These days there are many different ways of learning to play the banjo: You can try to figure it out by yourself. You can find a teacher and take private lessons. You can try to learn from a book. You can learn from a video. You can go to festivals and ask other players to show you things. Most people use a combination of these ways, frequently starting out with a book and then, in desperation, moving on to another method when that doesn’t work. In my opinion there is one best way to go about learning the banjo, and that is to learn by ear. Now, when I say “by ear” I don’t mean to close your eyes and try to figure out how to play what you’re hearing with no visual input. More specifically I mean not using tablature or written notation of any kind.
Many kinds of music can be read off of a page—piano and orchestral music for example—but in those kinds of music, in almost every case when performing you can continue to read off the music, unless for some special reason you have memorized the piece. And none of those types of music are improvisatory; the musicians are never asked to play extemporaneously. Bluegrass music has an entirely different structure. For one thing, it is far too fast to be read off of paper, and you certainly can’t tote your handy-dandy stack of tab around to jam sessions and set it up on a music stand in front of you. Besides being shunned, you’d be laughed at, and pitied, and no one wants that. Regardless of how you go about learning the banjo, at some point you have to venture out with nothing but you and your instrument into the wide world of jamming.
This is where you can begin to see the benefits of learning by ear. If you never develop a dependence on tab, you’ll never have to break it, and that is one fewer hurdle you’ll have to jump on your path to becoming a banjo player. If you start out by listening, really listening, to what you are playing, it will soon start to sound like music (to yourself and other people) and not just a string of notes. And the most important first step to learning by ear, the one that returns the most benefit in the long run, is learning to hear chord changes, which will, eventually, enable you to play along with songs that you’ve never heard before just by following the chords. At a more advanced level it will enable you to construct your own breaks to songs based on your knowledge of the chords—a process known as improvising.
The basis of the process of learning by ear is listening and repetition. You have to listen to what you want to learn over and over to get it in your head. When you know what it is supposed to sound like, it will be easier for you to play. Often students complain, when learning off of a video or tape, that they have to rewind it and repeatedly watch the section they are working on. They think it would be easier for them to learn if they could just have something on paper to look at, or if they could write it down. But the repeated listening, the rewinding, is all part of the process. It is how you learn by ear.
Tune in tomorrow for the exciting conclusion of Thoughts on Learning By Ear!