Lead Playing Banjo in a Jam Session - dummies

By Bill Evans

Lead playing on your banjo has to do with those times when you’re the center of attention in your band or during a jam session. If you’re playing a well-known banjo instrumental like “Cripple Creek” or “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” you’ll probably start the song by setting the tempo and playing all the way through the tune one time before handing off the lead to the next willing instrumentalist.

If you kick off an instrumental, you’re most likely to be the last one to play it as well, so have some kind of ending ready if you choose (or call) the tune in a jam session.

If you’re playing a song with vocals, you may get the chance to play a banjo solo only once during the tune, either at the very beginning of the song or after a chorus. That’s okay! You can have just as much fun in vocal tunes by playing banjo backup and singing your heart out on the choruses!

When you play lead (also called taking a solo or break), you call on everything you know as a banjo player to make your playing sound its best. At first, successfully playing a short, memorized arrangement of a song is enough of an accomplishment.

As you become a more skilled player, you rely on the chord progression of the song to create new ways of playing a solo right on the spot (this creative process is called improvisation). Musicians spend an entire lifetime becoming great improvisers, so don’t necessarily expect this to happen to you for a little while. The best journeys with the banjo are taken one step at a time!

When playing a solo, playing at full volume is fine, but don’t forget to keep track of the rhythm of those around you as you play. Because banjo players play so many notes in comparison to the other players in the band, you may find yourself tending to push the tempo when you get excited (which usually occurs when you’re playing lead).

Racing away from the rest of the band is easy if you aren’t careful, so as you’re shredding through a great solo, keep an ear on the ongoing rhythm of the song and try your best to play in good time!

If you can’t hear the other instrumentalists when they’re playing lead, you’re probably playing with too much force. In this case, reduce your volume until you can hear what everyone else is playing. By doing this, you can enjoy what others are playing a lot more, and in turn, others will enjoy playing music with you!