How To Learn To Play Banjo - Like a Language

by Bennett Sullivan

If you’re familiar with learning a folk instrument, you have most likely heard musicians refer to music as a language. And you may have seen good musicians “communicate” on stage. These musicians have mastered both understanding and speaking their chosen musical language. Playing their instrument is a way to speak their mind, share their emotions, and converse with others.

I feel that when you learn to play banjo or any other musical instrument, a student can apply many of the concepts of learning an actual language to their instrument. For example, I like to compare learning by ear to immersing yourself in a country to learn the dialects and nuances of the language that cannot be achieved by learning from a book. Learning a folk instrument using tab is comparable to learning a language from a book with no aural reference. This is great for being able to read and write that language, but not necessarily the most beneficial for being able to speak.

In my opinion, the most efficient way to learn is by combining both learning by ear (immersion) and learning from tab. I’ve broken it down into what I believe to be the best way to learn banjo.

70% of your time should be spent training your ears and listening to music. Being able to hear a melody and play it is an essential skill.

30% should be spent learning new tunes and exploring different tabs. But the catch to learning from tab is that you should always have a recording to accompany the tab that you listen to nonstop.

Try to get away from the tab as soon as possible. A great way to achieve this is by setting yourself a time limit on how long you can use the tab for a specific song(1-2 days). Once that time limit is up, get rid of the tab and see how you do. If you are forgetting parts, go back to the recording and learn it by ear. This will reinforce your ability to hear things and play them, which leads to improvising skills and being able to musically communicate with your peers.

Eventually you’ll want to challenge yourself to learn complete songs using just your ears.

If you think about it, do you want to be a musician that has to look at your tab to get through a song or do you want to be fluent in the musical language because you can hear things in your head and play them?

By the way - I’m not saying this is the most natural skill for people to master. I get it! I too had struggled with learning by ear for years, but just like any skill - the more you do it the better you get.

Tab is the instant result, but it’s the easy way out. You see where the note is and you put your fingers there. There’s very little challenge, and thats where improvement comes from.

So, next time you pick up your instrument, instead of opening your tab book, put on your favorite record and figure out a couple licks of your favorite tune.

About the author Bennett Sullivan

I would call myself primarily a bluegrass banjo player, and in the bluegrass language (as well as jazz), we have a vocabulary made up of “licks.”

Licks are the building blocks of learning bluegrass, and any master musician would tell you they are an essential part of being able to play a musical instrument. Luckily, there are many great ways to learn licks, and one is by getting the Pocket Lick: Banjo 2 App for iPhone and iPad. It’s only $.99 and has over 30 licks for you to learn and use when playing your banjo.

Download it here!

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