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Book Review - Folk Banjo Method - Michael Bremer

Friday, January 9, 2015


For Five String Banjo

By Michael Bremer

Hal Leonard HL00123219

This book takes a pretty open ended approach to playing the banjo.  It says you can choose to use picks or not use picks.  You can pick up with your fingers or down with your fingernails.  There are folks out there who just want to play banjo as they remember from their youth during the great folk scare, and others who have heard modern bands play with a total lack of regard for true bluegrass style or some authentic old time style.  The term folk is the key to this.  Folk styles are just what they are.  This book is a great introduction to playing the banjo.  All of the key elements of getting a good sound while understanding how a banjo works are here.  That is the focus of this book.

After a brief introduction, there are chapters on tuning the banjo, basic chords out of G tuning, and then a couple of songs to simply strum along with the words to those songs.  There is a key included in the book that allows access to the sound files that accompany the exercises.  A couple chapters look at what to do with your right hand, alternating basic strums with thumb action.  Then Bremer introduces the strum-thumb.  This looks a lot like the single thumb double thumb action in clawhammer playing but you could also do it with an up pick motion and as the name says you can lead with your thumb or the strum.  Let’s just say that all of these techniques have previously existed in various old time pickers bags of tricks, but here without no muss nor fuss, Bremer lays then out as good choices.

The songs presented are fairly familiar folk pieces like “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”, “Down in the Valley” (with a great demonstration of how to play ¾ time using a lick much like clawhammer), “The Fox”, “Cripple Creek”, “Oh Susanna” and “Home Sweet Home” to mention some.  Each tune is used to move the learner onward with new techniques like slides, hammer ons and pull offs.  Everything taught here is in G tuning.

There are plenty of finger picking patterns presented but they are not exactly like the rolls used in bluegrass.  A few of those rolls show up without the nomenclature attached to them in bluegrass.  There is the alternating thumb roll, a forward-backward (or reverse) roll and the minstrel roll which looks and sounds like dropthumb in the clawhammer style.  There are tabs that apply the patterns to chord changes with runs to tie the chords together, and eventually incorporating melodies with these patterns and runs.

There is a section on chords and using the capo to play in different keys.  And all through the book there are encouraging statements and timely tips that will aid the first time musician in learning the skills necessary to accomplishing their goal. Using the G tuning and a capo, enough chords are given so you can play in four keys, G, C, D and A.

If you like the sound of the banjo, but are not particularly drawn to the old time mountain or bluegrass sounds, this book will introduce you to the instrument and get you started down your path.  Everything here is useful and fundamental to becoming a solid banjo player, without some of the real taxing aspects one might encounter in learning bluegrass banjo or the more arcane old time styles.  This book should prove to be the best for those who just want to tinker around on the banjo with their guitar picking buddies.


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Been playing for along time, 1963. Started out on guitar and got my, first banjo, a Harmony Bakelite deluxe in 1968 but I traded it for a good profit. Owned more banjos that I can count can't have too many now. Had the good fortune to make a multitude of friends who play banjo, most of them are better pickers but can't tell a joke to save their life except Hangnail and Reed. They do pretty well with the humor. As the Mountain Sage is quick to point out, "There ain't no money past the fifth fret." I still wander off sometimes and get a nose bleed.

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