banjo

Casey and I are really looking forward to our upcoming Intermediate Banjo Camp, April 21-23! We love seeing all of you—old faces and new—and this is one of the few times Casey and I actually get to play music together.

And remember: At this camp we have an Advanced Beginner/Beginning Intermediate track. Check with us if you’re unsure.

As always, we have lots of ideas for things to teach at camp: playing up-the-neck, minor chords, playing in C and D (open), using the capo, exploring the fingerboard. And there will be Karaoke (performing a song of your choice with Casey and me backing you up), and evening jamming. And our two concerts: Friday night we’ll have the Fly Birds (who have a new album!) and Saturday night David McLaughlin, Marshall Wilborn, and I will entertain you with songs and foolishness.

This year I also have one exciting new thing to teach. I’m finally starting to focus on that age-old banjo question: “How do you make up a break that follows the melody of the song?”

Now, thanks to some tolerant students, I’m beginning to close in on the answer. So, in some of my camp classes (both levels) we are going to start working on this. As always, it’s a step-by-step process.

You already have the basic tools. You’re learning by ear. You can play some banjo tunes. You can play the vamp chords to these tunes. (Hopefully, you’re hearing the changes!) You can do simple “roly polys” to some bluegrass songs. And you’ve been listening to Earl, Earl, Earl. That’s your foundation.

So, after briefly touching on a few basic concepts (the Down Beat, Pickup Notes) we will choose a simple bluegrass singing song that you already know the melody to. So, what are some good songs to start with? Right now, I’m liking Do Lord, Worried Gal, Will the Circle Be Unbroken, I’ll Fly Away, and You Are My Sunshine. We’ll probably start with Do Lord. So you might want to refresh your memory. (I sing and teach Do Lord on New Beginning Banjo Vol 2, and on Misfits.)

Being very 21st century, I’m also including a link to Do Lord from YouTube. I don’t know the band, Highway 11, but they do a good job here. It’s faster than we will play, but it will help you get the melody in your head. And the words to the chorus.

Because before we can start picking out the melody, you have to know the melody. Knowing the words helps you hang on to the melody. As my friend Ira Gitlin says, “If you don’t know what you’re looking for, how will you know when you’ve found it, eh?”

Next comes the hard part: Picking out the melody note for note. (In the first position—not up the neck.)

Why is this so hard? Because sometimes it reveals that we don’t really know the melody as well as we think we do. We just kinda know it. Picking it out makes us nail it down. There is no magic key to this, no “rules” that I know of. It’s a process of trial and error, of hunt and peck. The only slight “rule” is that if you’re playing a song in the key of G and the first chord is G, then the starting note (the “downbeat”) will be the open 3rd, 2nd, or 1st string, which are the notes in a G chord—G, B, D) Unfortunately, the “pickup” notes may not follow this rule. That’s why we’ll start with songs that have no pickup notes.

We’ll take it one phrase at time, finding the notes to the 1st phrase of Do Lord: “Do Lord, oh, do Lord, oh, do remember me.” And we’ll go over that many times, because, yes, you will immediately forget what notes you’ve picked out. Then we’ll do the 2nd phrase—same words, same rhythm, different notes. Then we’ll put the two phrases together. Only then will we tackle the 3rd phrase, which sounds exactly the same as the first phrase. So now we have three phrases, which we will play many times. Finally, we’ll tackle the 4th phrase. Then we’ll have the whole song.

We’ll talk about the chords that go with each phrase, and then we’ll play the notes we’ve picked out with guitar accompaniment. That will help you get the feeling of the rhythm. Since there are no “rolls”, you have to hold the timing in your head and feel the beats where there are no words or notes. This is really important, because eventually the feeling of the timing will guide you as you try to find rolls that contain some of these melody notes.

Now, I’ll be honest with you: Further than this, I cannot see! I don’t yet know how to teach you to make rolls with these melody notes. I will show you how I do it, and hopefully that will help you. This is all still a work in progress. But I believe, with your help, we can get there. Maybe later we can explore this together via some group lessons on Zoom if you’re interested.

I’m really excited about teaching this at camp! As Ralph Stanley sang in Shouting On The Hills Of Glory: “Now’s the time to make your reservations!” See you in April!

(Happy to set up an individual Zoom lesson any time before camp to work on picking out the melody so you can get a jump on it!)

“Your jams are kind.” Okay, that’s not a question. One of my students said that to me recently and I’ve been reflecting on it ever since. I consider it to be high praise. I want my jams to be a place where students feel comfortable and supported. Goodness knows it’s hard enough to scrounge up the courage to take your instrument out of the house and play with other people. So, it’s nice to know that when you mess up, people at the jam are going to offer positive feedback: “Good try!” “You really hung in there!” “You were able to come back in after you missed a lick!” At our Murphy Method jams everyone encourages and everyone gets encouraged!

