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Sep 25, 2022 - 7:32:34 AM
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512 posts since 1/9/2022

Mods...If this question is OT please feel free to move it...

I have a tin ear. I am not confident that if I play D twice in a row it will sound the same (esp. if I up pick it with the index finger and downpick it with the thumb.

I would like to be able to 'feel' my way through a melody just from hearing it--either in my head or from another source. Play by ear, IOW. 

A suggestion was made in another thread that playing scale exercises would/could help. But there are so many notes, Herr Beethoven, on the banjo. Not like a clarinet (on which I assiduously practiced scales once upon a time) or a flute. There is a scale on every string. And when you start to look for exercises, no two seem quite the same, even for the same tuning--Gmaj., for instance, or G minor.

At first glance, it seems like if you want to play three finger, scale exercises will be different than if you want to play CH. Etc..

And when you start factoring in the various 'types' of tuning...ie. natural, melodic, pentatonic, harmonic, (all of which seem at least a little different) it's hard to know which one to practice much less if it's even useful. 

Comments and advice would be appreciated ...that said, and please forgive me, I am looking for practical advice not 'convoluted' music theory.

Sep 25, 2022 - 8:19:13 AM
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Texasbanjo (Moderator)


27997 posts since 8/3/2003

I'm basically a bluegrass picker, but learning to play by ear should be about the same regardless of the genre of music.

First and foremost you need to JAM .... play with others. Try to sit where you can watch a rhythm guitar picker and when he/she changes chords, you do, too. Don't know how to play guitar? Just ask a guitar picker to show you some basic chord fingerings; i.e., G. C. D. A. E, and then follow along in a jam. At first you'll have problems changing with the guitar picker because you aren't familiar with the chord fingerings and/or sound. Eventually, you'll begin to "feel" a change coming, although you may not know what it is. Finally, you'll sense changes and know what they are.

Also, a good way to hear chords is to play/sing vocals. Songs have a chord sequence, figure out what it is, put the chords on some kind of backup software and play along. I use Band in a Box, but there are other, not so expensive software that'll do the same thing. I think you can put just chords in Tabledit and play along there. That will help you hear the chords as you play.

Playing by ear can be learned. You don't have to have talent, just the will to learn. I know. I had to learn how to play by ear and I couldn't tell you what any chord was. After a lot of woodshedding and playing in jams, it's now second nature and so easy.

Sep 25, 2022 - 9:22:41 AM

466 posts since 11/9/2021

A) know the chords for the tune.
B) All tunes can be broken down into smaller and smaller chunks, essentially a whole passel of small little riffs. Try to work out a bunch of these, maybe one measure at a time. Get it by playing the section of the tune you want to get over and over, sounding it out until you know whats going on with it. Now, when you hear the little phrase on other tunes, you will already know how its played. Once you get it, try it in other positions (against other chords). Build your library of licks and snippets. PLaying by ear takes awhile but once you get it, it goes much easier.

Sep 25, 2022 - 10:00:15 AM
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2936 posts since 5/2/2012

I, too, have a tin ear. But after reading that picking out tunes by ear can be a learned/acquired skill, I decided to give it a try. I tried Amazing Grace (standard G tuning) first and was able to figure that out fairly quickly. I'll Fly Away was next. Finally, Happy Birthday, which was more challenging than the first two. Now, I haven't tried any other tunes (too lazy) but success with those 3 tunes told me that it was doable, with a bit of experimentation, time and patience.

Hearing chord changes is a challenge as well. So I took the advice of Sherry and others and hummed tunes (not much of a singer). That extra cue helped me identify the change, and if the pitch was higher or lower. If it was a standard I-IV-V tune in the key of G, that narrowed down my chord identifying options.

Sep 25, 2022 - 11:49:39 AM



512 posts since 1/9/2022

I sure appreciate the advice. I can hear chord changes. I can hear melody notes...on the clarinet, I could play tunes from an internal memory of the notes with no score at all. I just can tell you what note... g-D-G-B-D... it is that I'm hearing.

But the clarinet is built on a scale, all the way from the lowest keys / registers to the highest. So if I am hearing / playing a note and know that the next note in the sequence is a little lower in pitch, the obvious thing is to 'cover' the next lower key. And scale exercises are fairly straight-forward.

The banjo has a full 12(?) note scale on every single string (well, not the fifth string). I suspect that if I tried, I could play near-as-nevermind any melody on one string only. But that's not the way banjo music is structured. If I strike a string on the banjo, even if I know the melody, I am not entirely certain where the next note is to be found.

I think I see the same thing even on programs like MuseScore and Tabledit. I can remember trying to 'transpose' / transcribe a piece of music in standard musical notation to tablature and finding that even though the logical next string in a sequence is nearby, the app doesn't know which string to strike next either and in the resulting tablature you sometimes get a sudden note way up the neck when in actuality, there is one closer on the neck. At least that's what I've seen.

It's confusing.

So I thought scale exercises might help me identify where the notes are more readily... so that when trying to play by ear I would know instinctively where that next note was located.

