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Dec 5, 2017 - 1:50:03 PM
287 posts
Joined Dec 17, 2011

Hi all. For the last several years I've been learning clawhammer but only consider myself an advanced beginner. I haven't tried very hard to adapt clawhammer to bluegrass since I'm new to bluegrass. I had one embarrassing attempt at a bluegrass jam so I think that I'll try learning the more traditional picking style and it will be a new challenge.

As for getting started, there are many on-line lessons that focus on learning particular songs and I'm wondering if that is the way to start. It seems to me that learning backup would get me jamming sooner and also give me the ability to start work with the few bluegrass songs I already know. Any suggestions on getting started are appreciated.

Another quick question: How similar is banjo picking to guitar finger-style?

Dec 5, 2017 - 2:15:41 PM
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Enviroguy

Canada

92 posts
Joined Nov 24, 2003

As a perpetual learner, I can offer a couple of suggestions. Learn the forward and backward roles and a combination of them so well you can do them in your sleep. Get hold of the top twenty or thirty bluegrass songs, learn the chord progressions and play along. Or keep a list of what songs played at your jams and work on them.
Take an old time tune you know and try picking it - places where it don't quite work, figure out ways around it, but you can usually adapt it pretty easily. I do this all the time with old time tunes.
Second, if using tabs to learn a song, take it one bar at a time. Don't race ahead.
I used to be a fingerstyle player and found that made it easy to transition to banjo. There are a few banjo players who use all three fingers plus thumb, but it is rare. Anyways if you can play fingerstyle with a good rhythm, switching to two fingers should be a lot easier.

Dec 5, 2017 - 3:00:39 PM
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bluenote23

Canada

868 posts
Joined Dec 4, 2012

I am no expert and no teacher. I can play but not that great so take my words with many grains of salt.

I've always felt that to play Scruggs style backup you need to know your banjo technique inside out. You need to be really comfortable with rolling and playing rolls over chords and changing up rolls over chords.

Again, I've always felt that learning songs was a good way to approach this. As you play the songs over and over and over again, your hands start to really learn that rolling motion. As you play more different songs, you learn more different rolling situations and eventually (for me, after about 4000 hours) you can start to play them without thinking about it.

So then backup is pretty simple because you're just rolling over some chords.

It might seem logical that if you just practice rolling that you ought to get to the same place without all the fuss of learning songs but, at least for me, it didn't work out that way. For me, just learning a roll means that you can play it that one way but when you want to backup, you need to be able to play that roll in an exponential number of permutations. That just takes lots of time and practice.

Now you already play so you only need to work on your right hand so that's a good head start. If you fingerpick and you're used to wearing picks, that's also going to be a good leg up. 

Check out my online teacher Banjo Ben Clark at http://www.banjobenclark.com if you're looking for some online video lessons.

Edited by - bluenote23 on 12/05/2017 15:09:14

Dec 5, 2017 - 7:09:11 PM
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1310 posts
Joined May 2, 2012

Don't have much to add beyond what has already been said. If you are wanting to jam with others, learning some backup skills would likely be the quickest route to feeling comfortable playing with others. John Boulding has a nice series of lessons on backup. I'd suggest starting with the "job" of the banjo, LOTW 74-76, then move on to the backup LOTW 41-50. Geoff Hohwald has some video lessons on various aspects of backup, you'll need to search his youtube channel for lessons like the "muted chop" , "banjo rhythm", "banjo camp 1 of 2" , "banjo camp 2 of 2". One of the things I realized when I switched over from clawhammer to Scruggs style is that I really hadn't learned the full chords up and down the fretboard, so if you haven't done that yet, work on that while you're working on backup skills. You might take a look at Janet Davis' book "Splitting the Licks". Once you have those few basic rolls to the point where you really don't need to think much about what your picking hand is doing, the book will lead you through improvising tunes from the melody notes, to a basic arrangement then on to more advanced arrangements. Then when you get into the jam, listened a few times through to pick up the chord progression, you might be able to jump in and improvise or "fake" a break, rolling over the chords. Easier said than done, but you'll get there.

