When you attempt to learn to play the banjo you are learning a language just like Spanish or Chinese. The learning process in both banjo and Spanish is essentially identical.
You can no more play the banjo (proficiently) without being able to play by ear than you could learn Spanish without listening and understanding the Spanish words being spoken to you.
There are two parts to this process. One, stuffing your brain with as many banjo "vocaulary words" (licks, notes, phrases, runs, chords, chord transitions, etc) as possible as well as learning the syntax of how to string those words together. And, two, learning to use those words conversationally which is a two part process in itself; one speaking the words and, two, hearing and understanding the words.
During the "stuffing your brain" phase of learning you want to absorb as many banjo "things" as possible, such as licks, chords and transitions. These can be had from many sources including but not limited to tabs, CD's, videos, being physically taught, experimentation, etc. For this phase, tabs are one of the best ways because tabs represent a written archive of thousands of banjo vocabulary. This is where many new players go astray; they use tab for the purpose of learning a song (which isnt bad in and of itself) rather than seeing tabs as a rich source of hidden banjo treasures that can be extracted and used to enrich your banjo vocabulary, later to be used in the "spoken banjo".
During the second phase of learning (and these two phases can and do run concurrently) you learn to use all of these banjo "words" in "sentences" and "paragraphs" while at the same time learn to listen to and understand what is being said to you. You cannot possibly understand a Spanish word spoken to you unless at some point previously you have familiarized yourself with that word. This is why you can listen to two people speak in Spanish and you can occasionally pick up a word or two like "adios", "buenos dias" etc. However, I suspect you cannot recognize any Swahili words while listening to two Africans speak because you are not familiar in any way with Swahili.
This is a long analogy to make this point. The more you are familar with and practiced on banjo licks, chord transitions, runs and the like the more you will be able to listen to and understand what is being played when listening to someone else, thus, enhancing your ability to learn by listening or by ear. The more you are familiar the more you will learn. The learning curve associated with this process is gradual but constant and if applied systematically will guarantee more rapid success.
Tab is important for one phase of learning but not for the other. Learning by ear is important for the other phase of learning but not for the other.
And notice that I have never mentioned memorizing speeches as part of the process. When a new player learns songs from memory as the first step in learning they tend to continue on that trend and keep memorizing songs. This is equivalent to wanting to learn Spanish, but rather than using a systematic approach to learning Spanish, deciding to learn by memorizing a bunch of Spanish poems or speeches by rote instead; believing that others would rather listen to you recite Spanish poetry as a solioquy than engage with you in meaningful conversation. This is where back-up vs. lead comes into play.
Most new players jump right into learning songs, usually from tab, as their initial introduction to learning the banjo. We all have done this and there's nothing wrong with it. It's exciting to make the banjo do something fancy and we love it because that's what drew us to the banjo in the first place. In fact it's so cute it makes more experienced players want to stop and take baby pictures, remembering what it was like when they first started.
And while this is normal it leads to a common problem that plagues most banjo players from then on. And that is the neglect of the meaningful study of the banjo language, specificly, back-up. Most new players concentrate on lead and solo work when, in fact, they should, from the start, concentrate on back-up. Most of what you will ever do on the banjo (about 95%) will be back-up and, unless you take the correct path now, that will be the thing you are the least proficient at.
When you go to a jam, you will be asked to perform back-up 95% of the time and be asked to play a solo or lead 5% of the time. You tell me which you think you should be good at.
This doesnt mean that you can't be artistic while playing backup. In fact, if you are a back-up master you will be a shining star in the performance time after time; in fact 95% of the time! And yet back-up is the most neglected part of the banjo language among most average players, simply because they weren't led down the right path at the early stages of their learning.
So here is what I recommend.
In everything you learn put back-up in the forefront rather then lead. You will aquire the ability to play lead, both from memory and improvisation, in direct proportion to your ability to play back-up. So, while concentrating solely on playing solos tends to cause neglect of back-up, the reverse is not true. Concentrating on back-up enhances your ability and proficiency on playing lead and quickens the learning of lead parts. Again, however, the reverse is not true.
1. Keep learning as many banjo "things" as you can from as many sources as you can.
2. Practice those "things" as much as possible being careful to practice perfection and not error.
3. Begin listening to the masters as they play back-up. Their back-up play is wonderful to behold and could stand alone as entertainment! Listen to what they do and how they do it. Again, the more banjo vocabulary you know the easier it will be to recognize what they are doing.
4. Formulate a systematic and methodical approach to you studies and practice. Take a step-by-step approach building on what you already know. Learn chords, play chords, learn transitions, play transitions, learn substitution licks, play those licks. Mix them up in a thousand different ways until you can do it at will.
5. Learn some lead stuff. All work and no play makes for a dull learning experience. Learn a song here and there. Learn a lead break here, and there, while always maintaining a proper ratio of lead to back-up study and practice. I recommend about 20% lead and 80% back-up in the first 1000 hours of practice.
6. Start by learning everything in Janet Davis' book Back-up Banjo just as she presents it. You can learn other stuff at the same time from other sources. But you are not done until you are capable of teaching everything in her book to someone else.
7. Get out and jam with others. Every jam is a learning experience and you should find something that can be useful everytime you go. In fact you should go fully intending to seek out and find something to learn. Then go home and refine it and perfect what you learned.
With the banjo there seems to be more players who have reached learning plateaus or stagnation than with most other instruments. I think this is because the banjo language while not difficult theoretically, does require lots of practice. And it can seem much easier to become content with one's ability than to push oneself to climb higher.
Keep the fun in it but stay systematic and remember two words and a phrase.
3. "You will make your reputation on what you do with the banjo 95% of the time rather that what you do with it 5% of the time"
Thursday, May 21, 2009 @9:01:56 AM
Great advice!!! I've recently thought about the learning speak as an analogy myself. I'm starting banjo with a few "maaam's" , "dufff's", picking up a word here or there, maybe a simple sentence...and one day converse with others. I got to thinging I improvise everday in talking with others - I don't know what they're going to say or ask...and I improvise when I answer.
Thanks! I may just get there one day.
Friday, May 22, 2009 @5:47:40 AM
How do you say bum ditty in Chinese? Great point on backup playing!
Friday, May 22, 2009 @7:24:59 AM
The "learning a language" analogy is dead on!
Monday, May 25, 2009 @1:25:08 PM
I finely have an idea of what I should be doing. I have spent 4 yrs going in circles with the banjo. My first and only teacher gave me a tab every week and I learned how to play what was on paper but had no Idea what I was playing and when I got together with my friends playing the cripple creek break over and over did not work well. Learning a break off of paper was NOT teaching me how to play the banjo. Anyway, Your post has inspired me.
Monday, June 8, 2009 @12:12:31 PM
Thanks Tex. I have read your blog and it has filled in the holes that I have been worried about. I'm off now to order Janet Davis' back up book.
Friday, June 19, 2009 @9:20:51 AM
Tex, this is the best, most cohesive explanation of learning banjo that I have ever seen! Your students are very lucky, indeed! Great job!
Saturday, November 26, 2011 @3:42:55 AM
You make an excellent point. This is where I am now and you have provided the correct advice. Thanks! I hope lots of beginning players get to read your post. I wish I had read this when I started.
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