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Dec 7, 2021 - 8:39:15 AM
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11 posts since 7/9/2014

Did a cursory search of "how to teach", "teaching", etc., but couldn't find exactly what I was looking for.

As the title says, how do I teach someone to play the banjo?

I have been playing on and off for several years, most recently the last year and half straight through. I have gotten to the point that I can learn songs by ear (painfully sometimes, not so painfully other times.) I took bluegrass lessons as a teenager, but am mostly a self-taught clawhammer player with some two finger style thrown in here and there.

My brother, who is 14, will be getting his very own banjo from Santa. (I'm the only banjo player I know in my area.)

How should I start him off?

I'm thinking of first going over the parts of the banjo, and really drilling how to tune by ear ( ex. "in G, the 1st string when fretted at the fifth fret should match the 5th string...."). Also, of course, teaching him the bum ditty, and a few basic chords for Boil Them Cabbage Down or Cripple Creek. Then start introducing hammer ons, pull offs, slides, and then eventually drop thumb.

Any recommendations, hints, or tricks?

Any help much appreciated.

Dec 7, 2021 - 9:06:59 AM
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BobbyE

USA

2996 posts since 11/29/2007

Sorry, and I know some will disagree, but I would suggest getting him a tuner to begin with. There is so much to learn when starting off on the banjo that it can be overwhelming. A tuner is easy to use and will help his ear to become trained to the banjo that is in tune. At some point, he will learn whether a string if flat or sharp, and can then tune as you suggest but don't give him something else to learn, when it is not necessary at this point. Just my opinion though.

Bobby

Dec 7, 2021 - 9:08:54 AM
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380 posts since 1/26/2020

Your approach sounds just fine. It's up to your brother to practice. I would instill in him that repetition is the key. One of the ways I was able to get everything to become 2nd nature was to do something else while practicing, like watch a favorite movie or show, or to have conversation with my wife, etc. While doing those things I'd often have my left hand muting the strings, or a towel, or have the banjo under a blanket in my lap, and I'd just sit there repeating bum-ditty, or drop thumb, hitting the individual strings. I did the same thing to get the hang of up-picking and two finger playing.

No need to teach a bunch of tunings yet. Start in standard. Get him a tuner. He'll realize the ear part. 
It's all about repetition. You must emphasize that.

Blaine

Edited by - tbchappe on 12/07/2021 09:10:29

Dec 7, 2021 - 10:52:02 AM

1662 posts since 1/28/2013

There is a tuner feature on I-phones found on the free metronome app.. Just strike the string and watch the needle and color green. At the beginner level books and online resources should be enough. It's when you get to the upper intermediate level that you need a Profesional Expert level Teacher, which can be found online for SKYPE lessons if you can't find one locally.

Dec 7, 2021 - 11:47:22 AM
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263 posts since 5/21/2020

quote:
Originally posted by memphispicker

Did a cursory search of "how to teach", "teaching", etc., but couldn't find exactly what I was looking for.

As the title says, how do I teach someone to play the banjo?

I have been playing on and off for several years, most recently the last year and half straight through. I have gotten to the point that I can learn songs by ear (painfully sometimes, not so painfully other times.) I took bluegrass lessons as a teenager, but am mostly a self-taught clawhammer player with some two finger style thrown in here and there.

My brother, who is 14, will be getting his very own banjo from Santa. (I'm the only banjo player I know in my area.)

How should I start him off?

I'm thinking of first going over the parts of the banjo, and really drilling how to tune by ear ( ex. "in G, the 1st string when fretted at the fifth fret should match the 5th string...."). Also, of course, teaching him the bum ditty, and a few basic chords for Boil Them Cabbage Down or Cripple Creek. Then start introducing hammer ons, pull offs, slides, and then eventually drop thumb.

Any recommendations, hints, or tricks?

Any help much appreciated.


Hi Donald, The best way to learn to teach is to learn from a great teacher.

This is by far the best teacher I know.

https://banjobenclark.com/

Dec 7, 2021 - 12:34:40 PM
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530 posts since 5/29/2015

Set long-term expectations. State up front--little progress even after a year of hard work.

Dec 7, 2021 - 6:24:19 PM
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61 posts since 4/26/2018
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Emphasis on the basics. As a violin maker, I have found that it is easier to set a neck than to describe to someone how to do it, and without a firm grounding in the basics, it won't make any sense.

I agree with the repetition advice, as well.

Also, you will learn a good bit about your own playing and how you do things. It is amazing how many complicated things we can do that we can not show someone else how to do. It requires a deeper understanding of what and how than just having someone watch you and emulate what you do.

