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How To Practice: Play More Banjo! By Murphy Henry

Posted by caseyhenry on Monday, December 2, 2013

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I have been writing about playing the banjo for 30 years but I have never written an article about practicing. Why not? Well, probably because I hate anybody telling me what to do and also because most of the practice suggestions I read struck me as bombastic BS--idealistic, ivory-tower imaginings that seemed useless to me or, at best, not practical for adult students with lives and families. I never followed any set pattern when I was learning, I just got up, got a cuppa, and started studying Earl at 16 rpm in my pajamas! I thought my students would figure out what worked best for them and follow their own "rules," which many of them do. But finally I have come to understand that not everybody is self-propelled and that some people desperately want and need guidelines. With that in mind, I will present my own extremely general and hopefully not too bombastic suggestions in hopes that maybe a few of these ideas prove useful.

As I pull these thoughts together I have tried to take into account real adults with real lives so......

1. Play the banjo, play the banjo, play the banjo! Your progress is directly related to how much you play. The answer to almost every banjo-playing question is PLAY MORE BANJO.

Questions: I'm having trouble making my C chord, my F chord, my D chord. I can't get to my Cumberland Gap position quick enough. My pull-offs sound clunky, my 10th-fret choke sucks.

Answer: Play more banjo! Instead of trouble shooting this minutia, just play. Seriously. After many repetitions, your hand will figure out what to do. No student has ever failed to learn to make a C chord. And those who stick with it learn to make an F chord. Just play!

Want more specific guidelines? Practice as much as you can. In a perfect universe, students would practice 30 minutes to an hour every day. (Or at least 5 days a week.) In the real world, life interferes! So get it when you can! Leave your banjo out where you can get to it quickly and easily. Pick it up for 10 or 15 minutes. In these short spurts, play your old stuff. Playing some banjo is better than playing no banjo! 

2. Okay. You find yourself with a solid, uninterrupted hour to play. Now what? Warm up on a couple of easy songs that you play exceptionally well. (NOT the songs that are giving you trouble.) I always suggest Banjo In The Hollow or Cripple Creek. Play slow to start with and go through the songs 2, 3, or 4 times without stopping. The idea is not only to get your fingers going but also to create positive energy by hearing the good sounds of your own playing. Do NOT just play a song once and quit. It's the continuous playing that will get you warmed up. 

Question: What about playing rolls?

Answer: With the exception of beginning beginners, I'd rather my students play easy songs. Rolls don't give you much musical feedback.

Question: What about scales?

Answer: Scales? This is a banjo and you are not Bill Keith or Bela Fleck or Alison Brown.

3. Now that you've warmed up (5 minutes? 10 minutes?), tackle your new stuff while your mind is fresh and your energy-level high. Are you learning a new song? Get out that DVD and go to work. Murphy Method students know the drill: You get it one lick at a time (just like Johnny Cash got that car!). Learn the first lick. Play it a while. Learn the second lick. Play it a while. Put the two together. Play them a while. Learn the third lick. Play it a while. Put it together with the first two licks. Soon you will have a phrase. When you reach the end of a phrase (several licks together) play this phrase over and over to get it in your head and fingers. While the individual licks may not make much sense at first (they will most likely be mechanical repetitions), eventually a musical phrase will start to reveal itself. Listen for this revelation.

And you know what? One phrase, well learned, is enough for one practice session. Don't tackle too much. After all, you are going to practice again tomorrow. Even Murphy Method students, bless their pea-picking hearts, often make the mistake of trying to learn too much at one sitting. Don't do it! This is not a race. I still think that learning one song a month is a good, reasonable, long-term goal for adult learners.

Question: How do I know when it's time to move on to another new song?

Answer: Remember my one-song-a-month rule. Students who violate this rule usually end up having to go back and relearn or clean up songs that didn't quite sink in. Why waste your time? Never tackle more than two songs a month. But, more specifically, you can move to a new song when you can play through your (small) mistakes without stopping the song. Playing perfect is not going to happen and doesn't matter. Stopping matters. Speed does not.

