Overcome Your Ear Training Aversion on the Banjo

by Bennett Sullivan

5 practice tips to help you actually use and benefit from ear training when you’re just starting out.

Ear training has gotten a bad rap

When you’re first starting out on the banjo it doesn’t seem like the most efficient way to learn and it can be extremely frustrating without the right guidance, so many players avoid it, until they realize…”wait...this is how I’m actually going to get good.”

The good news is you can start training your ear skills from the moment you decide you want to learn an instrument and it can be more fun and easier than you think. Many of these tips can even be done without your banjo and by adding them into your daily routine you’ll be paving the way for a more enjoyable and well-rounded banjo journey.

Start honing your ear skills right now with these 5 simple tips:

  1. Listen over and over and over and over...get the point? When I’m learning a new song I obsessively listen to that track on repeat. Each time I hear the track the individual instruments become noticeably clearer. Maybe I’ll hear a cool bass figure or interplay between the banjo and fiddle, or a guitar lick that I didn’t notice the first time. Learning to listen, without distractions, means you’ll be able to zoom in on the details of what’s going on and will preparing you for jamming. You’re tuning your ears so you can hear rhythm, chords, and vocabulary. Remember, music is a language. The musicians you love are masters of that language, having an ongoing conversation throughout the song.
  2. Free improv. When I first started out I was so worried about sounding bad that I avoided this at all costs. I needed someone to tell me to just go for it so...just go for it! When you’re doing this do your best to let go of all the metronome practice, song learning, and ear training that you’ve worked on, shut the lights off and let your ears and fingers take over. Let it be fun - there is no expectation or goal other than to create whatever you have to say in that moment. Then take it to the next level by improvising with a friend!
  3. Use the metronome. This may not sound like the most fun tip, but it can be! It’ll train you to play in time which means you’ll become someone who other people enjoy playing with. This is something I emphasize and walk my students through in any Master Classes I teach.


Quick Guide to playing with the metronome:

  1. Turn the metronome on and set it at 80 beats per minute.
  2. Clap with each click (one clap per click)
  3. Now strum a G chord with each click
  4. Try switching chords and see how it feels. You may feel that your timing wavers a little bit when throwing that extra element in the mix. That’s okay! Keep practicing it and focus on that transition.
  5. Now try clapping 2 notes per click (twice as fast as one note).
  6. Play chords with 2 notes per click

You can also do this with roll patterns and songs! Have fun with it and don’t get discouraged if you can’t do it the first time. The point is you’re learning to sync up to a rhythm and this will take time.

4.  Sing. Learning the lyrics to vocal tunes is the best way to start training your ears for applying those melodies to your instrument. Playing the chords and singing at the same time is even better! You’ll learn how to simultaneously play two things at once which will give you a better sense of time and form within a song plus you’ll be the cool singing banjo player at the jam (and called for more gigs because you can sing!).

5.  Focus on making music, not perfection. It’s practice and it will be sticky and uncomfortable at times. That’s the way learning goes. Regardless, remember to enjoy the process. Give yourself variety, play along with your favorite records, and be okay with sounding rough. It will get better with practice and you’ll be so glad you just stuck with it! That’s really the only difference between a player who progresses and one who doesn’t. Discover your talent as you challenge yourself and find those break-through moments! There’s really nothing like it! Each little practice victory will keep you inspired during the process.

Where to go from here?

Try adding one or two of these tips to your daily routine and notice what starts to change. Are you more focused? Relaxing into the challenges? Starting to have more fun and make some progress?

Find a supportive and positive community of pickers sharing their progress to help you keep your practice fresh and fun and help you stay committed when it gets tricky.

If you like what you read here today and want to connect with other players making big progress come join me for more great tips and lessons at BanjobyEar.me!

Get a free 3-day trial when you sign up and then for just $4.99/month you’ll get exclusive lessons in theory, repertoire, technique, and beginner skills, plus a rhythm track library and private member’s community so that everything you learned from these tips can take you further!

Learn more playing tips here!


Kristin Scott Benson chooses the Deering Golden Series banjos
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