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Woodshedding - Learning to Play!
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Bluegrass banjo is a very structured style of playing of what is often designated as the only "original American instrument." Bluegrass banjos have 5-strings, with the 5th string being a drone (seldom fretted)and tuned to a high G. The standard tuning is G,D,G,B,D. However, there are other tunings.

There are other styles of banjo playing known by various other designations such as frailing banjo, old-time banjo, and clawhammer banjo. These latter styles are beautiful with a great Americana feel and are generally played with the unaided hand and/or fingers i.e no picks. For more information on these styles you might want to do a little research on the web. There are also four-string banjos, known as Tenor banjos, that are used primarily in the older jazz groups or as some call it "riverboat banjo." Tenor banjos are not considered bluegrass instruments. But for now let's get back to Bluegrass banjo.

Bluegrass banjo is most often identified with music in the style of Earl Scruggs which is often called "Scruggs style". The major hallmark of the style is the use of four and eight note picking patterns called "rolls" that are mixed and matched and often repeated randomly in a song. While Scruggs style does incorporate a melody line, the melody notes are often surrounded, if not literally buried in a flurry of "fill" notes. An additional hallmark of the style is the use of three finger picks, usually metal picks placed on the index and middle fingers, and a plastic or Delrin finger pick for the thumb. This combination of "rolls" and "finger picks" gives Bluegrass banjo, or Scruggs style, it's unique and recognizable sound. It's is also often referred to as "three-finger style."

There are other styles of Bluegrass banjo that incorporate picks such as Reno style, which is characterized by single string melody notes, and Chromatic or Keith style (named for banjoist Bill Keith) which is characterized by melodic or chromatic playing which sticks more closely to the melody of the song, frequently without all the fills associated with Scruggs style.

Learning to play bluegrass banjo requires extreme dedication to the instrument and the style to achieve that "bluegrass banjo" sound. It takes daily practice with a metronome to achieve the speed and smoothness necessary to play the style well. I had been playing acoustic and electric guitar for over twelve years when I got my first banjo. It was a five-string, long-neck or "folk banjo" ala Pete Seeger. Not exactly the best banjo for bluegrass, but it got me started. I spent many nights and weekends with the banjo and a metronome learning "bluegrass standards" that are considered must-know songs for the genre. Even with that extreme level of dedication it took me about seven years to achieve the speed, feel, and smoothness usually identified with the bluegrass banjo sound. Only after such an extensive woodshedding tenure was I able to bring the instrument to the stage. Not a small commitment by any means.

If after reading this, you'd rather learn to play bluegrass banjo than use the wonderful and amazing banjo sounds found in BIAB Real Tracks here are my suggestions for getting started.

1. For at least the first month, get a banjo teacher, to be sure you're starting out with the correct hand position, picks, etc. to avoid any bad habits right up front.

2. Learn to play as many bluegrass standards as you can stand, starting with "Cripple Creek" and "Eight More Miles to Louisville" etc all the while using the metronome to keep you honest. Trust me when I say that NO ONE will want to play with you if you have bad timing. The metronome will help insure that your timing is solid.

3. Practice every day, for as long as you or your family, roommates etc. can stand it, again with the metronome. Making some backing tracks of well-known bluegrass songs with BIAB is a great way to practice.

4. Try to find some other bluegrassers to play with. Like any other instrument you have to get out there with other musicians to really get a feel for the genre, and to develop your chops.

5. Get a few good bluegrass banjo books and study them. I recommend:
-Bluegrass Banjo (Pete Wernick)
-Earl Scruggs and the 5-String Banjo (Earl Scruggs)
-Melodic Banjo (Tony Trischka)
-Bill Keith Banjo (Bluegrass Masters)

Most of these books are available at good folk/acoustic music stores or from Amazon.com if you don't have a store nearby.

6. Like learning any other genre of music you have to listen to a LOT of bluegrass music to get a feel for the genre and how the banjo fits into it. CDs, MP3s, whatever you can find that have some of the top players will get you going.

7. If you're REALLY serious, get yourself to a Banjo Camp with other bluegrass players and play your butt off. Pete Wernick aka "Dr. Banjo" and author of "Bluegrass Banjo" (referenced above) has a great banjo camp in Niwot, Colorado just a few miles up the road from me. It's a fabulous learning experience. You might also check with your local folk music store to find out what opportunities are available near you.

8. And finally, you can hardly learn to appreciate bluegrass music and the banjo without attending some of the wonderful bluegrass concerts and festivals around the country.

You've probably noticed that I've mentioned nothing about purchasing a bluegrass banjo to get you started. Prices and models vary quite a bit. Gibson Mastertone banjos, the holy grail of bluegrass banjos, are expensive and worth it. But few people are willing to ante up $2,000+ for an instrument they know nothing about. So check out the alternatives, talk to some other banjo players, and get educated about the instrument before you buy one. Too cheap is almost always bad. You'll probably have to spend at least $500-$1000 for something decent to play. Look around and make your best deal.

