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The banjo reviews database is here to help educate people before they purchase an instrument. Of course, this is not meant to be a substitute for playing the instrument yourself!

7163 reviews in the archive.

Jack Hatfield: Banjo Method (Books 1,2,3,4)

Submitted by NotABanjoYoda (see all reviews from this person) on 8/27/2023

Where Purchased:

Overall Comments

The method  intro said learn to play with no music backround whatsoever.  Tis is not true.  There is no explaination of basic music theory, picking, fingerpicking techniques or chords.  It is assumed you ow these things.

Luckily, I am an advanced guitar player and know the musical alphabet, chord theory etc  My wife did not and quit trying after page 19...unti I spent a week going over music and strumming basics with her.

Other than that, it is a decent set of banjo lessons.  I am enjoying it and learning a lot of insight that Pankey and Eli videos lack.  I recommend these metod books if you already kinda know the basics.

Overall Rating: 8

Moore, Stephen, Keplinger G.T.: JOHN DUFFEY'S BLUEGRASS LIFE

Submitted by Kevin B (see all reviews from this person) on 7/22/2019

Where Purchased: Amazon

Overall Comments

Wonderful book.  Many interviews of the people who knew John.  Good information on the Bluegrass music industry and its' inner workings.  Excellent material on the formative years of New Grass.  I could not put this one down.   This has a good mix of material on John's public and private life.

Overall Rating: 9

Janet Davis: Up The Neck

Submitted by thisoldman (see all reviews from this person) on 2/1/2018

Where Purchased:

Overall Comments

I decided that 2018 was the year I would start working up the neck - up until this time I have primarily stuck up by the first 5 frets. I've had the book for about a month.  I thought I might be overwhelmed by this book, but was pleasantly surprised. The first tune in the book (Bile Them Cabbage, the first BG tune I learned) comes after a short section on rolls, is played with  2 finger partial chords and has 4 arrangements for the tune, using 4 different rolls, using those 2 finger partial chords. 

The second section is on chords,  a few "standard' licks and then more licks at the end of the section.  The F position chord was familiar and the picking pattern was easy to pick up.  The D pattern (closed chord) was a bit more challenging, and the E minor chord the most challenging, the latter because it is the Cumberland Gap/Sally Goodin lick, which can be a stretch (see threads on the HO), but with some practice that is coming along. Don't let these challenges slow you down, though, because you can still work through these arrangements using 2 and 3 finger chords with the standard picking patterns and as you become more proficient in these "new" licks you can substitute the more challenging fretting hand work  in. 

The next section is on the Identity Factor.  She makes the point that lots of songs have the same chord progressions, with the "identifying motif" as what will cue you in to what the tune is going to be -- think the beginning of Dueling Banjos.  Following are some pick up licks and then this is a vast library of licks by chord.

The following section is called Incorporating the Melody, a short lesson on improvisation.  She provides some arrangements with the melody line, then follows those with arrangements that are "filled out". 

Next comes some short lessons  on advanced expression, connecting the links playing up and down the neck, and the x and y position. This is followed by a section on altered roll patterns, then a section on alternate variations (like playing the B part of a tune twice, each a bit differently). 

The next 3 sections are on melodic style, chromatic style and single string style. There is a short description, followed by licks, and  then some sample arrangements for each style.  

The last part of the book has short  sections on backup and ending a song.

So -- there is a LOT to learn here.  Good news is that many, many of the arrangements can be played with partial (2 or 3 finger chords) on the first 2 or 3 strings.  Each "lesson" is followed by lots of examples, using different arrangements of the tunes to provide more practice and to give you an idea of how little changes can alter an arrangement.  The CD is well done, with tunes at a slow pace and then followed by the tune at "performance speed".   I don't see this as beginner type book, but someone with the basic picking and fretting hand work down (let's say a mid-to-late beginner) could start working on this book and learn a lot within several  weeks.  And there is a twofer here, as the work you put in here would help you with your backup skills.  


Overall Rating: 10

Geoff Hohwald: Pentatonic Improvisation

Submitted by Richard Hauser (see all reviews from this person) on 6/29/2017

Where Purchased: Banjo Compass

Overall Comments

Here is what that instructional will do -

1.  Teach you which notes are used in the minor pentatonic scale.

2.  Teach you when/where to use the minor pentatonic licks.

3.  Teach you a variety of minor pentatonic licks.

4.  Demonstrate the use of the licks in programs.

5.  Provide list of tunes which are good candidates for these licks.  In addition, describe the type of tunes which are not suitable for the use of minor pentatonic licks.

Here is what the instructional will not do -

1.  The book title says "pentatonic improvisation".  Actually, the book only teaches minor pentatonic improvisation. The author does state this in the DVD.  Major pentatonic and blues cales are not included.

