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Feb 6, 2020 - 8:16:47 AM
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2512 posts since 9/12/2016

Originally posted by Texasbanjo

I'll chime in here with what I do. I probably know over 200 or more songs..... all by ear, no tab. First, let me say I play/sing more vocals than instrumentals, and I think vocals are easier to learn and easier to remember. I have a song book that I go through each day and play maybe half a dozen or so songs, maybe more, maybe less. It usually takes me a couple of weeks to go through all the songs in my book and then I start over.

When I get a new song, it gets more time than the others until I have it clean, clear and up to tempo, then it goes in with the rest of my book and I work on another new one and so on.

Don't know if that would work for you, but it helps me to remember those songs by playing them through maybe once every week or two.

Sherry I think there are those that would --love to hear this hint hint

Feb 6, 2020 - 9:17:38 AM
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5477 posts since 10/13/2007

For being such a hack, I have been extremely fortunate to be able to get great advice from great teachers and great players. Following is an exchange I had with the great Jack Hatfield. It was extremely eye-opening and enlightening for me and I hope the OP can take this as a helpful way in keeping tunes in his head:

2. Scruggs invented most of the licks but he was also a very melody oriented player. Do you think most of his licks originated as a way to state specific melody notes at one time in a song?

Yes. It is very simple: Earl was trying to render a melody using the thumb on the melody notes as often as possible while maintaining a steady stream of eighth notes and not repeating a digit on consecutive eighth notes. These three parameters resulted in the four or five basic rolls he created. IMO, he never even conceptualized the rolls as static building blocks of his style until others such as Bill Keith attempted to put it down on paper (tab) and coined the term “roll”. By then it was already innate with Earl. He just tried to play the melody with the stronger thumb, and the signature licks and finger sequences (rolls) that resulted became his vocabulary (“I call it his Lick-cabulary”) unconsciously.

All the more reason to set as a goal thinking the melody instead of thinking about the rolls and licks and memorized arrangement. If you have practiced the licks and rolls enough, REALLY ingrained them...they will appear on your fingers in some unplanned order to render the melody you intend, and you will not be ridden with a string of errors because you made one mistake in a memorized arrangement. Playing memorized arrangements by rote is a starting place, (in truth, many lifelong players never get beyond this) but it is like a chain...when you break one link the whole thing ceases to function. If you think the melody instead of the memorized arrangement, you may play it differently every time, but there are no TIMING errors which is catastrophic, and few if any dropped notes. But you have to internalize the rolls and licks first, which takes years.

Feb 6, 2020 - 9:19:33 AM
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11568 posts since 2/7/2008

I find that performing songs in front of people helps to lock them into your memory. It takes a lot longer for me to forget something that I have had to learn well enough to perform several times.

I also find I retain tunes better if I come up with my own arrangement rather than trying to sound like someone elses.

Feb 6, 2020 - 9:56:40 AM

3308 posts since 7/12/2006

a good problem to have! try grouping the songs that use identical or similar chord progressions in a list for starters

Feb 6, 2020 - 10:11 AM

79 posts since 10/4/2018

I try to practice the tunes I find important and keep them clean and fast. Most tunes I can play through and use whatever licks and rolls fit while still hitting most of the melody notes. I've been playing long enough to where it's second nature. But I don't play around with the classics. I play them quite often and don't really forget how they're played. More specialized tunes need more attention though. Some tunes are more accepting of improvisation than others. I try to decide which ones those are and go from there.

Feb 6, 2020 - 10:18 AM

2512 posts since 9/12/2016

I am in the minority ,in the fact that I'' don't like'' to put my time into the'' improvising ''mode. In other words ,,throwing in licks. I do have a few laying around for --forgotten or flubbed passages.
Anyway on ''great melodies'' I try to get them nailed ,then it goes to the cleaning up and adding embellishment----- but staying with the'' burnt in'' version

the page jumped right after I posted this so this is a rerun

Feb 6, 2020 - 8:40:37 PM
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142 posts since 8/7/2014

Thanks all! Some great insight here. A couple of posters talked about playing note for note. I guess my reply to that would be, my reason for learning songs note for note is two fold. One, it develips my ear. I find that my ear has drastically improved by playing a song hindreds of times trying to nit pick every note. I am finding it gets a little easier every time. Second, by learning it note for note, I get a better sense of how the masters would attack a certain passage. I probably go overboard, but I enjoy learning a song note for note, and then trying to play it as close to the recording as possible. I do this to understand dynamics, attack, etc. Probably alot more than I need to, but its how I practice. For the record, I will again say, I use no tab. Only ears. I found that written tab is hard to play fast and to memorize. Its forgotten after the session is over. Learning by ear has made it easier for me to retain the songs. Even still, some just arent as easy to retain in the bank. Maybe those arent the ones I am quite so invested in?

Feb 6, 2020 - 8:45:34 PM

142 posts since 8/7/2014

Originally posted by Ira Gitlin

For most bluegrass (Scruggs-style arrangements, especially; less so with melodic stuff) the memorization doesn't need to be--and I might argue, shouldn't be--at the note-to-note level. A successful Scruggs-style rendition is not a reproduction of a fixed set of notes in a particular order. It is a reconstruction based on higher-level templates like chord structure, melody notes, and right-hand rolls. 

