Bluegrass Banjo: Transitioning to the Next Level.

By Ben Freed   

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     People who take the step of calling a banjo teacher for lessons generally fall into two categories: First, there are the beginners that have little or no background in banjo and are interested in starting from step one. They usually start with Cripple Creek or something similar and need to be guided by the teacher on basic concepts and technique.

     The second category is made up of those individuals who could be called advanced beginners or intermediate level players and are interested in moving up to a more advanced level of playing. They often state that they are “stuck” with a handful of solos and picking patterns and need guidance to improve to the point where they can play along easily with others, improvise and make up their own solos to songs. After having watched advanced players perform and improvise effortlessly, they want to know how to do it and they want to do it soon.

     Here are ten suggestions directed towards those who want to transition to the “next level”:


  1. Be patient with your progress. Making the transition to the “next level” on bluegrass banjo does not happen in a short period of time, certainly not within a year. It is a multi-year project that occurs gradually. If you can accept this fact and be patient with your steady progress over the years, you will make the transition in time. No competent player learned to improvise or play a solo extemporaneously without spending quite a number of years in a growth period. Actually, the best players will tell you that the growth process lasts a lifetime.
  2. Familiarize yourself with the classic recordings of all the important players, not just the one or two most famous ones. While it may not be possible to be exposed to each and every “standard”, you should begin the process of expanding your repertoire of tunes by listening as much as possible over an extended period to the body of works that make up this genre. This is also a multi-year process. You can begin this by checking out my book of solos(Ben's Personal Tab Collection::One Hundred Essential Bluegrass Banjo Solos 
  3. Work with a real teacher. A good teacher is indispensable and will 1. correct your bad technical habits, 2. show you new repertoire using tablature and recordings, 3. teach you some theory and expand your knowledge of the fingerboard, and, perhaps most importantly, 4. inspire you towards improvement. Keep in mind that 90% of the learning process will be achieved by you on your own, while the teacher is there to keep you on the right track. You may not be able to commit to weekly lessons, but good personal guidance, even if only on an intermittent basis, will be invaluable. Check this international list of BLUEGRASS BANJO teachers
  4. Record yourself while practicing, and then listen back. This feedback technique is invaluable for self—adjusting any possible timing and articulation deficiencies.
  5. Make up arrangements of songs you know already. This might take a few hours of practice per song, but is well worth the exercise. Show your variation to your teacher for modifications and advice.
  6. Compose your own original melodies. Most people who write originals do this by just sitting down and casually messing around with the banjo, or “noodling”. Composing your own songs doesn’t mean they must be performed publicly, but it is a great way of learning the fingerboard and developing your improvisational style. If you’re not sure where to begin, you can start by simply copying the ideas in a song you already know.
  7. Learn to play the classic repertoire, which is made up of a few hundred standard solos. A good player will be familiar with most of the classic bluegrass banjo solos and be able to call them up from memory in a few minutes. This process, again, takes many years. It’s not a bad idea to play carefully through your whole repertoire every time you practice. Even if your goal is not mastery, understand that all students of musical performance are encouraged to learn the classic repertoire of their instrument, whether it is jazz piano, Irish fiddle, classical guitar, or bluegrass banjo. Accept that this is an important aspect of transitioning to advanced levels of playing and take it on as a multi-year project. Check out.Ben's Personal Tab Collection::One Hundred Essential Bluegrass Banjo Solos 
  8. Learn multitrack recording: Multitrack(sound-on-sound) recording can be done nowadays on an affordable cassette recorders(under $200) or high priced “digital audio workstations”, and home computers. Without getting into the details here of how it’s done, suffice it to say that learning sound-on-sound recording techniques is invaluable in developing a variety of skills on your instrument, including control, dynamics and timing. It also presents the opportunity to dub in other instruments, which will give you an appreciation for the harmonic and rhythmic support needed to back up your instrument. Also, a little knowledge of studio engineering is useful for any musician.
  9. Practice every day. For generations much has been said about the value of practice, so without reinventing the wheel here, let’s say that for bluegrass banjo students, modest but real progress can be made if a daily 30 minute commitment is made. I should add, however, that students of mine who end up actually playing at a high level, come back to say they have actually been practicing 2-3 hours a day. That’s when practicing becomes most enjoyable. Don’t forget occasional work with a metronome.
  10. Play music with other musicians. For real musical growth, there is perhaps no substitute whatsoever for playing with other musicians on a regular basis.
  11. Perform publicly. If you can find a venue to perform in front of a live audience, you will hopefully use the opportunity to ratchet-up your abilities a level or two.

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