2.  Theory wise, the book doesn't go beyond identifying the notes in the minor pentatonic scale.

3.  Display the musical notes, only tablature.  On a personal basis, I like musical notation for tutorials like this.  So before I work on anything, I will be entering tab into my computer using software, and working from documentation that displays both tab and musical notes.  Geoff does clearly identify where the "root note" is located, so fingerboard noting positions for moveable minor pentatonic licks can easily be determined.   For banjoists who are only interested in how to use minor pentatonic licks - no problem.

Conclusions -

This book will enable a beginner/intermediate player to add interesting variety to some of the tunes in their playing repertoire.  So you will be able to "turn a few heads" when you play these tunes.  Although the book didn't go into theory as I had hoped it would, it did outline when and when/where/how minor pentatonic licks can be used.  On the DVD, the author clearly describes the advantages and limitations of using the minor pentatonic licks.  After I realized the goal of the book, teaching how to improvise using minor pentatonic licks, I had no problem.  I think it will help me add more variety to some of the tunes I play.  I also feel that it will be a big help when playing up-the-neck versions of some tunes.

I have bought quite a few of Geoff Hohwald's repertoire books and benefited from using them.  Each month or two I will be getting one of his books.  I also play fiddle and guitar, and can apply the theory behind what I learn to my playing of those instruments.  Fingerboard layouts are different, but "music is music" and can applied to whatever instrument I currently play.


Overall Rating: 9

Bob Carlin: Banjo an illustrated history

Submitted by jmcconnan (see all reviews from this person) on 5/17/2017

Where Purchased: on line

Overall Comments

It would take a professional book reviewer to do this book justice. Every aspect is superlative. The text, the images, the quality of paper and binding, exceptional!

The book is under priced by far, I would have paid three times the price.

I was quite gratified to see the Gold Tone BC 350 like mine is featured, as well as a nice spread on Romero banjos, of which I have one.


Overall Rating: 10

Art Rosenbaum: Art Rosenbaum's Old-Time Banjo Book

Submitted by KS_Mike (see all reviews from this person) on 4/4/2017

Where Purchased: Amazon

Overall Comments

This book/DVD set is dedicated to exploring different tunings for old time banjo. Forty seven in all, although a few are variations on each other, like double C / double D. Each tuning is covered in the DVDs and in the book. The book includes at least one, and sometimes two or three, song or tune tabs for each tuning. Clawhammer, index lead, and thumb lead tunes are interspersed throughout. The DVDs include about four hours of video of the tunes and brief overviews of the picking styles and licks used by the tunes. While it's not really an instructional book, I've found it to be a great tool for learning the up-picking styles. The tabs are relatively simple and easy, thanks in part to the tunings themselves.

All in all, this has become my favorite banjo book. I've been having a blast with both the book and DVDs. Highly recommended!

Overall Rating: 10

Sebastian Schröder: Banjo Spielen!

Submitted by Dennis Schutze (see all reviews from this person) on 2/24/2017

Where Purchased: DUX

Overall Comments

Für Spieler des 5-String Banjos gibt es in deutscher Sprache wenig Literatur, im wesentlichen beschränkt es sich auf die engagierte, aber didaktisch mitunter etwas unsortierte Veröffentlichung „Beginner Banjo“ des Münchner Ausnahmebanjospielers Rüdiger Helbig aus den 1990er Jahren. Spätestens seit dem Erfolg von Filmen wie „O, Brother were art thou?“ und Bands wie „Old Crow Medicine Show“, „Avett Brothers“ und „Mumford & Sons“ ist das archaische Instrument wieder en vogue und wird auch in aktueller Popmusik immer wieder prominent eingesetzt. Mit diesem neuen Umgang hat sich auch das Verständnis zum Banjo gewandelt. Insbesondere die fünfsaitige Variante ist längst nicht mehr nur die fellbespannte Kentucky-Gitarre für erzkonservative Rednecks aus den Appalachen. Längst wurde es von urbanen Hippstern mit gepflegten Vollbart und geisteswissenschaftlichem Bildungsintergrund (wieder-)entdeckt und will gespielt werden, aber wie?

Nun ist bei Dux ist eine umfangreiche und zeitgemäße Schule für 5-string Banjo erschienen, die die lange und facettenreiche, musikalische Tradition dieses einzigartigen Instruments vorbildlich und detailliert aufarbeitet. Autor ist Sebastian Schröder, geboren 1981, von seinem jungen Alter sollte man sich aber nicht täuschen lassen. Er ist zwar musikalisch noch nicht herausragend in Erscheinung getreten, aber misst man ihn an Informationsgehalt seines Buchdebuts hat der Mann seine Hausaufgaben gemacht.

