Bluegrass Banjo Sheldon Friesen

Banjo lessons, teacher, performer – Vancouver / Surrey, BC

Archive for the month “March, 2006”

How Long Will It Take?


When that new excited banjo student arrives for their first lesson, undoubtedly there is one question they all have whether they voice it or not.

“How long will it take me to be a good banjo player?”

I can’t answer that question with a simple statement and be fair to the student. Sure it would be nice to say that it takes so many months or so many years but its different for everybody.

So how do I answer that question? Well, here goes.

First, someone once said that the difference between someone who can play and someone who can play well is about 3000 hours of practice. This is not a precise amount of time because so many things affect it like previous musical knowledge, quality of the actual practice time, is there experienced tutoring or music lessons involved, and even some personal aptitude or gifting. (That is a subject for another post at another time). Having said all that, I still think that 3000 hours is a fair appraisal that would generally get an average student from beginner to proficiency at playing the banjo.

So please read on and let me explain.

OK, let’s say you spend 1/2 hour a day practicing for seven days a week with no holidays. That means your goal would be achieved in 6000 days or about 16 1/2 years. Now, that may sound just absolutely scary to most aspiring musicians but its not that bad. Look! Practice 1 hour a day would then drop that time to about 8 years. Two hours a day would drop that to 4 years. And remember, there are a multitude of joyous victories along that path to your goal as well. You, definitely will not be in the closet the whole time. In fact, you should be playing with others as soon as you can play three chords. That won’t take long and you’ll have lots of fun too.

Now, most of us can’t spend 8 hours a day practicing so you have to be realistic with how long it will take you to reach your proficiency goals. However, the more you practice will greatly increase the years you have left to enjoy your instrument at a higher skill level.

So, let me try to sum it up here. Don’t get discouraged, don’t quit, you’re not any wierder than any other banjo picker 🙂 and you will get better with time. No; shortcuts don’t work, only dedicated time to practice.

OK, you still want me to tell you how long you will have to play before your any good. I knew you’d force me to this point, I don’t like to make general statements like this but here goes. I don’t think you should make a decision to quite before at least 5 years of consistent progressive practice and learning. I think at that time you’ll know yourself better regarding your ability to play and if you still can’t get it, you might want to try the accordion. But, most likely, you’ll find that after this amount of time, you’ll have developed enough skill to have lots of fun, and to understand where your strengths and weaknesses are and you can then chart a course for the next five years of playing.

Hope this helps you to keep the big picture goal in mind.

Keep pickin’

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Old Joe Clark Sound File


I’ve heard banjo players tell me that they can play Old Joe Clark just fine at home but, when it comes to playing it at a jam, well it just doesn’t hold together.

What is it about this old fiddle tune that messes up so many banjo pickers?

Old Joe Clark has a unique melody line in the ‘A’ part that defines it. The problem is that this melody line emphasizes beats most banjo players are not comfortable with.

I’ve recorded a break for you to listen to. Listen for the melody line in the ‘A’ part and listen for the metronome in the background. Notice where the melody notes fall. If you have trouble hearing the metronome all the time, tap your foot to help you identify where the beats are.

This should help you get that Old Joe Clark to behave himself at the next jam.

Once, you licked the ‘A’ part, I’m sure you’ll find the rest of the song easy to master since the melody adheres to a more normal meter.

Here’s the link to the sound file: Old Joe Clark.mp3

Banjo Player Jokes

As a banjo player, I’m sure you’ve experienced being the brunt of the jokes at your local jam. I thought I’d list just a few things others are saying about us so you can be prepared for the next barrage.

  • Banjo players spend half their lives tuning and the other half playing out of tune.
  • What will you never say about a banjo player?
    That’s the banjo player’s Porsche.
  • “Doctor, doctor will I be able to play the banjo after the operation?”
    “Yes, of course…”
    “Great! I never could before…”
  • Why do fiddlers pick on banjo players?
    Because they can’t pick on their fiddles.
  • Anyone can play one of them things – all you need is three fingers and a plastic head.
  • If you practice, tune, make a sound check, and sit down to play it’s Folk music — otherwise it’s Bluegrass.
  • “Some people call this next song Cripple Creek — but they’re wrong!”
  • A few years ago a lost group of banjo players were discovered on a remote island in the Pacific.
    When asked how they survived for so long, they answered, “from the supplies dropped by the helicopters…”
  • What’s the difference between a banjo player and a savings bond?
    A savings bond eventually matures and earns money.
  • No matter how much you tune it — it will still sound like a banjo!

Cripple Creek Tablature


Here is an intermediate arrangement of the traditional tune Cripple Creek. You’ll want to practice it capoed on the 2nd fret since it is usually played in the key of A during jam sessions.

If you find that you can’t keep up with the thumb work in the B part, create a drill for yourself using an alternating thumb roll at slow speeds. Slowly increase the speed of the roll as your hand warms up.

Don’t get discouraged if it takes a long time to build up the speed of thumb work. It is normal to find this part difficult and to get up to speed.

No you’re not weird! Well on second thought you do play banjo. Right?

Practice Pointers

Practicing needs to have a structure to maximize its benefit. I’ve included some tips to help you organize your practice time better. Put the principles to work and you will find your progress maximized.

As far as practice goes, it’s most important to have a daily procedure to follow:

1. Always keep the big picture in front of you…

You can use books, DVDs or your own personally written list of goals. This will be your personal point of reference to help keep you on track. You’ll see where you’ve come from and where you are heading. This will help to keep you inspired by knowing that you’ve made measurable progress and that all your practicing is beginning to pay off. Keeping a list of what you are wanting to achieve in the future will give you a goal to aspire to, providing purpose to your lessons and efforts.

2. Keep a record of exercises and songs for your daily practice.

These exercises will help you build a solid foundation for playing. They will be the ground work for your more advanced studies making them easier to master.

3. Always set aside your time for practice.

You will want to practice every day. A minimum of 1/2 hour per day should be your beginning goal. As you advance, you will need to set aside larger time slot for your daily practice. My former music teacher used to tell me as a young boy that if I missed one day of practice, the next day was just catchup practice. Do the math, 1 lost day = 2 lost days of progress. Miss 2 days = 4 lost days of progress.

4. Be patient with your progress.

It’s easy to become down on yourself and discouraged with your progress. Often you will find that progress is not as rapid as other times. This is normal. Think of these periods of time as the time it takes to build a solid foundation. It is not wasted time. Great musicians are not born but made over thousands of hours of practice.

5. Always reinforce your current lessons with your previous lessons.

As a student, make it your responsibility to remember what you’ve learned in the past, applying these lessons to your current lessons. For instance, your hand positioning that was taught to you in the first weeks of your studies will need to be applied to all your lessons for the rest of your playing career. Make it your responsibility to apply everything you’ve learned to the current pieces you are practicing.

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