going easily from banjo to fiddle to guitar and mandolin and sound fine on all of them
They don't have some special,rare gift...they simply put in a lot of time playing all those instruments and having a good ear.
A good ear is,like all things,developed.

overhere - Posted - 02/02/2020:  04:34:57

seriously I play banjo but first I learned guitar at an early age. I can play some mandolin....If I were starting on a bluegrass journey again I'd start the way I started...guitar first then banjo, than other things....some may disagree but bluegrass with guitar IMO is grass roots for all bluegrass including banjo.

and by the way, knowing the guitar is an advantage when you show up at a jam and there's 500 banjo players....a git-tar flat picker is always a welcome advantage.

Edited by - overhere on 02/02/2020 04:39:46

steve davis - Posted - 02/02/2020:  08:21:29

If you develop your "ear" you will be able to get chords and tunes out of any instrument.

maxmax - Posted - 02/03/2020:  01:47:43

If playing traditional bluegrass banjo at an advance level is your end goal, and you only have so many hours in a week to practice, I think spending as much time as possible getting to know the banjo neck is probably time well spent.

But if you want to branch out of bluegrass, I found it very helpful to learn other instruments.

I "studied" jazz tenor banjo and jazz ukulele for a while and it gave me a completely new understanding of chords. Not just how they are constructed, but how to substitute basic chords for something that might sound more interesting in some places and how to add "in-between chords" (for lack of better description) to construct basic chord melodies.

What I learned there I can now modestly apply to my five string banjo, which I'm not sure when or if I would ever have gotten around to learning if I stuck just with the five string. I have a jazz instructional book for five string banjo, but found it very difficult to get my head around compared to the jazz tenor banjo and jazz ukulele books I've worked through.

For the last six months I've been working hard at flatpicking guitar, so I'm back to the more common bluegrass keys and chords, but for pretty much the first time in my life I'm getting a much better understanding of scales. Flatpicking solos are based much more out of scales and it's nice to not just theoretically understand scales, but to actually get hands on really see how the scales relate to the melodies and the chords up and down the neck. We'll see if this will eventually be useful for my banjo playing or not, but at least I appreciate the knowledge of it.

Thanks to the work previous banjo players have done, we get a lot of cool sounding licks worked out for us that we can just copy and paste over chords to build solos and advanced sounding backup, without really knowing what we are doing. But I personally always felt I lacked a certain understanding of it all which playing other instruments made it much easier for me to see.

Smarter banjo players than me can obviously figure it all out on the five string though. :-)

overhere - Posted - 02/03/2020:  03:47:45

Learning bluegrass rhythm guitar is a tremendous advantage for when picking banjo. You kinda then have this rhythm / rhythms embedded in your head which can be better than a metronome sometimes

steve davis - Posted - 02/03/2020:  06:39:41

The best fiddlers I know are also adept at playing the piano,guitar or mandolin accompaniment of their music.

Playing guitar doesn't take away anything from your banjo playing or learning.It didn't hurt Earl or Ron Block.

Edited by - steve davis on 02/03/2020 06:40:53

chief3 - Posted - 02/03/2020:  06:42:13

I say absolutely, learn another instrument, especially guitar. In my experience it is very important that a banjo player have a good understanding of rhythm and timing because it is very easy to to develop bad habits early and without good timing your banjo playing will never be very good. I started out as a fingerstyle guitarist (thumb and 3 fingers) and luckily had a banjo player tell me early on "get that guitar roll out of your playing" and I had the smarts to listen. Good banjo timing involves knowing which beats to accent and with which fingers. When playing a typical Scruggs style 3 finger forward roll in a typical 4 beat measure, different fingers will be used to accent the downbeats as you roll through the measures of music.  Knowing how to play good proper bluegrass rhythm on the guitar will help teach you where to accent the downbeats and help you better understand the banjo's role and place as a rhythm instrument in a band and how it fits in with the bass and mandolin (beat & back beat). Notes are fine but good rhythm and timing is everything in good music in my opinion.

Edited by - chief3 on 02/03/2020 06:46:48

steve davis - Posted - 02/03/2020:  08:41:37

I like how strings 2,3 and 4 are the same for both guitar and banjo.
Same partial chord and melody rules apply.

stanger - Posted - 02/05/2020:  22:29:56

I gradually slid into the guitar after playing only the banjo for 6 years.

For me, a change once in a while was good; I played different music on the guitar, stuff that didn't sound as well played on the banjo. Changing the music widened my tastes in music, and learning things on the guitar really helped learning them on the banjo.

Learning the guitar didn't change my overall choice of instrument, though... I still liked the banjo the most of the two, an I still played it the most for a long time.

Very gradually however, as I began playing professionally more and more, I played the guitar more often, became a better player, and became more serious about it.

There are a lot of similarities between the guitar and banjo, so there were a lot of things I would learn on one and transfer to the other.

Over time, my skill on either of them was about equal, but my banjo became less played, mostly because the guitar was making the most money for me.