„Banjo spielen!“ ist mehr als eine einfach Spielanleitung für das Instrument. Geboten wird eine umfangreiche Sammlung von Hintergrundinformationen, Tipps und Tricks, Ratschläge zu Set Up und Verstärkung, historische Exkurse, technische Erklärungen und interessante Fotos. Herzstück sind jedoch die Spielstücke, die Schröder nahezu chronologisch in klassische Herangehensweisen unterteilt: Einfaches Akkordspiel, Seeger Picking, Two Finger Picking, Clawhammer, Bluegrass (Scruggs-Style) und weitere Stile wie Minstrel, Classic, Plektrum, Blues & Back Up.

Im Gegensatz zum eingangserwähnten Werk ist „Banjo spielen!“ didaktisch und methodisch einwandfrei aufgebaut und kann sowohl im Unterricht mit Lehrer, als auch zum Selbstunterricht eingesetzt werden. Zu letzterem läuft es bei Banjospielern ja meistens hinaus, weil Banjolehrer rar sind.

Vielleicht ist das Ringbuch passagenweise etwas textlastig ausgefallen, aber Leute, die den epischen Ausführungen nicht so viel abgewinnen können, dürfen das überblättern, im weiteren Verlauf wird man dafür mit einem Haufen sehr ordentlicher Arrangements entschädigt. Einige klassische Tunes tauchen immer wieder auf und werden exemplarisch in verschiedenen Spielweisen interpretiert. So kann man gut erkennen, was der wesentliche Unterschied ist. Der Schwierigkeitsgrad reicht von Einsteiger bis untere Mittelklasse, spieltechnische Höhepunkt sind z.B. „Foggy Mountain Breakdown“, Melodic Spielweise oder neuere Stile spielen bereits keine große Rolle mehr. Es ist eben ein Buch für Einsteiger und Umsteiger (z.B. von Gitarre), bietet einen schönen Querschnitt durch die stilistische Vielfalt und erfüllt somit wunderbar seinen Zweck. Wenn man einen Einstieg gefunden hat und mehr lernen will, gibt es dazu auf dieser Grundlage eine Vielzahl von Tab/ Noten aus den USA.

Kompliment auch wieder einmal an den DUX-Verlag für die klare, drucktechnische Aufbereitung als Ringbindung (Metalldraht). Das Um- und Durchblättern fällt leicht und es besteht auch bei intensiver Benutzung kaum Gefahr eines frühen Zerfledderns. Mit dabei eine MP3-CD mit mehr als 300 beispielhaften Spielpassagen, die dazugehörige Tracklist befindet sich auf den letzten Seiten.

Fazit: Dicke Empfehlung für deutschsprachige Banjoeinsteiger! Wenn man dieses Buch durchgearbeitet hat, kann man schon ganz viel und ist für die meisten Spielsituationen gut gerüstet.

„Banjos spielen!“ erscheint bei DUX und kostet inkl. MP3-CD 42,80 €.

Overall Rating: 9

Tony Ellis: The Banjo Music of Tony Ellis

Submitted by thisoldman (see all reviews from this person) on 8/1/2016

Where Purchased: Amazon

Overall Comments

This book has 47 of Tony's original banjo arrangements.  Both tab and standard notation. You can listen to these tunes on his CDs and find some on Youtube  (Stephen, Father's Pride, for example, and here is a link to the LOC performance of the Musicians of Braeburn  Most (33) of the tunes are in gCGCD tuning, with 8 in standard G tuning and 6 in "other" tunings.  Some tunes are played with a capo 2 or 3 frets up the neck..  You will find tunes in 3/4, 4/4 and 6/8 timing.  Tabs show fingering for the picking hand.  Each tune is preceded with a comment paragraph with information such as the inspiration for the tune, fingering, speed at which to play it, etc.  Two finger, 3 finger, and/or Scruggs style picking.  Some single string work.  On some tunes you are directed to move the middle finger up to play the 2nd string and the index to the 3rd string, leaving the thumb on the 4th to carry the melody.  Bought this book because many of the arrangements are meant to be played at slow to moderate speed.  This book would suitable for an advanced beginner or intermediate player.  I played 2 finger thumb lead before I switched over to Scruggs style and I believe with just a background in 2ftl I could have played some of tunes in this book.  I think if you are 6 to 12 months into Scruggs style picking and have learned the basics you would find several tunes in this book very approachable.  And for you 2 and 3 finger players, you will find tunes in here that work for you as well.  Most of the tunes are considered "traditional", while others are bluegrass style. Have had the book just a month, working on Father's Pride and Stephen mostly, and have found several others in this book that will be on my "to learn" list.  If you want to give the arrangements a try, there is a partial tab for Father's Pride here on the BHO and Rick McKeon has an arrangement of Stephen on his website .  I tried out those 2 before I committed to buying the book.   



Overall Rating: 10

Chris Conly: Diatonic Chords Tutorial-ebook

Submitted by jimhend (see all reviews from this person) on 7/18/2016

Where Purchased:

Overall Comments

This is a very good overview of the concept of 3 note diatonic chords in the key of G for 5-string banjo. Chord charts, picking exercises , and corresponding audio files are provided. Also, the author provided excellent customer service in response to my comments about the initial quantity/quality of the tutorial. I gave it a 7 rating, probably higher after I actually use and learn the material.