And now a real question from Rick, who came to our Intermediate Camp a few years ago:

“What is the best way to go about connecting the chords?  In essence, what I am trying to say is how do you lead from one chord to another?”

I emailed him, asking for some clarification, and Rick said he was talking about the vamp chords in the F and D shapes, and moving from G to C or C to D or D to G by using certain notes. Unfortunately, I had to tell him that was too hard to explain on paper. I suggested he might find some answers on Casey’s DVD Beyond Vamping: Fancy Banjo Backup. I also suggested he and I might try a Zoom lesson to talk about this in person. Then he wrote back and said he had Casey’s DVD and had learned a lot from it. He said he’d also learned a lot from our Amazing Grace DVD. I was impressed with that because I think the arrangement of “Amazing Grace” on that DVD is one of the hardest breaks I’ve ever taught. Rick said he could now take the licks I taught in Amazing Grace and move them to different keys and to different strings. Yeah! You go, Rick! We’re planning on setting up a Zoom lesson to talk about all this “face to face.”

One more:

Dion L writes, “I don't have a question for you but rather a statement. I use the Misfits and Improvising DVDs to learn the banjo. When I started I had not one smidgin of musical experience at the age of 80 years. I take my inspiration from Barry Abernathy and you. It has taken me 8 years to be able to jam at medium pace. It is only now that I pretty much know when a chord change is coming and what chord it will be. My ear has started to come into its own in the last year. I can hear what is going on with most of the instruments except the fiddle. I don't know if I am progressing in a normal manner or way too slow. I never look at tabs but I do look up songs with chords, then apply what you have taught me to the banjo. I hope that's not cheating. Whatever, it has been--and is--a wonderful experience. Thank you so much.”

You are welcome, Dion. I think you’re progressing at a completely normal pace. The important thing is you’re hanging in there! And looking up the chords is not cheating. I had to use a chord book when I was first learning the ukulele! In the fourth grade. Eventually the sounds got into my head, and I didn’t have to look. I’m sure the more you play, the easier it will get to hear the chords.

You have questions? I have answers! Or, at least I’ll try to answer. Send your questions to themurphymethod@gmail.com.

And there you have it! Or as the late great Sonny Osborne said, “Case closed!”

PS: Hope to see some of you at our Intermediate Banjo Camp, April 8-10. Lots of answers there!

PPS: And don’t forget our Buy One, Get One Free Sale  going on now through Christmas!

Murphy

This post originally appeared on Banjo Hangout. This is the third installment in The Adventures of Peg and Jill. If you need to catch up here are part 1 and part 2.

Peg tripped lightly up the steps to Jill’s teaching place, banjo in hand. She was feeling good about her practice this week. She hadn’t been able to play two hours every day as she had planned because of her “damn job” but she was excited about learning the first song on the DVD. She knew Jill would be pleased with her.

She was early so she sat down to wait in the adjoining room. She frowned when she noticed the velvet picture of Jesus praying on a hillside hanging on the wall. “I didn’t know Jill was religious,” she thought. “Not with that empty Stroh’s can sitting on the mantle. Who drinks Stroh’s?”

Settling down on the couch, she recognized the voice of Bob, the student she’d met last week, talking to Jill about something in the teaching room.   ...continue reading

(This post originally appeared on Banjo Hangout.)

Thanks for all the favorable comments on my story, “The First Banjo Lesson.” I’m glad so many of you could relate to it. As you know, learning to play the banjo, especially as an adult, is no easy task. Here, in this second installment, we follow Peg as she continues her banjo lessons with her teacher Jill. Comments welcome.

The Further Adventures of Peg and Jill: Banjo Lesson #2

Slowly Peg walked up the steps of the old house where she took her banjo lessons. She had not had a good week of practice and she was afraid Jill was going to yell at her.

She didn’t feel any better when she heard Jill saying to the student in front of her, “Dammit, Bob, you missed that C chord again. How long have we been working on this?”

“I just can’t hear it,” came the reply. “There’s no damn melody.”

“I don’t care if there isn’t any damn melody. Memorize the damn pattern. Come on in Peg. We’re done.”

Peg cautiously entered the room to see a man with a thick head of grey hair putting his guitar in the case.

“Peg, this is Bob. Bob, Peg,” said Jill, getting up out of her chair. “Go ahead and sit down, Peg, and get your banjo out. I’ll be right back.” ...continue reading

(This post originally appeared on Banjo Hangout.)