I guess it all comes down to "Are scale exercises on the banjo useful at all?" At the most rudimentary, learning level?

And, depending on that answer, the rest of the original question follows...in my mind at least.

Edited by - DWFII on 09/25/2022 11:55:41

Sep 25, 2022 - 1:28:22 PM
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10152 posts since 8/28/2013

I would first learn the fretboard. That way, if the music calls for a B, you will know that it's available on the open second string (if it's standard tuning) but also can be found at the fourth fret of the 3rd string (open G, 1st fret G#/Ab, 2nd fret A, 3rd fret A#/Bb. 4th fret B) As you play, then you can more easily find the best string to play that B after playing the previous note and what string works best following that B, You may also begin to be able to find the best string and fret for that B within a given chord.

Play as much as possible. Play with others (and watch what they are doing). Listen.

Because you play clarinet, I'm guessing you can read music. It's a somewhat different style, but there are many banjo tunes available in standard notation that supply more information as to hand position than TAB.

I am not sure how useful scale exercises are for beginners. I played for years by ear, but became much better after learning scale structure. A C major scale is always the same structure as a G major scale, B scale, or Bb scale: first note, whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step. whole step, half step.

Sep 25, 2022 - 6:16:09 PM

466 posts since 11/9/2021

DW, you have the ear and can tell when a tune goes up or down and likely the internval too. In your case, yeah I would work out the scales but not on 1 string. Sound it out going laterally across the fret board, startin with G, and progress from there. You got this!!

Sep 25, 2022 - 7:09:52 PM

3123 posts since 4/19/2008
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Here's one of my old posts for finding melodies on the banjo.

Sep 25, 2022 - 11:44:30 PM
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Players Union Member



41940 posts since 3/7/2006

I think scale exercises are not necessary, but they will help you in the end. One aim with scale exercises is to let you be familiar with the fretboard and how show a certain note may be played on different strings. Otherwise the best scale exercise is to play a tune, and play it in different ways.

Sep 26, 2022 - 3:32:30 AM
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Bill H


2024 posts since 11/7/2010

What helps me immensely when working out a tune by ear is to write it down as I go. I used to use blank lined tab sheets and now use Tabledit. I found that if it took several sittings to work out a tune, it saved time to have what I had worked out so far written down, so I didn't need to start over every time. The advantage of using Tabledit is that the Midi function allows you to play back what you have worked out to see if it sounds right. As to scales and learning the neck, I would start with a focus on learning all of the major, minor and seventh chord positions up and down the neck in standard G tuning. This will help to find melody notes in different octaves.

Sep 26, 2022 - 8:23:56 AM
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386 posts since 3/9/2017

As I understand it, every thing after the 12th fret is a repeat, so that makes it easier (if you see what I mean) and in my limited experience of playing OT, not much happens past the 7th fret on most occasions so that is what I would target, familiarisation with notes from open to 7th?

Sep 27, 2022 - 8:19:08 AM
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4951 posts since 5/14/2007

In G or A tuning play the following:

3rd string open, then 2nd fret
2nd string open, then 1st fret
1st string open, then 2nd fret, 4th fret, 5th fret.

That's a G scale: G, A, B, C, D, E, F sharp, G.

Melodies played in G will start on a G, B or D note and usually end on a G note.

Armed with that information, work out "Mary Had A Little Lamb" (Hint—Starts on B.)

Then try the first part of"Yankee Doodle." Starts on G, goes down onto the 4th string (fingers the same as the first string).

You're on your way.

Oct 10, 2022 - 2:22:34 AM



1 posts since 9/17/2022

I’m new in town and so feel a bit hesitant about voicing an opinion, but your post/question has been rumbling around in my head all arvo.. so I’m gonna jump in with my thoughts.
You will always have a “tin ear” if you don’t practice scales, if for no other reason than you will never learn to recognise intervals, a big Theory word to describe the space between notes. It’s not that hard, and opens the door to a lifetime of learning.
If you are intimidated by the number of notes on the fretboard of your instrument, why not get an instrument which has fewer choices… I can highly recommend a 17 fret Irish tenor banjo which allows you to play a lot of the tunes in the old time canon with ease. Or maybe one of those small travel banjos?
I am hearing you asking permission to be lazy…granted..but having any aspirations to be a good banjoist is futile.

Oct 10, 2022 - 9:18:27 AM

1006 posts since 3/23/2006

I was going to suggest using an online app/short-course to learn to hear intervals. But I realized that I'm not sure how that would fit into what music you are trying to learn to play. So, may I ask a question? Over the past weeks you have been given lots of good advice, IMHO. Eg, I recall that RD advised you to choose one style to start (clawhammer, two-finger index lead, two-finger thumb-lead, OT 3-finger). Which of those suggestions have you adopted? I'd also ask which banjo playing have you listened to that made you feel that "that's what I'd like to sound like, I'd like to play that tune"? With that context I would feel more confident in finding some more practical ideas for you. I'm glad that you are persevering! (That's what we all have done.)

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