Edited by - thisoldman on 12/05/2017 19:10:30

Dec 6, 2017 - 10:56:45 AM

858 posts
Joined Apr 5, 2006
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You have a bit of a heads up in that you already understand tablature, timing, & all that stuff, & are probably familiar with some of the songs & know how they should sound. Now it's just a matter of right & left hand technique, three finger picking vs claw hammer picking. The teaching curriculum should present these techniques based on the level of difficulty, tied to your ability to master them. At this stage of the game, songs are merely vehicles in the teaching & learning process.

In addition to what "this old man" said above, I would recommend trying to find a local instructor to get you started down the right path. Proper right hand technique, rolls, pinches, etc, left hand techniques such as hammers, pull off's, slides, holding full chords & vamping. The bluegrass banjo's role in a jam and a band. Backup, an unknown in the old time scene where everyone plays melody all the time. Sure, you can get all of this from books or on line but, there is nothing like face to face. Having someone correct your mistakes right from the get go, before you waste week(s) only to find out you've been doing it wrong. Or showing you an easier way of doing something, explaining why.  Even if you have to drive a couple hours each way, it's worth the effort.

Dec 7, 2017 - 6:22:08 AM
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2941 posts
Joined Mar 28, 2008

The individual finger motions are similar on banjo and guitar, but they are combined into patterns that are different, and the way those patterns flow into each other--the "grammar" of bluegrass banjo, as I like to tell my students--is unlike anything else you'll ever do in life. Going from fingerpicking guitar to bluegrass banjo is like being an English speaker and then learning German: The two languages have a lot in common, but do many (most?) things very differently.

Dec 7, 2017 - 7:03:21 AM
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400 posts
Joined Oct 16, 2014

Pete Wernick wrote a great article some time back that I really agree with: https://www.drbanjo.com/instructional-anewdirectionforteachingandlearningbluegrassmusic.php

In it, he talks about how starting out learning instrumentals and solos can impede a beginner's ability to play with others, which is the goal for so many of us. Worth a read. For me playing and singing with others is what draws me to the music.

I think your thoughts about backup are in the right direction. Janet Davis has a great book about back-up which I have and used, but Jack Hatfield's book gets rave reviews and might be organized better. I really liked Davis' You Can Teach Yourself Banjo book, and it sounds like you might have enough musical knowledge to benefit from it.

One of the most important things you can do is listen to a lot of bluegrass to learn the common songs: Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, Stanley Brothers, J.D. Crowe, Jim and Jesse, Jimmy Martin, etc. The Osborne Brothers Bluegrass Collection is a great single disc introduction to the music.

Dec 7, 2017 - 7:09:42 AM
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400 posts
Joined Oct 16, 2014

quote:
Originally posted by wallflower


Another quick question: How similar is banjo picking to guitar finger-style?


When I played guitar fingerstyle, I played Travis-style, and the patterns were symmetrical and fell cleanly within a measure. The forward roll, which I think is the heart of bluegrass banjo, is more like ragtime piano. The alternating thumb roll is more like what I played on guitar and is easier for me to do at slower tempos. You can have a long and successful banjo-playing career without ever playing an alternating thumb roll (e.g. Ralph Stanley).

Dec 7, 2017 - 10:33:09 AM
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287 posts
Joined Dec 17, 2011

Great insights! Lots for me to think about. I probably should have clarified that I don’t play finger style guitar but it’s also on my “to-do” list. I’ve been playing guitar for almost a year now.

Based on replies, I think I’ll start with some of the youtube lessons and learn a song or two to get my fingers moving. The Janet Davis book sounds like a good idea and I’m also going to look for an instructor locally to make sure I don’t pick up bad habits. I’m sure I’ll have more questions to ask on the Hangout as I progress. Thanks all for responding.

Dec 7, 2017 - 4:42:04 PM

662 posts
Joined Mar 23, 2006

I play clawhammer and Scruggs style banjo and finger-picking and flatpicking guitar. I started on guitar and never felt that it helped learning Scruggs style. In fact, the muscle memory for alternating bass finger-picking got in the way of learning rolls. All the advice on learning the rolls and the chords and transitional moves for back-up playing are what worked for me. Good luck!

