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Playing the Banjo

Posted by Richard Dress on Thursday, September 4, 2014

The banjo can reach out and capture your imagination and  grab your heart.  Banjo music makes you feel alive and you could easily get the unshakable urge to make banjo music yourself. 


Listening to a Bach fugue doesn’t make me want to run out and buy a pipe organ.  Kenny Baker never gave me the urge to get a fiddle,  But Earl and Ralph …


The banjo has this magic quality and as a result many are looking for a way down that hazy pathway.  What begins as a clear and shining desire to make music on a banjo morphs into a busy souk, a labyrinth of stalls and workshops stuffed with endless material relating to learning the banjo, picking the banjo, buying the banjo, buying the books and DVDs for the banjo, getting lessons on banjo styles, … there is no end to it.  


There is always a secret out there somewhere.  The secret is the better banjo, the better thumb pick, the better finger pick, a cool strap, the right way to adjust the picks for faulty A&R … it’s like a HomeDepot for the clueless beginner, a place of mystery and doubt.  Banjo students can wander around for years in Banjoland and never make any progress toward their now-forgotten goal:  make music on the banjo.


Before a student even puts on those new fingerpicks and hangs that new banjo with the new strap, this question must be addressed:  can you play the banjo?  If you can, then proceed, if you can’t then stop and think for a moment.  You are beginning to learn a banjo style and you can’t play the banjo?  If you go on from here you are risking turning that banjo dream into a nightmare.  


There are few things more frustrating than learning a bunch of stuff and not being able to make it sound like music.  Years, often decades struggling down that wrong road learning more and more stuff that you can’t play, that is no fun.


You see, all that stuff you are set up to memorize--all the DVDs, all the YouTube videos--doesn’t really relate to your ultimate and original goal of making music.  


The first thing for one beginning the banjo journey is to take this test:  grab a banjo and using a one finger strum and two barre chords sing and accompany yourself on “Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms”.


The people who can do this the first time they pick up a banjo can now go back and sit down with their picks and Beginning Banjo book—you guys are ready to go.  Goodbye.


The rest of you have a problem.  You are not in the right classroom, you are basically wasting time--your time and your teacher’s time.  The teacher, however, is getting paid but it is still not fun for the teacher either.  There are many who stay on this treadmill for decades, moving from teacher to workshop to banjo camp.  I have been there, I know.  I have a wall of banjo DVDs, tabs, books, VCRs, big binders.


So what to do?  Learn to make music.  Can’t dance? Then pound the table with a beer bottle.  Just start.  It doesn’t really take very long unless you are a total loser, the klutz of the world.  There are very few who can’t qualify, so get on with it.  The sooner you can pass the test, the sooner you can put on those picks.

12 comments on “Playing the Banjo”

Bilbo1 Says:
Friday, September 5, 2014 @2:47:53 AM

I don't really see the point of Your post Richard, apart from trying to make someone who might be finding learning a banjo style difficult feel bad about themselves. I'm sure there are things that you aren't very good at, does that make you a total loser?!!

Richard Dress Says:
Friday, September 5, 2014 @6:33:06 AM

The point is do things in the proper order. Note that there are very few total losers that can't learn to play. If you think you can't play because you are a lose, then you are probably wrong. The reason so many people have trouble, the reason so many spend so long on the journey is that they try to jump in before they have the prerequisite. If things are difficult for you, it is probably because you are doing things out of order.

The preparation is not difficult. Do not be alarmed. The news I am giving you is actually very good news, if you stop and think about it.

Did you take the test? Did you pass? Did you fail? That is the real point.

Richard Dress Says:
Friday, September 5, 2014 @8:09:57 AM

What if you were in college and decided to take a chemistry class without the prerequisites? If someone came along a and said you really should take the prerequisites in the right order, it might make you feel bad. But it is good advice, isn't it?

Some people on the HO are there to keep you feeling good about yourself no matter what the truth is. Others, are there to help you move along, to get you off that treadmill, telling the truth even if it makes people uncomfortable. Both influences are necessary: you need encouragement and you need direction. I am here to tell the truth and to move students off the treadmill.

Bilbo1 Says:
Friday, September 5, 2014 @9:14:27 AM

I wasn't referring to myself Richard, just didn't like the way you worded it is all :)

Richard Dress Says:
Friday, September 5, 2014 @9:51:27 AM

I got you. It reads a little bleak to me also. But then it is depressing to see a student struggle for years learning a banjo style and never sounding like real music. Does that make sense to you? It shouldn't take years to reach that essential goal of learning the magic of music and how to express it through a banjo.

And the blog installment is only part of the story. It may be a little sad but the rest of the story is uplifting. As you know, it is not really part of the music business to worry about what the buyer does with the product. Why? There is no money in it. That's fair. Getting music into your heart is your own business. What a student should bring to the table is a specific skill-set, a basic musical ability. My test covers those basic skills.

A) melody B) rhythm C) basic BG knowledge

That's what you need as a beginning banjo student. You might not know 'Roll In My SBA'. That's OK pick one you do know. Don't know any? Well, there is an area for improvement. Can't sing a melody? Even as bad as Bob Dylan dead drunk? Something else to learn. How about rhythm? Can you dance? Do you walk like a robot? See, there are a few things a student can do to make learning a banjo style possible in a year or so, a musical style.

