In previous posts I have talked about banjo licks and today I’m going to revisit some G licks for the 5-string banjo. A lot of the time the banjo plays the melody of a song, of course the melody notes are mixed in with filler notes, but the melody dominates. In this post we are going to explain how you can use banjo licks in place of the melody to improve your playing.
A banjo lick is a musical phrase that has a great sound and works well in a variety of situations. These licks can be heard in popular Bluegrass songs and help to define the Bluegrass banjo sound. Everyone recognizes the banjo lick that kicks off Foggy Mountain Breakdown, that is an example of a banjo lick, a Scruggs lick to be exact.
Have a listen here: [audio:G Lick 3-1.mp3]
Let’s take a closer look at this lick – it is a G lick – Why? Because if you were to play backup on the first measure you would be playing a G chord. It is also a Scruggs lick because Earl Scruggs popularized it.
Here’s another commonly used G lick to try out, this one is a little easier to use and can be combined with backup or used in a break, it’s up to you where and how you use them.
Press Play: [audio:G Lick 3-2.mp3]
The idea with a banjo lick is that it can be used in place of the melody line of a song. This can spice up your banjo playing and give you a toolbox of licks to fall back on when you need them. Just remember, DO NOT overuse banjo licks, they can needlessly clutter up a song – music is a team sport.
Everyone wants to learn faster, but most people who buy banjos don’t get very far with them. This is because learning the banjo takes concentration and hard work and that just doesn’t sound very fun. If you accept the fact that you are going to have to put in an effort, you can move on and start really learning. If you start each practice session thinking you will never be able to play,or just thinking about other things during your practice times, you will not get much out of it.
My goals as a banjo player are simple – to become more proficient, so I can express myself more easily with the banjo. I want to explore all the possibilities that I can with this instrument, not just Dueling Banjos, Foggy Mountain Breakdown, Man of Constant Sorrow and The Ballad of Jed Clampett (although these songs have been played to death, I am still inspired by them to this day). There is a lot to learn, so you have to make the most of your time.
The only way to get better on an instrument is to practice, and to really get the most out of the banjo, you need to learn a lot, which means finding time to practice. Time is one of the key ingredients to get better – you have to reprogram your brain to play the banjo – you won’t just know how to play automatically. Repetition over a long period of time is how you do this – this is also known as practice.
Time is necessary to get better, but the amount of time to learn to play can be reduced by using this time wisely. How can you use your time more wisely? – here’s how:
- Practice regularly.
- Use Method Books, DVDs, or an Instructor if you have access to one.
- Focus – concentrate on what you are doing – give it 100%.
Okay, we have some key points about practicing, but let’s dig a little deeper. Regular practice is extremely important – learning needs repetition, you have to repeat the same exercise many times before it becomes natural and comfortable. It takes at least 30 days to change a habit, so to learn something new, you’re going to have to put in some serious effort as often as you can. If you can practice daily that’s great, if not, practice as often as you can. The more often you practice the better you get, it’s that simple.
You often hear people say; “I’m self taught” or ” I taught myself to play”, this may be true, but the majority of banjo players have used some kind of learning method to help them along. A good Banjo method, whether it is an instructor (the best option), a DVD, CD, book, hand written notes from articles or the internet is necessary to keep you moving ahead and learning. This leads us to the next topic: Focus. Here is a link to some books to help you along – Ten Great Books to Learn to Play the Banjo
This one sounds pretty simple: concentrate on what you are doing, but focus is often overlooked. I hear people brag, “I practice six hours a day”. If this practice time is not organized and productive you might be getting less out of six hours than someone practicing for thirty minutes.
Practice time is maximized by concentrating; paying close attention to everything you play will allow you to quit wasting time glossing over problems and give you more time to improve your playing.I have learned a song well enough to play with a group and performed it many times before I stopped and polished it up and fixed the trouble spots. This is where focus and attention to detail come in, the trouble spots are really just the parts of the song you didn’t quite finish learning. If you can zoom in on tricky passages, roll up your sleeves and work hard to get it right, then you can apply this same intensity to all of your practice time. Let’s examine what I do to solve a trouble spot, this will teach you to focus.