4. Okay, so you've worked on your new song. Now what? Well, if you are a Murphy Method student, you've got to work on your vamping--learning the chords to the song. I don't consider a song "learnt" until the student can play it, vamp it, and get back into the break after vamping. And I know it's hard and unrewarding to work on vamping at home, so with that in mind, we've provided all the tools we can think of to help you. We've got Vamping: Beginning Backup and three levels of play-along-with DVDs: Slow Jam, Picking Up The Pace, and Fast Jam. To mis-quote Merle Haggard, "No, it's not a jam, but it's not bad!" 

5. You still have practice time, so what do you do now? Do you tackle another new song? No, no, no! Your adult brain can only handle so much new information. It needs time to process what you've just learned. So what do you do? You play your old stuff! (And if you don't have old stuff, you play your new stuff again!) And you play each of these old songs many times, over and over and over again without stopping. And, please! Keep it at a slow or medium speed. I know you're going to play fast sometimes, just to see if you can do it, but keep the fast playing to a minimum. That's where sloppy playing and mistakes creep in. If there is an old song that is giving you trouble, now is the time to pull out the troublesome area and work on it. Then put the problem section back into the song and play the song over and over with the new fix.

Question:  "I've got too many old songs. I only have time to play each old song once." 

Answer: I hate to tell you, but playing a song only once hardly helps at all. It's only by playing the song over and over that you sometimes can reach that wonderful musical place where the notes flow easily and the music sounds good. At the risk of sounding 1960-ish, you're trying to find the groove. And, yes, it's hard to find the groove on your own. It really helps to have a guitar player. That's why we made all those play-along DVDs--Casey is a wonderful rhythm guitar player! (And sometimes I play guitar and she plays banjo.)

So, I hope these suggestions aren't too boring, bombastic, banal, or broad! Remember, the most important thing is to PLAY THE BANJO! Especially during the holidays! You can find our play-along DVDs (and everything else!) at our website,

28 comments on “How To Practice: Play More Banjo! By Murphy Henry”

xlb6939 Says:
Monday, December 2, 2013 @1:11:03 PM

very helpful thanks

pickn5 Says:
Tuesday, December 3, 2013 @5:12:33 AM

Thank you, this is great advice for novices like me who sometimes try to much at once because we think we should be farther ahead. My past mistakes prove you right.

Randyc1959 Says:
Wednesday, December 4, 2013 @5:22:15 PM

You're the best Murphy! Always good advice. Even though I've been playing for 30 years plus I still try to play at least 10 minutes a day. I still start off lots of my practice sessions with "Banjo in the Hollow" or " Cripple Creek". Thanks for great advice as always.

n1wr Says:
Thursday, December 5, 2013 @7:20:44 AM

Casey: This is a great post. Hopefully Eric will put it up as a sticky in the Playing advice forum.

On practicing a lot of old songs - two comments - Some are easy, especially those that we've played umteen times, so maybe one time through is OK. I tend to break my song list into groups, so they are manageable, maybe a half dozen at a time during a warmup session. I use various tools - TableEdit, iTunes, your DVD's, other DVD's Amazing Slowdowner ... so I organize my old songs in groups that go along with the tool (to make it easy - no switching tools). Also in itunes I have song lists that are all in the same key, and are easy to jam to. My overall favorite tool is TablEdit - not because its TABS, but because I can easily change the tempo. Once I learn a song I can gradually increase the speed, making it more challenging to play along, and as the tune repeats I can switch between melody and backup.

I'm no expert - still very much in the learning stage. Your advice helps. Thanks for taking the time to put this together, especially for those of us that don't have the resources to work directly with a teacher.

bkdraft Says:
Tuesday, December 10, 2013 @8:00:37 AM

Banjo in the Hollow is still my go to song to warm up, I just need to make time to practice more often. Thanks for the ideas.

