Banjo For Dummies
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The most fun you can have with the banjo is playing music with other musicians in jam sessions. If you've never done this before, however, a few things are useful to know before you take out your banjo and start to play along. Put the following tips into practice and you'll soon be welcome at every jam session in town.

  • Tune your banjo. Short of showing up in spandex with a huge amplifier cranked to 11, nothing spoils a jam session quite like an out-of-tune banjo. Tuning is based on training your ear to hear very slight differences in pitch and, like everything else you do with the banjo, tuning is a learned skill that gets better with dedicated practice. You can do this!

    You'll find that almost everyone brings a tuner to a session. Work with your tuner at home and don't hesitate to use it at your jam. And here's a valuable tuning tip: Most players tune their instruments between songs and you should do this too — tuning while a song is being played is considered bad form unless you're really out of tune.

  • Play while standing. While you'll get to sit in many indoor jam sessions, it's not unusual at an outdoor festival to find folks gathering under a tent canopy or next to the all-night coffee or funnel-cake stand to play together. In these cases, you'll most likely be standing while playing. It's a great idea to practice this skill at home, adjusting the strap until the banjo feels just right.

    For most onstage performances, standing is a given, so you may as well get used to this now, before you launch your career as a banjo superstar.

  • Know your chords. The good news is that you only have to fret a few chords to play hundreds of bluegrass and old-time songs. Start with the G, C, and D7 chords and you'll be in business (and in G tuning, you don't have to fret anything at all to play the all-important G chord). Tackle new chords one at a time as you encounter them in new songs and you'll soon be familiar with most all of the chords you'll need at your jam.

    You want to watch what others are doing, so get comfortable changing simple chords in the left hand without having to look too much at the banjo fretboard. It's okay to look to your fretting hand for those chords that are still difficult to play — just remember to look up every now and then to make sure that the other musicians are still playing!

  • Figure out the chord progressions. The chord progression of a song is the road map that everyone follows in order to make music together.

  • The most useful jam skill you can develop is to quickly grasp the chord progressions of songs you're hearing for the first time, becoming familiar with a new piece as it's played repeatedly. The best way to hone this skill is to simply do it: Follow along by watching what others are playing, take your best educated guess, and change chords at the same time as everyone else. Luckily, most bluegrass and old-time songs have easy-to-grasp progressions and asking others for help is fine if you're lost.

  • Bring your capo. Although many tunes are played in a particular key, singing songs are usually in the key that's most comfortable for the person who is singing the melody (called the lead). You eventually need to get comfortable playing in any key, and the capo makes this task a lot easier. Don't forget that your 5th string also needs its own capo. Most players have spikes installed at the 7th, 9th, and sometimes 10th frets of their banjos to adjust this string as needed.

  • Watch the guitar player. You can also use your eyes to figure out chord progressions. Work on memorizing the shapes of the most commonly played guitar chords and stay focused on the guitarist's fretting hand as he plays the chords of an unfamiliar song. Name these chords in your head as you see them and then try fretting the matching chords on your banjo. Placing your capo on the same fret as the guitarist makes this process much easier.

  • Take a solo . . . or not. There comes a moment in every song where you have the opportunity to play a solo. If you can play a few basic right-hand patterns and change chords at the appropriate time without stopping, you've taken your first step toward creating a compelling solo. Take a chance and go for it, and don't worry about the results at first. You'll work on this skill for the rest of your life, so take the first steps now.

    The more you try faking a solo, the better you'll become at playing solos that more closely resemble the melody of the song. On the other hand, if a song is too fast or you have no idea what the chord progression is and you feel as if you're barely keeping up, it's always fine to beg off from playing an impromptu jam solo. In this case, be sure to signal your intentions early enough for someone else to step up and play.

  • Try singing. Bluegrass jams consist of 80 percent vocal tunes and 20 percent instrumentals. You'll be a great jam team player if you're able to sing bluegrass harmony parts or sing lead on a song of your choice. If you're singing lead, try your best to choose a key to sing in that the other musicians will enjoy playing, such as G, A, C, or D.

  • Contribute a song or two to the jam. You'll have the opportunity to play a song or two of your choice at a jam, at the speed and key that you like best. Come to your jam with a song that you can lead everyone else in playing and/or singing. You should be comfortable kicking off the song, and be able to teach the chord progression and direct the order of solos. This isn't as difficult as it sounds. Just watch what others do for the songs that they lead and adopt the best practices you observe.

  • Take notes and work on things at home. If you've found a group of people that you enjoy playing with and who make you feel welcome at a jam session, congratulations! You can use these sessions as a way to become a better player by perfecting the songs that they like to play each time they get together. Write down the titles and the keys to the songs you don't know and start working on these tunes at home and with your teacher. Check out online videos to hear different versions and to see how different banjo players approach the tune, and consult with your teacher for soloing ideas and ways to accompany others.

About This Article

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Bill Evans has helped thousands of people to play the five-string banjo through his instructional workshops, music camps, DVDs, books, and recordings. He has performed on stages all over the world, his recordings have topped folk and bluegrass charts, and he has mentored many of today's top young professional players. Bill shares the shortcuts and secrets he has developed in more than 35 years of teaching to help all banjo players sound their best.

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