Following a short workshop with Alan Munde earlier this year, I became interested in the concept of diatonic chords for improvising and changing keys. In my searching for additional information, I came across a web tutorial by Chris Conly, a teacher and Hangout member from NYC.

I submitted my payment of $10 and downloaded the tutorial consisting of a tab PDF to accompany the video on Chris's webpage.

Within a day Chris had contacted me to give thanks and inquire about my satisfaction with the material. I truthfully explained I was expecting more substance that could be used in actual playing application. Primarily, there was a lack of right hand choreography to provide some runs and to add motion in the use of the chord charts from the tutorial. 

Today, Chris sent me an update consisting of 18 measures with right hand patterns both ascending and descending the G scale using the 3 note chords. There are also 8 audio files, 4 slow/4 fast of the exercises in the pdf.

This review is primarily in response to Chris's response to my criticism. I believe he would be a very good, personable 1-on-1 teacher.

The Diatonic Chords Tutorial is a quality, useful tool for learning the concept and application of 3 note chords patterns on 5-string banjo.

Overall Rating: 7

Rick Mckeon: natural banjo player

Submitted by darlo (see all reviews from this person) on 5/27/2016

Where Purchased: Amazon (Kindle)

Overall Comments

Why 10 for overall rating,for me i have noticed an improvement in my practicing ,normally i would say just playing or practicing chills me out and helps de-stress me after work,i am currently in Norway and the camp where we are is surrounded by trees,so instead of just looking at a piece of paper or laptop and practicing closed chords i started looking out the window, and watching what mother nature was up to and after a while realized i was not making as many mistakes,oh there were a few ,but i had been practicing quite slowly and granted noodling for over an hour without realizing,that in itself is a first ,every one says relax and you will play better ,rick has shown me a practical way of how to do just that ,so rick many thanks it is appreciated



Overall Rating: 10

Ricky Skaggs: Kentucky Traveler: My Life in Music

Submitted by yopasjim (see all reviews from this person) on 6/30/2015

Where Purchased: Online

Overall Comments

This Spring I had an opportunity to purchase an autographed copy of Ricky Skaggs autobiography entitled "Kentucky Traveler:  My Life in Music."  Eddie Dean helped Ricky to write his story.  While I was on vacation this month I thought I would read it through.  I found the book to be pretty incredible...and I did not want to put it down.  Here is why I liked the book:

He honors the Bluegrass Giants.  With great respect he honors Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley and so many more.  All through the book...from the beginning to the end...he expresses his gratitude to the people who laid the foundation for Bluegrass in the United States.  There is so much I did not understand about Bluegrass and Ricky did a great job of communicating to his readers the historical significance of Bluegrass.

He explains his journey of music.  He tells the story of how he got his first mandolin at the age of 5 and how he was consumed by the music.  He shared how he would listen for hours to the radio or to albums (and 45s) of Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers...and then practice until he played the song exactly like them.  I was particularly intrigued by his words to the younger generation:  "When I think of kids today learning music, I feel bad for ‘em because of all the distractions out there.  If I could tell ‘em one thing 1 know, it would be this simple advice: Just keep playing and get to know your instrument like it’s your best friend. Turn off the computer and the video games and things that drain your brain and find inspiration in your instrument.  If you’re going to be a great player, you’ve got to spend a great amount of time practicing. When you’re not doing your chores or your schoolwork, You oughta be playing!”  Even though my first inclination was to share this with my soon-to-be High School freshman son (who plays piano and the tenor sax) so that he would practice more, I soon realized he was also talking to this 54 year old banjo player.

He credits his parents for their investment and his success.  Tabloids are filled with stories of people who have had success...yet they give very little credit where credit is due.  Ricky recognizes and appreciates every ounce of investment his parents made.  His Grand Old Opry honors and experiences are the culmination of parents' sacrifices and encouragement.  It was not hard for me to see the value in the potential role I play in my son's success.  Even if it is not music, I have a great opportunity to play a very important role in his future successes.  (I feel as though my wife and I have been fully supportive...but we need to continue to invest and encourage!)

He explains his return to Bluegrass.  As many of you know Ricky has had great success as a country star.  However he explains in detail his loyalty and commitment to Bluegrass...and singing the songs of the Bluegrass Fathers.  I was touched when I read how Bill Monroe "prayed a blessing" over Ricky:  I remember one night getting on my knees at his feet, and asking him, “Would you bless me like a father blessing a son: pray that I’ll be a caretaker of this old music?” And he said, “Why, yes, I will.” He bowed his head and said these words I’ll never forget: “Lord, would You just give Ricky the love for the old music, like you’ve given me through the years, and help him carry it on?” With hands laid on me, he gave me his blessing.”

