Major Categories of Banjo Practice

The Banjo Lesson
The Banjo Lesson

A banjo student and I were discussing these various topics just now and I realized that I’ve not actually discussed them more formally with very many people. Here are several major categories of banjo practice, as I’ve just thought of them. This is useful when a student needs to decide what to study next and so needs some sort of structure to define his or her practice around.

  • Different styles: Scruggs, Melodic, Old-time (Clawhammer and Two-finger), Reno (single-string)
  • Up-the-neck breaks and techniques. Janet Davis’ book on up-the-neck techniques.
  • Backing-up. Janet Davis’ book on backing-up.
  • Developing your song repertoire. Almost any source is good for this.
  • Developing your collection of licks (each lick is usually specific for a particular chord). Tony Trischka and Bill Knopf both have excellent books on this.
  • Learn more music theory. I like The Idiot’s Guide to Music Theory for this. Alfred’s Jazz is also a well-respected series of courses on various parts of jazz theory which is pretty advanced, but then that’s exactly the kind of stuff that Bela Fleck has mastered to get as good as he is.
  • Learn fretboard logic for the banjo (closely related to theory, but different enough to list separately, I think). “Fretboard Roadmaps: 5-String Banjo” by Fred Sokolow is a great book for this.
  • Learn to read sheet music for the banjo (not many folks can read banjo sheet music, but many/ most(?) professionals can read at least a little). If you ever are exploring banjo music from the early 1900’s or older, you’ll probably be encountering banjo sheet music, not tablature.
  • Learn various chord progressions. Some are pretty standard and it’s good to be able to recognize them.
  • Learn different tunings, along with a key song in each tuning. “Mel Bay presents Alternate Tunings for Five-String Banjo Played Bluegrass Style” by Terry McGill is a good book for this.
  • Learning scales on the banjo. This is a melodic style exercise. Pete Pardee, Andy Schneider and Janet Davis all have books for this.
  • Learning how to create your own breaks and your own unique songs. “Splitting the Licks” by Janet Davis comes to mind here.
  • Learning different genres of songs (Irish folk, Dixieland jazz, Blues, Classical, especially J. S. Bach). Several different books here, depending on what you want to pursue.
  • Improving your sound. Ned Luberecki taught me this: once a week, spend an hour improving you sound. It might be stuff like:
    • getting rid of a buzz in the strings somewhere
    • changing your strings
    • some adjustment on your banjo (tightening the drumhead, for instance)
    • improving your hand or arm posture
    • working on a bad or sloppy habit
    • working on your playing while standing up (if you are used to sitting down) or vice versa
    • working on your timing, either with a metronome or playing with someone else
    • practicing playing loud or soft (whichever you aren’t used to)
    • or any number of other things.

Each of these needs to be ranked as to what you would like to improve most on. Make a plan and select a resource to help you accomplish that particular goal. It also helps to fit this into a daily structure for how you will practice by allotting certain amounts of time for each daily.

About Pgibson

I'm from Huntsville, Alabama where I work as a Software Engineer and part-time banjo instructor. My wife Miiko and I worship at Rivertree Downtown. I've been playing various instruments since my teen years. I started mandolin and dulcimer at about age 17 and banjo at 20. I love just about all kinds of music. In terms of banjo styles, I play and teach Scruggs, melodic, clawhammer, and 2-finger styles. I'm also very keen on theology, being a Trail Care Partner with the Land Trust of North Alabama, photography, urban planning, architecture, astronomy, ATM (amateur telescope making), birding, martial arts, and about 30 other distracting hobbies to a (mercifully) lesser extent.
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