banjofun on July 3rd, 2009

Music theory formulas: what initially looks difficult eventually becomes second nature

Music theory formulas: what initially looks difficult eventually becomes second nature

Learning to play banjo has three general stages (I know, it’s complicated):

Head: The first stage is the intellectual understanding of musical structures (scales, chords), tonal relationships, and tablature. At the simplest level, these concepts apply to all styles of music, whether bluegrass, rock, jazz, or classical. This conceptual stage of learning, which is the usual stuff of music theory classes, is often the easiest.

Ears: The second stage is the development of the ear – that is, the ability to hear the theoretical concepts. Relative pitch perception is developed as you practice. You can accelerate the learning process by singing (using numbers) everything you study: scales, chords, progressions, etc. In this way you will build the skills you need to play your musical ideas.

Hands: Finally, you will want to apply these concepts and sounds to the banjo. You will learn the technical aspects of fingering positions and picking patterns as you practice scales, chords, musical structures and relationships in all 12 keys. With well-chosen exercises (and lot’s of practice!) you will memorize and master the basic sounds and begin playing the music as you hear it.

This integrated three-fold approach is something that can be developed systematically and is an approach I will talk more on in future articles about learning how to play banjo.

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banjofun on June 1st, 2009
Deering Crossfire

Deering Crossfire

Last week after playing my electric banjo at church someone came up to me afterwards and said that he’d never seen an electric banjo before.

It’s true, they are not nearly as common as the regular acoustic banjo, but as banjo players play more and more outside of the bluegrass tradition which has nurtured its popularity, the advantages of an electric banjo become apparant.

If I’m playing in a musical group that is electrified and LOUD, such as keyboards, electric guitars, drums, a horn section, etc., I immediately reach for my electric banjo. I can plug it straight into the sound desk and hear myself back through the monitors and I’m good to go.

But if I tried to do the same thing with my acoustic banjo, whether using a microphone and even with a pick-up, they’re prone to feedback problems as the sound-man tries to crank up the signal. The microphone picks up all the other noise on stage and he just can’t get me to the same volume level as everyone else and I get that horrible feedback squeal.

But if I’m heading to a bluegrass jam, there’s NO WAY I’d take my electric banjo. Firstly you can’t plug it in anywhere, and if I tried to play it acoustically, it’s not loud enough on its own and sounds way too ‘tinny’ with the lack of a sound chamber.

70's Martin Co' Vega

Martin Co' Vega

If I’m after a truly BANJO banjo-tone, then nothing beats the sound of an acoustic banjo.

Banjo players love that sound and we’re prepared to pay top dollar to own a good acoustic banjo for playing bluegrass or other styles of acoustic music.

But if I know there’s going to be a drum-kit however, it’s a no-brainer, I reach for the electric.

So consider who you are most likely to play with and what your jamming or performance opportunities might be.

If you’re likely to play just on your own for the forseeable future, then get an acoustic banjo because they are just awesome and will cheer you up in no time.

Ideally, if you have lots of opportunities to play with different kinds of musicians, then get both!

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banjofun on May 25th, 2009
Pickin' and Grinnin'

Pickin' and Grinnin'

So you wanna play the banjo? Congratulations!

Learning how to play banjo has been one of the best things I’ve ever done.

I’ve been playing banjo for thirty years, and I can highly recommend it as a way to get happy, real fast.

Before starting to learn, the first thing you need to decide is what kind of banjo will best suit the style of music you want to play. That’s because banjos come in different sizes, most typically with 4 strings, or 5 strings and even 6 strings. Also, a tradition of playing has built up over time on the different kinds of banjos that make it easier to get ‘just the right sound’ for the kind of music you want to play.

The 6-string banjo has been designed with the guitarist in mind. They might want to get an authentic banjo sound, but playing the 6-string banjo is a quick short-cut and saves having to learn a new instrument. The 6-string banjo is essentially a guitar that looks and sounds like a banjo.

The 4-string banjo is used typically in Irish/Celtic music and Dixieland jazz/Ragtime music. Both the 4 and 6 string banjos are played with a pick, or a plectrum. The plectrum is used to strum the banjo and to pick out melody lines.

The 5-string banjo has been popularized in bluegrass and old-timey music, but is increasingly used in contemporary jazz and rock styles. It is typically played with a finger-picking method rather than with a plectrum.

Regardless of what kind of banjo you select, that doesn’t mean you can’t play other styles of music on it.

Many 5-string banjo players play Irish music and there are 4-string banjo players who play rock.

The banjo is a musical instrument, so you can play whatever you like!

For me when I started as a young teenager, I heard Earl Scruggs on TV and heard other banjo players play what’s called a ‘melodic’ style of playing on the 5-string banjo and I was hooked. The flowing individual notes sounded like rain and made the hair on the back of my neck stand-up.

I just had to learn how to play banjo.

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