Some of you may be following the thread over on Banjo Hangout about learning by tab versus learning by ear. I sent in a post yesterday offering my two cents worth (guess which side I’m on!) and I thought I might expand on some of those ideas here -- although I realize I’m preaching to the choir.
As I said on BHO, when I started teaching banjo, back about 1975, I was using tab! I quit because it didn’t work. My students weren’t learning to play, and frankly, I was having to listen to some really bad music. Students were playing stuff like “Lonesome Road Blues” from the Scruggs Book and leaving out whole portions of the tune without realizing it. It was painful. And it left me nowhere to go as a teacher—do you just keep throwing songs at a student when they can’t play the earlier and easier ones?
So, as I always say, it was in desperation that I talked my first song “Old Joe Clark” onto a cassette. And the student learned it better than she’d ever learned anything before. It sounded like a tune! Eureka! Soon I was talking “Old Joe” onto cassettes for everyone and doing all the other tunes that way as well. The improvement was dramatic. By ear work; tab didn’t. You think that would be “nuff said.”
But no. After a while I realized (a slow process) that even if you were learning by ear, there is a big difference in learning tunes and playing the banjo. My students could learn tunes all day long and play them well—no problem. But this alone did not make them banjo players. As my book And There You Have It chronicles, I realized students had to learn to hear chord changes and they had to play with other people. Thus the Misfits Jam emerged, where, finally “my people” really began to learn to play.
Could they have done this with tab? I don’t think so.
In addition to that, I offer my own experience: while I did use tab (from the Scruggs Book) to learn a few songs, I think my experience with “Sally Goodwin” set me back for years—I couldn’t “hear” the timing, and played it “wrong” (although not out of time) for a long time. I remember playing it in front of the Flint Hill Flash one time and he was completely bewildered as to how I made it come out “right” in the end. I couldn’t tell him because I didn’t know! (I guess the silver lining to my "Sally Goodwin" experience is that I can now make it easy for students to learn it “right” on our Advanced Earl DVD. You’re welcome!) Then there were many others that I COULDN’T learn from the tab including “Ballad of Jed Clampett” and “Blue Ridge Cabin Home.” Not to mention those that made such little sense I didn’t even try them: “Careless Love” and “Little Maggie” come to mind.
So you can see I didn’t just dream up this “by ear” Method. I started it because it works! And thanks to all of you who have used the Murphy Method and who are out there spreading the word!