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Is the 1st banjo tune you learned the 1st tune you teach your students?

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Dec 8, 2019 - 12:04:13 AM
3362 posts since 1/2/2004

Good morning, BHO Citizenry.

I was just talking to Mark Sahlgren, a guitar and banjo player - and singer - of note who performs bluegrass and acoustic music in southwest Michigan.

Mark was involved in folk and grassroots music way back before it became known by that name - and thus has a "Present At Creation" aspect to the great stories he tells. A retired teacher, Mark is the co-host of WMUK's "Grassroots."

He was telling me that he learned some of his first tunes from Tommy Thompson in the mid-1960s: "Richmond Cotillion", "Wild Horses at Stoney Point", "Kitchen Girl", "June Apple", and "probably a few others."

Mark recalled that sometime in the mid-1960s, Tommy was teaching some friends to claw on the banjo, and the tune he was teaching was 'Shortnin' Bread'.

"I still remember this," Mark told me, "and use the same tune if I'm teaching clawhammer banjo in its beginning stages. In a G tuning, it's pretty cool learning pull-offs and drop-thumb to someone starting."


That's a very interesting observation.

When I thought about it, it became clear that I have long used the first tune I learned from Dwight Diller, "Poor Ellen Smith," in teaching clawhammer to newcomers to that blood sport.

It is a "one part" tune, and is very symmetrical when played unadorned. It could be broken down into bite sized chunks in a way that didn't have me teaching only one or two notes at a time - maybe because it followed a musical logic. It didn't require venturing far from the first position, so to speak - no stretches for the beginning student.

I wondered enough about this that I thought I'd ask Banjo Hangout folks:

How many of you use the first tune you learned on banjo from a teacher as the first tune you teach students who come to your doorstep wanting to learn banjo?

Just curious.

Take care. Play hard.


Dec 8, 2019 - 3:47:36 AM

5 posts since 11/28/2017

I've found that starting with a beginning student it is better to start with a song rather than a tune, so they can connect chord changes to words. "I Walk the Line" and "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" work well because people know them well. Both of these have simple chord changes, lots of ascending and descending runs, good roll integration, and good up-the-neck possibilities. In essence, all the components of bluegrass banjo. And when we move to tunes I usually take them to "The Girl I Left Behind", "Soldier's Joy" (in both D and G!) or "Over the Waterfall".

And yes, "Circle" was the first thing I ever learned on the banjo....a long time ago.

Dec 8, 2019 - 5:43:27 AM

233 posts since 3/6/2008
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I teach Will the Circle with the alternating thumb roll . It’s a pretty boring arrangement, then I show them what it can evolve into . I think it was my first tune . My newest student is coming tomorrow for his 2 nd lesson.

Dec 8, 2019 - 6:35:02 AM

3267 posts since 7/12/2006

banjo in the hollow was my first tune. but boil them cabbage down is usually the first tune i teach ,as i normally use the you can teach yourself banjo book.

Edited by - stanleytone on 12/08/2019 06:39:42

Dec 8, 2019 - 6:44:20 AM

12454 posts since 10/30/2008

Well, a local lady who played a little on the banjo took me under her wing when I was around 9 to show me the single tune she played on the banjo. "Beer Beer Beer For You and For I" (Bring on the whiskey, bring on the rye...) It was the melody of a college fight song.

I indeed learned to play it, but didn't pursue the banjo any more for a couple of years until I saw Flatt & Scruggs live.

I would be embarrassed to teach that song to a beginner now! I tend to use Bile Them Cabbage Down or This Land is Your Land for rank beginners.

I learned 3 finger style. But those two tunes work well for both styles.

Dec 8, 2019 - 7:00:44 AM
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14494 posts since 12/2/2005

No, it's not.