If loc50welder is trying to remember fixed set-pieces, that's not the way the whole enterprise  works. If, on the other hand, he's memorizing those higher-level things, and basing his breaks on those anew each time, that's all well and good. Even if I play a break note for not the way I've played it in the past, it feels to me like I'm generating it from lower-level rolls, licks, etc., guided always by the musical and physical "grammar" of bluegrass banjo.

That said, learning things note for note can be good for some purposes, like seeing how a particular player deals with various musical situations, and getting more of his her style into your own playing, or generally giving you new ideas. And being able to nail a Scruggs (or Crowe, or Reno, or...) break can give you some "street cred" in certain circles.

But the goal is vocabulary building, not memorization in the literal sense.

Thanks Ira. So, do you feel that building a repertoire is much less important than the hows and whys of playing? I guess that was how I originally planned to ask my question, and didnt do a very good job of asking. I wonder whether it might be better to gleam as much info from a tune as I can and then move on? I do feel sometimes like know 30 plus tunes is great, but maybe time could be better spent perfecting backup or mechanics.

Feb 6, 2020 - 9:46:14 PM
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3349 posts since 3/28/2008

Well, you acquire the hows and whys by building repertoire, and once you have the hows and whys, it becomes easier and easier to learn new repertoire and retain older repertoire.

As I see it, if you don't have at least some of the hows and whys, your repertoire isn't useful for much except solitary playing at home.

Edited by - Ira Gitlin on 02/06/2020 21:47:44

Feb 7, 2020 - 4:11:36 AM
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2512 posts since 9/12/2016

   when I do my weekly jam with my buddy ,I play my memorized breaks and they work just fine. On back up I throw in licks and rolls so it is not ''either or'' in my little circle . On a new song I might fake it  until I study the song .Forgetting a memorized passage is not a "crash and burn"I simply improvise  .

   I do play at home solitaire mostly, as do a lot of folks. Our vid page shows many solo players, so fun can be achieved as a shut in .
   On really great melodies I like to find the original and learn that because that is where the magic lies imo. I Iike to spend hours on the best serving arrangement . Many can outshine me with improvised breaks .I don't care I just do what is important to me.
As far as argue about it ,no I see no need ,I would lose and not a thing would change .

  I have a couple hundred memorized songs on my you tube channel .

Edited by - Tractor1 on 02/07/2020 04:23:09

Feb 7, 2020 - 1:38:08 PM
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3340 posts since 12/6/2009

How many have started playing one song and without thinking find yourself playing a different song half way through….(and then trying to find what you were playing to begin with).probably why the old joke about…all bluegrass songs are the same only the titles are different. lol

Feb 7, 2020 - 1:47:11 PM

79 posts since 10/4/2018

Originally posted by overhere

How many have started playing one song and without thinking find yourself playing a different song half way through….(and then trying to find what you were playing to begin with).probably why the old joke about…all bluegrass songs are the same only the titles are different. lol

I'm working on Dear Old Dixie with Alan Munde licks and find myself going into either Blackjack or Lonesome Road Blues...not always, but if I daydream a bit, I have been known to lose it.

Feb 7, 2020 - 1:52:07 PM
Players Union Member

Eric A


443 posts since 10/15/2019

Originally posted by overhere

How many have started playing one song and without thinking find yourself playing a different song half way through….(and then trying to find what you were playing to begin with).probably why the old joke about…all bluegrass songs are the same only the titles are different. lol

Lately I start out on Long Journey Home and end up on I Saw The Light.

Feb 7, 2020 - 2:01:23 PM
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71253 posts since 5/9/2007

I settle on the foundation of what and how I want to play the melody and build ornamentation from there.Ornamentation changes with my mood.
I find I keep track of tunes I've learned so far with an ongoing list.
If I didn't have a list I'd stand the danger of forgetting to regularly play them all.

If I let too many weeks go by with some fiddletunes it can take me a couple of tries to get it back,all the way.
The fiddle players I know have the ability to keep a great many tunes in their head.

Tablature has helped me a lot with fiddletunesthat have more than 2 parts.

I struggled with Huckleberry Hornpipe's three parts as with mixing up where they belonged.I finally found Alan Munde's tab in Frets magazine and that solved my arrangement problems.I love quickly getting to the finish line of tunes using tab.

Tab lets me get back to my pool game,sooner.

Edited by - steve davis on 02/07/2020 14:07:40

Feb 8, 2020 - 8:26:56 AM

71253 posts since 5/9/2007

I have found that playing with friends that play the same tunes is the best way to internalize the tune.

