Making the Leap: Learning to Play What You Hear On Banjo

by Evie Ladin

Over the years many of my students have expressed frustration with Making The Leap from learning tunes by rote – from a teacher or tablature – to picking up tunes you don’t know just by listening.  They want to play with other people, sit in on jams, but are unsure about how to pick up a tune without prior knowledge.  How do you know if you’re playing it “right?”

To complicate things, there are often many different versions of tunes – they vary by region, by player, by memory!  To be fair, there are tunes of the same name that are completely unrelated to one another.  But more often than not, different versions of the same tune share something basic, some combination of notes and phrasing that relate them.  And yet these related tunes may also differ in phrasing, length, even chord structure – from minor variations to complete overhauls. It’s often a matter of shifting the pieces around to adhere to a new phrasing pattern, or to a fiddler’s particular bowing pattern.  Learning different versions of the same tune can help you understand how to naturally adjust to play what you hear.

Bluegrass and old-time music is inherently folk music, music of a living, predominantly oral tradition, shared by people.  Playing solo can be very satisfying, but the communal nature of the music is often what really draws people into the genre.  Further, solo playing throughout history was based on repeating from memory what one may have heard, and by misremembering, creating some of the wonderful variations in tunes we have today.  To participate in an oral tradition, you have to develop your ear.  To participate in a music community, you have to listen to what other people are doing in order to play together.  Tablature is a great tool for remembering a tune, or discovering certain details and licks, but it can become a crutch to hearing what you are really doing.  Even while using tablature, you must also listen to the tune you are reading, to really understand it’s rhythm.

So how do you get started?  How do you Make The Leap from practicing, learning by yourself or with a teacher, to hearing the tune, and translating it onto your instrument?  Once you start to hear the tune and can lay it on the banjo, what about how this fiddler plays?  What chords does this singer use for this familiar tune?  Picking up the nuances of the player you are with is half the fun of creating a great musical experience.  It’s not as hard as you might think.  Here are a few tips, that I hope will get you started, or at least start thinking differently about the process.

Note Patterns:

As you learn more and more tunes in what I jokingly call “all four major keys” in old-time music - G, C, D and A - start to notice fingering patterns of how tunes fall in each key.  The notes you hit are in the scale of the key, and right under your fingers in the chord shapes you make.  You don’t need to hunt randomly for notes.  Once you have learned enough repertoire – say a dozen tunes in each key, and can play in tune and in time – consider making that leap to picking up a tune by ear.  Use what you know about playing in that key and apply it to what you hear.

Phrase Patterns:

Take a look at the tune in terms of phrases.  Is it square (even parts) or crooked (extra measures, extra beats)?  Separate the phrases into measures of four beats, and see if you can tell if any of them repeat?  There are habits in the repertoire (habits that are often broken, but a good place to start getting grounded).  Let’s start with phrasing habits of a square tune: it will have an A part and a B part, and each part will repeat. Here are some common phrasing habits (again, these may or may not be true, but look for them):

  • the first and third phrases are the same
  • the second and fourth phrases are almost the same, with the second not resolving (not ending on the I or tonic note, the root of the key, eg. G in the key of G), and the fourth phrase resolving (ending on the root)
  • the fourth phrase of the A part is the same as the fourth phrase of the B part
  • certain phrases from the A part are repeated throughout the B part in different order
  • one part is high and one is low

An Example:

As stated above, a great way to Make The Leap to learning by ear is to learn different versions of the “same” tune.  Here I want to look at three versions of the tune Sourwood Mountain.  You can find their recordings through the Field Recorder’s Collective, and I encourage you to purchase some of these excellent original recordings.

In one of the FRC sets are CDs from Ernie Carpenter, John Salyer and Sidna & Fulton Myers.  They each have a version of Sourwood Mountain – different from one another, but all identifiable as Sourwood Mountain.  Let’s take a look at them, noting as we go what makes them different, but also, what gives them the essence of Sourwood Mountain.

The recordings from the Field Collective were made mostly on tape, and of players likely not using electronic tuners, so the relative pitch varies widely. You can run the recordings through a program like The Amazing Slow Downer (downloadable for $50) to adjust the pitch to something you can work with. You can also adjust the tempo while maintaining a pitch, which greatly helps learning the tune by ear.  Why not adjust it to something you can play along with and try to pick it up without tablature?  We will explore the phrasing together.

Sourwood Mountain is played in G or A.  Ernie Carpenter’s version sounds closest to A, John Salyer’s is closest to G, and Sidna & Fulton Myers’ version plays exactly in G#!  Adjust the pitch of the recording to G or A, or you can be more “traditional” and tune your instrument to the pitch you hear on the recording.  Now let’s take a look.