I’m sure everyone has a part of a song that just doesn’t quite work, it’s not terrible but it’s not great either. When I look close, I usually find that I’m not really confident in what I am playing. If I am not 100% confident and know exactly what I want to play then I guess it stands to reason that this part of song will be weaker and it will be noticeable. This is the time when focus becomes important, you have to find the problem and answer the question – Why can’t I play this part of the song? A little bit of investigation is in order – find the spot that you don’t like and determine the problem. Isolate the notes and the fingers you are picking with and see what is making you stumble. Sometimes it is using the same finger twice, or an unusual series of notes that you don’t use often, it can be almost anything that is giving you a problem, you just have to find it.
The first thing you have to do is play the passage that is giving you trouble, but don’t rush – articulate each note. This will lead you right to your problem. Now work through it one note at a time. That’s right, play the first note, then play the first and second together, and so on until you are back into some territory that you know. It’s actually very simple; find a problem and solve it, then work it back into the rest of the song, but it takes effort and concentration.
If you can concentrate and really focus on a single measure, you can use this same level of concentration to your advantage when you practice as well. The next time you practice, keep your mind on what you are doing and don’t let yourself gloss over the trouble spots and watch your banjo playing improve by leaps and bounds.
I have been asked to write an article about D Tuning for the five string banjo. The problem is, I don’t use D Tuning, sure I’ve tried the tuning, but I have never gotten down to the business of familiarizing myself with D Tuning. In this post I will join you in a quick journey down the road of D Tuning – I know we will all learn a lot.
Before we get started I’d like to thank everyone who has posted a comment, these little pats on the back keep me writing, especially when time and motivation become scarce. The push for this article comes from loothi -Thanks for the suggestion.
I am always flattered by your kind comments, so keep them coming.
Why would you want to put yourself through the trouble of learning a new banjo tuning? My reason is to play the song “Reuben”, the Earl Scruggs version from the album Foggy Mountain Banjo. That song has always caught my attention and it’s time I learned it. Buy it here for only .99 cents -
Reuben (Album Version) or pick up the Earl Scruggs and the 5-string Banjo book with the TAB and learn it ( Click on the Picture in the middle of the post). I already have the book and the music and have started the learning process. Here are three more reasons to learn D Tuning:
- Earl Scruggs first discovered the three finger style playing a song in the D Tuning.
- D Tuning gives the banjo a totally different sound.
- Fiddle songs are commonly in the key of D and this tuning offers some interesting possibilities.
Let’s begin – If we start with the banjo in standard G tuning we need to adjust three strings, the 1st and 4th strings remain tuned to D. The 3rd string needs to be tuned down from G to an F#, the 2nd string needs to be tuned down from B to an A and finally the 5th string down to F# from G. This is best done with an electronic tuner – be sure to go through the strings twice in a row to get the tuning just right.
To tune the banjo for D Tuning without a tuner:
- Leave the 4th string alone (D).
- Fret the 4th string at the 4th fret (F#) – lower the 3rd string to F#.
- Fret the 3rd string at the 3rd fret (A) – lower the 2nd string to A.
- Fret the 2nd string at the 5th fret (D) – leave this string at D.
- Fret the 1st string at the 4th fret (F#) – lower the 5th string to F#.
The 5th string can also be tuned to and A – 1st string at the 7th fret. In this post I will be assuming the 5th string is F#.
There it is, an introduction to D Tuning. In an upcoming post I will demonstrate some licks in D tuning with audio samples.
In an previous post, I introduced some banjo rolls that used the middle finger more. This post puts the middle finger in the spotlight, and will force you to pay closer attention to the notes played by that finger. To get started, check out this post - http://banjoblogger.com/right-hand-middle-finger-exercises/
My first post used rolls that started with the thumb; as you know by now, it is easier to get a strong note using your thumb. This time we’ll start the roll with our middle finger and and end with the thumb. In a typical bluegrass song the strong notes are the 1st, 3rd, 5th and 7th eighth notes, and it just so happens that these are the notes played by your middle finger in this roll. A lot of people refer to this roll as the Osborne Roll, named after the man who popularized it. This technique is a tricky one to master, but with a little concentration and close attention to each and every note, you will be using these rolls with confidence in no time.
