Hi, all, or should I say "y'all"? I'm Scottish so want to be polite!
Having had a banjo for a year or so it's only in recent months that I've made time for regular practice. Got three tunes down fairly well (I found the Murphy Method DVDs especially helpful). Murphy plays "Banjo in the Hollow" at a speed I can now match, but others, The Daltons, for instance, play it at a blazing speed, which seems impossible. I've also heard some guys playing AC/DC's Thunderstruck, impossible on the guitar but I imagine harder on the banjo.
Is it just a question of patience and persistence or should I be practising other stuff too - scales, vamping, etc? I am 65 and have been playing the guitar (mostly rhythm with some fingerpicking) and singing for years. I love the banjo but it seems a steep learning curve. Maybe it's my age, the need to play well as soon as I can.
Edited by - jakk54 on 09/23/2019 01:36:18
Welcome to the wonderful world of banjo!
I believe it's a mistake to get too hung up on speed. Much more important to concentrate on accuracy, timing and tone. I've been playing banjo for over 40 years, and initially like you I found fast playing really impressive. However these days I'd much rather listen to banjo played at a more moderate pace, but with taste,tone and timing. In fact I think many new players try to play too fast too soon and the music suffers.
There really is no shortcut in this. Stick with it, concentrate on the three Ts and with time speed will come and with it will come control and accuracy.
Thanks, Harry, that is reassuring. I feel much the same about guitarists in some rock bands (many notable exceptions), but some play blindingly fast just to impress, without any real sense of musicality.
I agree with Harry: take it slow, learn the basics: timing, tone, technique. \
It takes time and lots of practice, practice, practice, for the brain and the fingers to get together and know what to do. Remember: you had to crawl before you could walk and walk before you could run. Same with learning banjo: takes time. Slow and easy will make you a rock solid picker. Too fast too soon will make you a sloppy banjo picker. Your decision which one you want to be.
Thanks, again helpful - and reassuring.
You can't play anything fast that you can't play slow.
Oh, sure, of course. I can play several pieces at a decent medium pace (one as fast as the DVD tutor), but I think I feel an ambition to play at least some pieces to tempo (my current aspiration is to play Cripple Creek as fast as Scruggs)
The problem that many players have is that we tend to play a tune at a speed that we can master, but then try to play it at the “pro” speed we hear on recordings or videos. Result: frustration as well as tension in the picking and fretting hands. This is where the metronome is your friend. With the metronome set at a comfortable speed, practice the songs you have focused on, striving for accuracy and good tone. Then, over time, gradually and incrementally work the speed upward. If you get to a point where you feel you are getting sloppy or inaccurate, back off and work your way up again. It may take time—relax, and don’t push beyond good tone—but you will see improvement.
Thanks, Loggerhead, good advice. Love your dog!
Play something until you can without thinking about it.
I call it finger habit.
Pushing one’s speed beyond reasonable limits leads to tense hands and arms, which can result in all kinds of physical issues later on down the road.
Steve, I believe this is also known as "muscle memory", which I understand from playing guitar. Good points, chucky97, too.
something to consider for people starting banjo in their senior years is to consider playing ralph stanley style. he primarily plays forward roll variations which drives the song and is easier to build up speed on.
Thanks, John. You should recognize the dog—Border Terrier.
I should have, true. There are different kinds, though. I am not an expert, however. I have two Bichon Frises. Not sure if they enjoy my banjo playing or not - at least they don't bark or whine when I practice.
Updated my pic with my wee doggies.
Originally posted by loggerhead
Thanks, John. You should recognize the dog—Border Terrier.
Play at your comfortable speed over and over. Every so often set the metronome somewhat higher than your comfort speed and see what happens. I've been playing for thirty years but have realized recently that part of my problem is that I subconsciously believe I don't have the ability to do this. It seems impossible, but somehow others can do it. Don't be afraid of the banjo and sometimes just go for it. Don't doubt yourself...but as others have said, you need to work at it slowly too. Also, relax your hands. It's easier for me to relax my left (chording) hand than my right, but even relaxing the left helps to relax my right.