Ernie Carpenter’s Sourwood Mountain:

Listen to it here

Ernie Carpenter’s Sourwood Mountain is a half length tune, like Cripple Creek or Cotton Eyed Joe.  It is half as long as a standard length tune like Soldier’s Joy or June Apple.  He has an A part and B part that are the same length, and repeat.  His A part starts on a pick-up (half a beat before the first beat of the phrase; I would hammer-on as the pick-up to start the phrase), and the B part does not.  Therefore, when you head into any A part, you will not strum at the end of the previous phrase, so there is time for the pick-up.  When you head into any B part, you will complete the previous phrase with a strum, and start the B part on the downbeat.  This is harder to explain than to hear.  As you listen and count 4 beats in each measure, see if you can note the pick-up leading into the A part.

I would say the A part (at least as it was recorded) is the low part, and the B part is the high part.  The last two beats of the A part are the same as the last two beats of the B part.  As we will see, these last two beats, how they fall rhythmically at the end of the phrases, are a major part of the essence of Sourwood Mountain.

John Salyer’s Sourwood Mountain:

Listen to it here

John Salyer’s Sourwood Mountain is a little notier than Ernie Carpenter’s.  Here, the A part is half-length and repeated, like Carpenter’s.  The B part, however, is standard length (twice as long as the A part), and also repeated.  This makes the tune “crooked” – the A and B parts are not the same length, but Salyer is consistent throughout with the lengths of the parts he plays, and how he plays them.  The A part here is the high part, and the B part is the low part.  The back-up on this recording varies, so one would have to make their own decisions about exactly what chords underlie the melody, but to my ear, I hear a IV chord (C in the key of G) in the second two beats of the first phrase (a phrase is four beats long).  Though the notes are a little different in phrasing, this A part, the high part, has a similar feel as Ernie Carpenter’s high part, his B part.

Look at the last two beats of the A part.  They are slightly different notes than the last two beats of Ernie Carpenter’s  A and B parts, but they share that rhythmic phrasing that says Sourwood Mountain.  We will come back to this point in the B part.

Salyer’s B part, the low part, contains a few old-time phrasing habits: the first and third phrases repeat; the second and fourth phrases are almost the same – they are rhythmically similar, but the notes of the last two beats are different – they share the rhythmic Sourwood Mountain phrasing, but the second phrase ends on the lower notes (same as the ending of his A part), and the fourth phrase ends on the higher notes, very similar to how Ernie Carpenter ends both A and B parts.  Here again we can hear Sourwood Mountain, though the length of the tune, notes, etc. differ!

Sidna & Fulton Myers’ Sourwood Mountain:

Listen to it here

Sidna & Fulton Myers’ Sourwood Mountain is the most crooked of them all, partly because they do not play it the same way each time through.  This is also common in that at times a fiddler may play a part until they are “done” and then go to the other part.  Here, the A part is always the same, but the number of repetitions of the B part differ.  It is nice that you can clearly hear the banjo part, and how it relates to the fiddle, following regardless once they get going.

The Myers’ A part is the high part, and the B part is the low part.  The A part is four phrases, standard length, but they only play it once; it does not repeat.  Here, the first, second and third phrases are the same, and melodically similar to, but not the same as, the high parts of the other two versions. The fourth phrase of the A part shares the lower Sourwood Mountain lick, as I can now recognize it – rhythmically similar to all versions, but melodically the same as Salyer’s end of A part, and second phrase of B part.

The Myers’ B part is half-length here, and is repeated three or four times.  The second of the two phrases is very similar to the second phrase of Carpenter’s A part, and the end of Salyer’s B part, ending again with the rhythmically and melodically identifiable higher Sourwood Mountain lick.

Wrap up for now:

Listen and play along with the three versions of these tunes.  See if you can break down what makes them the same or different – or better yet, just play them and try to lock in to whatever phrasing they uniquely have.  Notice how they all sound like Sourwood Mountain but are really quite different.  Maybe it will help you to see exactly how they are different, and how they are similar.  Maybe it is enough to know that they are different, and so you should listen anew to each version, and not play them all as the Sourwood Mountain you first learned!  Regardless, this is a fantastic exercise that not only gets you listening to the nuances of tunes in a new way, but also exposes you to the richness and breadth of the old-time music repertoire.  Ultimately, the best way to develop your ear is to listen, listen, listen.

As always, if you have any feedback of what might be helpful in this regard, send me an email.  Then go out and find some people to play with!


Kristin Scott Benson chooses the Deering Golden Series banjos
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