He shares his faith.  I did not know that he had been married before.  But in the book he shares his failure to be home to be a good father and husband.  His marriage failed...and he takes responsibility for that.  But he also shares the love he has for Sharon...noting the changes he has made.  For a preacher like me, I like to hear from people whose faith is an important part of his life....not just a gospel song in a Bluegrass set.  I appreciated Ricky's vulnerability and his faithful obedience to God.

On a personal note...i know a few years ago there were some BHO forum threads that shredded Ricky's personality.  I went back and read some of those posts after reading the book and before posting this review.  From reading the book I got the impression that Ricky is a very humble person.  His interaction with people comes THROUGH his music.  His humbleness is often misinterpreted as arrogance or conceit.  After reading his book...realizing how he best serves the music community...I think there are some people who have misjudged a very humble man.  

All in all I hope you will take the time to read this book if you get a chance!  It is well written and very informative...especially about Bluegrass!  I hope some day to meet Mr. Skaggs and thank him for his contribution to the music world.


Overall Rating: 9

Josh Graves: Bluegrass Bluesman

Submitted by drew-gurbach (see all reviews from this person) on 6/15/2015

Where Purchased: Online

Overall Comments

Some time back someone on the BHO mentioned this book, Bluegrass Bluesman, Josh Graves, A Memoir.  I ordered it online, but admittedly, it sat on the coffee table a long time before a perfect opportunity came for me to finally read it.

My Dad passed away and we were getting ready to sell the house.  I had to spend a night there due to frozen pipes, so I decided that since I was staying up all night, I should take a book:  Bluegrass Bluesman.

The book is basically a narrative of Josh Graves, long time dobro player for Flatt & Scruggs and later Lester Flatt, reminiscing of his childhood, developmental years, and music experiences throughout his life.  It's not overly edited... it's written exactly as I suppose he was speaking.  Some sentences start out working towards one thought, then get slightly derailed with other thoughts, then return back to the original premise.  But again, isn't that the way we talk sometimes?

As i was reading, it actually seemed as if Josh were talking to me.  A Pulitzer prize classic it's not.  But it is a simple, down home connection of a very talented man, telling his story, in his words, in his way.  I was also interested in his stories of all the musicians he worked with over the years.  He wasn't cruel or didn't toss any dirt... but he was honest about his experiences. There's also a lot of footnotes throughout.  The Editor, Fred Bartenstein, adds notes to Josh's narratives necessarily.  Josh would tell stories and reference people, places, events, and the reader would have no idea what is being referenced without these footnotes.  A necessary addition by the editor.

I enjoyed this book. The only challenged I had was switching between editors preface, and the body of the Josh Grave's narratives.  The editor, Neil Rosenberg, writes amazing prefaces to every chapter.  Well written, amazing fluidness... really gives you a "set up" to what you are about to read.  But then, when you get to the Josh narratives... it's almost like you have to take a step back and realize that what you are reading is more like a home-spun "talk".  After a couple chapters, I recognized this, and was able to make the mental-gear-switch.

It's a fun book.  If you got an afternoon and are a Josh or Flatt & Scruggs fan, get it. 

Overall Rating: 7

Fred Sokolow: Fretboard Roadmaps 5-String Banjo

Submitted by TrapperJack (see all reviews from this person) on 4/8/2015

Where Purchased: Amazon

Overall Comments

"The Essential Patterns That All The Pros Know And Use" ... in 55 pages  (Hal Leonard 2003 CD included)

OK, so Fred Sokolow doesn't give more than a bare outline of the basics of Frailing or Picking or strumming chords, but I have a handful of books that detail these for me. Fred gives us a succinct presentation of "those patterns" the pros know and use.

Fred Sokolow wrote a beginner's Bluegrass banjo book -- The Complete Bluegrass Banjo Method -- among his 120 DVDs and books.  Check out his website:

The book has three main strengths: (1) 5-String Banjo Roadmaps bolts together tab and traditional notation, and I like this because musicians from other musical worlds can access their preferred repertoire from the banjo, having worked through this book. Too many other banjo tutors don't bridge from their niche world to the larger music environment.

(2) 5-String Banjo Roadmaps moves beyond the first position scales and chords and captures the moveable chord forms, scales, (including blues scales) and the association of primary triads (I-IV-V) to cover keys (all chords and progressions in every key can be covered between positions III and VII) and apply this knowledge to old-time and bluegrass genres. The moveable forms are enriched with a full development of all the chords (sevenths, minors, augmented, half diminished, diminished and sus: if you know your extensions and alterations, and the concepts of polychords and chord plurality, then all your jazz harmony is under your fingers right now ). The "keys" insight is developed along the fretboard of the banjo, and around the cycle of fifths. This is a multi-dimensional roadmap.