Richard Dress Says:
Friday, September 5, 2014 @2:25:57 PM

And you ask about being a loser. That's another fair question. I don't think there are very many HO members who spent as much time as I did being a loser on the banjo. How about thirty years?

That experience gives me a lot of authority when the discussion is about being a loser. In the banjo world there are three basic kinds of losers. The ones who give up right away, the ones who stick with it forever but have taken the wrong turn, and the very very rare person who just can't get it.

I have known the losers and the winners. I took a lot of lessons from the winners but it didn't help much. Why? Because I was lacking in A) and B).

Winners have A B C going for them, the losers don't.

Rich Weill Says:
Monday, September 8, 2014 @8:24:23 PM

If we can get past some of the rhetorical flourishes in this post and focus instead on the substance, there's a lot of food for thought here.

I was taught to focus on (1) the chords of a song, (2) playing repeating rolls with good banjo rhythm, and (3) learning how to add a simple melody line into these rolls (played rhythmically over the proper chords). All the rest -- the slides, the tags, etc. -- was something you didn't need to know until after you could play lots of songs (in various keys) changing chords, using just a couple of rolls, and incorporating the melody.

To so many people, learning the "Cripple Creek lick" and the "Foggy Mountain Breakdown lick" is a basic. It shouldn't be. These are techniques for ornamenting a melody -- not a phase one skill.

Beginning your banjo journey by learning to play songs simply -- melody, harmony, and rhythm --- is empowering. It makes the banjo fun, not frustrating. It leads directly to learning to play by ear (because it prioritizing hearing the basic chord progression and simple melody line).

If you took two beginners, gave one a F&S recording of "Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms" with the tablature transcription to follow and copy, and gave the other just the chord progression of RIMSBA, a forward roll played with proper rhythm, and the technique for adding the melody into this forward roll, student two would develop a useful banjo skill faster, have more fun doing it, and have a much easier time transferring that skill to other songs than student one.

Richard Dress Says:
Tuesday, September 9, 2014 @7:19:08 PM

Thanks, Rich. I agree, of course. It is another way of looking at it. I learned a lesson in this approach early on at a jam. Some dude who couldn't play a guitar just learned some lyrics to a cool folk song, borrowed a guitar, tuned it to an open chord and did a hell of a job performing the song. He just played barre up and down he neck to get the chord. Someone like this could do the same with a banjo and not even have to retune it.

I was jealous. Here I had been learning to play for a couple of years and he could perform with a guitar and I couldn't. He wasn't a guitar player.

There are a lot of people like this and if they started the banjo, they wouldn't be sitting around for years as beginners and intermediates, the way I plodded along. They will be playing like a pro in a year or two if they want to. Why is that? They are superman? They have special talents and I got passed by? Not at all. They had a few prior skills under their belt. And after all, a three finger roll isn't that hard is it? Learning two chords isn't a big deal, is it?

Does it make sense for a piano beginner, a total nubs to music, to ask for Mose Alison lessons or Chopin lessons?

Rich Weill Says:
Wednesday, September 10, 2014 @8:34:50 AM

I had a somewhat similar experience, Richard. I would go to jams and folk gatherings and notice guitar players who knew three or four chords and one strumming technique, and owned a capo, having a lot of fun strumming and singing along. Meanwhile, banjo players were trying to execute all sorts of complicated maneuvers with both the left and right hand (and, speaking for myself, experiencing much more frustration than fun).

I started considering why guitar players focused on the song more than technique, and banjo players seemed to do the exact opposite. And that's when I concluded that the "mirror Earl" philosophy is more harmful than helpful, depending on the stage of your banjo development. [Once you achieve a sufficient level of banjo skill, and can play lots of songs, including the melody, using various rolls, quarter notes, and some basic banjo punctuation (i.e., tags), then by all means study how great players added to these songs with their signature licks and ornamentation. Incorporate their ideas into your playing if you want. But don't start there.]

Of course -- as I have said many times on BHO -- watching, listening to, talking to, taking lessons from, participating in workshops with, playing with, and generally spending time with Roger Sprung has had an enormous influence on my view of how the banjo should be taught and learned.

Rich Weill Says:
Wednesday, September 10, 2014 @8:40:29 AM

I should add that, while some others on BHO have criticized my reiteration of Roger's principles and basic approach to learning the banjo -- either criticizing me for getting it wrong, or perhaps criticizing Roger himself -- I received a very nice note from Pete Wernick complimenting my posts and expressing his whole-hearted agreement. That's more than enough affirmation for me.

Richard Dress Says:
Wednesday, September 10, 2014 @8:51:49 AM

Yeah, I have seen it. You have to move past the resident A-holes. There is such a thing as impenetrable ignorance and we see it often. It is an effective but not a happy strategy.

Have you seen this short clip: it opens and closes with Roger at Galax?

Rich Weill Says:
Wednesday, September 10, 2014 @3:52:38 PM

Yes. There a now a wide variety of Sprung clips on YouTube, most notably:

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