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New BanjoHero Manual

Posted by Richard Dress on Tuesday, March 23, 2010


I want to play the banjo!

      What do I do?





(A lesson planning guide for the self-taught banjo picker)




If you are reading this manual, then I guess you are interested in two things.  One is the 5-string banjo and the other is bluegrass music.  Maybe you liked the banjo first and bluegrass came along with it, or maybe you liked bluegrass and that turned your attention to the banjo.  Either way, the two fit together closely as the BanjoHero Guide begins to form the novice Scruggs-style banjo player.  You are encouraged to give as much, or more, attention to the music as you give to the instrument.  In a short time, if you put all the right pieces together you will be the Banjo Hero.   This is the basic idea: 1) learn minimum banjo technique 2) turn these skills to learning to play music 3) later come back and learn the rest of the banjo technique in a musical context.


The best plan for a beginner is to find a good teacher.  Many lost beginners don't really know much about that music stuff other than that they like it and want to be able 'to play the banjo like those guys who pick in the local bands down at the VFW'.   Finding a good teacher is the first thing you should do.  (Mel Bay has a teacher's directory:  But sometimes sitting down with a real live teacher is not an option.  The next good plan is sign up for the big broadband cable and the free Skype videoconference.  Buy those Skype lessons from Glenn (, the KIDD (, John ( or Fiddlin' Al (, just to mention a few of the available teachers.  That won't work either?  What do you do then?  


Take the BanjoHero Path.


To reach that place where you are actually playing the bluegrass banjo, you will have to learn how to do these three things:


1) make notes

2) choose the right notes

3) play them at the right time


The BanjoHero Manual helps you understand what banjo techniques and which musical skills you need for these three big steps.  As a part of this general understanding of what you are getting into, BanjoHero puts your first year on the banjo into a beginner's context and also gives you an understanding of some of the wider issues that will play a big role in your musical journey (like rhythm, repertoire, how to play music, time expectations, blah-blah).  Plus selected appendices are there as quick-start guides to important knowledge resources not found in the average DVD.  As well as explaining the 'what' of banjo playing, BanjoHero also tries to make sense of the 'why'.


A DVD can show you things to learn, a teacher can show you the right way to execute the things you learn, but who's going to show you what else you need to study so you can actually PLAY MUSIC on your banjo?  BanjoHero won't dwell on those things a teacher or a 'Learn the 5-string Banjo' DVD might give you.  Instead BanjoHero tells you which pieces to grab for right now and what to leave behind for later.  Then it explains how to develop your musical abilities and finally, how to combine them with those few banjo techniques so that you have what you need to really and truly play the banjo.


With the seven appendices, the BanjoHero Manual has outlined the answers to all the important questions the beginner non-musician has when he first picks up his new banjo.  "Sure, I can learn to play tabs in first position G easy enough, but how do I play what's in my head in any key anywhere on the neck? And since nothing is in my head, how do I fill that up?"  Questions on important details, like "Which way do the picks go on?" and "How does the strap fit on the banjo?"  These questions are answered in your teaching DVDs (try or through other resources like the


Age is no barrier.  You can start when you are too young to lift the banjo or when a worn out back or knee finally gives up and you must purchase a banjo stand.  Young or old, the banjo skills and the music skills are still the two things you have to possess.  None of these individual skills is very big deal when you look at them one-by-one.  You just need to be able to put the right musical skills together with the right banjo skills.  You can't get around this simple truth.  And the quicker you bring your musical skills up to par the better, because right now you are probably behind where you ought to be musically.  


Sooner the better is especially true for those who are picking up the instrument in their senior years and have no patience for a leisurely approach to learning the banjo.  And there are also some of you who are noticing your fingers slowing up as time takes its toll on aging joints.  The approach discussed in the following pages might provide you some extra advantage (maybe as much as 20 BPM) in both the left and right hand moves.  One technique reduces your finger motion by transferring part of that hindered motion to other places (i.e. from the picking fingers to the hand/wrist/arm--see the discussion of overall control scattered through the Manual) when you follow some of the BanjoHero suggestions about rhythm and how your picks should hit the strings.


Now, preparing the ground for your first steps on the BanjoHero Path, here are some inconvenient banjo truths to take on your journey.  Let them puzzle you along the way and maybe when you reach your goal, they will make some sense.


1)  Musicianship is a must, most banjo stuff is optional.


2)  What the student really needs, the teacher doesn't really teach.


3)  If you gotta have chords, then why do some of those fingerless pickers sound so good?


4)  Most memorization is a waste of time.


5)  Twiddling, fiddling, and spending money is mostly a waste of time.


6)  You don't learn to run by walking a little bit faster every day.


7)  Banjo players like to perform but audiences prefer to be entertained.


8)  If Ralph Stanley can play two licks and you can play 200 licks, it doesn't mean you are twice as good as he is.