One of the first people to use this particular banjo roll was Sonny Osborne, of Osborne Brothers Fame. As the story goes, Sonny developed this roll to accommodate the picking pattern in the song “Old Joe Clark” which allowed him to play a pattern closer to the fiddle’s part. Enough talk – let’s get started. The first exercise uses open strings to give you an easier start – try to get all of the notes as even as you can. Once you are comfortable with the middle finger’s new role, try to accent the middle finger notes. Keep working at this one and you will be surprised how much of a difference it can make to your playing. Press PLAY to listen to it: [audio:Osborne Roll.mp3] SONNY OSBORNE
This next exercise gets your left hand a little more involved. Listen : [audio:Osborne Roll 1.mp3]
Here’s a measure of “Old Joe Clark”, using the Osborne roll. Now your left hand is right in the middle of it – practice this exercise until you can play it smoothly. Give it a listen: [audio:Osborne Roll 2.mp3]
If you put in the time to learn this versatile banjo roll well, it will open the door to a whole new banjo world. One final note – be sure to practice carefully, pay attention to the details.
Have you ever heard the term drive used to describe someone’s banjo playing? When people talk about J.D. Crowe or Earl Scruggs they often mention that they drive the banjo, or give it drive, or are driving the music. Last time I checked, a banjo didn’t have a steering wheel, so what does drive mean?
Drive is achieved by accenting certain notes in your banjo rolls. If your are playing in 4/4 time (4 beats per measure), the accented beats are the 1st and 3rd beats. If we translate this to a measure of eighth notes we are accenting the 1st and 5th notes. I know this sounds awfully simple, but there is a bit more to it, the 1st note is accented a bit stronger than the 5th, and the rest of the notes should be played at an even volume. In order to play a roll with drive, you have to be able to play your rolls very consistently and comfortably, so don’t try to drive a song before you are ready.
Here is an example to get you on the right track:
In the example above the 1st beat and the 3rd beat are accented.
Listen to some of your favorite banjo players and try to figure out which notes they are accenting, it is often the 1st and 3rd beats. Banjo isn’t that simple though, accents can fall on any beat, depending on the feel you are trying to get.
There are many different banjo rolls to learn; a difficult, but important one is the inside roll. This roll is played on the 2nd, 3rd and 4th strings, which are the three inside strings, hence the name. Scruggs style and melodic style both use these rolls and I have included a couple of exercises to get you started.
The middle finger usually plays the 1st string, but in these exercises your middle finger picks the 2nd string. Picking the 2nd string with your middle finger is a little bit tricky, as you don’t have much room. So, take your time, practice, and you’ll get it. The thumb plays the 4th string on both exercises, except the last note of the second exercise.
Here is a forward roll on the middle strings.
Have a listen: [audio:Inside_Roll.mp3]
This next example is a pretty common lick, you’ve probably heard in a song or two.
Press play to listen: [audio:Inside_Roll1.mp3]
This type of roll needs a lot of practice time to sound good, so add it to your routine and work at it.
One middle finger exercise you might be familiar with is commonly used to indicate displeasure with a person. Giving somebody the finger is easy to master – make a fist, stick up your middle finger, done. The middle finger exercises I am talking about are more to do with the five string banjo and are also more difficult to master. The middle finger is usually played after your index finger, but when you have to play your middle finger in different places it gets a little tricky. The goal of a good banjo player should be to have complete control over his picking hand and be able to pick almost any pattern with ease. Although this is a pretty lofty goal, you can at least try to be a better banjo player and use your middle finger to create some new rolls.
The first exercise will put your middle finger right to work. The middle finger plays half of the notes in each measure and has to be strong to make this roll sound good, so take it slow.
Have a listen to this roll: [audio:Middle1.mp3]
Our next exercise takes the same pattern and puts it to use with an F shape chord. Just form a G chord and start picking, being careful to keep your tempo nice and steady.
Press play to hear the example above: [audio:Middle2.mp3]
Practice this roll until it is sounding smooth and you can play it without too much effort. This roll can be used when you are playing backup – try to replace a measure of backup rolls with this new one. But, as always when you are playing backup – don’t compete with the lead instrument.