I started playing banjo at your age, after some short (not especically great) attempts at guitar and bass. I started with clawhammer, then played 2 finger thumb lead for a few years, then switched over to Scruggs style. Banjo in the Hollow was one of the first tunes I learned, and the first one I tried to work up to blazing speed. After playing it often enough I really didn't need to "think" about where were my fingers were going, I started working with a metronome, playing at a given speed until I was picking cleanly, then upping the metronome 5 bpm, repeat, repeat, repeat. I finally got to my desired tempo. And I've never tried that again. I have a comfortable tempo that I can play at, not too slow and not too fast, where I can pick cleanly and with good timing - and you can hear the melody. I play at home, for my own enjoyment, so that is good enough for me. A few years ago I discovered the music of Tony Ellis, a bunch of original compositions, many of which are played at slow to medium tempos. Now I can play really some nice sounding music at a tempo that is doable for even mediocre players like myself. Speed will come, as others have said, but taste, timing, and technique you can work on at any tempo. And it is the melody that is the "thing" we should all be working towards. I have listened to pickers that pick blazing fast and it just sounds like a bunch of noise. It is a rare talent, like the master Scruggs, that can put it all together.
Traditional Bluegrass is played faster than the more modern style of today. If you listen to the Progressive Bands of today, they don't play at lighting fast tempo anymore. Emphasis is more on feeling what you are playing, strong melody, it's almost like classical guitar, not just blazing away,and showing how fast you can go through breaks.
All good advice on here, and the points about mastering the fundamentals are quite right. But there is quite a thrill in cranking out a barn burner and I understand why you would want to get to that point. Playing at speed is partly technique, but mostly just practice. The more time you put in playing your instrument, the faster you will become. But keep it tasteful.
Blazing speed is overrated (in my opinion). Playing at a recognizable speed -- one where the song you are playing sounds like the song you are playing -- is not. Conversely, playing an overabundance of notes that you only can handle at such a slow speed that no one, you included, can recognize what the song is, is the fastest way for a banjo to move to the back of the closet and stay there.
My view is: play songs at a recognizable speed. If this means playing simpler arrangements, then play simpler arrangements. When you can play these arrangements faster, switch to a slightly more complex arrangement. All banjo songs can be played all sorts of ways. If, along the way, you learn how to add and subtract complexity yourself, so much the better.
This, I believe, is one of the great benefits of learning to play by ear. You need to be able to hear the song in order to play it. And you've got to know the elements that make up banjo music in order to translate the song from your head to the instrument. As a result, adding to and subtracting from arrangements soon becomes second nature.
Edited by - Rich Weill on 09/23/2019 14:03:04
Thanks, everyone, I really appreciate all the tips and advice.
You could look at various books by Janet Davis and Ned Luberecki, includes all kinds of tunes w/different Right hand and LH challenges in each. Also, Kaufman's 4 hour workout and Jack Hatfield's Exercises for 3 Finger and Tony Trischka's "Complete Banjo player" are good books to work thru, but not for hours and hours each day, short bursts til your hands get tired or you get frustrated, then take a break and go back to playing familiar tunes.
Edited by - gtani7 on 09/23/2019 20:12:32
If you try to play in a way where every note counts, it can be satisfying at slower tempos. A lot of the Scruggs tunes are built in with filler notes and rolls which require some momentum and speed to sound right, especially the up the neck compositions.
Tony Ellis comes to mind for "every note counting." Simpler compositions, not too fast, and you get out of G tuning quite often. I'm going to explore Tony's work myself at some point.
Edit: Ordered the Ellis book, for $13 and change, it will be fun to slow down and explore double C. Looking forward, I'll let you know how I like the book when it arrives.
In my case. the thing that helped me most was the software application "The Amazing Slow Downer". It provided the ability to "loop" all or parts of a tune tune/exercise/lick a designated number of times, and increase the tempo by a designated number of times when the "loop" is repeated.
I start a tune/exercise/lick at a designed speed. That would be a speed I find comfortable and easy to play. Eventually, as the music is played and looped,the music becomes harder to play and you will reach a point where "your wheels come off". Over time. your playing speed improves with sacrificing timing and accuracy. I use this approach when learning a new material.
An earlier post mentioned memorizing the melody of a tune before trying to learn to play a tune. This principle is not restricted to any type of learning - playing by "ear", playing using "tab", and playing using standard musical notation.
'Setups' 3 hrs
'St. Anne’s Reel (TOTW)' 5 hrs
'Archtop Banjo on BHO' 7 hrs