The Joy Of Being An Absolute Beginner On The Banjo

by Jay Matheson
I couldn’t get my fingers to dial the last two digits of the phone number. Here I was in my 40s and yet it felt like I was back in 8th grade; calling to ask the girl in my homeroom to the dance. If I completed the number, I would soon be in contact with an honest to goodness banjo teacher. The phrase, “Someday I would like to play the banjo” would transform to “Today, I’m going to get serious about playing the banjo”.
 
All of the research that had brought me to this point transformed into waves of self doubt. 
  • “Scruggs style is like a language, it will take years to get fluent”
  • “Banjo is a great second instrument after you learn guitar”
  • “You really need to love bluegrass and be steeped in its history to play the banjo”
  • “You need to have fast fingers, great rhythm and a good ear to play”
  • “You need to start young because it takes a lot of work before it gets fun”
These thoughts gnawed at me. Who am I to think I can learn to play? How do I know I will stick with it? 
 
I took a breath and leaned back. I thought of my reasons. No, I hadn’t grown up in the bluegrass tradition, but even as a child, I had loved the sound of a banjo. Listening and re-listening to the banjo breaks on Steve Martin’s comedy (yes comedy) albums, trying to figure out what was on Roy Clarks’s finger tips as he flew across the strings on Hee Haw.  There was something that drew me to the sound and that something had grown even stronger into adulthood. Now I was at a stage of life where I wanted a new challenge and I realized I wasn’t getting any younger.
 
I punched in the last two digits in the phone number and started my banjo journey with a fantastic teacher. As I started my lessons and bought my first Goodtime banjo, my doubts began to fade. I discovered the joy in being an absolute beginner. Here are a few things that I wish I had known before I started.
 
It is easy to get overwhelmed with online instructional materials and performance videos. A great teacher can chart a path for you that is tailored to your abilities. A cheap banjo might seem like a deal but it can be set up in a way that is hard to play and makes your fingers hurt. If you don’t know better, you think that this must be the way it is for everyone and just grit your teeth. A teacher or experienced player can help you pick a banjo that is comfortable to play and easy on the ear. 
 
After reading the online forums, I thought that the first year of banjo meant “paying your dues” and I would be confined to hours and hours of learning rolls and, at year two, would magically be able to play Foggy Mountain Breakdown at speed. My teacher structured lessons that allowed me to learn a bit each week and build on the previous lesson. My biggest shock in learning the banjo is that it has been “frustration free”. I learned enough each week to practice and feel that I was making progress. It was slow at first but, definitely, not boring. As an adult learner, no one is standing over you and making you practice. It is not a chore, it is a welcome break from the rest of the day. Month after month, my banjo vocabulary improved, my timing locked in and the melodies began to appear.
 
“But” you say,” I have never played an instrument before!”. If that is the case, lucky you! You have no bad habits to break. You won’t be translating standard sheet music into tablature. Your fingers won’t be searching for that missing 6th string. You won’t be tempted to go back to an instrument you feel more comfortable playing. Most importantly, you won’t have a bunch of preconceived ideas regarding how you are “supposed” to learn. Instead you put yourself in the hands of a teacher or dedicate yourself to working through some of the excellent beginner material that is available.
 
I’m now five plus years into my banjo journey. Along the way, I have learned the vocabulary of Scruggs style and, as I have become more fluent, my learning speed has increased.  My musical tastes have broadened and, I as I listened to banjo heroes old and new, my appreciation has grown and my ear has improved. 
 
Those original phrases of doubt have instead become snapshots of my banjo journey. I now have context for those bits of advice and with each lesson and practice session, more windows into the banjo world are opened. Yet, a beginner’s mind is ready to receive and that attitude has been the most important tool in my toolbox.
 
Now that you started, you have the rest of your life to play. Your biggest challenge will not be mastering  rolls or picking the perfect pull off. Instead, it will be resisting the urge to “rush it”. Incremental progress will lead to new plateaus. Take joy in “knowing nothing” and put the beginner’s mind to work for you.

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