Preface

I've been teaching banjo for over forty years and based on what I’ve seen most students go through many of the same experiences when they first encounter The Murphy Method. They walk away from that first lesson believing that they are the only ones who have trouble remembering things, or that they are the only ones who question my way of teaching. In the following story, I decided to get creative and explore the inside of a student's brain. Let me know what you think. There could be more….

The First Banjo Lesson

Peg was sixty years old and had never played an instrument before. Now she found herself sitting in a large, funky-decorated room, awkwardly holding her new banjo and facing Jill, a woman she’d only talked to on the phone.

From the woman’s short grey hair, Peg guessed they were about the same age. As she looked at Jill across the small space between them, Peg’s stomach churned with fear. Why in God’s name had she thought she should learn to play the banjo?

She was startled to hear Jill say, “What made you want to learn to play the banjo?”

How could she explain the thrill she had felt when she first heard a banjo at Girl Scout camp? There were always plenty of guitars around but one year an older camper had brought a banjo. Peg was smitten with the girl—her first and only girl crush—and the banjo. The crush had faded after camp but her fascination with the banjo had remained. Why had it taken her almost forty years to gather up the courage to try to play it? Life, thought Peg. Life got in the way.

“I’ve always liked the sound,” she said. That was lame but it seemed to satisfy Jill who said, “Oh, okay. Do you have any picks?” ...continue reading

The release of the new Murphy Method HD-DVDs prompted the following conversation between Sweet Murphy and Grouchy Murphy:

Sweet Murphy to Grouchy Murphy: Aren’t you excited about the new DVDs? In HD? They look great!

Grouchy Murphy: Hell, no. Do you honestly think I can get excited about teaching all these songs again, on camera? At my age? The first time I taught ‘em my hair was still brown.

new beginning banjo 1Sweet Murphy: But your white hair looks so……so, uh…..so fetching! That’s how it looks! Fetching!

Grouchy Murphy: Bite me. One thing I was happy about was moving Foggy Mountain Breakdown to Volume 2. Why I EVER thought Foggy Mountain Breakdown was a tune for a beginner I’ll never know.

Sweet Murphy: Well, you were young at the time and all excited about this new way of teaching. And everybody wants to learn Foggy Mountain Breakdown.

Grouchy Murphy: Well, now they’ll just have to wait till they have a little more experience, won’t they? They won’t get it till Volume 2.

Sweet M: You do know that they don’t have to wait, don’t you? That they can actually learn the songs in any order they choose?

Grouchy M: DON’T SAY THAT! I HATE THAT! They are supposed to learn the songs in the order I teach them on the DVDs.

Sweet M: Calm down! You do realize that you can’t control everything. You’ve done your job. You presented the songs in the best way possible. Now, let it go.

Grouchy M: But it will be so much easier for them if they just do what I tell them.

Sweet M: Why you old softie! You do care!

Grouchy M: Of course I care. Did you ever doubt it?

Sweet M: Well, yes. It wasn’t looking real good a few sentences ago.

new beginning banjo 2Grouchy M: It just makes me mad that I’ve figured out this way for people to actually learn to play the banjo. Yet, they can’t even stick to the simple program of learning the damn songs in order. Why are you laughing?

Sweet M (still chuckling): I’m sorry but you know we were raised Baptist and the picture of Jesus chewing out his disciples for not being able to watch with him for just ONE HOUR popped into my mind. Not that I think you’re Jesus…

Grouchy M: Very funny. Like you’re some saint.

Sweet M: Well, it just doesn’t upset me when people act like people. Of course they think they know better than you. You’re just the teacher. OMG, remember that time, at banjo camp? When this guy came up to you? After the faculty concert? And said he was surprised to see that you could play so well?

Grouchy M: OMG yeah! That was weird. What did I say to him?

Sweet M: Oh, I remember. You were in your best grouchy mood. Probably hadn’t had much sleep. You said, “Now, why would you think that?” He said, “Because we only get to hear you play slow on the DVDs.”

Grouchy M: Just shoot me. Do you think he would have said that to any of the guy teachers? Tony Trischka?

Sweet M: Don’t get started on that. I might have to join you. But back to the new DVDs. We’re supposed to be celebrating their release. I know you swore you’d never re-record these, and here they are, re-recorded. By you!

Grouchy M: Ha! I guess that old saying is right. “If you want to make God laugh, just tell Her your plans.” All I know is that it just came to me one day that I should do this. If you believe in Divine Intervention or a Guiding Light or Putting Your Hand In The Hand, this was it. So I done it.

new beginning banjo 3Sweet M: Stop talking that way. It’s silly. I like the way you worked in some of the new stuff you’ve been teaching, like the Roly Polys.

