Relax and Have Fun When Playing Banjo

by Joe Zeke

“Is it hard to learn the banjo?”

“Is the banjo harder than the guitar?”

I’d heard these and other questions like them for years. And I never quite knew how to answer.  Then one day the question came up again as I stood with Greg Deering and a customer in the Deering Banjo showroom. Greg’s answer hit the nail on the head. “It isn’t hard if you are having fun with it.”

Of course! Why make it difficult or beat yourself up thinking you’re no good because you haven’t become the next Bela Fleck or Earl Scruggs in a week or month or year? Besides, the world doesn’t need another Bela or Earl; it just needs a (insert your name here) who loves playing the banjo!

I struggled with that for years, trying to be the next Alan Munde or Earl. I tried imitating their style, and a few times even considered giving up completely, until Greg put it all in perspective. From there it was easy to “relax and enjoy the ride.” I’d sit in front of the TV and noodle around. Sometimes I’d hit a wrong note and, instead of berating myself, I’d wonder what I’d done and even try to repeat it; it actually sounded cool! At that point I was starting to develop my own style. From there, the sky’s the limit, especially in this day and age where everything from bluegrass to rock, jazz, classical, and more are being played.

So, become well grounded in Scruggs style playing. If you’re one who loves that High Lonesome Sound or clawhammer banjo, there is an amazing collection of stuff out there: instructional videos on You Tube, books, DVDs. I sometimes wonder why I still have a job teaching banjo!
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There was a famous banjo player who, when asked if he could read music, replied, “Not enough to hurt my playing.” Well, these days I’m sure you can find more than a handful of pickers who read…Bela for one.
So, you want to play jazz on the 5-string? There are books and community college classes out there that will help you get started reading music. You don’t need a music degree. Then, pick up a copy of the jazz “Real Book” and have a go at one or two of the simpler ones. There are a number of good examples of just about anything you might want to learn on You Tube; listening while learning is always a help.

I had a student a couple years ago who found the secret to relaxing with the banjo. He told a few students and me he enjoyed going out to his barn with his banjo and a glass of wine and picking. He said his style was really starting to develop. I told him, “You got it!”  But then I chuckled and added; “Now, I don’t want to encourage anyone to develop a drinking problem so you can become a better banjo player! Just find your own way to ‘relax and enjoy the ride’.”

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