Suggestions for Beginners


1 Sustain: The banjo sounds best when it rings. This is accomplished by trying to get the notes to sustain. In general, the way to do so is to press the frets with substantial force, and to keep the note fretted with the left hand finger for as long as possible until it is needed to play a new note. A common mistake that beginners make is that they fret the string halfway between the frets instead of just in front of the fret. Conversely, if you lift your left hand finger away from the note too soon, or if you don’t apply enough pressure to the string when fretting, you will get a stubby or muffled sound.


2: Timing and the use of a metronome: Most students will benefit with the regular use of a metronome, which keeps perfect time. Start at a very slow setting, and increase your speed only when you have completely mastered the tune at the initial slow tempo. I recommend that you start out playing no faster than about 60 Beats Per Minute (one beat per second, with four beats to the measure). This may seem too slow at first glance, but realistically, it may take a few weeks of daily practice to play all the way through your first tune at this tempo without stopping. Be patient with your progress, as it takes time for everyone at first. All teachers will tell you that students tend to want to play fast at first and end up playing sloppily as a result. The teacher would much rather hear you play the whole piece through slowly, cleanly and in perfect time at first, before increasing your speed. After some weeks of practice with the metronome, you will develop the discipline to keep good time on your own. You should develop, with practice, a good sense of steady tempo. Some people can do this by tapping their feet steadily along to the banjo picking. I recommend that.


3: The economy of motion: A word about left-hand(fretting) finger notations:

The general idea in playing musical passages smoothly on the banjo is to reduce unnecessary left-hand finger motions so that the fingers move gracefully around the fingerboard.  Because tablature does not always indicate which finger should be used, it is often up to you to decide, based on logic and experience, which is the most efficient and sensible way to play a passage. Determining which fretting fingers to use for a particular series of notes depends also on what the immediately following few notes will require of your fingers. And, it bears repeating at this point to say that in general, after a note is fretted, it is a good idea to try to keep the finger down on the fingerboard until it absolutely has to be lifted to fret another note.


4: The economy of motion: A word about right-hand(picking) finger notation: Sometimes banjo tablature does not specify which right-hand finger to use(thumb, index or middle) and the arranger of the tab will assume you know. After your first few days of Scruggs-style picking you will see some logical right-hand picking finger rules emerge. There are exceptions, but for the purposes of learning the basic tunes in the repertoire of this book, they are as follows:


  1. The right thumb is used for the fifth, fourth, third and second strings.
  2. The right first finger picks the third and second strings.
  3. The right middle finger usually only picks the first string, but sometimes it is used on the second string.


If you are not sure which right hand finger to use, base your decision on the ease and smoothness of the maneuver. And remember, the same finger never picks two successive eighth notes in a row.


5: Transitioning between parts: One of the hard things to do when learning is to play through the tune coherently while keeping in time from beginning to end. This includes making smooth transitions, meaning that when you complete the A part of the song and it is time to repeat the A part, you should be able to make a smooth transition to begin the A part again while maintaining proper rhythm. This takes practice at first, and a teacher can help you with this. Listen carefully for these smooth transitions on the CD. 


6 Practice: Theres just no getting around it. If you want to learn to play so that it sounds like you know what you are doing, you have to put in the practice time. An average of 30 minutes a day is realistically needed to make any useful progress. All good players will tell you they actually began practicing more than that anyway because they enjoyed it. (Isnt that the idea?)   


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