What if we awarded belts for banjo playing like they do in martial arts?

What banjo belt would you be?

I’ve taken several different forms of martial arts, including Ju-Jitsu, Karate and Tae-Kwon-Do; each one seems to have different belt systems, but they all seem to start at white and go to black, at which point you are truly ready to learn, as opposed to our western concept of that’s when we have ‘arrived’. After black, some continue on to red and maybe even back to white again.

Let’s use the belt system from Tae-Kwon-Do, just because it was the first one I found on Google. I should also use what I’m most familiar with; three-finger bluegrass styles.

Hmmm… let’s see… for us, white could be anyone who’s just starting. White signifies innocence.

Next is yellow, for the Earth. Maybe someone who has learned the three basic rolls and is starting to learn their first song.

Orange represents a change, as in Autumn. One song is under the student’s belt. Speed picks up a little on the basic rolls; maybe they can pick 6 notes per second (NPS, I’ll call it).

Green Stands for growth. The student has become fairly comfortable with slides, pull-offs, hammer-ons. They can play two songs now at 7 NPS. Timing and rhythm may still need some work, especially when playing with others.

Blue is for the sky. They can keep up with Earl Scruggs on Cripple Creek at 8 NPS! That can certainly make you feel great.

Purple represents another period of change. Students feel more freedom and interest in what they are learning and the direction their musical education is going. A certain confidence is about them and they can play 4 or 5 songs now, at least. They realize how certain songs can be easily adapted into other songs to quickly increase their repertoire. Perhaps at this level they realize how much they have left to learn.

Brown represents a ripening process. Having increased speed to maybe 10 NPS, they aren’t as concerned with speed now (a good thing!) and are more naturally attuned with striving for quality. Left-hand technique are clean and crisp. They are able to hit just the right emphasis with any finger of the right hand. They have maybe a dozen tunes they can play at any time and are well aware of what direction they want to go with their music. Perhaps they have started to branch out into melodics and single-string styles some.

Red is for blood or danger and is a warning to the student to temper their skills with wisdom and control. Sounds like some a banjo player might need, huh? They are quite comfortable playing with other musicians and can create their own versions of songs from recordings. Perhaps they have started to experiment with songs of their own!

Then, there is first degree black belt. The black belt represents dignity and, as mentioned earlier, is when a student really begins learning in earnest! Not so much additions to their list of techniques will get a student here, as will their mindset and musical taste. Of course, they must be first-rate players with a firm grasp on technique, but they also know what to do individually in order to achieve the desired overall musical effect. They back-up effectively, have solid timing, know how to give and take with musicians of greater and lesser skill levels, they don’t go off the deep end just because they can, and they know how to recover quickly from the inevitable live glitches.

Second degree black belt – they display steadfast humility and are excellent teachers. Did I hear someone say ‘Ouch!’?

Belts continue after this, with third degree black, etc. What would be a good test? I’m not quite sure; maybe I’ll think up something clever and write about it one day – let me know if you have any suggestions, also!

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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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2 Responses to What if we awarded belts for banjo playing like they do in martial arts?

  1. K.Banks says:

    It should be a strap system. ; )

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