Learning Banjo By Ear For Beginners

by Bennett Sullivan

A lot of times the desire to get good quick consumes beginner banjo players, which leads them to habitually look up tab when wanting to learn a new song. This passion and desire to learn is great because it’s essential for enjoyment and progress. However, focusing on skills outside of the realm of tab can make all the difference when you start to head to jam sessions, want to improvise, or try to write your own tunes.

Ask yourself - Do I want to be able to quickly hear and pick up melodies at jam sessions? Do I want fellow musicians to be excited to play with me and possibly even call you for gigs?

The tab-based approach will only get you so far. It’s a small-picture method where you only get a physical result while leaving the truly life-changing elements of music behind. There is so much more to music than learning the repertoire.

  • How does it feel to play it? Fun, exciting, fresh, powerful, scary?
  • How slow can you go? Can you play each note with intention? Can you groove?

Looking beyond the tab is a mature approach to learning and it’s one that can not only make you a better player than tab ever will, but will enhance your overall musical experience when playing by yourself or with others.

These two skills are necessary for becoming a more musical player and they can be simple if you know the right approach:

  • Timing - playing with the metronome

For me, the metronome is the glue that ties my playing together and gives me a feeling for how songs should sound when played in time. Using one is often overlooked by beginner players because of the myth that it’s hard or not fun. Not true!

Here’s how you start out using a metronome

  • Put the metronome at 80 bpm
  • Without your instrument, clap along with every single click. How does that feel?
  • Now with your instrument, play the third string using your thumb on every click with the metronome.
  • Next, clap twice per click. How does that feel?
  • Do the same exercise as before but this time play a roll pattern. The alternating thumb roll works great! (strings 3251 played with fingers TITM)

This exercise will get you started hearing matching your physical timing with an external sound. If you think about it, that’s exactly what you’re doing when you play with other people - you listen to what they are playing and you play at the same tempo as them. Practicing with the metronome better prepares you for jam situations.

  • Ear Training - taking the time to learn simple melodies by ear

This is my favorite thing to do during my practice session. I treat it as an exploration of my instrument because I’m taking the time to not only hear and play a melody but figure out what fingering works best for me. This definitely takes a lot longer than using tab but in my experience it is more worth it and way more fun. I feel like I’m seeing the song through the performer’s eyes.

Here's how to start learning banjo by ear:

  • Establish a key by strumming your banjo in open G
  • While continually strumming that G chord, listen for a melody you know by heart - “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, “Happy Birthday”, “Auld Lang Syne”, etc.
  • Sing that melody aloud in the key of G. (keep strumming that chord if you need a reference point)
  • Sing the first and only the first note of the song. Keep singing that note and play around on your instrument until you find it.
  • Finding that note is the hardest part but once you have it, you have a starting place!
  • Repeat this process until you finish the song.
  • Play the song with the metronome.

Be patient with yourself. This is not easy and may take a few days to get but stick with it! It will unlock so many doors for if you can trust the process and try to have as much fun as you can with it.

I’m always happy to answer questions about learning the banjo, so feel free to comment below or shoot me an email at bennett.sullivan.89@gmail.com. For more banjo lessons, join my membership community at banjobyear.me. It’s only $5/month and you get tons of support when it comes to learning by ear. It’s seriously the best deal on the internet for learning the banjo :).

Have fun and happy picking!


Kristin Scott Benson chooses the Deering Golden Series banjos
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