When we hear a great banjo player, we notice the results of years of practice and hours spent mastering the left and right hand techniques. We are aware of their level of technical ability that can only be achieved by devoting a major part of one’s life, from an early age, to music.
Then there’s the rest of us. The good news is you don’t need to spend years or be a technical virtuoso to be a good banjo player – someone with whom other musicians like to play or listen to. You can be a good player at every level of proficiency.
There are different ways to be a good player. You can be technically advanced, have a unique style, play tastefully, be precise with the basics of timing and tuning, or a have combination of these attributes. Great banjo players – the people you have heard of (i.e. Bela Fleck, Allison Brown, Noam Pikilney….) - have them all. You can master a few of these attributes in a short time. Any one of them make you a good player.
When you first pick up the banjo, you’ll start with the basics of tuning and timing. There are aides for the basics that will make you a good player almost immediately. An electronic tuner or an app on your phone can keep you in tune. Practicing with a metronome (again an app on your phone) will teach you what a steady tempo sounds like and how it feels. It will also help you with your syncopation – the even timing between the notes. If you can keep steady time while playing in tune, you can play along with anyone and other beginners will want to play with you. You can be a beginner and also a good player.
In a short time you can also play tastefully. It’s the most important and noticeable aspect of being a good player and usually the reason for any compliments you receive. What is “tasteful”? It’s what you and everyone else want to hear! It’s playing the right note at the right time, along with the right moments you don’t play. More good news: Playing tastefully doesn’t depend on how many notes you play. A few well-placed notes usually work just as well as many notes and fancy techniques. Playing something simple and well with clarity is better than an impressive array where some of the notes don’t fit or are muddled with poor technique. Learning when to play and not to play is easy to learn. All you have to do is listen to good music, paying specific attention to when the notes are played and when they’re not. No banjo required. You can practice conscious listening anywhere and learn it ahead and independently of your progress on the banjo.
After you’ve played a little while, developing your own style will also make you a good banjo player. But it isn’t necessary. You can emulate other banjo styles and players and be great, borrowing bits and pieces over time to create a sound of your own. Or not. You can play along to styles of music that don’t feature the banjo (reggae is fun). If you learn the banjo on your own without much input from others (as I did), you can’t help but learn to play uniquely. You find out later you’re playing mostly the same notes, but not in the usual way. You will develop a unique sound relatively quickly, but the downside is discovering techniques on your own takes longer than taking a lesson. But it’s cheaper!
So what’s the quickest way to advance your technique and abilities? Take lessons. With technology readily available, that’s easy. All things banjo are available on the internet, but a lesson with a live person gives you invaluable, immediate feedback. The increase in your skill level is directly proportional to the time you’re willing to invest - mostly time practicing. But unless you’re planning on becoming a professional musician, there’s no urgency. Enjoy the process, enjoy the banjo. You can be a good player at every level.
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