When it comes to ways to learn the banjo or mandolin, there are a couple of different paths we can follow. Each path uses the same set of tools and so can look very similar to the other, but the way we think about learning shows the difference in the two.
1 – Learning by exact duplication. Here, the way of thinking is to duplicate, as exactly as possible, what someone else has done. It’s usually set down in tablature, but you can also do this by simply rote memorization of someone as they are slowly picking the notes; a sort of live tablature, if you will. Far from being a second-rate way to learn an instrument, learning by exact duplication is an excellent way to introduce new techniques and licks into your repertoire. Besides, more often than not, we tend to develop our own licks and motifs when given an exact copy of some else’s work. Often, we don’t even realize it until, perhaps many years later, we reexamine the original tablature and are amazed to find we have modified it.
2 – Learning by improvisation. Quite often, people who have learned to play the piano strictly by standard music are amazed at someone who can play as new song ‘by ear’. Truth is, ‘by ear’ musicians are equally impressed that someone can actually play a piece they have never seen before simply from what’s written on a piece of paper. Learning by improvisation differs from learning by exact duplication in that it involves strictly your own techniques with material that is new. Learning to improvise is often seen as a higher, nobler pursuit in the grand scheme of musical learning. Perhaps that’s so, but remember that neither of these ways stands alone; they both need the other in order to be optimal.
Another way to think of this: learning by duplication is discovery; learning by improvisation is application. In other words, when we learn by duplication we are thinking “This is what it feels like to be able to make that sort of a sound”. Application, then, is when you think: ‘I want to make THIS sort of a sound, so from experience I realize than my fingers need to do THIS sort of a motion in order to get that sound.’