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On Learning the Banjo Language...

Posted by thetexan on Friday, January 20, 2012

like this

Here is something for all of you new students.....

Have you ever considered that when you go to a jam all of those guys at the jam are not waiting around for you to come and show them all the songs you know.

It may be, in fact, probably is that what they can use and who they hope shows up is a good banjo picker who can add to the fun of the jam by providing proficient accompaniment to each of THEIR tunes THEY want to play. 

Sometimes a new beginner experiences the sledgehammer of banjo reality which many new players wait years to understand.  I have attended, I guess, thousands of jams in my life, played in many venues, and performed countless times.  Here is a fact.  Most new banjo players begin going down the wrong road of learning the instrument and a huge percentage of those never realize it.

Im well known here for equating learning the banjo with learning a spoken language.  The  mental learning process is identical and the analagous simularities also are enormous.  Essentially, here is the principle in a nutshell.  You, as a new student of the banjo want to learn to make the banjo 'do its thing'.  When a student begins the journey, most usually, he does not know how to proceed.  Therefore they do what seems normal...they learn songs from tabs.  Learning songs is something that, intuitively, seems like something they can do on their own and that requires no additional ingredients...just a tab book (or Murphy tape), a banjo, and some time alone.  Seems perfectly logical.  The only problem is that the idea of starting off learning songs, while not wrong in and of itself, has an effect like a narcotic to a new student providing immediate results and gratification but more often than not leading to improper language study and neglect of major areas of essential banjo performance skills.

Imagine wanting to learn Chinese.  (By the way, there are pages and pages of detailed essays on this subject in the form of posts in this forum if you will search on my name and on the subject).  You have a cocktail dinner you are going to attend in two weeks that includes your boss, a foreign broker of manufacturing supplies, and a room filled with his Chinese clients.  You know nothing of the language of Chinese but you want to prepare.  You would think one would learn some basic language such as 'hello', 'it's wonderful to meet you', and the like.  Instead, you find a book of Chinese poems and begin memorizing them. 

The night of the party arrives and you show up ready to 'perform' what you know.  You enter the room where you find many small groups of guests engaged in enjoyable conversation....Chinese conversation.  You grab a cocktail, walk up to a group of guest and listen to their Chinese with interest waiting for just the right time to take your turn as the speaker.  Then, at the first gap, you recite one of your Chinese poems.  Your group partners listen politely and may even take pleasure in hearing a neophyte recite something that is famiar to them.  When you finish, they smile, convey their approval, then return to their Chinese.  It doesnt occur to them,  YET, that you have no understanding of the intricacies of Chinese.  As they continue you stand their not really being able to interact.  Oh, occasionally you will insert a phrase or two you may have inadvertently picked  up in your studies but for the most part you stand at the sidelines waiting for someone to invite you to recite another poem.  Eventually they will come to realize that all you know how to do is recite poetry.  They will realize that you can not actively participate in the enjoyment of the conversation.

And so it is with a huge percentage of banjo players.  In fact, of all the players I run across, only a small percentage are proficient at the banjo 'language'.  And of those remaining almost 100% of them have arrived at their condition for one reason....they learned a lot of banjo poetry and and never learned conversational banjo.  And this is the result of two things.....

1.  The natural, intuitive desire of learning for a new player is to learn a few songs thinking, INCORRECTLY that this is the key to banjo success, and
2.  The learning of new songs, to a new player, is a narcotic that becomes addictive, is easy to get a fix, and ALMOST ALWAYS leads you down a learning path that neglects the most important aspect of actually learning the instrument...that of becoming proficient at accompaniment banjo...more often referred to as backup banjo.

Remember this all important concept.  Remember this all important concept.  Remember this....oh...I already repeated myself.  Just in case you missed....REMEMBER THIS ALL IMPORTANT your career as a banjo player you will play with hundreds of people, attend 100s of jams, be asked to perform with your 'tool' dozens or scores of times.  About 95% of those times what they will want from you will not be soliloquous poetry.  What they will want from you is expert, proficient, competent conversational backup banjo which is an enhancement and enjoyable accompaniment to the musical ensemble of which you will be a part.  Only about 5% of the time will you be called upon to step up the mic and either perform a banjo-centric tune or lead break.  That's a 95/5 percent split based on actual performance time....backup to lead.   95 to 5.  Imagine that coctail party.  In an actual party setting with a group of conversationalist how much of the party do you think will you be expected to simply engage in polite, fluent, enjoyable and contributing conversation....and how much of the time at the party will you be asked to 'hey Bill, recite us another poem!'?

Dont worry, this tendency to learn songs and neglect backup study is normal.  What is not normal is a new student coming to a realization of the learning trap he may be getting into.

So, here is my advise.  Learn a few songs, yes!  Enjoy the banjo.  Spend about 80% of your learning study and practice time learning the elements of banjo competency and proficiency.    Learn chords, all 5 positions, full and partial, in all of the popular bluegrass keys.  Then learn the partial versions of all of those.  Learn how to transition between all of those in all sorts of interesting and varied ways.  Practice roll patterns, not for the purpose of mastering a forward or backward or alternating thumb roll for their sake for to train right hand mastery of compound and complex roll patterns which you will encounter in real-life playging.  Study substitution licks for all of the above positions.  Learn licks that can be used as transition methods between all of those chords.  Study all sorts of licks in all keys.  Learn scales and scalar patterns that can be used as transitions or fill.

