How to be a Better Banjo Student

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How To Be a Better Banjo Student
by Terry Ransom
Republished from "Banjo Newsletter"

Banjo Newsletter has published lots of practice tips and advice over the years. There have been wonderful columns for beginners and advanced players alike. I am not a great banjo player. But, I have played and taught for 40+ years. As a teacher, I’ve had the honor and challenge of meeting a lot of folks where they were and helping them move to the next level, whatever that happened to be. Along the way, I’ve developed some tips for maximizing your time as a learner. We all are constantly learning. That’s a fact. But, in the context of the banjo lesson, how can a student get the best results and not waste their time or that of their teacher? Perhaps you might find some of these 15 suggestions useful:

1. Listen. If you really want to learn to skillfully play the banjo, start by listening to lots of banjo recordings. I once had a 75- year-old beginning banjo student. He was brawny rugged and so big that even the largest fingerpicks would not fit his fingers. He had perhaps the worst banjo I had ever seen, and his only point of reference was having heard “Foggy Mountain Banjo” years earlier. He had retired from the railroad and was ready to learn to play the banjo. But, he was not really ready to learn. The very first thing I did was play through “Foggy Mountain Banjo” while he carefully watched my hands. Then, I played a few more timeless Earl selections and just asked him to watch and listen. We spent an hour a week for a month just listening to banjo music. Lots of Earl, to be sure. But, also other bluegrass and clawhammer classics. It’s important to know what the lake looks like before you try to row your boat across it. So, even if you ignore all other tips, listen relentlessly to the kind of music you want to learn. Once that sound and some actual tunes are in your head, listen to some different kinds of banjo music so you will also know what you are not learning.

2. Beware Of The Tab-it Habit. Tablature can be both a blessing and a curse. To make the most of tab, do not even attempt the first note until you have learned to hum or whistle the tune you want to learn. Tab is a great way to jump-start learning a new tune or learning a particular arrangement. But, it is not the music. It is only a navigation tool to help you get to know the tune. Listen first. Then, listen while you read the tab. Again, before trying to play the new tune, listen and read until you can spot the rhythm in the tab. Then, pick out a measure at a time until you can play along with the recording. Once you can play along, put the tablature away. I find it helpful when learning a new tune to play it for at least six months without any further reference to the tab. Only after my hands have acquired some muscle memory will I go back and check my playing against the tab and only then to make sure I am true to the tune, not to sound exactly like any particular banjo hero.

3. Be Ready To Learn. If your teacher has asked you to work on particular tunes or licks from the previous lesson, do the work. Doing your homework is essential to the learning process. It will rarely work to only play the banjo during your actual lesson times. Arriving at your lesson unprepared is the biggest waste of time for both you and your teacher. I know some teachers ask that a student practice or play at least 15 minutes a day. In my experience, if you play only 15 minutes a day you’ll never become a proficient player. There have been times in my development that I’ve played five or more hours a day. When I’m not physically playing, I’m mentally playing. Even when I’m not teaching, I play at least an hour a day because I am addicted to the banjo and not because someone told me to play. If you have to be told to play the banjo, you’re not likely to learn to play well. That doesn’t mean you should give it up. It simply means that your progress will be directly related to the time and effort you put into it.

4. Learn To Play The Guitar. But, you’re a banjo player, right? So, why learn the guitar? The easy answer is that Earl and Bela play the guitar. So, if they are your heroes and you want to emulate their styles, you need to learn to play the instruments they play. A more practical reason is so you can more easily join in jam sessions. Folks have often asked me how I can so easily join in sessions where I have no previous experience with the tunes being played. I always watch the guitar players to find the chord changes. Over time, you will also learn to hear the changes. But, it is positively liberating to be able to cue off the guitar chords.

5. Learn The Circle Of Fifths. Yes, I know it can be mentally painful, but understanding the relationship between keys and chord progressions will open up whole new vistas for you. But, aren’t all banjo tunes in the key of G? No, not really. And, it is possible to bring your banjo to songs that are not yet known to be banjo tunes. Adapting non-banjo tunes is incredibly helpful in learning the capacity of the instrument. One of my new favorite clawhammer tunes is Little Martha by The Allman Brothers Band. I first learned it as an open D fingerpicked guitar piece. Then, I tried working out a 3-finger banjo arrangement, but was unsatisfied with the rhythm. When I switched to clawhammer, it fit like a glove. Another great exercise is to try learning a tune or two in all twelve keys without using a capo.

6. Use The Capo Sparingly. You will become a better musician and banjo player if you limit your use of the capo. It is way too easy to play everything with G chord forms by simply moving your capo around. But, there are also some nifty options available by retuning the fifth string to fit non-G keys. I am not saying to never use a capo. Rather, learn to use the capo to support your playing and not as a substitute for learning to play in different keys. If your teacher cannot help you learn to play without a capo, find another teacher.

7. Learn The Neck. A pretty easy way to learn the neck of a banjo is to learn chord inversions for the entire length of the neck. Start by finding the equivalent closed chord (all four strings fretted) every place that chord is available. For example, play an open G chord by strumming or picking an arpeggio with no strings fretted. Then move to a fully fretted G chord at the 5th fret and then the 7th and then the 12th (which is simply that first open chord an octave higher). Keep doing that until you can vamp along by moving those G’s around the neck. Once you’ve mastered the G chords, try it with a C chord and then a D chord. Then, try it with minor chords and 7th chords. It is also helpful to learn certain key notes everywhere they appear on the neck. The essential notes for this exercise are G, C and D. In other words, learn the location of every G, C and D on the entire length of the neck.

8. Play With Your Eyes Closed. Once you have learned the basic note patterns of a tune, learn to play it with your eyes closed. I confess that I love to watch my fingers move across the neck. I love everything about a banjo and I love to just watch my fingers slide from fret to fret and string to string. But, there is great value in closing your eyes and allowing your ears the chance to hear what your fingers are up to. It will also train you to play without looking so you can watch those guitar players in the jam session. You will be surprised by what you learn about the music as you play in the dark.

9. Play While Watching TV. Pulling your attention toward the TV allows your muscle memory to develop in a way that is similar to learning to drive a car. As you become so familiar with a tune that a certain amount of autopilot kicks in, you free your conscious mind to focus on details of musicality and tone. If you are not focused on the string and fret, you can shift your attention to the way individual notes sound and feel.

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