9) Most people hear with their eyes.






for the complete 33 page illustrated manual (with Appendix A: Bluegrass Rhythm) download here:


Lately, I have been trying to recast these ideas in a new format of short videos.  Check out:                                                                                                                                            5 videos Play all Play now                                


7 comments on “New BanjoHero Manual”

gpreiss Says:
Sunday, June 27, 2010 @10:40:55 AM

Hi Richard,
My name is George Preiss. I want to say that yesterday I finally took the time to check out your Banjo Hero manual. I think that it is great! I've read some of the various posts that you have written, and I definitely remember when you solicited feedback on this manual. If I recall correctly, there was a lot of bruhaha about what people felt was the "right" way to start playing.
What I wanted to tell you was that I've been playing 6 years. The first five years I went about it by buying a whole lot of books, CDs, and DVDs. I've learned at least 50 solos, many of which I don't remember anymore. But after all that time, I still felt that I didn't sound anything like the sound that I wanted, the sound that you hear when you listen to banjo on Bluegrass Cds.
I finally got a really good teacher about a year ago, and that is making a world of difference. However, your Banjo Hero manual has been quite a revelation to me. I've been dancing around some of this information before I read it and listened to the attached youtubes, but you've really focused in on HOW to get that driving, syncopated sound that my playing lacks.
I would suggest that you market/advertise this to people not only starting out, but to the many like me that lost their way once they started. It is so easy to get caught up in learning solos. So many drills that I would always work on were designed to concentrate on the trickier finger movements, left and right hand, of the more difficult passages within solos. But the thing that I failed to see, and this didn't truly register with me until I read your manual, was that the banjo sound I sought was what you refer to as Musicalty, and it comes from the coordinated, single inner-body rhythm that is simultaneously released by the tapping foot, the picking fingers, fretting lefthand, bobbing head, etc . I want to attain that particular, syncopated, driving banjo sound that I somehow forgot about when trying to learn to play.
**Actually, I didn't forget about it, I found it too mysterious and couldn't grasp how to get it. I also found myself with some serious right hand obstacles when doing forward rolls, but I'm finally finding ways**
So thanks for taking the time to create your Banjo Hero, Richard!

dlc Says:
Friday, March 25, 2011 @8:42:13 PM

I like it!

It's a lot like a book I'm writing on how the complete novice can play piano strictly by ear (there won't be any standard musical notation or any other symbols anywhere in it).

You have a couple of ideas on how to understand just what music is that I can modify to the piano.


pstroud1 Says:
Thursday, July 21, 2011 @8:29:30 AM

Way to go Richard, down to earth approach to get to the pickin part before the drills turn you brain to mush. lol
Thanks Paul

Richard Dress Says:
Thursday, July 21, 2011 @9:52:14 AM

Thanks everybody for the good words and encouragement. It makes the effort worthwhile.

Richard Dress Says:
Thursday, July 21, 2011 @1:32:05 PM

Actually, Paul had such a good post, I stole it so it won't get buried in the archives:
Richard has some of the best down to earth information both the BanjoHero blog which is quite intensive but easy to understand and especially, I like the videos. yes he makes jokes out of things, that makes me more relaxed and interested. I had enough of that drill sarge thing in the USAF many moons ago.

It's like setting down with a friend that knows how to play and is patient and kind enough to share his experience with you.

He's not making the formal teacher look bad in any way just helping to give a boost to some of us that just plain want to pick for mostly our own fun and maybe share with local, family and friends.

IMO he proves that there is an easier way of learning. Maybe not for one who may be a pro someday, but if there is banjo lessons for dummies I think he might be able to put a good book together as he did with 39 pages of down to earth applications in the BanjoHero

There is so much to pick up by someone taking the time to do something over and over to get you going. To me repetition is what learning is all about he don't say you don't need the chords he just shows you a little of how much can be done with partial chords.

He puts emphasis where it belongs for the beginner.

1. Go slow [and he take the time to show you],,,,,to start,,,,then try getting on with it a little

2.Your own timing helps motivate you as it gets better.

3. He shows you very well done basic rhythm, I think is just right for good bluegrass

4. Out of just these 4 and the most important in IMHO he gets you to stick with the melody

What more could you ask from a friend

I think it would be hard pressed to find anything better to motivate and get us pickin.

Thanks Richard for sharing with us.

Paul Stroud

I'm going to try a little harder after seeing that it really can be done.

Va Picker Says:
Friday, November 25, 2011 @2:31:04 PM

If you read carefully what Richard as written in the Banjo Hero manual, there is a ton of information for the beginner. And if you really understand what is written, you'll soon discover that the banjo is not some mystical instrument, but with the right approach, learning may not be as difficult as you might think.

Thanks for your simplified philosophy, Richard...well done.

MrHoney Says:
Wednesday, December 28, 2011 @9:07:07 PM

I remember you said in a post about "rolls", simply, that the forward roll is the only real roll. I thought you were just being stubborn, so I decided to drop everything and start working that forward roll as much as a specific tune would allow. The results were great! Everything seemed to come together and I could find melodies way faster. Licks and tags just appeared to me as short little detours back to the forward roll and bare-bones rhythm. Really put things in perspective. Never thanked you for! The manual looks great for us beginners who just want to play some bluegrass!

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