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Learn Foundational Skills First

Thursday, October 30, 2014

I believe that banjo students would be well served by learning foundational banjo skills first, and waiting on the rest (i.e., ornamentation skills).   For example, slides and hammer-ons are not foundational skills.  The so-called "standard tag lick" is not a foundational skill.  You can play a recognizable arrangement of "Blue Ridge Cabin Home" without slides, hammer-ons, or tag licks.  Reasonable people may consider these items "basic" or "fundamental" techniques; that's why I avoid those terms.   These techniques, and others like them, are ornamentation – the fancy bits.  But fancy is not foundational.  That doesn't mean they needn't be learned.  It only means that, in my view, they needn't – indeed, shouldn't – be learned first.

The foundation of bluegrass-style banjo, like the foundation of all instrumental music, is:  rhythm, harmony, and for lead, melody.  [I'm also avoiding the term "Scruggs-style," because it is often interpreted as requiring the use of specific banjo licks and phrases – which I also put in the category of ornamentation.]  Before learning to play an ornamented arrangement of a song, students should know how to play the un-ornamented version – the melody and harmony in rhythm.  And they should learn those foundational skills well enough to translate most any vocal melody they can hear in their heads onto the banjo.  There will be plenty of time to learn ornamentation skills later.

Banjo rhythm can be expressed many ways, but the most common expression is the measure-length roll.  I know this statement bothers a lot of people who believe that a roll is either three (or four) notes long or runs continuously (as if bar lines did not exist).  But playing three-note rolls will not develop rhythm skills.  And ignoring bar lines (actual or conceptual) won't either.  Learning proper, flowing, repeating eight-note, or eight-note-and-rest, rolls, with a regular, recurring downbeat, will teach good rhythm skills.  Learning rolls – in their multiple variations – is a foundational skill.  This includes learning how to repeat rolls measure after measure without breaking the rhythm, how a single finger pattern can be played over dozens of string patterns, how a roll can be varied to play the 5th string either more or less.  And, of course, the skill requires that you develop good timing.  In time, you may be able to put all of this roll stuff behind you and "just play," but we're talking foundational skills now, not how an advanced player who has made these skills instinctual works.

Harmony is chords.  Learning to play them, learning to hear them, learning to predict them.  Learning to think in terms of chords.  Growing confident that, as long as you can determine the chords of a song, you can play most anything with other people. 

Harmony plus rhythm is rolls over chords.  Playing through the chord progression of songs, lots of songs, using good rhythmic skills while changing chords in time.  It's rolling backup.

Melody is a combination of knowing where the melody notes are, and knowing how to play them within various rolls.  I was taught to start with three melody-friendly rolls – all forward roll variations, but yielding very different-sounding results.  I learned where in each roll the melody notes fit most naturally, and then was taught to play numerous songs in the key of G, using only one of the three rolls for the entire song, and add the melody notes.  Then to repeat with each of the other two rolls.  Then repeat in the key of C without a capo.  These are foundational skills when trying to play a melody on a bluegrass banjo – so that later, when you start mixing numerous rolls together in a single song, you already have a foundation for understanding which roll works best where.

Nothing here is original.  All of these foundational skills are demonstrated on the instructional CD: “Roger Sprung’s Play Along Instruction Record for the 5 String Banjo ... Bluegrass Style.”  But they are demonstrated more than explained.  You have to play along to truly appreciate the foundational skills you are being taught.

1 comment

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Playing Since: 2003
Experience Level: Intermediate


Gender: Male
Age: 68

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Gibson Earl Scruggs Standard

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Created 5/6/2004
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