Gordy Ohliger Says:
Tuesday, December 10, 2013 @10:52:31 AM

Snicker snicker. Thank you...Yes folks that's how you do it. That's The Big Secret!
I've put in only a few years of teaching and have noted that students don't seem to play the banjo much. Huh? Wha?
Big secret revealed; Want to play the banjo? Play your banjo.
Nice little article.

Rbuhrman Says:
Tuesday, December 10, 2013 @11:07:52 AM

Murphy, I'm a new student of your system....real pleased with beginning vol. 1.......hoping Santa brings vol 2........after hearing your voice/cheerfulness in vol 1, and reading this "How to Practice.." all I could think of was, "Murphy wastes no time beating around the bush!" You are direct and straight to the point.....and, thanks for being like that, and thanks for your contributions to beginners like myself, who think we are really closet "Earls".

1121jgs Says:
Tuesday, December 10, 2013 @11:26:26 AM

Just read your article on how to practice. It is frustrating to be a beginner. Your article makes perfect sense and definitely has encouraged me to play the same songs over and over until I get the song in my hands and in my head. Great advice. Thank you!!

PaulRF Says:
Tuesday, December 10, 2013 @12:30:54 PM

Thank you, appreciate the advice as I was struggling.

jonah4832 Says:
Tuesday, December 10, 2013 @12:57:22 PM

wished I had seen something like this when i first started. Great advise.

pluckerdude Says:
Tuesday, December 10, 2013 @12:58:59 PM

After 20 plus years of playing,all I can say this is great advice. I never play a song just once, play as many times as it takes to get it right, and always start slow, especially if the tune is difficult. Most of us at some time or other try to play things too fast, or ignore mistakes. I have been playing in bands for many years, and finally learned how to make the most out of practice.

Geoc Says:
Tuesday, December 10, 2013 @1:30:16 PM

Soon after I began playing six years ago, I was given this same advice. But of course, I knew better...... NOT! After trying to learn a song each week, warming up by playing a couple of rolls and a couple of scales, I'd jump into a fast version of something like Bill Cheatham or I'll Fly Away, play each once, and move on. After months and months of that routine and much discouragement, I stepped back and tried playing slowly. And I decided to play each song a thousand times as Earl suggested. If only I had taken the advice I was given early-on and which was repeated here, I'd be farther along.

The only disadvantage I have with playing the same song over and over is that my wife complains about the monotony. I suggested that she could take up the guitar (or banjo) and join me. Well, that went over like a blender for an anniversary gift. So now I put on a mute; I can hear my playing, but she can't. That little device costs much less than a divorce settlement. So for those whose spouses or roommates are about to use their wire cutters on your strings is, try a mute. ;-)

Another thing that has helped me is to play along with a CD after I think I've mastered a particular song. I especially like to find a CD that contains only backup. Or I'll make such a CD by finding a song that features a banjo solo then silencing the right or left track to eliminate the banjo lead. Playing along at full speed can be a humbling experience. But it sure helps with preparing for a jam session.

Thanks, Murphy. I love your videos.

Hat Man Says:
Tuesday, December 10, 2013 @3:12:23 PM

Thanks for the article... we're grateful for your time.

Ken Mooney Says:
Tuesday, December 10, 2013 @3:36:22 PM

I've got another 2 weeks to learn a Christmas song (It came upon a Midnight Clear. Practice, practice , practice !!!!! Now I don't feel so bad that 1 song a month is the way to go !! I guess it's an adult thing !!

ironhead Says:
Tuesday, December 10, 2013 @4:54:56 PM

That is some of the most rock solid, sensible, clearly written advice I've read for a long time. Thanks for that! I love the Murphy method!

