Bluegrass Banjo Sheldon Friesen

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

Archive for the month “April, 2006”

High On A Mountain Tablature


In this post I want to deal with a topic that many banjo players resist. Playing in the ‘Key of D’.

All right, all right now, pipe down! It’s not that bad. I know your banjo is tuned to ‘G’. I know every song written should be played in ‘G’. I know ‘G’ is God’s key signature. Well, that’s going a bit far but I really do understand.

Nevertheless, we banjer pickers will need to play in ‘D’ from time to time.

You have a couple of options. You can retune your banjo and learn to play in a new tuning. I personally try to stay away from this option because it really is a nuisance in a jam or concert setting.

You can’t really capo up to the seventh fret and still sound respectable so you are often left with playing out of a ‘D’ position. I generally capo my fifth string up 2 when playing in ‘D’. This brings the fifth string up to an ‘A’ which works really well in a ‘D’ key signature.

Ok, here’s the tab.

This break of ‘High On A Mountain’ has some really nice highs to catch the soaring melody line. It also makes good use of the open forth string to give it that deep old-timey sound that a song like this cries out for.

With a little work, you’ll be feeling like your playing up in –

“Them Thar Hill”

Do You Have What It Takes?

As a music teacher, I have noticed differences in students and how they view themselves and their musical ambitions. I have also noticed how students view other musicians and compare them to themselves and to others. Many players look up to someone they consider as a hero, a superstar player, an untouchable. “If only I could be like that person!”

Don’t get me wrong, I think that having those you look up to, to aspire to play like, is a positive and even a necessary thing. But, too often we place those people on a pedestal and they become superhuman in our eyes, someone who has achieved things we will never be able to achieve. “They are talented, I’m not,” would be the way we view them. Or, “They have a gift, I do not.”

I want to address these notions of being talented, being gifted and being a genius. I don’t know if everyone will agree with me on these points, but this is how I’ve come to view these terms based on my experience. I hope they will encourage you.

Talent is often thought of as an elusive object that you either have or don’t have. I disagree on this notion. If this were true, then I would be born with a talent to play the banjo. I can guarantee that is not the case. When I first started playing as a young boy, I was not making pretty music. I was not born a talented banjo player.

The first pancake I cooked for breakfast, many years ago now, was not an award winner either. But, I do say, that if you now come over to my place for Saturday morning breakfast, you would be quite pleased with the state of my pancaking abilities. I was not born a pancake gourmet but over time, through many mistakes and some victories, I have achieved an acceptable level of pancaking talent.

You are not born with talent, you achieve it and develop it. A talented banjo player is one who’s achieved a level of proficiency at the instrument through many hours of practice, trial and error, and through a discipline of small sustainable achievements.

Can anyone become a talented player? I would say yes, but I qualify that with an ‘if’. If you are willing to put in the effort and time required you can become a talented player.

Then, what is a gifted player. A gifted player has achieved the prerequisite of being a talented player. Gifting is more of a natural attribute, though I wouldn’t go as far as to say that one needs to be born with it. Gifting is the ability to take talent to another level. To understand the talent, to be able to fine tune the talent, to be able to develop the talent to new personally unprecedented levels; that is the ability of a gifted musician.

A gifted banjo player is one who’s learned how to practice. He or she will, almost without thought, know where their weakness are and be able to create exercises to grow beyond these hurdles. The gifted player seems to have a sixth sense in these matters. The gifted musician, has a love for the instrument that eventually enables them to do more than just play the instrument but to also express themselves through their instrument; to communicate through their instrument.

Can everyone be a gifted banjo player? I said that anyone could be a talented player ‘if’. That ‘if’ results in a world population where not everyone is a banjo player but a world where many have taken up the challenge to become talented players. From that talented player population, I would say that a smaller percentage are gifted players. Why, only a smaller percentage? That is not so easy to understand but let me say a few things on this subject.

Gifting, as I’ve described it above requires that the musician gets the music firstly out of the head and into the fingers. That is talent. Then, he or she must get the music out of the fingers and into the heart. That is gifting. This requires that one loves the music so much that the instrument begins to be an extension of themselves, another means of communication like speech. Not everyone has that deep of a love for the music. That isn’t to say they can not achieve great things on the banjo and it also does not mean that they do not like the music. It simply means that some have this passion to a greater degree. I believe that passion for the music will lead us on to its greater depths. It’s what eventually turns a talented musician into a gifted musician.

What about genius? OK, first let’s get a perspective of the banjo playing population. Many banjo players are talented players. If you work at it, I believe you will; if not yet, be a talented player. You’ll have lot’s of fun, play at jams, maybe play in a band. People will enjoy your music. Doesn’t sound bad to me. Well worth the effort you put in. A smaller part of this talented group will become gifted. If you have the passion and the lifestyle that will allow your passion to take you on it’s journey, you will likely become a gifted musician. Not everyone can sacrifice what it takes to get to this level and not every one has the desire to be this kind of player. Then there is the genius. I personally don’t believe that many will ever achieve this. Genius is not so much the ability but it is the historical record of creating what no one else has ever created. Only a few have ever achieved it.

Genius is not required to be a good player. I don’t think that genius is a pursuit either. It is an outcome, and achievement. The majority of banjo players, whom I consider to be great players, do not have genius; but they have taken their talents to the level of giftedness.

I don’t feel this is an exhaustive treatise on the subject but I do hope it will give you a more realistic perspective on your place as a student, player, musician, banjo picker!


Left Hand Finger Independence Exercise

You’ve just finished supper, worked hard all day and now you want to take the rest of the evening off to play the banjer. Only, when you pick it up, your fingers feel like sausages, I mean frozen sausages and they just don’t do what you tell them to do. In fact they sometimes even feel like they’re tied together and can’t move independently.

What can you do?

First off, a big mistake when practicing is to not take the few minutes necessary for warm up. There are numerous warm up techniques and I won’t be able to get to all of them in this post but I wanted to share one technique I’ve found helpful. It’s a left hand finger independence exercise. Let me explain.

Plant your index finger (finger number one) on the D string about fret eight ( not too important which fret you start on). Now, finger two on fret nine, finger three on fret ten and finger four (pinky) on fret eleven. This is our starting position.

Here’s where we teach our fingers to move independently, starting with this opening position, only lift fingers one and three (at the exact same time) and plant them on the B string while keeping your other two fingers firmly on the D string.

Could you do it? If your not used to it you probably had a lot of trouble. You see, the brain and the fingers don’t always speak the same language and thus don’t always do what you tell them to do. Take your time and you will teach your fingers to obey.

Now, take those two fingers still on the D string and lift them at the same time while keeping the two fingers on the B string down, planting fingers two and four on the B string. You should now have finger one on the B string at fret eight, finger two on the B string fret nine, finger three same string fret ten and finger four on fret eleven, all on the same string.

Repeat this exercise to walk up the strings to both the G string then to the fourth string D.

Now, once you’ve mastered this, walk back to the first string and end up in our opening position.

This exercise will really help your fingers to move indepently of each other and make it easier to do that fancy fret work that your getting so good at 🙂

Keep up the good work!

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