A tab-free zone where folks who play fretted and stringed instruments such as banjo, guitar, mandolin and fiddle can give advice, answer questions and post videos aimed at helping folks ditch the tablature crutch and join the brotherhood/sisterhood of musicians.
If you are a learning a fretted or stringed instrument and are caught in a tablature failure loop feel free to ask for help out of the trap. If you are able to play, sing and jam without reading or memorizing tablature feel free to reply to a specific question or post advice aimed at helping folks see the big picture.
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:
Download a free copy of Mechanics of Frailing Banjo: https://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, -Patrick
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!
This sort of thing can quickly change one way or another, but right now it is kind of cool. It’s a good thing because we have a ton of material in the works exclusively for our Patreon friends.
In other news, The How and the Tao of Old Time Banjohas 98 reviews on Amazon. 85% of the reviews give it five stars. This amazes me because the book was never intended for a large audience. I wrote the book as a free handout for an after-school banjo club. When I made the book freely available people said that I was crazy, but we increased sales of the book and introduced a massive number of people to the joy of old-time banjo.
As a lot of you have noticed, I have included my mom on my YouTube channel. We discuss different topics, but the themes are usually the same. She taught me so much when I was growing up, and her teachings influence my work to this day. As Dear Old Dad says, “She is the best of us.“
Right now we have 15,859 subscribers to our channel, with more clicking in every day. When we hit sixteen thousand we will have to do something special.
A new instructor will be stepping in front of the camera to whip music students back into shape. I don’t have a biography or any personal details to share with you. He is very mysterious. All I have is a name . . . Dobro Libre.
I think every musician has an instrument in his or her imagination that they can’t get their hands on. It could be a pre-war Gibson banjo, a classic Martin dreadnought or some other rare fantastical combination of wood and wire.
At this moment, my daydream banjo does not exist anywhere but my imagination.
I would like to get my hands on a seven string banjo. Six melody strings like a guitar and the seventh similar to the fifth string of a banjo.
Why seven strings? Well, an instrument such as this would expand the range of sounds you could draw from the instrument. You would have the option between open tunings or tuning like a guitar.
It would be a heavy instrument. The pot would have to be larger and heavier to accommodate the wright of the neck. A 12″ block-laminate rim would probably do the trick. A flathead or tubaphone tone ring for projection. A tube and plate flange to attach a heavy resonator. The rim hardware should be top-tension to simplify maintenance and setup.
The seventh string should run the entire length of the neck with some sort of capo system to make it easy to adapt to any key. the tailpiece could be patterned after the no-knot. No inlays other than a Celtic knot at the fifth fret, side position markers and a Pennsylvania Dutch hex sign on the back of the resonator..
This idea is not entirely new. Banjos made during the classic banjo era sometimes had six or seven tuners on the headstock – but these extra tuners were rarely used.
I will probably never get my hands on this dream banjo, and that is okay. I already play an amazing banjo. My cup isn’t just running over, it’s practically a fountain! This imaginary banjo is just a thought experiment. Something to daydream about.