Dec 8, 2021 - 1:50:31 AM
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phb

Germany

3112 posts since 11/8/2010

I think what you should do depends more on your relation to your brother and how willing he would be to learn from you than on how one best teaches banjo in general. I would try to set him up for self-teaching and check on him and offer advice whenever he wants it.

Dec 8, 2021 - 3:58:59 AM
Players Union Member

Helix

USA

15023 posts since 8/30/2006

Start with up picking = Boom, Rest, Did he? 4 beats
then down picking like claw or frail
then 21215215 is all 8 beats no rest
After that, stand back.

Dec 8, 2021 - 5:10:28 AM
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124 posts since 11/9/2021

Clear instructions, knowing what the goal of a lesson is (what its supposed to sound like) and, as stated above, hours of repetition. And then, there is natural proclivity, manual dexterity and the hardest one to quantify - talent. I will relate two short stories.

My oldest son, when he was 3 or 4, was given a small Casio keyboard for a present. One day when we were driving to go camping, he was playing with it in the car (w/headphones). I asked what he was playing, and he said "Spooky House", unplugged the head phones and the kid was playing a tune in a minor key. And when I asked him to play it again later that weekend, he did, note for note. That's talent and natural ability. He retains that ability today, playing bass , guitar and bagpipes. He can be relied upon to always hit the correct note when singing and picks out second and third harmonies on the fly.   Note: second son, who received  much the same when young, does NOT have this ability, and like me has to learn the hard way!  

Me- it takes hours to get a particular passage on fiddle perfect, depending on its complexity, but after playing over 40+ years, a lot can be figured out just in my head (the fingering) and then its just the physical bowing pattern needed. That's the result of repetition over and over.

I taught both sons to play music well before they were exposed to sheet music in high school. Same basic way that you are suggesting Donald. Develop the ear, teach the basics and give lots of encouragement. And lots n lots of practice.

Wish him a long and fruitful musical journey from me!

Edited by - wrench13 on 12/08/2021 05:15:29

Dec 8, 2021 - 5:24:46 AM

1175 posts since 11/17/2005

quote:
Originally posted by memphispicker

Did a cursory search of "how to teach", "teaching", etc., but couldn't find exactly what I was looking for.

As the title says, how do I teach someone to play the banjo?

I have been playing on and off for several years, most recently the last year and half straight through. I have gotten to the point that I can learn songs by ear (painfully sometimes, not so painfully other times.) I took bluegrass lessons as a teenager, but am mostly a self-taught clawhammer player with some two finger style thrown in here and there.

My brother, who is 14, will be getting his very own banjo from Santa. (I'm the only banjo player I know in my area.)

How should I start him off?

I'm thinking of first going over the parts of the banjo, and really drilling how to tune by ear ( ex. "in G, the 1st string when fretted at the fifth fret should match the 5th string...."). Also, of course, teaching him the bum ditty, and a few basic chords for Boil Them Cabbage Down or Cripple Creek. Then start introducing hammer ons, pull offs, slides, and then eventually drop thumb.

Any recommendations, hints, or tricks?

Any help much appreciated.


I've never taught someone to play an instrument,  but I have done a lot of training. 

I wouldn't be "really drilling" anything. I would talk to the guy first and see what he wants to learn. Then I would try to break up the things he needs to learn into small parts and try to move him in that direction.

I would want him to be successful in small goals. Arguably, the most important part of playing is that he starts and stays at it. If he keeps playing and learning, he will be successful. 

He is incredibly lucky to have another player in the house. If he can get a right hand pattern going, then he will be able to start playing along with you. You can use this to encourage him and keep him practicing.  If playing and practicing becomes a long term habit, then he will be moving in the right direction.

Dec 8, 2021 - 7:54:49 AM

11 posts since 7/9/2014

Appreciate it fellas.  I'll start him out with a tuner.  We live in the same town, so I can pester him about practicing every day.

Dec 8, 2021 - 8:46:18 AM

260 posts since 8/25/2009

In addition to a tuner, I would suggest a few sets of strings and, make sure the banjo is set up properly. You don't want to find out two months later that the action is too high or the bridge is positioned poorly. BTW, You probably know this, but if he hasn't played a stringed instrument before, a low action (I'm still using a 1/2" bridge) and light strings, until he builds up some calluses

Dec 8, 2021 - 3:03:02 PM
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2953 posts since 2/10/2013

I also suggest he use an electronic tuner. Over time his "ears" will learn what each string should sound like.