What you are doing is learning all of the 'vocabulary' that makes up the banjo language.  You will be practicing and studying to become proficient at 'conversational banjo'.  Each lick, chord, partial chord, scale, slide, transition, walk-up, walk-down, tag, opening....each separate element will become another word in your ever increasing vocabulary and another tool in your musical tool box that will be used as a master banjoist in all of your ensemble opportunities.  That's the 80%.  Now let's talk about the other 20%.

Spend the rest of your time learning any and all songs you enjoy.  Learn them well and be prepared for some wonderful solo times.   20%.  Twenty percent.

There is nothing more amazing than listening to a master backup and solo banjoist.  The funny thing about all of this is that by properly budgeting your time 80/20 backup and lead you will be preparing for the 95% of the time that will be asked of you as backup as well as the 5% of the lead requests.  BUT YOU WILL BE USABLE AS A BANJO INSTRUMENTALLIST 100% OF THE TIME!!!!!! Let that sink in.  Right now you are working hard to prepare for 5% of the total opportunities.  This is why there are so many improficient banjo players out there.  For the most part it's because they never come to the realization.

The best way to start is to listen to bluegrass groups and LISTEN to the banjo player as he plays backup.  Listen to hours and hours of the masters.  Get Janet Davis' Backup Banjo and learn everything in there as well as Splitting the Licks, and any other sources of banjo knowledge.  This includes tabs...they contain a treasury of banjo elements for the learning, tapes.....and WATCHING OTHERS AT JAMS!  In fact attending jams is an essential ingredient in your learning path.

Forgetting the songs  you have spent so much time learning is a normal thing.  It happens to all of us.  But, if the only tool in the toolbox is a hammer, you are sunk if you forget to bring your hammer.

I write this for any  new student wondering where to go with his learning efforts. 

Here is what I would do.  Go to jams.  Take a digital recorder from Best Buy (about $65) and record the popular songs that that group likes.  Then go home and work on learning backup to those songs.  Learn openings to lots of popular songs.  You dont have to learn the whole song.  Just the kick-off.  Everyone loves to hear a banjo kick-off to their favorite song.

There is an enormous amount of banjo meat on this bone of which I would wager most new players have not even begun to scratch the surface.  There is nothing more entertaining and wonderous than the artistry of a backup master.

And remember. Beware of addictive narcotics.


9 comments on “On Learning the Banjo Language...”

garman Says:
Friday, January 20, 2012 @11:40:26 PM

Thanks Dave, makes sense to me. As a fairly new student of the banjo your blog will help me to stay focused.

dthomas Says:
Sunday, January 22, 2012 @5:58:25 AM


banjohurricane Says:
Sunday, January 22, 2012 @8:04:17 AM

Great sound advise Dave, back-up banjo is truly is essential to becoming a top flight picker. When I started learning to play compliment back-up behind singers and spliting licks between others in the band more doors began to open up for me. Every new player should follow these rules if they ever want to elevate there playing skills to a pro level. Keep poisting good info like that Dave.

bc99 Says:
Monday, January 23, 2012 @9:34:07 AM

Great advice. This really gets to the problem that new players have without proper guidance, a good teacher, or a good jam group (or all). Books really don't teach the "banjo language". Sure, Splitting the Licks or Hot Licks have a lot of great things to learn, but trying to remember them all without flowing in a group setting is hard.

I think the biggest strides I've made have been playing with someone else. If you can get a teacher or friendly jam session together to practice not only your songs, but also the banjo language, well you'll be learning much more than just the breaks to a dozen or so songs.

Great post again, love the idea of the "banjo language".

JanetB Says:
Monday, January 23, 2012 @2:28:19 PM

Convincing logic gently stated. The alternative is to play at home alone--not always as fun as that unique institution "the jam."

Beckyboy Says:
Sunday, February 19, 2012 @1:30:48 AM

Your spot on with your comments, my first year has been learning a few tunes mostly to develop muscle memory and to have fun. However since starting to attend jams the importance of backup has become so important,my teacher also speaks of exactly what you talk of Dave and whilst I enjoy learning a solo my focus is now also on learning the neck and the chords etc. there will i'm sure be a time where I will be able to play a passable solo to a tune I do not know because of the time I invest in learning backup and all that goes with it.

Rich C Says:
Monday, April 2, 2012 @10:39:04 AM


I am have just come up on the first year of learning the banjo, and what you said struck a chord with me (no pun intended) I have not had an instructor, got a few songs under my belt but couldn?t play with a group if I had to. You make perfect sense, been in a learning rut, it was the direction I have been looking for. My focus will be learning the language as you put it. Thank You
Rich Collins

Tam_Zeb Says:
Wednesday, September 19, 2012 @5:10:23 AM

Interesting theory Tex

Lot's of words telling noobs to go out and buy other peoples music and not to waste their time learning to play the banjo... At least that's how it comes across to me...

I take it you have never studied the Murphy Method... It's all the things you describe here Banjo Vocabulary.

On the one hand you saying to students they are doing it all wrong then you tell the to follow your advice and go out and buy Janet Davis TABs... Which seems to contradict what you said earlier.

I don't seee anything of your playing or teaching skills... So I guess I'll just have to get another narcotic fix... At least it makes me happy and I am harming anyone else in the process...

PurpleHull1967 Says:
Sunday, May 14, 2017 @3:59:15 PM

For me personally it seems a shame that to play with others you need to use picks with Bluegrass banjo...I have only recently bought some picks, after playing for several years alone without them...I like the more "natural" feel of bare fingers and thumb, and I'm trying to decide whether or not to persevere with the picks...they seem to sound so artificial..But above all the noise is upsetting my neighbours! Any advice or suggestions on the best way forward would be greatly appreciated!

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