(3) Sokolow shines a light on improvising and melodic approaches to the banjo, with patterns of scale fragments applied to soloing.

Now, if you don't know much about chord formation, scales and how to use them, the cycle of fifths, interlocking chord forms, the relationships between chords and scales, then you might need a wise friend or a good book.  But, if you are an experienced musician come lately to banjo, 5-String Banjo Roadmaps cuts to the chase.  I love it. (Everything is tabbed out, for people with other skills and knowledge.)

Armed with this book, make up your own exercises to consolidate your introduction to concepts through this book.  Armed with this book, head for the woodshed with your down-home chord progressions, your jazz charts, your reels and hornpipes, your airs and Bach. Oh, and take your weapon of choice, and your metronome. Don't let the knowledge in this book stay in the book. Fred Sokolow drops the map in your lap, but you must do the driving. And I'm happy with that: to make the cut, you must do the thinking and the work, (with a map at hand, of course).

The book doesn't contain a vast set of songs, just enough to illustrate and teach the point at hand, and even these need to be developed into performance pieces. So, you'll still need your fake books. (Or your vast library of aural experience.)

My one wish is that much more had been said about melodic playing.  This whole book is terse, succinct, a summary with stepping-off points and brief introductions (Fred is not trying to hold your hand through the basics of banjo, in this book). I guess that is the trade-off between ensuring your readers know, understand, can play and use the essential patterns, and leaping beyond the two main genres of banjo playing to explore in the big world.

Not for beginners, but an essential second book, of greatest benefit to people with a good knowledge of music, of great benefit to people working to get all the puzzle assembled. Workshop your own way across the plains, over the ridges, with 5-String Banjo Roadmaps.



Overall Rating: 8

Ken Perlman: Clawhammer Style Banjo

Submitted by TrapperJack (see all reviews from this person) on 3/17/2015

Where Purchased: Amazon

Overall Comments

Ken gives a well sequenced program of learning the clawhammer style, beginning with introducing some players of note, the banjo, left hand fretting, tuning, chords, tab and rhythm, the basic frailing stroke, and on to techniques like hammering on, etc. And, you feel like you actually learning to play, as you work through this book.

Not all tab systems for banjo are as thoughtful and useful as the one in this book.

What sets Ken's book apart from several others I use is the approach he has taken to teaching the basics, and using tab and chord diagrams to convey melody plus frailing. That is, the tunes you play are preserved in the work of learning the basic techniques. The chord names (and grids he introduces) show the fingering, he has a notation system for the rhythm, and the student plays the melody as well as the technical work Ken is teaching at the time. 

In other books, the student is told to sing the melody, while frailing. Certainly, this has its place, but I find it much more "forward looking" to be able to play the melody as I learn the techniques and play the strums and other techniques.

The book has a lot of developmental work, and I find this work interesting, not just filler, or exercises.

Ken covers other tunings, using the capo, drop thumbing and double thumbing, and a whole bucket of technical skills, particularly for the fretting hand. By the end of the book the student has a viable repertoire of songs to play, and has enjoyed a good trip into the woods that is clawhammer banjo.

Ken provides a curious combination of steadily more demanding (developmental) work, and musically rewarding exercises: the learner feels like progress is steady, real and fun.

I gave this book 8, but if Ken would update the book to introduce traditional notation, I would give the book 10.

Overall Rating: 8

Roger H. Siminoff: How to Set Up the Best Sounding Banjo

Submitted by drew-gurbach (see all reviews from this person) on 3/12/2015

Where Purchased: Amazon

Overall Comments

I didn’t buy this book to become a luthier, but I figured since I’ve been playing banjo for over forty years it’d be a good idea to have a working knowledge and understanding of the finer intricacies of the banjo above basic setup.  Very well written and easy to understand.  I also had a eureka moment while picking banjo one night while watching TV.  I was in a particularly reclined and relaxed position.  I could actually see the TV screen reflect off of my clear banjo head.  I noticed the head vibrated only on a particular note… then I remembered the author talking about head-tuning and how you DON’T want it happening on frequently played notes (i.e. NOT D, G, B, etc.).  So I started picking one note at a time from the low D string up the neck.  I don’t remember exactly what note the vibration was evident (it’s been a long time), but it wasn’t on a frequently played note. Its little things like that which brings you to a higher understanding of what is sometimes a very complicated instrument.

Overall Rating: 10

Kristiana Gregory: Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie: The Oregon Trail Diary of Hattie Campbell

Submitted by 74rider (see all reviews from this person) on 12/5/2014

Where Purchased: Amazon

Overall Comments

I went looking for a book which provided some historical background to the early settlers of Oregon, in hopes of being inspired to write songs that I can play with my banjo in clawhammer style. My wife's grandma had a picture of the actual wagon the family came out to Oregon in and they settled in Independence Oregon - pretty awesome. The book is written from a 13 year old's point of view, Hattie Campbell, simple down to earth and to me, very inspiring. As I look for material to sing and play OT banjo to, this book I know will be a great source of OT spirit.