Geoff Hohwald's "Banjo Primer" is a good beginners book. The learner can work on the basic rolls. I also suggest using a metronome at first. Playing along with accurate recorded material also works. While learning those basic rolls they will develop strength in their hands. That is something you don't read much about, but I think this is important.

No telling what direction the student will go. Every learner may not end up playing the style the instructor plays. Learning the basic rolls, strengthening his/her hands, and starting out with good timing will enable them to eventually learn any 5 string style.

It is up to you the instructor to show him how to position and use his hands. Constructive criticism can quickly correct mistakes. The instructor must make sure the learner DOES NOT practice mistakes. Learning to correct mistakes consumes more time that it does to learn them.

Be patient and make the learning process enjoyable for everybody.

Dec 8, 2021 - 6:09:29 PM
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4006 posts since 3/28/2008

Don't start him picking. If he's never played music before, he needs to learn that music has a "deep structure"--the rhythm and chords. That's way more important than the superficials like melody and rolls that most beginners notice first.

Show him basic left-hand technique and a few easy chords. If you're using G tuning, start by showing him a two-finger D7 chord, and then a three-finger C chord. Have him strum a steady beat and change chords at the right times while you sing the melody to some well-known song. Until he can do that, trying to teach him any picking will just be pointlessly frustrating for you both.

Dec 8, 2021 - 8:06:50 PM

284 posts since 10/26/2018

Does he sing, or show any musical tendencies? If so, get him a tuner but teach him to tune by ear. It is a dying skill. And add the stuff about musical structure as he learns tunes if he doesn't seem to naturally get it.
My personal learning experience (40 some years ago) didn't involve tuners or talk of structure but that was because I had family members who were musicians (guitars guitars guitars) and song structure was naturally ingrained through listening. I was taught how to use my ears to hear the beats of being out of tune with my first informal guitar lesson.

What you need to teach him depends on where he is now.

Dec 11, 2021 - 6:48:13 AM
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m06

England

10688 posts since 10/5/2006

You probably have a much better idea of what makes your brother tick than another teacher would. That’s an advantage.

Show your brother how to tune his banjo, get him so he is comfortable and has a good posture (banjo strap - another Christmas present idea along with a tuner?).

Then get to having fun showing him the basics of right hand technique and fretting. Give him the gift of a solid foundation.

Tunes? You two brothers can figure that out between you.

And don’t sweat it, it’ll be great fun. My guess is your playing will inspire your bro to practice hard to catch up. That'll keep you on your toes!

Edited by - m06 on 12/11/2021 06:48:53

Dec 11, 2021 - 11:38:02 AM

2907 posts since 12/4/2009

Hello,

My teaching method was to understand the fretboard first by fingering and listening. 1 to 4 and 1 to 5, then 1 minors to 6 minors.

Being familiar to chord positions and inversions helps when singing and composing. Pat Cloud uses this method.

Brush stokes are great starting out. Picking smart take time. The goal is get familiar enough to move to phrases commonly used with banjo.

Dec 13, 2021 - 8:14:41 AM
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Alex Z

USA

4584 posts since 12/7/2006

Geez.  What a bunch of killjoys smiley -- literally taking the joy out of learning to play the banjo.

Really drilling.  Repetition, hours of repetition.  Exercises while watching TV.  Little progress after a year of hard work.  Pester him about practicing.  Don't start him picking.  Deep structure is more important than superficials like melody.  Make sure he does not practice mistakes.  Understand the fretboard first.

It's a wonder I ever learned to play! smiley

If your brother wants to play the banjo, that's 80% of the way there already, that's the energy to learn.  He supplies another 10% by experimentation, and you supply 10% with some guidance to make the learning process more efficient.

Think "nurturing the player's energy," not "football coach demanding calisthenics and drills."

Go back over all the advice you've been given.  Throw out all the negative advice with "don'ts".  Pay attention the the advice about fun.

He'll get there, and will enjoy himself along the way.

Dec 13, 2021 - 8:28:48 AM

1175 posts since 11/17/2005

quote:
Originally posted by Richard Hauser

I also suggest he use an electronic tuner. Over time his "ears" will learn what each string should sound like.

Geoff Hohwald's "Banjo Primer" is a good beginners book. The learner can work on the basic rolls. I also suggest using a metronome at first. Playing along with accurate recorded material also works. While learning those basic rolls they will develop strength in their hands. That is something you don't read much about, but I think this is important.

No telling what direction the student will go. Every learner may not end up playing the style the instructor plays. Learning the basic rolls, strengthening his/her hands, and starting out with good timing will enable them to eventually learn any 5 string style.

