When can you say that you're a banjo player?

That question surely pops up in every beginning banjo player’s mind. It’s very natural to want to see progress happening as we practice and improve.

I think I started thinking of myself as a banjo player on two different levels. Starting with the last one first, it was when I had learned Cripple Creek, The Ballad of Jed Clampett and Foggy Mountain Breakdown. I learned them all pretty close to each other, so there is no ambiguity in my mind as to when it actually happened. Not a particular day, but definitely a certain two or three week period that late spring of 1977.

But the first time – a different way of thinking about the question – was before I had ever touched or owned my old Lark 5-string. It was during chapel at Freed-Hardeman University (Freed-Hardeman College back then) when Pickin’ Apples got up to present a bit of bluegrass entertainment that fateful day. I remember well hearing Tim Alexander play Flint Hill Special. I thought to myself: ‘That’s it – that what I’m going to learn to play!’ And I also remember not knowing much at all about the details of a banjo, but I did know and own one thing very important: that I would do however much practicing it took to learn it.

Nowadays, as I teach banjo and mandolin to students, I see the same eager approach to learning in most students. They also want to see progress just as I did; a sort of payment for services (i.e, practice) rendered. So to that end, I usually start saying someone is an official banjo player after they can go through their first song without an error or a break in rhythm.

And that’s a big, happy day for someone!

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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 When can you say that you're a banjo player?

  1. Jim Hudson says:

    Hello, you mentioned hearing Tim Alexander play Flint Hill Special. I recorded that tune with Tim way back in ’88. do you know how to get in touch with Tim? I lost track of him 15 or so years ago.

  2. Phill Gibson says:

    Jim,
    Great to hear from someone who knows Tim! I’ll email you offline.
    Phill

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