Overall Rating: 9

Zach Hudson: The Banjo

Submitted by yopasjim (see all reviews from this person) on 11/14/2014

Where Purchased: Amazon

Overall Comments

This is a very interesting children's book about a young boy (Peter) who was eager to be part of the school orchestra, however he does not have an instrument to play.  The author does a great job of showing the reader the boy's sadness because he was not allowed to follow his passion of music.  In a wonderful turn of events the young boy acquires a banjo from a neighbor.  With joy he immediately begins plucking out familiar tunes...Simple Gifts and Jingle Bells.  Even after learning to play a few songs on the banjo he was still not permitted to play in the orchestra.  Feeling rejected once again he retreats to the playground and is befriended by the school principal whose father use to play the banjo.  She encourages him to play her a song.  In the end she gives Peter a violin her son use to play.  He then is able to join the school orchestra.  He is excited to now play 2 instruments - the violin in the school orchestra and the banjo at home.  

I like this story because it captures the passion some children have to be musically engaged.   Of course the uniqueness of the banjo adds to the story and the musical journey!

It is a simple story with a great message.

Overall Rating: 8

John Dowling: The Contemporary Banjo Player

Submitted by Ragaisis (see all reviews from this person) on 10/29/2014

Where Purchased: Amazon

Overall Comments

Want a short review?  How about this: Not your standard banjo instruction book.

Why would I say that?  Read on, fellow 5-string enthusiasts…

If you aren’t familiar with the author, John Dowling is U.K. musician who has won multiple awards including the national championships in Winfield when he was 21.  He has been a professional teacher and performer for over 15 years.

John has written a book for the “contemporary player” of the 5-string banjo.  An overview of the book shows this means the player who wants to play the banjo in all sorts of music – not just bluegrass and folk.  The focus of the book covers a wide swath of techniques to equip the student with the skills to play most anything.

The book begins with a cursory look at how to select a banjo, hold it once you’ve purchased it, how to position your left and right hands including ring/pinky/both anchoring and right away discusses tonal differences based on how far from the bridge you position your right hand, and banjo amplification (pickups). You also get a section on changing strings, reading tab, three basic rolls, how to use a metronome, straight vs. swing/bounce rhythm, slides, hammer-ons, pull-offs, extremely basic back up, and tunes to demonstrate these techniques.  All of this is followed by some basic music theory and discussion of chord inversions.

That’s a lot.  And that’s the first 35 pages.

This is followed by a chapter entitled “Intermediate Technique”.  It gives a bare, one sentence description of Scruggs style playing “…only a few notes of each bar make us the melody, the rest being essentially filler notes.”  It then launches into discussions of single string followed by melodic playing and has a couple of fiddle tunes done both ways so you can see and hear the difference in approaches.  All of this is followed by up the neck playing in Scruggs style.

Other intermediate topics demonstrated are harmonics, diatonic and diatonic 7th chords, playing single string passages using 3 finger rolls, utilizing chord forms where the bass note of the lower inversion is used to give fuller sounding chords, playing in other keys without a capo, playing avoiding the 5th string so you can have moveable licks which work all over the neck, alternate tunings, working out your own arrangements and improvising, and varying roll timings and emphasis to fit into other forms of music.  Whew.

Then Dowling gets to “Advanced Techniques” including Travis style picking, moving bass lines, artificial harmonics, tremolo, rapping the head for percussion, a “Bartok pluck” style of technique, and use of a bottleneck slide.

The techniques shown are eclectic, advanced, and packed into a short amount of space.  Dowling makes liberal use of pictures and examples so ideas are clearly presented and definitely workable.  There is also a CD provided which has all of the examples so you can hear what Dowling is describing.  As such, I feel it is also NOT the book you want if you are just starting out.  There is too much in here for a raw beginner and that person might become frustrated with the rapid pace the book takes.  As a 2nd or 3rd book, though, it has a lot of merit.

It’s not a “repertoire” book where you learn lots of tunes you will be using at jam sessions. Yes, there are standards such as Roll in my Sweet Baby’s Arms, Man of Constant Sorrow, Blackberry Blossom and Eighth of January, but these are used to demonstrate technique rather than to be thought of as your preferred solo. Dowling uses several of his own compositions to help demonstrate these ideas, as well.

As you can see, this isn’t your standard banjo book.  Discussion of electronic amplification in the first few pages help indicate the audience this book is directed towards – that new generation of player who isn’t as interested in learning the history and solos of the great players but want to get up and running to be able to utilize the instrument whose sound has captivated them while playing the music they hear every day.