It is up to you the instructor to show him how to position and use his hands. Constructive criticism can quickly correct mistakes. The instructor must make sure the learner DOES NOT practice mistakes. Learning to correct mistakes consumes more time that it does to learn them.

Be patient and make the learning process enjoyable for everybody.


I would second the banjo primer. I used it years ago, but I think you said you were teaching clawhammer.

I always wanted to learn some claw hammer,  but I've never gotten around to it...

Metronome is good,  but he will have you to play with and now there are a lot of back up tracks. 

Someone told me about the strum machine app a while back And I love using it!

Dec 13, 2021 - 3:41:24 PM

csrat

USA

922 posts since 9/14/2008

quote:
Originally posted by Banner Blue

Set long-term expectations. State up front--little progress even after a year of hard work.


Absolutely not!

I gave banjo lessons at a music shop when I was in college. You do not tell a student that after a year of hard work he will have made little progress. There is so much wrong with that statement:

How do you define "progress"?

He's 14. A year is a long time to a 14 year old.

Long term expectations? He's 14!

 

Start with rolls. No left hand. Play them until they are ingrained in his muscle memory so he doesn't have to think about them to play them.

Introduce chords. One at a time. Work on changing from one chord to another by playing slowly. Again, it will become part of the muscle memory, thoughtless. With basic chords and rolls he can play along with tunes and then you can see if he keeps good time.

Pick simple arrangements of songs like Worried Man and Bile Them Cabbage and Will the Circle be Unbroken. Pulls and hammers only, no slides. Play them at a consistent speed, slowly. As he gets these down work on emphasizing the melody.

Then, after hammers and pulls are solid, Cripple Creek. That slide will feel like a big step, even though it's not a difficult one. Makes playing fun and feels great to be making progress. 

Teach a few licks and breaks. Again, feels great to be able to flesh out a tune by being able to take a break.

Start working up the neck a little. Cumberland Gap is good for that. Add some new breaks.

This establishes technique. Now you can start teaching him to play by ear if that's the way he wants to go. He can learn how to discern the melody and make sure the listener can, too.

State up front that practice does not make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect. By that I mean learn each step listed above and don't move to the next step until he's got it down pat. If you're still struggling with chord changes when you add hammers and pulls, you'll have poor timing and add trouble to learning future skills. The first steps require time and repetition. Learning solid technique well, in the early parts of the process, makes everything else you learn easier. 

Edited by - csrat on 12/13/2021 15:44:15

Dec 17, 2021 - 6:18:09 AM

37 posts since 7/15/2008

When I started to drive I just got into the car and drove. That is somwhat of an overstatement. You see I had been driving a riding lawn mower for years starting at about 9 years of age. The great thing about the lawn tractor is, that it is impossible to go fast. It involved hours of repetition at slow speeds. I even learned to back up with a trailer by age 12. In addition I was working in the family business of a full service station learing the basics of auto mechanics. I had replaced clutches on cars before I ever drove one. So, when I needed to drive a stick for the first time, I simply got behind the wheel, and with a little sweat and extra concentration I drove away. No jerking or jumping, smoking clutch or tires.
Becoming familiar with the mechanics and lots of forced slow repitition was the key.

Dec 17, 2021 - 3:03:54 PM
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251 posts since 11/15/2004

Ira Gitlin said quite succinctly and I fully agree:

<< Don't start him picking. If he's never played music before, he needs to learn that music has a "deep structure"--the rhythm and chords. That's way more important than the superficials like melody and rolls that most beginners notice first.

Show him basic left-hand technique and a few easy chords. [Use G tuning -- says Pete], start by showing him a two-finger D7 chord, and then a three-finger C chord. Have him strum a steady beat and change chords at the right times while you sing the melody to some well-known song. Until he can do that, trying to teach him any picking will just be pointlessly frustrating for you both.>>

It's no coincidence that Ira was the first Wernick Method teacher in 2010. He and I are very much on the same page.

I'll elaborate below but first -- some whining (sorry!): As the person who's taught more people to play Scruggs style banjo than anyone in history (self-run banjo camps (usually several) every year 1980-2015 at all levels, best-selling books (Music Sales, 250,000+ sold so far) and 10 videos on Homespun), I admit it's a bit of a bummer that no one here yet has referenced my camps or my books or videos. I have countless testimonials, and folks like Ned Luberecki and other pro players among others started with my book Bluegrass Banjo (1974), still in print.

