Playing the banjo by yourself is rewarding, especially when you are learning. There’s a lot to be said for sitting in your favorite easy chair and concentrating on one tune, even working it up in parts while studying an instruction book or a video, or coming up with your own licks and inventing your own style while just noodling around. But the fun really starts when you can share what you’ve learned with others.
Years ago I met a fellow named Lonnie who was a very accomplished banjo picker. He and I became very good friends, to where every afternoon he would invite me over to his house to trade banjo licks. (That word “trade” is a bit deceiving, as I learned a lot more from him than he did from me.) Lonnie was very patient as well; we’d be jamming on a tune, and he’d run off a hot riff; I’d stop him right there and ask him what he had just done. He’d play it slowly over and over until I had it down. After a year or so with him, I was becoming pretty good at bluegrass and melodic playing, and we were having some great jams.
It was Lonnie who taught me: “No matter how good or how poor a picker you may be, there is always something you can learn, and always something you can teach.” That proved true one afternoon when I whipped off a riff that stopped Lonnie in his tracks. He insisted I show him what I’d played.
Depending on where you live there are slow jams you can join to get the feel of playing with other folks, all jamming along on banjos, mandolins, guitars. Those can be a lot of fun, and really help you learn new tunes and riffs and stay on the beat.
Once you get up a little more confidence and speed there are lots of pick-up bands to sit in with. The San Diego Bluegrass Society has meetings at various venues like pizza and hamburger joints throughout the county. They invite professional and amateur bands to play on stage, while outside there’s always a good number of pickers jamming in the parking lot. One band, the Full Deck, got their start years ago as a parking lot pick-up band, until one evening one of the performing bands canceled. The MC rushed out and asked them to come in and take the stage. Last I heard, they were still a weekly onstage event there, many times with different pickers sitting in.
And don’t be afraid to play with musicians who you think might be better than you are…even professionals. Many times I found it brought stuff out of me I never thought I could play, and some nice feedback from the “pro”.
Bottom line: Don’t be shy! Bluegrass pickers are notoriously nice folks and, like my old buddy Lonnie, very encouraging and willing to share what they know.
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