Dec 7, 2017 - 5:25:46 PM

2522 posts
Joined Jan 28, 2009

Scruggs style is very challenging because it's very easy to make it sound bad, hard to make it sound good. The rhythm is unusual and hard to get used to, and the timing has to be extremely accurate.

And then, even after you learn all that, you have to be able to play fast, because some bluegrass songs are fast.

And, furthermore, good tone does not automatically happen. It's not like playing guitar where if you play the right notes at the right time, it will probably sound good.

So, in my opinion, as I have said before on this forum, memorizing songs from tabs is not the best use of time if you are still learning. The Splitting the Licks book helps you get free from tabs because it teaches how to play by ear.

Backup is the most useful skill, and improvising breaks is related to backup. The main difference is that lead breaks emphasize melody and backup avoids melody.

If you're at a bluegrass jam and they play an extremely fast song, you can simplify your backup and hopefully manage to keep up.

I think, I really think, and I said it before too many times, that repetitive practice is essential. The Scruggs book mentions the importance of repetition. It isn't just your brain that has to learn, your right hand has to be conditioned, has to get muscle memory. That unfortunately requires repetition.

Dec 13, 2017 - 3:24:50 PM

Yury

Canada

87 posts
Joined Apr 3, 2017

Interesting topic. As a non-musician learning bluegrass I seem to have an advantage of ignorance :D
None of what I am learning seems weird, unnatural or unusual in any way. I am certainly a beginner and most certainly suck, but this instrument feels pretty organic so far.

Edited by - Yury on 12/13/2017 15:25:30

Dec 19, 2017 - 2:01:21 PM

80 posts
Joined Nov 3, 2011

quote:
Originally posted by wallflower

It seems to me that learning backup would get me jamming sooner and also give me the ability to start work with the few bluegrass songs I already know.


This is what I would recommend.   Play rolls over chord changes and add some transition notes and licks as you progress.  This will eventually lead to faking some lead breaks and playing melody lines.  Concentrate on timing.  Playing in time is the key to playing with others.

Dec 19, 2017 - 3:39:21 PM

858 posts
Joined Apr 5, 2006
Online Now

quote:
Originally posted by wallflower

Great insights! Lots for me to think about. I probably should have clarified that I don’t play finger style guitar but it’s also on my “to-do” list. I’ve been playing guitar for almost a year now.

Based on replies, I think I’ll start with some of the youtube lessons and learn a song or two to get my fingers moving. The Janet Davis book sounds like a good idea and I’m also going to look for an instructor locally to make sure I don’t pick up bad habits. I’m sure I’ll have more questions to ask on the Hangout as I progress. Thanks all for responding.


Good for you. Use whatever tools are available & bounce ideas off a local instructor. 

Today a lot of emphasis is directed towards the Internet as a learning tool. It's OK I suppose, but I have my reservations. Most likely due to the fact that when I was learning, Al Gore had yet to invent the Internet. cheeky So I learned a lot just from books, picking with my instructor & other pickers. Not so much from jams per say, but in the beginning just small informal get together's at home. You meet people at jams or festivals, swap phone numbers & go from there. That was what we called "networking" back in the day. smiley  

Jams are good for learning to pick with others, come in on que, & recovering from mistakes, without breaking time, the keys in which the standard songs are played, chord progressions, & ear training. But they are often too structured to allow much in the way of actually learning new material. At least from a beginner's stand point.  You often come away frustrated by your inability to perform, or in daze with information overload. 

But get together with a friend or two, preferably someone just a little bit ahead of where you are, & you would be surprised at the amount of ideas that are passed back & forth, & how much sticks. If one of your picking friends plays both guitar & banjo, trade off back & forth. You'll learn BG from a guitar player's point of view, & it will help your banjo playing. Confidence & self esteem builds with each get together, & the next time a jam comes around, you & your buddies are a team, ready to take on all comer's.

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