Send me questions if you feel the need. I've been playing and teaching banjo now for well over thirty years, so if I don't have an answer I can point you toward someone who does.

Thanks,
Rob


Last edited by Rob Buford; 03/22/17 04:54 PM.
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Rob,

This is a really nicely written article.

I have the Wernick book. And a (cheap) Hohner 5-string from 40 years ago - been in the closet most of that time.

That is one gorgeous banjo you've got! How about a banjo song in the Showcase - would love to hear you play...

fj

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Great explanation. Very informative and enlightening. I'll have to stick with BIAB banjos for the time being. I can't even get them to always play right....


Charlie


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Originally Posted By: floyd jane
Rob,

This is a really nicely written article.

I have the Wernick book. And a (cheap) Hohner 5-string from 40 years ago - been in the closet most of that time.

That is one gorgeous banjo you've got! How about a banjo song in the Showcase - would love to hear you play...

fj


Hey Floyd... grin

Glad you liked the article. That Wernick book has been around for decades and is the one I began with all those years ago. Never thought I'd actually get to meet Pete Wernick as I was living in Baton Rouge and he was way up in Colorado at the time. Later, when I was playing the Lazy B Western Dinner Theater gig up in Estes Park CO, after I moved to Colorado, Pete came to hear us and to visit with our guitarist/fiddler, Mike Scap. Mike had been a member of Pete's band Hot Rize. It was pretty intimidating to have "Dr. Banjo" watching you play. Luckily I didn't blow it.

The banjo in that pic was made for me by a luthier friend of mine from Baton Rouge. It's a Mastertone copy with a flathead top-tension pot assembly, gold plating, a brain-twisting abalone vine in the neck. Neck and resonator were birdseye maple. I say "were" because the banjo was literally destroyed by water damage in a house fire at the same luthier who built it. The pot assembly and other non-wood parts survived and are currently being used to create a new instrument.

My current banjos are an Earl Scruggs Mastertone (signed copy, circa 1999), and my "stage and studio banjo," a Washburn B16 with a pickup installed for gigs and recording.

I'll look around and see if I can find a BIAB song with me playing. For now here's a YouTube link of me playing banjo with Mike Scap at the Lazy B Ranch gig. The banjo in the video is one I built; a top-tension, Mastertone copy in walnut with a real calfskin head. Fun stuff.

The Duel (featuring Mike Scap)

Thanks,
Rob

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Buford Offline OP
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Originally Posted By: Charlie Fogle
Great explanation. Very informative and enlightening. I'll have to stick with BIAB banjos for the time being. I can't even get them to always play right....


Charlie


Hi Charlie...

I hate to admit it, but I use Real Tracks for songs with banjo more and more these days. They feature pro players and have some of the best playing around. My excuse is that it's easier than hooking up a banjo and trying to come up with something better than Real Tracks. Except for intros and endings, I usually just let the boys at BIAB do the banjo picking.

Thanks,
Rob

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Rob,

Man! That is some pickin'!!! From both of you... thanks for posting that. I hope more people come here and listen/watch... a very entertaining video.

Must have been heartbreaking to lose that banjo - hope the new one turns out even better...

fj

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Excellent fun, and entertaining video. Superb playing from the band and the jokes were pretty good too.

"I hate to admit it, but I use Real Tracks for songs with banjo more and more these days. They feature pro players and have some of the best playing around. My excuse is that it's easier than hooking up a banjo and trying to come up with something better than Real Tracks. Except for intros and endings, I usually just let the boys at BIAB do the banjo picking."

After watching your video, I can see you hold your own with more than just the intros and endings. But you sound a bit like me, as time goes by, I find myself choosing easier more and more.

Charlie


BIAB Ultra Pak+ 2024:RB 2024, Latest builds: Dell Optiplex 7040 Desktop; Windows-10-64 bit, Intel Core i7-6700 3.4GHz CPU and 16 GB Ram Memory.
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Originally Posted By: Charlie Fogle
Excellent fun, and entertaining video. Superb playing from the band and the jokes were pretty good too.

After watching your video, I can see you hold your own with more than just the intros and endings. But you sound a bit like me, as time goes by, I find myself choosing easier more and more.

Charlie


I know it's my own lazy fault but BIAB is killing my banjo skills. Darn those much-better-than-I'll-ever-be RealTracks banjo players. grin

Bob

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Good article Bob.. and a great follow-up demo!

I've been planning to learn banjo for years, with most of that time spent planning and hardly any time spent practicing.

It was a much more crucial goal before there were real tracks, because I figured any original song with a banjo part would have to be played by me... which isn't true anymore.

But here in NC there is a lot of interest in Bluegrass, and now that I'm retired I might eventually revisit that goal. Thanks for the reminder!

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