How Should I Practice the Banjo?

by Carolina Bridges

 

I truly enjoy talking to our customers. Not only do I learn from them but we also learn what information they need from us. Recently, I spoke to an enthusiastic late beginner/intermediate player who asked a very good question: how should I practice? He meant, how do I start my practice session, how do I warm up, and where do I go from there? All brilliant questions.  Here are a few suggestions.

 WARM UP EXERCISES:

Whether you are a beginner, intermediate or advanced player, you need to warm up your hands and fingers before playing for any length of time. You want to make sure you have a strap on your banjo so your hand can move more freely up and down the fingerboard.

You also want to sit in a chair that has no arms and firm seating so you can sit up straight and comfortably play without your arms running into any barriers.

You want to let your hand warm up to prevent any damage to your tendons and to play with better accuracy. When you do this, you will sound better and be less frustrated getting from one string to the next or one fret to the next. It’s just like any sport; you wouldn’t start a 5-mile run without doing some stretching first! Think of this as your “stretching” exercises for your sprint up the fingerboard!

Warming up with your picking patterns whether it is bluegrass rolls, clawhammer, or flat picking is a good place to start. Start with one easy chord - open G on a 5-string banjo is best, a C chord on a tenor or plectrum, and move on to whatever chords you already know in a slow even fashion.

For example if you are a bluegrass player, starting with open G, play the alternating roll for 3-5 minutes, then the forward roll, and then the backward roll for another 3-5 minutes each. Then move on to the next chord and repeat the process.

If you are using a flat pick, practice a cross picking pattern with an alternating picking technique. 

Use a metronome to keep your tempo steady. Start slowly. Let’s say a 50 BPM (Beats Per Minute).  Make sure you play cleanly and evenly before adjusting the tempo up.   Adjust the tempo up just a few clicks at a time.

Warming up for a minimum of 10 minutes is good; 15-20 is better.

Do the picking patterns with any of the chords you already know how to make. Try adding a new chord form in if you want - just one new chord at a time though. You have to give both hands a good stretch!

Your goal is to be able to play your banjo without looking at the strings. While this may sound daunting to a beginner, it really does not take too long before you can do this and it is a skill that helps a lot when you are learning new songs as you progress.  This way you only have to look at your fretting hand while playing.

I used to start with looking at the strings and then closing my eyes to see if I could still do it. It made it more fun when I closed my eyes…and when I couldn’t do it, it made for some very interesting “noise.”

BECOMING FAMILIAR WITH THE FINGERBOARD:

Once you have made “friends” with the strings and have built up that wonderful muscle memory foundation with your eyes closed, you are ready to move on to becoming more familiar with the fingerboard itself.

Here is a GREAT fingerboard exercise called “How to Build Speed and Dexterity” by Barry Hunn, our sales manager. http://www.deeringbanjos.com/blogs/banjo-playing-tips/9210367-how-to-build-speed-dexterity

This exercise combines the forward roll/backward roll patterns on a 5-string banjo and fretting on each string up the fingerboard.   Although it is specific to a 5-string banjo in the 3-finger style of playing, it is a great read for any style of playing.

You want to start this one slowly so that you are fretting cleanly while at the same time plucking in a roll pattern By the time you  make it all the way through all the strings on your banjo, you will have easily put in your 20-30 minutes of practice overall.

You should continue to use your metronome for this exercise. You can adjust the speed as your dexterity increases over time.

Another way to increase the strength of all your fingers as well as use the whole fingerboard is to use Barry’s article on  “Pinky and Ring Fingers; the Weak links.” He recommends you not do this one daily! You want to be careful not to over fatigue those delicate tendons during any of these exercises.

Here is the link:  http://blog.deeringbanjos.com/pinky-and-ring-the-typical-weak-links/

PRACTICE A SONG:

If you have gone through all the exercises above, you may already be at 45 minutes of playing. Now your hands should be good and warmed up and you can start practicing a song. Below I will go over some tips on how to learn a new song. Each of these suggestions individually can be incorporated into your practice time. There should be more than enough to keep you going by now!

I recently viewed a great video recommended by the Banjo Hangout. It was part of a series on learning how to play clawhammer and the ideas he gave his viewers matched up with many of the things I have learned over the years on learning how to play a song. I will give my version of this very “user friendly” way to not only practice but learn a new song.

It is always easier to learn a new song if you know the melody well in your head. As a beginner, I also chose songs that had chords I was most familiar with. Now that I have a bit more experience, I choose a song to encourage me to learn a new chord! Choose a song you already know the tune of or one you have access to a recording of so that you have something to refer back to as you progress. This would be true whether you learn the song via tab as I usually do or if you learn by “ear” as in the Murphy Method.

Learning the song in small segments/measures is the best and easiest way to start. So let’s call that segment/measure #1. Once you have segment one memorized, you can move on to segment two; but you play one, then two and so on.

When you have learned segment one with the tab, then play it without looking at the tab book. Then add segment two in the same fashion until you can play the whole song without looking at the tab at all.

During your course of play, you can use a metronome to keep your rhythm even.

As you progress, and if you have them available, you might want to add a backtrack tape. These tapes have other instruments playing the same song. This will help simulate playing along with others during a jam session.

While you are learning to play, you want to find any picking combinations that are causing you problems. You want to focus on those combinations until you can play them smoothly and effortlessly. I find the ones that make my “pinky” finger stretch to be the hardest for me. Everyone will have their own particular difficulties. It’s what makes us unique!

By now you have learned each segment without the tab book and practiced with the metronome and possibly some backtracks so you are ready to find a group of folks and have even more fun. If you need help finding other players, find the local bluegrass club, banjo club, traditional jazz club, folk music club, etc. and go to their meetings. Before long, you will have a full circle of folks to have fun with and lots more experienced players to offer friendly advice.

GOOD PRACTICE TOOLS:

As you can see there are only a very few basic tools you need for good practice sessions:

  • A metronome
  • A chord chart
  • A banjo of course!
  • A winning attitude…because you CAN do it!

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