This book does deliver a good overview of many alternate techniques to be used on the banjo which go outside of what is shown in 95% of the instruction material currently available.  The techniques shown are used by the advanced players out there today so none of this is just a pipe dream.  These are solid, usable techniques.  If you’re past the beginner stage and want to develop some tools to expand your playing beyond the basics, this book is definitely worth your study.

Overall Rating: 7

Janet Davis: You Can Teach Yourself Banjo

Submitted by capo matt (see all reviews from this person) on 10/24/2014

Where Purchased: Gift

Overall Comments

After about a year of working at it, I've now more or less completed Janet Davis's YCTYB book.  There are a handful of songs I'm still working on, but I just attempted Reuben last night, which is the final tune in this awesome book.  And I mean it, this is a pretty awesome book.

When I started this book I had already been playing about one year.  I was trying to teach myself from whatever I could get my hands on.  I tried a few books from my library that were either too easy or too hard.  I tried learning from tabs and videos online, but such content lacks structure and continuity.  After a year of this, I was getting frustrated and didn't have much to show for all my efforts... what I needed was a build-you-from-the-ground-up lesson plan.  Janet's book was just right for me.  

Started out with some basic rolls, simple songs.  Then added some licks and more interesting tunes.  Started to explore more difficult tunes and alternative licks.  Added tag endings.  Harmonics.  She touches on chords briefly.  And gives you some up-the-neck breaks for several songs.  Songs using a capo.  Songs in 3/4 time.  Melodic tunes and finally alternate tuning - C tuning and D tuning.  

What I love about this book is how each lesson builds on the last.  Rolls and licks from previous lessons repeat throughout the book.  Some tunes are repeated later, or given a few alternative versions which allow you to expand your depth of understanding of bluegrass music.  For example, you'll learn how to play both down the neck and up the neck breaks; you'll understand the difference between Scruggs-style and melodic and be able to combine them in a single break; you'll learn how to use a capo to play in different keys.  Another thing I love about this book is the song selection.  Janet has some really nice arrangements of tunes played in my local jam.  I've tried out many of these songs in a jam setting and all of them worked out just fine.

The only deficiency with this book is on chords and backup.  Janet sort of breezes through chords and doesn't mention backup banjo at all.  Playing backup is pretty important for jamming situations and knowing your chords up and down the neck is probably the first best step.  I would recommend finding or inventing some exercises for just practicing chord changes and vamping.  Practice this along with Janet's book and you'll be on your way to playing with others.  Janet offers a separate backup banjo book too.  

Good luck!

Overall Rating: 10

Eddie Collins: Fiddle Tunes Made Easy for Bluegrass Banjo

Submitted by capo matt (see all reviews from this person) on 10/12/2014

Where Purchased:

Overall Comments

This book contains tablature and chords for 18 common fiddle tunes.  Each tune has both a basic version (on the left page) and intermediate version (on the right page).  This layout makes it easy to work from the basic version to the intermediate version without flipping pages.  The book comes with a cd that contains four versions of each song (basic slow, basic fast, intermediate slow, intermediate fast).  The banjo track is only on a single speaker, so you can use your balance function on your stereo to effectively create a backing track for each tune.  

At the bottom of each page, Eddie provides some hints for playing each song -- for example, how to position your fingers for more difficult licks, etc..  The tabs are very clear and use a larger font than you might see in other books, which I greatly appreciate.  So far, I've been happy with Eddie's arrangements of these classic fiddle tunes.  The solos are easy enough to learn quickly, but still sound good when played to speed in a jam setting.  

When shopping for a fiddle tunes book for banjo, I compared this book to Tony Trischka's "Master Collection of Fiddle Tunes".  Eddie's book is designed for novice banjo players or perhaps an intermediate banjo player that wants to quickly add several fiddle tunes to his/her repertoire.  Whereas Tony's book is more of a note-for-note translation of each fiddle tune.  Both books looked excellent, so I put them to the test.  Over the course of a few weeks I worked with each book.  While working with Eddie's book, I was able to learn three intermediate arrangements (Red Haired Boy, Whiskey Before Breakfast, and Liberty) and play them to speed with backing tracks.  While working with Tony's book I was able to learn a single tune (Cold Frosty Morning) but can't quite play it to speed with the backing track and I had to abandon the second tune I attempted as it was too difficult for me (Big Sciota).  I concluded that both are great books, but Eddie's is definitely easier for a fairly new (2 years in) self-taught picker like me.

Overall, I have no hesitation to recommend Eddie's book.  I only wish it were longer!  

The tunes include: 

Arkansas Traveler
Back Up And Push
Bill Cheatham
Blackberry Blossom
Buffalo Gals
Devil's Dream
Eighth Of January
Golden Slippers
Good-bye Liza Jane
Hamilton County Breakdown
Home Sweet Home
Old Joe Clark
Red Haired Boy
Red Wing
Salt Creek
Soldier's Joy
Whiskey Before Breakfast


Overall Rating: 9

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