Grouchy M: Yeah, that worked out well. That IS one of my best new discoveries: how to teach improvising to beginners. I’m rather proud of that.

Sweet M: As you should be. And I like the way you pointed out the tricky spots in the songs. Those places where your local students have shown a remarkable tendency to screw up.

Grouchy M: Yeah, that will probably help some of the students. The ones who don’t write the damn stuff down. That really makes me mad. They are just shooting themselves in the foot.

Sweet M: Yeah and I know you wanted to say, “They’re just pulling a Gene Wooten.” But that wouldn’t be nice and besides Gene, bless his Dobro-picking heart, is gone.

Grouchy M: Well, thanks for saying it for me. Gene’s probably Up There Somewhere laughing his ass off. All I can say is, the ones who write the stuff down cannot play. It mostly makes me sad. I’m usually their last chance, for some reason, and they blow it.

Sweet M: Softie, softie! Are you turning into me? What’s that big word? The one we’ve been trying to remember? About how everything turns into its opposite?

Grouchy M: You’ve been watching way too much American Pie! You’re starting to talk like Band Camp Girl. I can’t remember that fracking word. Let me Google it.

Sweet M: And you’ve been watching way too much Battlestar Galactica.

Grouchy M: Got it. It’s “enantiodromia.” I can’t pronounce it.

Sweet M: Me neither. But it’s a cool idea.

Grouchy M: I don’t want to turn into you!

Sweet M: And I don’t want to turn into you! Hello! We are supposed to be talking about the New High Def DVDs.

Grouchy M: All I can say is that I’m glad it’s over. And I’m very happy they turned out so well. Some of my best work. Those are probably the last DVDs I will shoot. Turning it over to the Next Generation.

Sweet M: I did notice you said “probably.”

Grouchy M: Well, saying “never” didn’t work out too well, did it?

Sweet M: Got any parting words? You know folks don’t read long blogs like they used to.

Grouchy M: I am glad we included the vamping to all the songs. Glad Christopher was around to help us out. He definitely raised the glamor factor.

Sweet M: He’s also a rather good picker. And singer. He was playing with Peter Rowan at Merlefest this past weekend, wasn’t he?

Grouchy M: Oh, yeah. He’s walking in High Cotton.

Sweet M: What the heck does that even mean?

Grouchy M: I guess if the cotton is high, that means you’ve got a good crop. You know our Granddaddy was a cotton farmer, don’t you?

Sweet M: Yes, I know that. Focus, please. DVDs. Tell them about the counting off.

Grouchy M: Oh, alright! I counted off each song so the students can hear better what beat to come in on.

Sweet M: And THAT is a convoluted sentence.

Grouchy M: Oh, shut up! It’s hard to talk about that crap. That’s why I teach BY EAR. I counted the songs off. The End. (Stephen King ref.) It never occurred to me to count off before. It seemed too “hoity toity.” And I’m a terrible counter. Just ask Casey. Or Chris. I thought the students could hear what I was hearing in my head. My bad! All better now.

Sweet M: Thank you. And now go do something that makes you less grouchy. I don’t know what that would be.

Grouchy M: I do. I’m going back to my other writing. I’m digging into my college history and writing about that. That’s when I found bluegrass. Or, it found me.

Sweet M: You make it sound like it was a religious experience.

Grouchy M: I guess it was. It changed my life. I didn’t get the Name Change though. Guess I’m no Saul of Tarsus….

Sweet M: We are so out of here. Thanks for reading this far. And there you have it!

Grouchy M: Hey, that is MY line….

Sweet M: Go, go. We’re done. Buy the DVDs. Selah.

This post originally appeared on Banjo Hangout.

Last week, we undertook one of the biggest projects in our business lives and re-recorded our Murphy Method Beginning Banjo DVDs in high definition (HD), with amazing sound. I never thought I would be doing those again in this lifetime! This makes the third time Red and I have recorded these tunes, starting with our first cassette series in 1982.

One of the reasons I wanted to reshoot these lessons was to put the songs into the order than Casey and I now use in our teaching. Over the years, we have both learned how to teach more effectively and our current “best order” is what you see on these three DVDs.