Ira said it right: Learn chords and timing first. Use D7/G at first cause nothing is easier! Then learn a couple of rolls and see if they can stay together *while changing chords*. That's a reasonable challenge, pretty easy at slow speeds with my one-hour video Get Rolling  (lots of actual songs using G, C, D, ONLY). Playing along with real music gets ear skills going (TOTALLY important) as well as correct timing (also TOTALLY important. And it's much more *fun* (quite important) than solo closet-playing. Students who don't play along with other musicians are unfortunately easy to spot: They can *recite* what other people thought of, but they can't actually play bluegrass, often have trouble hearing chord changes and melodies, and often lose the timing. To be a real bluegrass player, you need to feel what it's like to be accountable and on a *team* playing all together, thinking on your feet. Learning tabbed solos is certainly not the best way to start. I taught that way in the 60s and soon realized I needed to develop different methods.

My best-selling video by far is Bluegrass Slow Jam for the Total Beginner, 2 hours of playing along on 17 standards played and sung by a full on-screen all-star band, REAL SLOW, with only G, C, D, and A for the whole video. I recommend it highly for anyone learning to play any bluegrass instrument. For beginning banjo players, doing a TITM roll in time while changing chords is very doable very soon, is hugely satisfying, and leads right into learning how to play one's own easy solos. No tab (!), just like the way you all learned to speak English, which is in fact much harder.

There's a Learn Banjo page on DrBanjo.com featuring my most popular article "Best Ways to Start Learning Banjo", which is actually addressed to banjo teachers. I've been advertising it *on this forum* for years! I hope all the folks who've dispensed the good advice I've seen on this thread will take the time to read that article. Please comment if you think it does or doesn't make sense. It's based on many decades of teaching thousands of people in-person as well as hundreds of thousands via books and videos.

I'm sure Banjo Ben and Geoff Hohwald are excellent teachers, as are Ira Gitlin, Eli Gilbert and many others. I believe the testimonials of people who've recommended them, and a GOOD in-person 1-on-1 teacher is hard to beat (but ONLY IF they are good teachers and are super-sparing with tabs!). But months of lesson get expensive, and a really good video or two cost less than a single lesson -- and can be replayed any time and any place, as often as necessary. Check out DrBanjo.com for testimonials. I've got quite a few!

I'm sorry to be bragging here (so not exactly "shameless"), but having devoted over 50 years of my life to banjo teaching (as well as banjo performing) all over the country and overseas, and in popular books and videos, I want my voice and my ideas heard on this distinguished forum, even if I have to do it myself. Thanks for reading!

Dec 17, 2021 - 8:00:46 PM

138 posts since 7/22/2012

You have some experts (including Dr. Banjo himself) giving advice up there. One little trick I'd mention, in advance, is to figure out your simplest version of a song you like (easiest one you can enjoy playing) and show him how you play it once he's got his banjo. Show him once, ask him to try to copy you, and show him slowly maybe 10 or more times. He might get a quick thrill if he's able to imitate you even half successfully. Then, once you have his attention...

Dec 17, 2021 - 10:04:22 PM
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Bart Veerman

Canada

5095 posts since 1/5/2005

Yes, by all means, do show him how to tune the banjo but do allow him to use a tuner - it's a valid and don't be surprised if he makes the connection all by himself to figure out the tuning-buy-ear thing.

Keep in mind, for the young folks, tunes like Boiling Cabbages and Cripple Creeks are simply NOT RELEVANT, they do not compute. Actually, they don't compute for a whole bunch of people unless they've heard those songs played/sung so for C.C., do tell them to check out Buffy St. Marie's Youtube to put that tune into a melody perspective.

No no no no no, don't make him study music theory first, show him where to find single melody notes first. He's obviously too old for Baby Shark, and too young for "We will we will rock you" but maybe Happy Birthday or some Xmas song maybe where it's at for him.

Melody first, how to pretty it up comes after. Pete's approach above would be fine if he wants to become a Scruggs style fan but at age 14, hmmm, how cool that isn't...

Roll drills? Fine for Scruggs-style devotees but useless for anyone else and it's the #1 reason for banjos to get closeted...

What songs does he like? So what if it happens to be Rap, help him figure out a way to make it work. Whatever Alex Z said, all the way!

Consider a one-year-old: when they manage to utter their first "mama" or "dadda" - would you chastise them, "not so fast kiddo, first you'll have to practice how to properly recite the complete alphabet + grammar implications before you go any further", or would you just reward them with the hugest smile... 

Edited by - Bart Veerman on 12/17/2021 22:20:24

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