So many songs! So little time! What’s a student to do? As you might guess, we have answers!
Inspired by questions from students at our Beginning Banjo Camp this year, Casey and I have completely revised our Beginning Banjo Track. Over the past few years we’ve both come up with so many new teaching ideas that plowing straight through our Beginning Banjo DVDs one song at a time is no longer the Best Way To Learn To Play Banjo. Neither one of us teaches the songs in this order anymore because we finally realized that some of these tunes are simply too hard for most of our beginning students.
This Revised Beginning Banjo Track reflects how we teach now. As we were revising, one thing we discovered was that we actually needed two Beginning Banjo Tracks, one for folks who play at home alone and one for folks who are playing with others, like my Tip Jar Jammers.
Interestingly enough, both tracks start off the same way, with the Big Three. We’ve never found any tunes that work better than these! (We list the DVDs they are on after each song and here is a link so you can access a clickable, printable list.)
Banjo in the Hollow--Beginning Banjo Vol 1 [no vamping yet]
Boil Them Cabbage Down--low break--Misfits DVD [no vamping yet]
Cripple Creek--Beginning Banjo Vol 1 [no vamping yet]
Boil Them Cabbage Down—high break—Misfits DVD [no vamping yet]
As I said, these songs are the Big Three. They are your foundation. You should be able to play them all the way through—slowly—without stopping before you move on. We recommend practicing them in a “loop,” that is, playing the song 4 or 5 times in a row without stopping to really get the feel of the song. We also recommend playing these songs along with us on the Slow Jam DVD. Even though you don’t know the vamping yet, you can practice playing the breaks.
One of the most important things is to move through these beginning songs very slowly. ONE SONG A MONTH is the rule. Anytime I have had a student ignore this rule bad things have happened. Trust me on this, please! I’ve been doing this now for over 40 years! (This rule does not apply to younger students.) So right there you’re looking at four months of work. But at the end of four short months, you’ll be able to capably play three banjo tunes. How great it that? And Boil Them Cabbage actually has two different breaks, low and high, so that’s like two songs in one!
NOTE: You will see that I specifically say “no vamping yet.” This is because, at this point, making four-finger vamp chords is too hard for a beginner. You’ve got plenty on your plate already. Vamping can wait.
From this point on, we have two different beginning banjo tracks. If you are playing in a jam session or playing with other people, work with the Jam Session Track. If you are not playing in a jam session (yet) work with the Regular Beginning Track. The difference in the two tracks is that in the Jam Session Track we introduce the “Roly Polys” which are the foundation for the improvising you will do in a jam. If you’re not in a jam, the Roly Polys don’t make a whole lot of sense! And you can always learn them later when you get in a jam.
Regular Beginning Track
I Saw The Light--Misfits DVD [learn the vamping also]
Do Lord--Misfits DVD [learn the vamping also]
Now that you have been introduced to vamping on the Misfits DVD, start learning the vamping to the Big Three, one song at a time.
Vamping to Boil Them Cabbage Down. [Misfits DVD]
Cumberland Gap—Beginning Banjo DVD [no vamping yet]
Worried Man--Misfits DVD [learn the vamping also]
Vamping to Cripple Creek. [vamping is taught on our Vamping DVD.]
Foggy Mountain Breakdown [Beginning Banjo Vol 1; vamping on Vamping DVD]
Two Dollar Bill--Misfits DVD [learn the vamping also]
Vamping to Banjo in the Hollow. [Vamping DVD]
John Hardy—[Beginning Banjo Vol 1; vamping on Vamping DVD]
Vamping to Cumberland Gap [Vamping DVD]
If you’re following the ONE SONG A MONTH rule, these seven new songs should take you at least seven months. They will probably take longer. You can work on the vamping to the other songs while you are learning your new song. So, adding these seven to the Big Three, you now have 10 songs. Ten songs—played well--in a year’s time. That’s pretty darn good!
NOTE: To be entirely truthful and mostly to give you some REAL IDEA of how this works, one of my best adult students, who started in January, has not learned all these songs yet. She learned Cumberland Gap for her fourth song and then chose to work on Foggy Mountain Breakdown. That’s a much harder song than I Saw The Light but I thought her enthusiasm for it made the difference. Also, right now, she plays by herself which was also a factor. And, like most of you adults, “life events” sometimes get in the way of her practice. So, we’ve probably spent two months on the low break of Foggy Mountain Breakdown. The “one song a month” rule is just a guideline. Going slower is FINE!
Now for the Jam Session Track with its focus on improvising.
Jam Session Track
After you have learned the Cripple Creek, Boil Them Cabbage, Cripple Creek:
I Saw The Light--Misfits DVD [with vamping]
Blue Ridge Cabin Home--Kickstart Your Jamming DVD [with vamping]
Vamping to Boil Them Cabbage [Vamping DVD]
Do Lord--Misfits DVD [with vamping]
Bury Me Beneath the Willow--Kickstart Your Jamming DVD [with vamping]
Vamping to Cripple Creek [Vamping DVD]
Do Lord—Kickstart Your Jamming (yes, again, for the Roly Poly break in case the jam gets too fast for you to do your Misfits break. It happens!)
Foggy Mountain Breakdown, low break—Beginning Banjo Vol. 1 [with vamping from Vamping DVD]
Vamping to Banjo in the Hollow [Vamping DVD]
Worried Man--Misfits DVD [with vamping]
Cumberland Gap--Beginning Banjo Vol. 1 [vamping from Vamping DVD]
Note: You can skip Worried Gal and Somebody Touched Me on the Kickstart DVD unless you want to do them. They are Do Lord clones.
Will the Circle Be Unbroken—Kickstart Your Jamming [with vamping]
Two Dollar Bill--Misfits DVD [with vamping]
I’ll Fly Away—Kickstart Your Jamming [with vamping]
Note: Here you can continue to do as many Kickstart Your Jamming songs as you like. In fact, I urge you to do this, because the next song, John Hardy, is pretty hard!
John Hardy--Beginning Banjo Vol 1 [vamping from Vamping DVD]
NOTE: Again, let’s look at another of my adult students, “Roy,” who is attending the Tip Jar Jam pretty much every week. He started from scratch on January 7, 2025, and is doing great but he has not yet learned all these songs, although he’s getting close. Again, Foggy Mountain Breakdown has taken about two months because it’s a hard song! So, I can’t say this often enough or loud enough: It’s okay to take a couple of months on some of these harder songs.
One more word about Roy: Coming to the jam has given him the opportunity to play his Roly Poly Breaks and, building on that, he has also been able to take Roly Poly Breaks on songs that he has never played before! Which is the whole idea.Those never-before-played songs include: I’ll Fly Away, Circle, Old Country Church, and Wreck Of The Old 97.
Folks, these Beginning Banjo Tracks are more than just “suggestions.” I won’t go as far as to say that they are like the Ten Commandments, meaning “etched in stone” (rather than holy!), but the students who have followed these tracks have, on the whole, done rather well. Those who have strayed have often paid a steep price, which usually means having to go back and unlearn something that they have learned wrong. What a waste of time and money!
And if you made it this far, I thank you! In closing let me paraphrase a verse from that great bluegrass song Going Up Home To Live In Green Pastures:
Those who have strayed were sought by the teacher
She who once said “Please learn it by ear”
Out in the Blog World, still she is searching
Spreading the word to all who will hear.
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