Learning Old-Time Banjo

We get a lot of mail and comments asking where to get started on the banjo. Here is my reply to a note I received over the weekend while I was fighting through a five-day migraine headache.

I am aware that I am the rare dissenting voice in this era of banjo gurus who can’t really play pushing banjo tab in place of instruction. The people I learned from expected an old-time banjo player to be able to sing, to fit in with any musical situation and to be able to improvise. Fiddle tunes rarely came up. Even when I played for dances the dance callers and instructors wanted songs rather than tunes. This fiddle tune only routine is as traditional as a rubber tomahawk and the people claiming otherwise are hiding their inability to do anything beyond brainlessly running through a memorized melody line.

Old-time banjo is not a style or a genre. It’s a craft that goes beyond just playing tunes.

Anyway, here’s my answer to the, “How do I get started?” email that came in over the weekend.

The way I play and the way I teach is based on the discipline I learned studying Kenpo Karate and Modern Arnis (a form of stick and knife fighting from the Philippine Islands). I know that sounds crazy, but it’s true.

The trick is the basics. People usually take up an instrument and want to play cool licks in an hour. This is like decorating a house before the walls are up. Building without a foundation will always result in disappointment.

 What I did, and what I teach my students, is to go over the basic skill set relentlessly with no thought of progress. I don’t practice to get better or to reach a goal; I practice for the love of the craft.

In frailing banjo and fingerstyle guitar we must learn to perform several complex actions unconsciously. Rhythm, melody, harmony and percussion all at once. On the guitar our percussion turns into bass lines. On the banjo the thumb on the head provides a percussive effect.

Pick up your banjo. Tune it to open G. Take out any stuffing you may have put in the pot and work with these videos:

Old Time Banjohttps://bit.ly/2zYHIrE

Basic Frailing Techniqueshttps://bit.ly/2TpY6ZI

Download a free copy of Mechanics of Frailing Banjohttps://bit.ly/2C1uOdN The web audio is no longer active, but the text will get you started on the right foot.

Once you can play the basic frailing pattern, start adding chords and sing folk songs.

Then go to a folk jam. Play and sing with musicians who are better than you. Don’t sit on the outskirts. Get involved.

If you can’t find a jam, start one of your own.

Play in the community. Nursing homes, hospices, nursery schools. Make yourself part of your community. Inject yourself into its bloodstream

Practice every day. Forget all thoughts of progress. Just play for the love of the craft.

Forget drop thumb. Keep it simple. Strike strum-thumb. A quarter note and two eighth notes.

When you can hold your own at a jam start teaching. Don’t charge for the lesson because your students will teach you.

At some point you will realize that you have achieved your goal, but if you have learned the lessons of the craft it will not matter. Music will be an expression of who you are in this precious moment – and your music will change moment by moment with you. Do this and your light will shine through every song and note and chord.

It is not talent or mystic secrets. It’s just love. Love of the craft. Love of the music. Love of the community. Love of life.

I hope music brings you joy.

God bless,

The one thing I should have added is to be careful with the Internet. People tend to start browsing instead of practicing – and when your eyes are always locked on your phone you miss the countless opportunities to make music, to make contact, to make a friend surrounding you everywhere you go. I think one of the reasons folk music is on the decline is that people are too distracted to practice!