America's Miscellaneous Instrument


Bluegrass banjo players would be quick to point out that “folk” style banjo is completely different than “bluegrass” style banjo. It’s interesting that bluegrass banjo links right-hand technique to its most famous players, i.e., “Scruggs Style,” “Reno Style” and “Keith Style.” Personality-linked technique is a revealing aspect of the five-stringed banjo's development because no one person actually has a market on common string technique. Most banjo instruction is devoid of music basics which are standard on all other musical instruments such as theory, sight reading (as opposed to tablature) and the standard practice of scales and arpeggios. Instruction methods which are common on all other musical instruments are the foundations of knowing your instrument – not personality-linked technique. It could be argued that in terms of instruction, five string banjo is really still at a “folk instrument level" in it's historical development and is the reason it is relegated to the “miscellaneous” category of musical instruments.

The joke goes something like this:

Q: “How do shut a banjo player up?”

A: “Put sheet-music in front of them!”

Because bluegrass instruction books teach the same old “tablature and roll” methods introduced in the mid-sixties, we now have a “tablature and roll cult” which values imitation over creativity. Although imitation is an important element in the process of learning, bluegrass banjo instruction teaches only rote imitation of virtually the same musical cliches invented by Earl Scruggs some 70 years ago. This is, of course, with the exception of notable banjo musicians who have creatively progressed to a more distinctive personal style. In most bluegrass banjo instruction books, the student is instructed to repeat three and four note right-hand, open string arpeggios called “rolls,” ad infinitum, without any meaningful rhythmic context or immediate musical application. Metronome use is hardly ever mentioned nor included. These “rolls” are described in some books with curious little names which rival ones given to quantum sub-atomic particles: forward, backward, square, inside, outside, etc. They have become the musical atoms that make up right hand instruction in the bluegrass banjo universe. Ironically, if you survey the actual music of Earl Scruggs, such repetitive rolls are not to be found. There may be elements of banjo rolls, but his right-hand playing is far more wide-ranging and varied. Why? Earl Scruggs’ playing was never actually “roll” driven but rather melody driven. It could be better described as melody within an arpeggio accompaniment. Scruggs never actually used tablature or rolls himself, even though it was an included as a practice technique for beginning players.


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The Art Of Musical Hearing

Tablature is a symbolic representation of music. It tells you what you need to do with your hands but in terms of the actual sound, it's like going to a restaurant and eating the menu. Most five string banjo instruction books fail to give guidelines towards using tablature effectively. Is it any wonder that most tab and roll methods have a final chapter on “How to get away from tablature.” But how?

Most people are sold a banjo and a book. If they are the real “do-it-yourself” type and have little or no musical experience, their assumption is that the book will tell them most of what they need to know. They are introduced to tablature. Tablature was invented as a visual representation of the strings. There is a brief explanation of its five lines with the superimposed fret numbers. The first impression is that because the right hand is more graphically represented, it must be more important than the left hand.

From the very beginning, a common problem immediately confronts the fledgling banjoist. They will attempt to divide their attention between reading a tablature book while viewing their hands. The first stages of learning, is to tie the kinesthetic or the feeling of the strings to the sound. This sound/feeling link is essential to learn before a song in tablature is even attempted. Unfortunately, the answer to this problem in most books is the failed teaching concept of “rolls” which only tends to confuse the student more. Because "rolls" or repetitive right hand patterns lack rhythmic or melodic context, students are taught that songs are actually made from “rolls” when nothing could be further from the truth. 

When you add to this the fact that new students are also confronted with reading left hand fretting numbers, rhythmic values (which are usually never fully explained), and the final task of somehow combining all these disparate elements together, it’s no wonder that most beginning students give up and loose interest in a few short months. Students who are not yet initiated into the concept of musical hearing are confronted with a flurry of fast banjo notes without ever completely processing what they are trying to learn.


Music is the space between the notes.


Have you ever recalled a decades old melody from a radio or TV advertisement? It seems to stay with you all your life. An unconscious process called “Sonic Imprinting” has been used by Madison Avenue marketers for years. Bluegrass banjo arpeggiation is best learned by ear with repetitive listening. If your goal is sounding like your favorite recording, then the best way to achieve that goal is to first “imprint” your subconscious mind with the recording you wish to learn.

Start learning a song by listening to it 50 to 100 times. Any portable playback device such as an iPod set to the “repeat” playback function will allow you to listen to a 3 minute song ten times in 30 minutes and 20 times in an hour. It doesn’t matter whether you believe it will really work. Your sub-conscious is non-jugemental and will record and register automatically. Even after listening for just the first 20 minutes, you have already started the process. You may become weary of the repetition and this is actually good!

The simple fact is, we learn and remember simple melodies much easier than blazing up-tempo versions of bluegrass banjo. If you don’t believe this, just try to hum or sing Earl Scruggs’ “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” The final step is to slow the song down  while reading the tablature visually without your banjo.  The subconscious hearing of the “spaces” between the slowed down banjo notes is where real learning begins. The more you develop this kind of musical hearing, the more your sub-conscious is seeded and the better your chances of succeeding. Tablature's real function is a “fact check” for what is already imprinted aurally in your ears. The real world of learning and enjoying the banjo is actually hearing and expecting the sounds in your head BEFORE you actually play. The important final step of transferring “kinesthetic sound learning” to your banjo is practice, practice, practice to make the song yours.