Our “team” this time included not only Red and me but our son Christopher who played guitar, sang, and helped with the sound. The fourth member of the team was sixteen-year-old Kasey Smelser, my banjo/guitar/singing student, who also proved to have great skills with wardrobe and makeup. When I first taught these lessons I recorded them in our house in Florida wearing only two things: corduroy cut-offs and a tank top. When you first saw me, on our videos, I did buy a new turquoise shirt but other than that, nada. But now, being well into the “autumn” of my life, I realized I needed help. What goes good with grey hair? Kasey figured it out. She also did my makeup. And when her school duties called and she couldn’t be there to apply the “paint and powder,” Christopher stepped up to the plate and did my makeup! Is that teamwork or what? Bill Belichick would have been proud!

I was not familiar with the phrase “Teamwork Makes The Dream Work” until Christopher used it during the shooting. One of his jobs was being on the lookout for Mistakes Mama Makes. So, in the middle of Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms, I heard, “Excuse me, Mom, I think you forgot to mention the pinch at the end of that C lick. You played it but you didn’t explain it.” After using a few choice expletives (which my mama would have whipped me for!), I took a deep breath and said, “Thank you, Chris. I’ll add a little clip talking about that pinch. Thanks for noticing.” To which he replied, “Teamwork makes the dream work!” I loved the phrase, and asked him if he had just made it up, and he said no. (I later Googled it to find out that the phrase comes from leadership expert John C. Maxwell.) So, thanks to our whole team for a great week of shooting DVDs!

So what’s different about the lessons this time? What improvements have we actually made? ...continue reading

Pretty Good For A Girl CoverWe've just crossed into summer, so we thought it would be an appropriate time to direct you to this Summer Reading List over on Banjo Cafe. Murphy's book "Pretty Good For A Girl" graces it, along with three other banjo-centric books, and one about the Louvin Brothers.

Check it out!

5 Summer Must-Reads for Banjo Players

Tip Jar Jam: When The Roll Is Called Uncloudy Day

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

(Psst: The title is not a typo. Read the blog. All will be revealed.)

Well, we didn't have a Tip Jar Jam on Wednesday because, first of all it snowed. Then after I had ratcheted up my courage to drive into town in the snow (I'm from Georgia!) I got into my new-to-me, all-wheel drive Honda Pilot (2008) and darn thing wouldn't crank! Deader'n a door nail. Not a sound. Naturally, I took that as a sign from the Universe that I was to stay home. It was January 21 which would have been my mom's 90th birthday. So, I figured I'd lounge around the house in my pajamas and think about Mama.

Naturally, I shared my car woes with Ben Smelser. He texted that he was coming out this way to look at trees and did I want him to swing by and see what was wrong. Oh, yes! I told him I thought it was the battery and that I'd probably left a light on. He said he'd bring a "battery pack" (whatever that is) and charge up the battery. Fine with me.

Long story short: It was NOT the battery! Nor the starter! Nor the alternator, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come.... Whoops! I let my Baptist slip out. Anyhow, Ben found out that the battery cable had slipped off the battery post. He put it back on but it wouldn't stay because the post was too skinny. (Too much cleaning by my automotively-obsessed nephew?) So, being the resourceful redneck that he is, Ben took some tinfoil, folded it up into several layers, and wrapped it around the post to thicken it up! Brilliant! Now my "new" car has a bluegrass fix! ...continue reading

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

Wow! We had 12 people at the jam last night: Betty, Kathy G, Ben, Kasey, Steph, Diane, Gregg, David, Chuck (sitting on the floor!), Rhys, Drew, Amber, and Jason. This broke down into 3 guitars, 7 banjos, 1 fiddle, and 1 mandolin. Ben swapped his banjo for the bass early on and with me pounding my Martin we managed to keep folks in line!

We were sorely missing our buddy Bob Van who has landed his butt in the hospital. In his honor we set up his picking chair and put a roll of duct tape in it. The duct tape is in honor of Bobby always saying something like, "I hope we don't play Salt Creek." Which forces me to say, "Why don't we play Salt Creek!" At which point he growls, "Where's the duct tape?" meaning he needs to have his mouth taped shut so he won't say anything else stupid! We will keep your chair and duct tape there, Bobby, until you get back. We love your ornery old hide!

We started off gently with our "party pieces," Banjo In The Hollow, Cripple Creek, I Saw The Light, and Blue Ridge Cabin Home, all in G. And thanks to Chuck for being our "G" singer! Then we moved on up to C, for some womyn singing: I'll Fly Away (Kathy), Two Dollar Bill (me), and Circle (Diane). Then I realized, once again, that I had cheated Kasey out of singing her song, I Saw The Light, which we'd already done. (Girl, you gotta get a new song!) But Diane reminded me that Kasey used to sing Rocky Top in C. At first I demurred, saying the chords were too hard for the whole group, but then I thought, "Why not let Kasey sing it as a 'show' piece?"  ...continue reading