Ian Stuart Says:
Wednesday, December 11, 2013 @12:39:37 AM

Thanks for the article it's been taking me a month to a month and a half to learn a new tune / song I thought it was to long and was getting frustrated with my self thinking I should be making more progress . Thank you again it seems I may be some where close to being normal after all . Cheers thanks Murphy.

hogwildblue2 Says:
Wednesday, December 11, 2013 @3:15:59 AM

thanks for the info thanks again i know it will work .

caddis Says:
Wednesday, December 11, 2013 @11:58:13 AM

Thank you for taking the time to write such encouraging advice! I have about 18 months of practice and I really get discouraged at times because I am slow to "master" a song. I recently got your first two dvds and had a ball learning the new songs ( already learned Cripple Creek and FMB ). Right now I have experimented with just picking the melody notes of some songs I know. Thanks again for all you do for banjo players.

petraks Says:
Wednesday, December 11, 2013 @12:06:46 PM

Thank you for the advice. I always start with Banjo in the Hollow. Glad to know I'm not the only one.

diehuismuis Says:
Thursday, December 12, 2013 @5:15:41 AM

I've been looking for advice like this since I started playing over a year ago-- very well-written article; I thank you for posting it. Seeing as though in-person lessons are not an option for me at the moment, I've found it hard to find the discipline to create my own practice groove, as well as the patience or forgiveness to accept my inexperience/clumsy playing when I DO play. Needless to say, it has not been an enjoyable experience so far, and believe me when I say I want nothing more than to find a way to turn that around. This article really inspired and reassured me that this is not an overnight process, and that if I remain diligent in making time for my banjo every day, I can get over the initial hump and begin seeing some progress-- which will in turn give me the encouragement confidence to keep at it regularly. :) Again, wonderful advice. My gratitude goes out to you and all the other pickers in the banjohangout forums for being so open with their knowledge of the instrument and always so helpful and willing to share said knowledge. This site has really been an asset for in during these beginning stages of learning!

chicofry Says:
Tuesday, December 31, 2013 @1:55:25 PM

Saved. Saved. Saved. I think it's too easy to worry about the structure of practicing and forget the simplicity of just picking up your banjo and playing. Gordy taught me that one and that's why I liked having him as a teacher so much.

Thanks, Murphy!

Dave_RB75 Says:
Friday, January 17, 2014 @12:20:20 PM

All great stuff, Murphy. Thanks for pulling all this together!

tmeyer Says:
Friday, January 17, 2014 @2:12:06 PM

Very good article! I too warm up to banjo in the Holler. Some practice is better than none.

radtwo Says:
Friday, January 17, 2014 @4:57:59 PM

Very good article Murphy,

You mentioned "you've got to work on your vamping--learning the chords to the song." On a lot of the DVDs I have the instructions for learning the songs are great. But, the cords you show are for the guitar. For instance The Old Home Place, you show the cords for the guitar. Casey plays these fantastic cords for the song. I tried to stop the DVD to see what she is doing, but that's almost impossible. I'd like to know how to play the "banjo" chords for these songs, not the guitar chords. I know you're trying to satisfy everyone, but I'd still like to see the banjo chords.

I really enjoy your DVD instructions.


caseyhenry Says:
Saturday, January 18, 2014 @5:15:53 AM

Hi Roy,
I can't figure out how to message you directly, so I hope you see this. You play the same chords on the banjo as on the guitar. When the guitar plays a G, the banjo plays a G. When the guitar plays a C, the banjo plays a C. You do, however, have to know how to make your banjo chords! If you don't know that, start there. We have all that on a DVD called "Vamping: Beginning Banjo Backup" and I think that will clear up many of your questions.

SpudHuskerBanjo Says:
Sunday, January 26, 2014 @10:39:59 AM

Awesome article! I wish this had been sent out with my order of DVDs when I got them around Christmas.

Ban-Joey Says:
Thursday, April 17, 2014 @11:38:35 AM

I LOVE Casey.... That is ALL

CapoNFret Says:
Tuesday, June 24, 2014 @10:08:15 AM

Thanks for the encouraging words, Murphy. I have your "Slow Jam" DVD, and have learned from that right off. Warm-up is important for me, and I (too) use Banjo In The Hollow, among others. I like to hear your banjo playing, it's clear and precise...thanks for your instruction!...Best to you & Casey...Gary

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