Thinking Like a Banjo

You can lean the basics of your style of banjo playing, be it Scruggs, clawhammer, tenor, etc. and know how to play it, but your knowledge is still at a rather superficial level until you learn that intangible quality of thinking in terms of your instrument. That’s the essence of your musical talents and the ultimate endpoint to which we strive.

What does it mean to think in terms of your instrument? By that I mean having a firm notion of what you think sounds good on banjos in general, plus learning the characteristics of what sounds good on your instrument, knowing what you excel at, and being able to combine these characteristics into a unique third entity that is neither you nor the banjo; it’s what you both stylistically produce together.

We approach this formidable task by simple practice. We start by learning the basics, via emulation first. Then, as we progress and expand our level of learning, through our own individual creativity.

Will learning the basics of playing by rote hold you back from truly understanding your instrument and from creativity? I don’t think so. After all, that’s how everyone learns when they are a beginner. But if you stop at that point, you’ll not advance much farther. The trick here is in recognizing that to simply learn by rote is a very easy stopping point. Many folks do indeed stop here – and that’s okay, if that is your goal. To be a back porch picker is a noble goal in my book; that’s what most banjoists are. But to strive for something more, you’ll have to understand more than the relatively simpler tasks of learning by imitation. Start thinking about how you would develop your own style if you’re at this point.

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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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