The first time I tried to learn bluegrass, I worked my way – or attempted to work my way – through the Earl Scruggs book, and was basically lost. That was about 40 years ago. I was lucky enough to get an old, beat up a long neck banjo -- a Baker Belmont -- as a graduation gift from my parents from junior high school in the mid-1960s. I practiced the roll patterns and went for the Tabs. I got some guidance from a teacher or two, but that really didn’t give me any clarity about what I needed to know to play, so I drifted toward guitar and the banjo sat in the box for a long time.
I hauled that banjo with me to Southeast Asia in the mid-1980s and when I came back to northern Virginia, field stripped it with the goal of rebuilding it, but soon lost interest.
I offered it on BANJO-L, the predecessor to the Banjo Hangout, to anyone who might want it. By then, the early 1990s, the banjo was in parts and pieces and sitting in a garbage bag.
I've told this story here before: Bates Littlehales, a clawhammer player and a talented banjo builder living in northern Virginia, who was then in his seventies -- and just hit his mid-80s a few months ago -- offered to take it and insisted on giving me “one clawhammer lesson” in return for the banjo. I agreed. He also predicted that clawhammer would prove infectious enough to rid me of the desire to play bluegrass.
Bates came to my home every Saturday morning for about 2 years, and would spend 2 hours or so drilling me in clawhammer, teaching me technique and tunes, and talking about the art form and the artists, especially West Virginia banjo players. When he got ready to “retire” back to his mountain in West Virginia, I reminded him that he had signed up to do one lesson. Bates replied that it was one lesson, only it took two years because I’m a slow learner.
Fast forward to about 2010, my retirement date. With this newfound free time on my hands, I decided to take another crack at bluegrassing. Got some Murphy Henry videos, Dr. Banjo videos, and a slew of books. But I ended up hitting the same wall again – after getting the basic rolls down, the books and videos could teach me how to use them to shape particular tunes, but I didn’t feel I was learning the banjo.
So I made some decisions.
Ø I decided to learn the fingerboard, and set to memorizing the three chord patterns, F shape, D shape and Barre, up and down the neck.
Ø I took the section from Ross Nickerson’s Banjo Encyclopedia, containing an exhaustive inventory of roll patterns, and tried to learn the variations.
Ø I invented a bunch of left hand exercises that got my fingers moving in coordination up and down each string, taking my cue from some guitar players who used such drills to keep limber and to challenge themselves in left hand/right hand coordination.
Ø I recalled one accomplished local banjo player telling me that after years of successful playing in the Scruggs style, he still found it hard to shift to the interior strings, playing rolls on the 4th, 3rd, and second strings. I practiced that.
Ø I remembered another accomplished local banjo player saying that at the outset of his playing, he found it difficult to get fast and fluent single string playing using the thumb and pointer on his right hand, and to do so in a way that allowed him to move effortlessly between three finger rolls and single string work. I forced myself to practice that kind of fluidity of right hand work.
Ø I worked my way through some of Dr. Banjo’s videos on backup banjo.
Ø I worked hard to get basic scales patterns down, up and down the neck, and found Janet Davis’ book, BANJO SCALES IN TAB to be an excellent instructional book. I found Peter Pardee’s book, SCALES AND ARPEGGIOS FOR FIVE STRING BANJO similarly challenging and useful.
Ø I spent a lot of time listening and working through selected Youtube videos by John Boulding. http://www.youtube.com/user/banjophobic John gives just the right amount of theory, and offers up some compelling practical exercises for getting down chord shapes and patterns, playing in keys, backup work and many other critical skills.
Ø I worked my way through Bill Evans’ POWER PICKING (volume one) on “Up The Neck Backup for Bluegrass Banjo,” and John Lawless’ POWER PICKING (volume two) on “First Position Backup for Bluegrass Banjo.” I slowly picked my way through volume 3, in a very selective and excruciatingly slow manner.
That probably kept me busy for the better part of two years. At about that point I went back to some bluegrass tune books, and to the Murphy Henry videos, and tried to learn a few tunes. They came easier, and I had a much more confident grasp over chord positions. I joined Glenn Miller’s PICKING ACADEMY, and profited from his careful instructional videos. http://pickersacademy.com/index.php/forum/index
I was able to learn the “idioms” of the bluegrass language, and figure out some of the “grammatical” rules, which helped me to understand when to use the basic licks and such that were conveyed in the videos mentioned. I learned just enough theory to get me into trouble. Just enough of the basics to understand what a chord is, and how to figure out what chords go together. I made some halfhearted efforts to relearn the musical staff and basic music reading skills – I’m still very much the semi-literate in that area.
For me, this has taken about 4 years – but understand that during this time I continued to spend a lot of time playing clawhammer banjo. Bluegrassing is something I’ve tried to learn, and learn slowly, in the context of a commitment to playing old time music.
I’m not nearly as fluent as I should be at bluegrass banjo basics. I’ve videoed myself, and see the extent to which my rolls are still very uneven. I did not manage to get out and about, and play in jams with others in a way that might have pushed me further. I’d recommend that highly. The occasional opportunities to play with others have always been instructive and helpful, and compelled me to push the envelop. I only deploy finger picks occasionally, so I spend most of my time bare fingered, and I am still more capable of figuring out a tune in clawhammer style as opposed to picking my way through a new song using rolls.
But getting these basics down, and becoming familiar with the fingerboard, with chord positions and forms -– major, minor, sevenths mostly – and with the gymnastics necessary to get my right and left hand working together in a coordinated way has given me enough confidence to venture out onto the front porch of my log cabin to play some up picking tunes occasionally, mostly for the enjoyment of my two hounds, and always carefully concealed behind the shrubs that fortify our front yard.
I might get better, and I might eventually be able to play with people, but for now I’m happy I was able to learn this much. And while I have entertained the question of whether it is worth it, I’m satisfied that I’ve been able to learn what I have about banjo playing and musical possibilities – and glad that some of this has helped my clawhammer playing. When clawhammering is not the right weapon of choice in a jam, I can shift to vamping, or roll my way through chord patterns. I've found that deploying my limited capabilities in the up picking area helps me fit better with Irish session musicians, for example. My "default" setting is still down picking, but all this up picking stuff has helped me figure out why some old time tunes are so elusive, helped me break some musical codes, and given me a pleasant alternative to just one way of playing the banjo.