From Banjo Hangout: How to Practice: Play More Banjo

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, December 02, 2013.

I have been writing about playing the banjo for 30 years but I have never written an article about practicing. Why not? Well, probably because I hate anybody telling me what to do and also because most of the practice suggestions I read struck me as bombastic BS--idealistic, ivory-tower imaginings that seemed useless to me or, at best, not practical for adult students with lives and families. I never followed any set pattern when I was learning, I just got up, got a cuppa, and started studying Earl at 16 rpm in my pajamas! I thought my students would figure out what worked best for them and follow their own "rules," which many of them do. But finally I have come to understand that not everybody is self-propelled and that some people desperately want and need guidelines. With that in mind, I will present my own extremely general and hopefully not too bombastic suggestions in hopes that maybe a few of these ideas prove useful.

As I pull these thoughts together I have tried to take into account real adults with real lives so......

1. Play the banjo, play the banjo, play the banjo! Your progress is directly related to how much you play. The answer to almost every banjo-playing question is PLAY MORE BANJO.

Questions: I'm having trouble making my C chord, my F chord, my D chord. I can't get to my Cumberland Gap position quick enough. My pull-offs sound clunky, my 10th-fret choke sucks.

Answer: Play more banjo! Instead of trouble shooting this minutia, just play. Seriously. After many repetitions, your hand will figure out what to do. No student has ever failed to learn to make a C chord. And those who stick with it learn to make an F chord. Just play!

Want more specific guidelines? Practice as much as you can. In a perfect universe, students would practice 30 minutes to an hour every day. (Or at least 5 days a week.) In the real world, life interferes! So get it when you can! Leave your banjo out where you can get to it quickly and easily. Pick it up for 10 or 15 minutes. In these short spurts, play your old stuff. Playing some banjo is better than playing no banjo!

2. Okay. You find yourself with a solid, uninterrupted hour to play. Now what? Warm up on a couple of easy songs that you play exceptionally well. (NOT the songs that are giving you trouble.) I always suggest Banjo In The Hollow or Cripple Creek. Play slow to start with and go through the songs 2, 3, or 4 times without stopping. The idea is not only to get your fingers going but also to create positive energy by hearing the good sounds of your own playing. Do NOT just play a song once and quit. It's the continuous playing that will get you warmed up.

Question: What about playing rolls?

Answer: With the exception of beginning beginners, I'd rather my students play easy songs. Rolls don't give you much musical feedback.

Question: What about scales?

Answer: Scales? This is a banjo and you are not Bill Keith or Bela Fleck or Alison Brown.

3. Now that you've warmed up (5 minutes? 10 minutes?), tackle your new stuff while your mind is fresh and your energy-level high. Are you learning a new song? Get out that DVD and go to work. Murphy Method students know the drill: You get it one lick at a time (just like Johnny Cash got that car!). Learn the first lick. Play it a while. Learn the second lick. Play it a while. Put the two together. Play them a while. Learn the third lick. Play it a while. Put it together with the first two licks. Soon you will have a phrase. When you reach the end of a phrase (several licks together) play this phrase over and over to get it in your head and fingers. While the individual licks may not make much sense at first (they will most likely be mechanical repetitions), eventually a musical phrase will start to reveal itself. Listen for this revelation.

And you know what? One phrase, well learned, is enough for one practice session. Don't tackle too much. After all, you are going to practice again tomorrow. Even Murphy Method students, bless their pea-picking hearts, often make the mistake of trying to learn too much at one sitting. Don't do it! This is not a race. I still think that learning one song a month is a good, reasonable, long-term goal for adult learners.

Question: How do I know when it's time to move on to another new song?

Answer: Remember my one-song-a-month rule. Students who violate this rule usually end up having to go back and relearn or clean up songs that didn't quite sink in. Why waste your time? Never tackle more than two songs a month. But, more specifically, you can move to a new song when you can play through your (small) mistakes without stopping the song. Playing perfect is not going to happen and doesn't matter. Stopping matters. Speed does not.

4. Okay, so you've worked on your new song. Now what? Well, if you are a Murphy Method student, you've got to work on your vamping--learning the chords to the song. I don't consider a song "learnt" until the student can play it, vamp it, and get back into the break after vamping. And I know it's hard and unrewarding to work on vamping at home, so with that in mind, we've provided all the tools we can think of to help you. We've got Vamping: Beginning Backup and three levels of play-along-with DVDs: Slow Jam, Picking Up The Pace, and Fast Jam. To mis-quote Merle Haggard, "No, it's not a jam, but it's not bad!"

5. You still have practice time, so what do you do now? Do you tackle another new song? No, no, no! Your adult brain can only handle so much new information. It needs time to process what you've just learned. So what do you do? You play your old stuff! (And if you don't have old stuff, you play your new stuff again!) And you play each of these old songs many times, over and over and over again without stopping. And, please! Keep it at a slow or medium speed. I know you're going to play fast sometimes, just to see if you can do it, but keep the fast playing to a minimum. That's where sloppy playing and mistakes creep in. If there is an old song that is giving you trouble, now is the time to pull out the troublesome area and work on it. Then put the problem section back into the song and play the song over and over with the new fix.

Question: "I've got too many old songs. I only have time to play each old song once."

Answer: I hate to tell you, but playing a song only once hardly helps at all. It's only by playing the song over and over that you sometimes can reach that wonderful musical place where the notes flow easily and the music sounds good. At the risk of sounding 1960-ish, you're trying to find the groove. And, yes, it's hard to find the groove on your own. It really helps to have a guitar player. That's why we made all those play-along DVDs--Casey is a wonderful rhythm guitar player! (And sometimes I play guitar and she plays banjo.)

So, I hope these suggestions aren't too boring, bombastic, banal, or broad! Remember, the most important thing is to PLAY THE BANJO! Especially during the holidays! You can find our play-along DVDs (and everything else!) at our website,

4 thoughts on “From Banjo Hangout: How to Practice: Play More Banjo

  1. Doug Lindsay

    I love this advice. I think I am gonna condense it and post it as the background on my laptop just to keep sinking it into my brain. I do give myself some time to practice licks and rolls now but only after I have gotten a couple of hours of playing songs in and I do the same thing start slow and repeat. Better to play it close to perfect at a slow speed than all raggedy at a fast speed. Do not do what I have done and try to play all the songs you know at the fastest speed possible.

  2. John Drew

    I dislike it that you are always so right! I play ” banjo in the hollow” way too much and two things happen. One, I still make mistakes and two, it really helps me feel the banjo. I don’t like it, I resist it, and I want so much to play ” Blackberry Blossum” at 120 beats.
    It doesn’t’t seem to happen. Could yo u, perchance, be right?
    Thanks so much for your lectures, blogs, camp, and intellectuals city. I get nervous when writing to a wordsmith but not so nervous as when I have to play in front of others.
    Thanks so much, John

  3. Lauren

    Perfect advice…it’s hard to stick to one song a month…since we want to know them all..but Murphy’s advice IS the best way! Great blog

  4. Debi

    This came at such an appropriate time, summer slow down. All of these tips are excellent! Your advice about keeping the banjo handy is so true. I have found for me it needs to be on the couch, not three feet away on the wall in a precarious place to get to. Before the official “banjo hanger” I played every single day 15-45 min. it was so inviting to pick it up and get going. Honestly the Murphy Method is the greatest method for learning. Thank You Murphy!!!

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