Feb 10, 2020 - 5:48:35 PM
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16 posts since 7/15/2008

I've heard a lot of pros groan when asked to play songs they haven't played in a long time, so I think it's universal. I don't think you can stay sharp at any thing unless you work at. The longer you 've played you should get better. A skilled picker has a wealth of practice, licks and tricks to draw from. That makes "faking" it through a song look easy. Not having to play every thing note for note comes with getting some things automatic. That means being able to keep it going and be able to think ahead. For me, it years to get to that point. I'm only able to do that on some thing that is extremely familiar.
It has to be a song I spent hours playing and improvising and experimenting to have that kind of freedom. Then there's stage fright. And all of it is gone,out the window. In the military they have a saying. A soldier never rises to the occassion, but only sinks to his lowest level of training. In other words, what can you do at your worst?

Feb 10, 2020 - 5:58:06 PM



221 posts since 1/23/2009

So, have you ever heard of the term "nootropics," also known as cognitive enhancers. I found a great and noticeable increase in my recall when I was stacking (combining in my regimen) piracetam, oxiracetam, bacopa, and Alpha-GPC.

Feb 11, 2020 - 3:53:13 AM

5477 posts since 10/13/2007

Originally posted by easy

So, have you ever heard of the term "nootropics," also known as cognitive enhancers. I found a great and noticeable increase in my recall when I was stacking (combining in my regimen) piracetam, oxiracetam, bacopa, and Alpha-GPC.

Had not heard of nootropics before. Interesting:



Feb 11, 2020 - 5:07:26 AM
Players Union Member



1417 posts since 8/8/2012

I've been concentrating on a new tune and backup playing and not playing the tunes I know. Yesterday, I played some that I know and when I got to John Hardy, the the D lick and the lead in to it was gone. I have to play tunes regularly to keep them in my mind and under my fingers. Keep picking.

Feb 11, 2020 - 8:03:12 AM
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71253 posts since 5/9/2007

Usually with fiddletunes,once the fiddler starts,it all comes rushing back.
I have the most trouble kicking one off if too much time has gone by.

Feb 14, 2020 - 1:25:42 PM

195 posts since 11/26/2004

I know this is the Bluegrass forum, but for the Irish players, you may want to try the repertoire management system. Almost all the Irish (and many non-Irish) tunes I play are in there, and it handles a lot of the spreadsheet-juggling issues posters have described. Once I got past about 100 tunes, it became really hard to manage my "practiced repertoire" until I started digging into this site's rotation methods. Has anyone developed a similar application for Bluegrass, Old Time, Jazz, etc.?

It tracks last-practiced date and uses an formula based on how recently you learned a tune and how long it's been since you last practiced it to rotate and balance a practice regimen. I use the notes fields for each tune to link to a recorded source for each tune and to sheet music. A two-bar snippet of the written notation is on the page for each tune, and 10-second audio snippets from professional recordings also serve as memory-joggers. Example:

Screenshot of tune with notes and recorded sources

Edited by - benhockenberry on 02/14/2020 13:36:40

Feb 14, 2020 - 9:17:57 PM

91 posts since 3/22/2010

I used to practice all my songs/tunes every or two until the list got so long that I had no time for anything else. I then decided to write down every song/tune, individually, on separate small pieces of paper and then, drop them into a jar (and mix them up like it would be a raffle drawing). Every day I'd pull out a few pieces (songs/tunes) and after playing them, drop them into a second jar. I'd do this until the first jar was empty and then, start all over again. This way, I could get other things done too, like learning another song or working on technique, etc.
After awhile, even this got too time consuming, so I started recording myself playing each and every one, keeping the inventory on my computer. Whenever I needed to refresh my memory, I'd look it up on my computer. Now I really only record the stuff I've created, if and only if, I really liked how I did it originally and don't want to forget.

Feb 14, 2020 - 10:42:44 PM

9 posts since 2/3/2017

I have pondered this question many times - keep old songs practiced and keep them sharp or learn new ones? I try to practice 2 hours a day so my time is limited.

I created a list of songs that I like and know will come up often at jams. Ie red haired boy, cherokee shuffle, red wing, to name a few. There are about 25 of them. I play them through quickly each day. Quickly just to keep the melody in mind. Then a take a break to let my fingers rest and play one or two songs from a list of “my songs” which are songs that do not come up often or at all at jams but I love them and just play my heart out for these songs. They will probably never be heard outside my little cubby hole of a music room, but it fills me with joy to play them. My current favorite is “old friend” by laurie lewis.

Oh and i also practice scales and licks for about 20 minutes each day. Cause I feel i must continually improve by practicing these basics.

Feb 15, 2020 - 1:44:43 AM

205 posts since 4/29/2015

I too have a large repertoire and keeping them all in mind is difficult. I do use tab and video but also I will run through the opening bars of songs and any twiddly bits rather than play the whole thing. I also have titles written down on a list as I sometimes forget that i know a song (Ooh Cumberland Gap I'd forgotten about that one sort of thing)

Feb 15, 2020 - 1:09:44 PM

32 posts since 7/8/2014

Ok , this has puzzled me for quite awhile now. The expectation seems to be that banjo players memorize every tune they play, yet pianist , violinists, wind instruments and even guitarists get to play by reading music ! What is the rational behind this dichotomy ?

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