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Book Review: Conversational Bluegrass Banjo

Friday, May 9, 2014

http://www.austinpickinranch.comThe full title of this book is, “Conversational Bluegrass Banjo, How to Speak Fluent 5-string and Pick Like a Pro, Complete Instruction Guide, includes CD’s.”  Copyrighted in 2008, it is available from Austin Pickin Ranch at a cost of $59.95.  This 257 page, spiral bound book represents a very different and valuable approach to learning the 5 string banjo.

Unlike most banjo books for beginners, which start off with a brief explanation about the banjo, a page of banjo rolls and onto the songs, Conversational Banjo (CB) is so much more than just a tab book or “listen to me and play like me” approach.  CB is about learning banjo in a methodical way building on lessons which help the student understand and learn how to play the banjo, more than how to play a song (although songs appear throughout the book).

This spiral bound book is organized into 21 chapters and ends with a summary of the specific rolls which are taught in the book.  This summary is very useful and I found myself going back to it often.  The first 13 lessons, about 75% of the material,  presents Scruggs type rolls along with other Bluegrass Banjo basics.  Ritchie is great at explaining the execution of rolls in a detailed but clear manner.  Songs are used to reinforce the rolls and concepts being presented. 

Two CDs are included with Conversational Banjo .  Each CD has over 60 short tracks of the rolls and songs which are related to the text.  The tracks are excellent and reinforce the learning very well.  Unfortunately the CDs only list the tracks by number and my suggestion would be to indicate what page track refers to and in the book to refer to the Disc and Track number. Without this annotation it can be a bit confusing knowing which track to play while working through a lesson.  This is easily remedied by going through the CD tracks and marking them in the appropriate page of the book. 

In Conversational Banjo, Ritchie Mintz  organizes 8 note rolls into three group phrases  (3,3,2) (4,4) and (2,3,4), with accents on the notes beginning the phrase.  CB works to make music sound right by making sure that the rolls represent phrases of notes and not just a stream of notes with no particular rhythm and accents.  Rolling is much more than just playing notes in series.  His presentation of the groupings of rolls are reinforced by presenting additional techniques to turn the rolls into music.  These foundational lessons are the road to mastering Scruggs style.

As Ritchie, explains in his introduction “….the right hand rolls are the words, sentences and paragraphs of songs.”  To accomplish this, Ritchie does not use standard tablature, as he explains, tablature is instructions for the left (fretting) hand and not the right (rolling) hand.  Instead his fraction system specifies the proper finger and fret to play to learn the all important right hand (the right way).  Instead he teaches “fraction notation” which is designed for the right, all important, picking hand.  For the more experience player who is used to TAB, this new notation will seem a bit awkward at first but the value of it is soon apparent.   Finally, clear instruction on playing the right hand and a comprehensive list of complete rolls with the correct fingers and tempo.   Even the exercises sound like a banjo should.

This book provides information which is clear and great for the beginner to hear and digest.  He starts with the “domain” of the right hand and explains which fingers play which strings and that only the thumb plays both inner and outer strings (2-5).  The index finger plays only inner strings (2-4) and the middle finger only the outer first string.  Pretty obvious for those of us who have studied Scruggs but it certainly would have been nice to hear it from the beginning without all the trial and error that is usually necessary.  He also discusses finger combinations that do not work and talks about “shifting” so that the awkward finger combinations are avoided. 

Ritchie uses different names for most of the common terms that are generally used to provide a visual image of the term;  he calls hammer ons, roll up, slides are called slither, pull offs are roll downs, vamping  is chunking, pinches are clicks, etc.  For those of us who this is not our first banjo experience, I sometimes felt that I needed a thesaurus which included the usual terms.  Ritchie’s vocabulary of terms is great but some reference to the more common term would have been helpful. 

Early on Conversational Banjo introduces licks of similar duration.  Ritchie’s term is the “Law of Modular Substitution.”   His discussion is certainly helpful for beginners to get them on the road to play the same passage differently.  These licks (of the same duration) are what CB describes as the words of phrases of Banjo Conversation.  

Additional chapters delve into more picking patterns which produce different rhythms.  Other elements of play (e.g. tags, endings, 10th fret choke, etc.) are also discussed and add to necessary additional knowledge.  

Additional chapters include drop thumb, melodic style, waltz time, single string playing out of C, up the neck and backup. Ritchie’s additional chapters on an introduction to Melodic Picking, playing in Waltz time, single string, playing out of C, up the neck and backup are a great introduction for further study.   While these final chapter are brief compared to the earlier Scruggs chapters, they serve as a great introduction to the style and have some really good information that anyone could benefit from.

Conversational Banjo is definitely a different, and in my opinion, a very good approach to learning or relearning Bluegrass Banjo the right way.  I believe that any dedicated student can really accelerate their learning with Ritchie’s method.   

Don’t be put off by the price of this material, it is absolutely jam packed with so much good information, my review can only scratch the surface.  For the student who is willing to put in the effort, “Conversational Banjo” certainly shows the path to  rock solid fundamentals of technique, timing and rhythm.   For the student who feels that they have been wandering in the woods learning banjo and they just can’t get the hang of it,  CB would be a great way to regroup and get on track to progress.  Conversational Bluegrass Banjo is highly recommended.


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Playing Since: 1983
Experience Level: Intermediate

[Jamming] [Socializing] [Helping]

Occupation: Industrial Hygiene and Safety

Gender: Male
Age: 71

My Instruments:
Stelling 1983 Engraved Sunflower
Deering 2005 30th Anniversary
Deering Goodtime 2
Nechville Custom Walnut Galaxy Phantom
Nechville Atlas Deluxe
Kamaka HF-1 Soprano Ukulele

Favorite Bands/Musicians:
Earl Scruggs (of course)
Kruger Brothers
Bill Keith
Alison Brown
Tony Trischka
Alan Munde
Mark Johnson
Bill Evans

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Created 5/8/2004
Last Visit 8/27/2017

I started in 1983 - 1985. Didn't touch my Stelling Sunflower until about May 2004. Play for my pleasure and my wifes displeasure.

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