Dec 8, 2019 - 8:07:53 AM

750 posts since 12/19/2010

I don't follow the path of "the first tune I learned is the first tune I teach." With rank beginners, I like to keep them from "multi-tasking", so that they focus on one skill at a time, but can also play through a simple melody after an hour or so of guidance. For teaching clawhammer, I emphasis proper stroking and rhythm in the first sessions, and try to minimize on fretting (including hammers, pulls, slides, etc). Also, I look for melodies that are widely known and in the student's head (back to minimizing the independent variables in the learning process). So, I often start with Frere Jacques in open G tuning (very little fretting is required, nor is knowledge of chords required). Having said that, Frere Jacques was one of the first melodies I learned on the banjo, but that is not why I use it. With that melody, I can show students how to double thumb as well as play a boom chuck-a rhythm, and try to get them to think about how the downstroking finger plays beats, and the thumb plays offbeats. I can also introduce hammers and drop thumb with Frere Jacques (usually the second session). But also, if a student said to me, "I love 'Poor Ellen Smith' and have always wanted to play it on the banjo", then I may well start them with that or move to it next once they have some basic skills down. I often use Short'nin Bread as the next tune, but most importantly where we go after the initial launch is part what I want to do, and part what the student is inspired and motivated to do. Modal tunes like Cluck Old Hen and Shady Grove seem to be student favorites, and I often go there (and to sawmill tuning) fairly quickly.

Edited by - jack_beuthin on 12/08/2019 08:08:39

Dec 8, 2019 - 9:52:16 AM

3744 posts since 10/13/2005

Skip to My Lou to get that simple-but-not-always-easy-for-some right hand CH bumm-ditty down and stay with it as long as it takes. Then Cripple Creek to get hammer-ons, pull-offs, and slides down. Then on to drop thumb where ever that goes, Soldier's Joy, whatever. I would definitely stay with songs that the learner knows in order to keep the focus on learning technique rather than throwing a new melody into the mix that could slow things down. That way you also connect the scale/sound/key/fretboard and muscle mechanics to what's in your head. banjered

Dec 8, 2019 - 10:19:44 AM

3362 posts since 1/2/2004

That's good advice, Tom.

Let me ask this:

Do you use the first tune you learned on banjo from a teacher as the first tune you teach your banjo students?

Dec 8, 2019 - 11:40:46 AM



2518 posts since 1/15/2014

Yes - the first piece I learned was a variation on a simple waltz from Fred Bacon's tutor, and that is what I start people with.

Dec 8, 2019 - 12:21:44 PM

3744 posts since 10/13/2005

I had a terrible time learning my first banjo tune solely out of Pete's Red book. I had heard CH banjo the first time a short time before by buskers on the street and I was determined to learn CH. I never even knew anything other than Scruggs existed before, that's how ignorant I was, but when I heard CH that was it for me. No teacher, no one to ask questions of, no recordings and certainly no see and hear. So for two months I banged away under a tree on bumm-DIT-ty and I thought the beat/foot-tap was on the DIT. It was the loudest part of bumm-ditty and how else did that gallop rhythm happen? About two months into it, it dawned on me, "Hey that can't be right." And then I had to start all over again to rewire my brain, another 2-3 months to unlearn/relearn. Skip to my Lou over and over again but not integrated into my hard-drive, just a mechanical exercise. Then one day I was startled to realize I wasn't just doing the Skip to my Lou exercise but I was actually playing the tune! A neighbor walked by and said, "I wasn't sure if you were going to get it but you got it." Still no teacher and no resources so I remained a beginner for my first ten years, then BHO happened and I could finally see and hear CH, and the mystery of drop thumb was solved! Now I can play about 200 fiddle tunes right off the bat and probably double that number of songs. Never had a teacher beyond BHO although I eventually attended some banjo presentations masquerading as classes. I still say a teacher would speed up the CH learning curve at least 10X because you don't have to figure so much out yourself and learn/unlearn/relearn techniques. So, "NO" is my long-winded answer to you Lew. banjered

Dec 8, 2019 - 12:33:47 PM



8147 posts since 10/5/2006


Dec 8, 2019 - 6:56:33 PM

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22740 posts since 6/25/2005


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