On Becoming a Banjo Player

Thinking back to my preschool days, I realize that I had always been fascinated with banjos. They seemed such odd instruments; half drum and half guitar. And that sound! I will always remember my first introduction to this unusual instrument; sneaking into my oldest brother’s room in the quiet and stillness of the mid-day while all five of my siblings were at school, just to slowly and deliberately strum my finger across the strings of his C-tuned banjo that was bought with S&H green stamps. That was such a captivating and perfect sound as I had never heard before, nor since! (If you’re reading this Mike, sorry for sneaking into your room. I never mentioned it before now, but I think it was well worth letting a small boy see that old banjo!)

I remember well when I became a banjo player. It happened unexpectedly and took all of maybe 2 minutes. I was sitting in chapel at 10 o’clock one morning at Freed-Hardeman College as a sophomore college student. After the devotional part that day, Pickin’ Apples was playing, with Tim Alexander from Memphis on the banjo. They played “Flint Hill Special”. As I watched, I knew that I was pretty much destined to play one of those contraptions. I also knew that I would be doing however much practicing it took to get there!

By the time 3 or 4 weeks had passed after hearing Tim Alexander that day, I had somehow managed to buy a beginners banjo. By then school was out for the summer and I went back home to Huntsville for a break from school, but not from practicing the banjo. I played about 6 or 8 hours a day (I surely must have driven everyone crazy, but no one complained!). My goals that summer were 1) to complete Earl Scruggs’ book on playing the banjo, 2) to learn my first song, “Cripple Creek”, and 3) learn “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and be able to keep up with Earl Scruggs as he played it on the record. I needed some way to measure how fast I was going, so I came up with a simple system. I would play the standard alternating thumb roll, which is four notes, and count how many of these rolls I could complete in ten seconds. I would multiply this times 4 (4 notes per second) and divide by 10 (10 seconds) to give me the number of notes per second I was playing. After about 3 months of practice, I was playing about 12 or 13 notes per second very clearly. Earl recorded Foggy Mountain Breakdown at about 12 notes per second. I felt like I had arrived.

With 30 years of banjo experience behind me now, I see that merely getting up to speed was just the first basic step, with the more difficult tasks of actually making music that was appealing still before me. At the time though, I didn’t realize that, and a lot of my playing was way too fast and a bit off the deep end, as I was quite fond of chromatic and melodic blues licks. Too much spice and not enough meat. But it was really inspiring to learn scales and licks from books by such players as Tony Trischka and Peter Wernick, and to dissect songs and chord progressions from LPs. I must have worn the grooves out listening to Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandell’s “Dueling Banjos” LP.

Back at school, I know I must have surprised a lot of my friends; I had left not being able to play anything and came back in the fall being able to keep up, even with the fast songs!

So what, exactly, did I do those three months to learn to play the banjo? I’ll blog on that soon.

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About Phill Gibson

I'm from Huntsville, Alabama where I work as a Systems Engineer and part-time banjo and mandolin instructor. I've been playing various instruments since my teen years. I started mandolin at about age 17 and banjo at 20. I love just about all kinds of music. In terms of banjo styles, I play Scruggs and melodic and am working on becoming more advanced with single string. I'm also working on 4-finger banjo, which is way off the beaten path. I would like to see more jazz techniques integrated into bluegrass situations; counterpoint, especially. So long-term, that's what I'm doing. I'm also very keen on astronomy, ATM (amateur telescope making), birding, christian homeschooling, martial arts, organic gardening and about 30 other distracting hobbies to a (mercifully) lesser extent.
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