My First Grade Banjo Diploma

Oct 24, 2023 | Welcome Column

I finally finished my Thirty Days of Banjo lesson. Eli Gilbert does a great job and it’s a free introduction to banjo which I highly recommend. See my recent articles (July 30 and September 22) for more details.

I say I’m finished because I went through all the modules and practiced almost every day. And ninety days on a thirty day course is enough. Even with the extra time I would not be considered an A student by any means but I can play fairly credible versions of Cripple Creek, Bile ‘em Cabbage Down and Cumberland Gap. I give myself at least a passing grade and I’m ready to move on to other things.

I’ll go back to Eli’s course from time to time and try to refine the skills he gave me. The Thirty Days of Banjo might take me a lifetime to get to a C grade level but at least I was able to jam for a few tunes on a borrowed Deering at Lodi. I just noodled around after practicing my standard banjo rolls and got a reasonable approximation of There’s No Place Like Home. I also like to play Bach’s Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring. Certain tunes just seem to sit well on the banjo.

What should I try next? Fireball Mail? Salt Creek? Clinch Mountain Backstep? I’ll Fly Away? Nine Pound Hammer? Maybe a tune that only banjo pickers tend to call and I struggle with at jams on my mandolin. How about Ground Speed? Maybe I should work on claw hammer too. The Cuckoo modal tuning looks pretty enticing.

New instruments are fun! Banjo particularly so, I think. If I could turn the clock back to a time when I was just starting to learn the mandolin or guitar and wasn’t nearly as proficient as I am now but learning something new every day that made all the difference, I might actually change the clocks.

I remember the first time I rode a hundred miles in one day on my bicycle. It’s called a century ride and it’s a lot easier than you might think. You just sit on a saddle all day and pedal while stopping occasionally and eating lots of food and drinking lots of fluids. But for someone who has never done it before it seems like a daunting task and when you overcome your doubts it’s a rush.

Learning a new instrument is a similar rush and getting to the level where you can jam with your friends and do a credible job is the goal. It’s one thing to practice with a metronome in your basement and nobody hears or cares if you mess up. It’s quite another thing to inhabit an impromptu jam in which you are expected to adjust to everybody else’s mistakes while struggling to minimize your own.

I’m not there yet on my new favorite instrument. It’s hard enough on the mandolin which I’ve been playing for twenty years. Fortunately I have accumulated a circle of jamming friends over the years who forgive all my musical short comings. I’m confident enough on my main axe to invade a lot of jams with mostly strangers and figure I can hold my own.

It might be quite a long time before I can get to that level on the banjo but I’ll have fun trying at least. Bluegrass needs banjo. Simple as that. Maybe it’s my chance to make the bluegrass world a better place. Wait a minute. We’re talking banjo here.

I’m ready for the banjo jokes. I will defend my new instrument until the last dog dies. It is the soul of bluegrass music (along with the mandolin, fiddle, guitar, bass, dobro and vocals with harmony). But ask yourselves. Would bluegrass be bluegrass without the banjo?

Earl Scruggs’s one hundredth birthday is coming up next year. There will be a celebration at Bakersfield in January featuring Bill Evans, Peter Rowan and Herb Pedersen. I’ll be there but I don’t think I’ll bring my banjo. I figure that’s covered.

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