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Feb 28, 2024 - 11:43:04 AM
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812 posts since 6/8/2005

pat3@patcloud.comIn 1964, I was in high school, and the Earl Scruggs Banjo book hadn't yet been published. I'd been playing banjo for a few months and I wanted to be in the high school band. It wasn't to be. The band director gave me two thin music theory books given to all high school band members and told me to study and learn them. They had simple basics with easy concepts like major, minor and dominant chord triads, etc. With the help of a high school friend who played piano, I identified and named all the notes on my banjo using standard notation as if I was in high school band. After all, the musicians in high school band all had to learn their notes!

Why is teaching something as simple as learning the notes on a banjo isn't taught along with basic tablature methods? It seems that to really learn the instrument one should be able to pick any random note on the fret board and name that note. It's just that simple. You should be able find and identify Gb notes all over the neck. And after that, go find all the F# notes.

Is it the "Fast Food," syndrome at work here? Wanting to play so fast that your pants start on fire and learn to do it in only three months? And when accomplished, saying absolutely nothing musically? I'll admit it's still quite attractive. It's still truly a great hobby. To be honest, it's what attracted me to learn. This is not a put-down on any banjo "method" of instruction or teacher. In actuality, there is no such thing as a "method" to play banjo or any other instrument. It's a myth. The idea of a "method" is marketing. There are as many ways to teach music as there are personalities. In music you have to be yourself. Everyone else is taken. 

Tablature basically tells you "where to put your fingers." An affable and encouraging personality is a plus. But learning your notes accelerates your aural (sound) learning and in the long run increases a person's musical satisfaction. 

Five-string players could learn a lot from four-string plectrum and tenor players in terms of applied music theory. Playing exclusively on just four-strings is now very popular with many five-string players. You'd think that five-string players, using only four strings, would eventually "get it" graduate to guitar and have the bonus of two extra strings to play with. Six string guitar-banjos have been around for decades. 

Oh, the he plight of that poor fifth string. It is once again left out in the cold - alone and stranded. As a useless fifth string, it may see a cross-over fret board thumb now and then. But that's it. The right-hand thumb gets all the action. It's actually called the "thumb string." It's the American genius of Earl Scruggs and the beautiful artistry of Old -Time Banjo.

So banjo picking hobbyists march ahead in droves. Banjo musicians - not so much. And that's just fine. It's a kind of cruel joke to actually be a banjo musician and to try eke out a living at it.  But the jokes still abound. And deservedly so. Banjoists often have day jobs. Yet, this is the instrument America has produced. There should be a (BPA) - "Banjo Players Anonymous." As you walk in the door they hand you an Ocarina.

There's a dearth of threads here in banjo theory but I know most of the people who are in this group know their notes.

I just wish there were more.

pat3@patcloud.com

Edited by - banjola1 on 02/28/2024 12:13:09

Feb 28, 2024 - 3:29:53 PM
Players Union Member

Texasbanjo (Moderator)

USA

29967 posts since 8/3/2003

When I was a beginner, I made a chart of banjo strings and notes up and down each of those strings. Nice to know, but I seldom think in terms of I'm playing G, A, D, etc., I just let my brain and fingers do the job for me. I can tell you what most notes are but some I have to stop, think and sometimes count up and down from a note I know.

I figure as long as I can hear a melody and play what I hear I don't really need to know the name of each note I'm playing.

I think more about chords and chord structure. From the chords, I can find the melody notes and about any fill/licks I need.

I'm not big on knowing modes. Might make me a better player, but since I'm not playing in a band anymore, just for fun, I can't see where I need that type of knowledge.

Feb 28, 2024 - 8:27:26 PM
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812 posts since 6/8/2005

Hi Texas -

Playing simple melodies is good practice. I have a short list of my favorites. I'll play down the list to see how many I can get right the first time. If a melody has words, you sing the words in your head to leave the right spaces. You can look at the music while you play because your fingers already know it.

"Modes?" I'm not sure if they'll make you a better player. They're all Greek to me. wink

Edited by - banjola1 on 02/28/2024 20:28:42

Feb 28, 2024 - 9:31 PM
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3455 posts since 4/19/2008
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Hey, after all, it is ROOTS MUSIC!