When I quit playing out, though, and realized how rusty my banjo playing had become, I went the other way and only played the banjo again for at least 4 years. I was very happy playing it only, too.

Then, I realized I was rusty on the guitar, so I slid back into it once more. These days, I play both about 50/50. Some times, just one or the other, and other times, I'll play one then play the other in turn.

It's whatever makes you happy, I think. I limited my other instruments to just the guitar, because I never wanted to dabble on many and never get any good on any. I think that can happen if someone tries learn more than 2-3 instruments.

steve davis - Posted - 02/06/2020:  20:17:36

I like when I'm visiting someone and didn't bring my banjo but there was a guitar or mandolin,there.
I think it helped that I played everything with a flat pick for the first 10 years.
I enjoyed Charlie Cushman's guitar playing with "The Earls of Leicester" earlier in 2019.

Helix - Posted - 02/07/2020:  03:58:08

You now have a music lab in your brain, remodel and expand the reference library.

In our group, The Minutemen, we taught each other how to play guitar, mandolin and banjo, then we would switch off in different songs.

"Whitewater" from Idaho had all five people rotating on instruments like volleyball. Very pro showmanship.

Cool Avatar, dude.

steve davis - Posted - 02/07/2020:  09:08:55

I also think singing helps one's banjo and guitar playing.
I don't see them as getting in each other's way.

I believe all those things together are worth more than the sum of their parts.

tbab2057 - Posted - 02/07/2020:  12:26:34

IMO, everyone that plays bluegrass on whatever instrument(s) should learn some basic rhythm guitar. Especially beginners.  It will help with understanding the music and communicating with other pickers.

The best benefit is being able to sight read the chord shapes of the guitar player to follow along with unfamiliar songs, no matter what instrument you are playing.

But whatever other instruments to you take time to learn will take time away from learning the banjo. 

Edited by - tbab2057 on 02/07/2020 12:40:19

steve davis - Posted - 02/07/2020:  14:45:21

I've found plenty of time for guitar and mandolin.Kept me from getting bored and I found that I understood better how the other bandmates needed their expressive space and how to compliment rather than compete with that expression.

steve davis - Posted - 02/07/2020:  16:25:05

I made good progress learning the banjo while at the same time learning to go lobstering and dragging.It's called multi-tasking.

Edited by - steve davis on 02/07/2020 16:28:08

5stringjim5 - Posted - 02/12/2020:  04:57:06

I've been playing the 5 string now for almost 2 years. I took piano lessons about ten years ago and still plunk out a tune or two. It really helps as it helps to maintain my chord knowledge. Many years ago, at age 13, I took drum lessons and recently received a snare drum from someone, so I bought a couple of books and got reacquainted with the snare drum. That helps with timing, brings back memories, and I still enjoy that as well. I retired from my last formal job almost 8 years ago now, and for a present from me to me, I bought an alto saxaphone. I took a few lessons to get the hang of it, and like the banjo, I teach myself for the most part. I found that spending the first part of the day, rather than saving the late evening when I'd rather plunk down and relax, is the best time for me to practice, although whenever I pass by an instrument, I have trouble not grabbing it and making it sing, if even for a moment or two. I play all of these more for my own amusement, but tend to focus more on the 5 string as it's the newest addition. I also have a harmonica and tin whistle. I can play a couple of tunes on each of those. So short answer is, no, it doesn't impede learning an instrument to pick up another. It enhances it. It's all music. It all intertwines. Go for it. You may find you're better at it then the first one and enjoy it more. I'm not of the mind you have to master everything you set out to do. I'd rather try a lot of things and be able to do them to some degree, enough to enjoy and not annoy.

steve davis - Posted - 02/12/2020:  06:34:35

It all helps your ears and muscle memory.

Moose_Roberts - Posted - 02/12/2020:  08:26:46

I've been learning the ukulele as my daughter takes lessons so I can help her with practice every week and I think that it definitely has helped build my left hand with the different chord structures and having to wedge my sausage fingers into the much smaller fret board.

Yes, this is a run on sentence.

loonsailor - Posted - 02/15/2020:  21:15:51

You might consider taking up dobro. It's usually tuned much like the banjo, unlike the mando which is tuned in 5ths. It's played with fingerpicks, so it's easy to switch instruments for a song or two and makes use of the right hand skills that you've already developed. And I like that it's kind of the "anti-banjo" in sound, lyrical where the banjo is percussive, so it stretches my musical brain in a different direction. Some of the tunes I play with friends aren't very "banjo-istic", and those often benefit from my switching to the dobro. (In addition to bluegrass and fiddle tunes, we do some things like "Doctor My Eyes", "Time After Time", ...)

Oh, and the answer to your core question, is that if you have the urge to take up another instrument you should absolutely go for it.

Dniman - Posted - 02/16/2020:  02:26:07

I notice my blues playing on guitar improving the more I learn the banjo.
Possibly seems better as I'm a beginner on the banjo but I'm finding new guitar licks I didn't know before.

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