From Banjo Hangout: Learning By Ear: Method and Order

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

Murphy blogs every month over on Banjo Hangout and we will be cross-posting these blogs so they'll be all here in one place. This was originally published Monday, September 30, 2013.

Now that we've got the "by ear" question out of the way (non-believers notwithstanding!) (it was last months' blog post...), let's look further into the method behind my madness (or vice versa!). It's not enough to simply learn by ear--you've got to have some "method and order" to your learning. And that's where the Murphy Method comes in. I've done your homework for you. I've been teaching banjo for over 40 years now and I have a pretty good idea of what works and what doesn't.

First of all, if you're new to the banjo, you need to start simple. And simple does not mean a dumbed-down version of Blackberry Blossom. (Don't get me started on Blackberry Blossom! Okay, I already got me started--we'll talk about that later.) The Big Three in the Murphy Method are Banjo in the Hollow, Cripple Creek, and Boil Them Cabbage Down. Why these three and not three others? Mainly because they are easy to play, sound good slow, and are well known in bluegrass circles. They are also "tried and true." I know they work because I see my students playing them!

But beyond this--and this is where my "method" comes in--these three tunes have licks and rolls that repeat in each song, licks and rolls that build on each other. And because you have learned these licks by ear, you begin to recognize them when you hear them again, even if you don't realize what is happening. You'll probably just be thinking, "Wow! This lick is easy to play."

There is nothing haphazard about the Murphy Method way of teaching. The order of the songs is important. Each song provides building blocks (licks) for the next song. So, not only are you learning songs, you are training your ear--and your hands.

However, many of you on Banjo Hangout are not new to the banjo. Some of you have been playing for years. And from what I am hearing, some of you who are not happy with where you are. You feel stuck but you don't know what to do. You'd like to try learning by ear but you don't know where to start. You already play some songs (maybe even without looking at the tab!) and you sure as heck don't want to go back to square one!

To you non-beginners, here are my suggestions about where to begin learning by ear. Naturally, these are all Murphy Method DVDs but, hey, that's what I do.

If you've been playing for a while (three years or more) and are still tab dependent but can execute basic banjo maneuvers (slides, hammers, pull-offs) and hear chord changes, try our Jam Sessions Standards DVD. Just working with the first song, Earl's version of Roll In My Sweet Baby's Arms, will give you a good idea of where you are in the whole "learn by ear" scheme of things. If you do like I tell you and don't write anything down (no, not even the tiniest notation like "slide 3215"), you may find you already have a pretty good ear. Then you can continue to work through the rest of the DVD (Salty Dog, Mountain Dew, Dueling Banjos, Rocky Top) and then move on to other DVDs and eventually on to improvising.

If, however, you find Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms too hard, then you need to back up and lay some more foundation. You might want to try our Banjo for Misfits DVD--not that you're a Misfit, of course! (And you can skip Boil Them Cabbage Down.) These songs--Do Lord, I Saw The Light, Worried Man, Two Dollar Bill--are easier to play because the licks come in shorter pieces that are easier to remember and execute. Keep in mind that in this re-beginning of your banjo playing, you are having to teach your brain to "hear" and remember these little pieces of music, these banjo licks. Don't rush the process! Many metaphors come to mind. Like the tortoise racing the hare: Slow and steady wins the race! Or how the cat ate the grindstone: A little at a time!

Some of you--and you may not like to hear this--will need to go back to square one and learn (or relearn) the basics. Foggy Mountain Breakdown, from Beginning Banjo Volume One, may be a cliche in the banjo world, but it's a crucial song for learning the "tag lick" and that ending "D lick." Both will prove important later on in improvising.

And always, learn your vamp chords as you go along. Most are taught along with the song you are learning. Beginning vamping (including the vamping to Foggy Mountain Breakdown) is taught on our Vamping DVD.

And here is what NOT to do, even with the Murphy Method, especially if you've been playing for years strictly from tab. Don't jump in with Advanced Earl, or Ralph Stanley Style Banjo, or even (shudder!) Casey's Blackberry Blossom. These are fabulous DVDs (if I do say so myself!) but these songs are too hard if you approach them without the proper "by ear" foundation. You will find yourself frustrated and then you'll start saying, "This learn by ear stuff doesn't work for me." Ah, but it will if you give it a chance and start in the proper place.

And that brings us back to Blackberry Blossom! And many other tunes, mostly melodic, that beginning banjo players try to learn. (Devil's Dream, Turkey In The Straw, Red Haired Boy, and Whiskey Before Breakfast are all on my @#$%* list!) It breaks my heart to hear beginning banjo students struggle with these tunes. Why? Because, in addition to the tunes being too hard themselves, the chords are too hard for a beginning jam session. And beginners can never play these tunes fast enough to suit players who know the chords! It just ain't gonna happen, folks. So, to put it bluntly, you are wasting your time learning these songs if you are a beginner. Learn something you will actually be able to play.

That reminds me of a story Walt Saunders told me. (Walt writes for Bluegrass Unlimited.) Walt, a professional fire fighter, said that when he sat down to eat his first meal at the fire department, the food was served family style at a big long table with fire fighters sitting on benches along either side. Walt sighted a bowl of mashed potatoes a ways down the table and said to the old guy next to him, "Please pass the potatoes." The guy snarled back, "Eat something in front of you." Walt did!

So, I say to you in that same spirit, "Learn something you can play." Learn the easy songs first, save the harder songs for later. And when later comes, those hard songs won't be so hard.

I have mapped out a suggested order of tunes on our own website, www.murphymethod.comHere is the Beginning Banjo Track. And here is the Intermediate Banjo Track. Check it out. As my own students will tell you, I'm pretty controlling when it comes to the order of tunes they learn. But, hey, I'm the teacher and that's my job. Thanks for all your questions that prompted this article. Keep 'em coming!