Feb 29, 2024 - 2:56:05 AM

Bill H

USA

2283 posts since 11/7/2010

I wondered the same thing when I took up the banjo in the 80s. I was in my early thirties . I had started trumpet lessons in seventh grade and eventually played in my high school band. We started learning the C scale and then progressed to leaning all other scales with the goal of being able to play any music in any key and being familiar with all alternate fingerings. I wondered why all of the learn to play the five string banjo books were so different than my early music books. They all avoided music theory it seemed as if it didn't apply to banjo.

Over the past few years as I have been expanding my playing from clawhammer to three finger, I have found that knowledge of the fretboard is crucial to expanding beyond the memorization of a few familiar tunes.

I think your analogy of fast-food banjo is correct. There seems to be no standard method for five string banjo the way there is for other instruments.

Feb 29, 2024 - 5:55:18 AM

8194 posts since 9/21/2007

quote:
Originally posted by Bill H

I wondered the same thing when I took up the banjo in the 80s. I was in my early thirties . I had started trumpet lessons in seventh grade and eventually played in my high school band. We started learning the C scale and then progressed to leaning all other scales with the goal of being able to play any music in any key and being familiar with all alternate fingerings. I wondered why all of the learn to play the five string banjo books were so different than my early music books. They all avoided music theory it seemed as if it didn't apply to banjo.

Over the past few years as I have been expanding my playing from clawhammer to three finger, I have found that knowledge of the fretboard is crucial to expanding beyond the memorization of a few familiar tunes.

I think your analogy of fast-food banjo is correct. There seems to be no standard method for five string banjo the way there is for other instruments.


Yes, I understand that "nobody cares", but this statement of "all" is false.  More correctly would be "Most banjo instruction books after the folk revival".

I feel compelled to mention that, aside from some few random "simple method" books that over promised and under delivered, pretty much all banjo instruction books before WW2 and the "folk revival" were notation based and started with a solid and clear explanation of basic reading. 

Yeah, yeah, it is not bluegrass nor festival style clawhammer, but they are banjo instruction books.  And in them the banjo was treated as any other instrument would be.

Feb 29, 2024 - 9:48:57 AM

Bill H

USA

2283 posts since 11/7/2010

Joel Hooks , Perhaps "all" was a poor choice of a quantifier. In the early eighties before the internet and at a time when I knew absolutely nothing about five string banjo playing styles, I was given a cheap bottle cap banjo and had a desire to learn how to play it. In NH at that time in the area where I lived there were few banjo learning materials available. I had never played a stringed instrument and knew no one who played banjo. Of all the books that I could find, most were from the era of the 50s--60s folk revival era or aimed at very basic clawhammer. My budget forty or so years ago was quite limited as well. My source at that time became the Vintage Fret Shop in Ashland, which was the nearest place I found that had anything banjo back then. Whatever they had available defined the scope of my source material.

Feb 29, 2024 - 10:51:44 AM

8194 posts since 9/21/2007

Bill H similar situation in North Dallas, TX during the 1990s, only all I could find/knew about was the Sgruggs book and a few other Mel Bay books.

Though, Mel Bay did publish "Mel Bay's Banjo Method" in 1967 (in two volumes) and reissued it in a single volume in 1992. It is HIGHLY likely that I encountered this book for sale but ignored it at the time because it was in notation. It is too bad as I am now a big fan of this book and Frank Bradbury's work in general.

Mar 1, 2024 - 12:34:41 AM

812 posts since 6/8/2005

My first instruction book was Pete Seeger's "How To Play The Five String Banjo. I remember trying to learn "Goofing Off Suite" but I couldn't figure out the tablature.

Somewhere on some hard drive, I have a short video segment from a 1960's folk revival TV show called "Hootenanny" which features a then new group called, "The Dillards."

In California, around the early 70's, there was a country music TV show called "Cal's Corral" which featured a segment from another local California group called, "The Kentucky Colonels" with Roland and Clarence White, mandolin and guitar, Billy Ray  banjo, Scott Stoneman fiddle and Roger Bush on bass. They did a short 15 minute set on Sunday afternoons.

Am I sounding old?

Yeah.

I need to save up so I can buy a fancy brand new shiny banjo. All I have now is a crusty decrepit old Mastertone that hurts my ears and annoys the neighbors. The old case it came in attracts cats.

Theory tip for the day:

"Just mash down the wires on that there handle..."

pat3@patcloud.com

Edited by - banjola1 on 03/01/2024 00:48:53

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