Murphy Henry

As many of you know, breaking away from tab and starting to learn by ear is not easy. It’s scary (Can I really do this?) and it feels like you no longer have a safety net (What will I do if I mess up?). But, the payoff is BIG! You will actually learn to play the banjo. Your tunes will sound like tunes, and eventually, with lots of hard work on your part, you can learn to play with other people.

It thrills me when someone who is new to the Murphy Method takes that “leap of faith” and starts learning by ear. The series of emails below that I exchanged with Tom after our Beginning Banjo Camp in October seems to capture the start of that experience in a nutshell. With his kind permission, I am sharing them with you. As he said, “Hopefully the message will help others who have struggled with tab. As I say, if I can learn with your method and make some nice music with my banjo, anyone can!” Thank you, Tom!

November 10:

Dear Murphy:

Thanks again for the excellent camp. It was a great experience. I wanted to email you a question about the sequence of learning songs. I have always wanted to play Will The Circle Be Unbroken. I have tried to learn to play it for a number of years by using tab without any success. I do have your Gospel Songs DVD. I know you recommend doing the first two DVDs and Misfits DVD first. Over the past couple of days, I have begun using the Gospel DVD and starting to work on Will The Circle Be Unbroken. I know this song is out of the sequence you recommend for learning and it seems to have some more challenging licks and it will take more time to learn. I wanted to see if you had any recommendations about trying to learn this song. It appears to be a more challenging song but it is perhaps my favorite song on the banjo and a song I really like to sing. Since I have tried to learn it by tab for some time, it is also a personal challenge for me to learn the song by your method. For these reasons, I would like to learn this song and I wanted to see what your thoughts were about working on it. I would appreciate any suggestions or ideas you have. Thank you for your time and response.

Hi Tom,

Glad you enjoyed the camp. So did I! I appreciate your asking for my advice about learning Circle. I can understand why it's a favorite of yours--it's also a favorite of mine! And it's a great song. Now, although this may seem counter-intuitive, I believe you can learn the song faster--in the long run--if you learn a few other basic tunes first. In spite of its seemingly simple roll pattern, it's really pretty complicated. You don't have to go thru Vol 1 Vol 2 and Misfits, but would you be willing to learn at least a couple of songs before tackling Circle? They will help you internalize some of the basics you will need to know so you can more easily tackle the specifics of Circle. If so, let me know what you already play from these DVDs and I'll pick two others that will help you specifically with Circle. Hoping this will appeal to you!


Thanks for your response. I feel I play Banjo in the Hollow, Cripple Creek and Boil Them Cabbage Down fairly well as far as the banjo solos go, but not necessarily the vamping at this point since that was very new to me. Your method really helped me with Cripple Creek and Boil Them Cabbage Down since I had struggled with those songs for a few years with tab and now I am doing fairly well with the melody and timing. So here's a banjo salute to you and your method. It does work, even with an older musical misfit like myself. I would appreciate any suggestions you have about two additional songs to learn from the Volume 1 or Misfits. As I said, I really enjoy Circle and have been very frustrated with trying to learn it from tab. Truthfully, I was about ready to smash my banjo over my head (just joking). Let me know what you think about some additional songs.

November 11:

Hi Tom,

Thanks for your thoughtful, detailed reply. I believe if you learn I Saw The Light and Worried Man (from the Misfits DVD), those will GREATLY help your learning Circle. There is an important lick (slightly hard) taught in those--the Tag Lick--which will need some practice to get it down smooth before you go on to Circle. As I said, learning these will make learning Circle MUCH EASIER. No need to learn the vamping to these right now, altho in the future you would need to learn that. Each of these songs should take a least two weeks to get down smoothly, it not more. Good luck, Tom, and let me know how you are doing!


Thanks for your time and response. I really appreciate your help. I will plan on learning I Saw the Light and Worried Man before I take up Will the Circle Be Unbroken. After all of that, I will plan on resuming your recommended learning sequence from the Volume 1 and 2. Thanks again for your advice and time.

December 15:


I just hope you don't mind updates on my experience/progress with the Murphy method. I just wanted to let you know that the lights started to come on. I had been progressing slowly with I Saw The Light as you had recommended but was having some difficulty bringing out the melody when all at once last night it seemed to click and the lights came on and the melody was there. It is still not quite where I would like it, but I am clearly getting there with this song. I plan to polish the song very well and then move on to Worried Man. I just want to thank you for your method. I don't know if you realize how much frustration a person can have with tab and not being able to play a song and have it sound like the song if you know what I mean. It is a real pleasure to hear real music coming out of my banjo and not just a slew of notes. Thanks again for all of your advice, suggestions and the camp. I will keep you updated from time to time as I continue to make progress. I hope that you and Red, and Chris, Casey and Dalton have a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Again, I thank YOU, Tom! Hearing your story will definitely help make my Christmas a Merry one!

Now, over to Casey’s house to see Dalton! Whoopee!


Red Henry

This last weekend was the Murphy Method Banjo Camp, run and taught by Murphy and Casey. This particular camp was just for beginning players. The campers were all real good folks, and everybody had a fine time.

And so, what did Red, the aged, tottering, grizzled patriarch of the family, do for the weekend? As previously noted, he took care of Casey's baby, namely Dalton Henry, who is two months old and mighty cute. Even if he couldn't stay awake for Halloween.

I mentioned before that Dalton is a beginning banjo player, because he can't help it. But there's more he can't help doing too, over the next few years, which includes learning to talk. And how children learn that is HIGHLY relevant to learning to play music.

How does a child learn to talk? By listening and imitating people whom he hears. When you see the slogan "Talk to your baby!" it's important, because babies have to hear words before they can say them. A baby listens and listens before it learns to talk.

And would anyone say that a baby should learn to READ before it starts to talk? Of course not. That'd be ridiculous.

So what does this have to do with bluegrass? Only everything. If you're learning to make sounds (play music, that is), learn those sounds-- the notes-- BY EAR. Then practice. A lot. As Murphy says, "Listen, listen, listen, and play, play, play."

Don't try to learn to play bluegrass music from a piece of paper. Do you want to know what the notes should sound like? Yes. Can paper show you that? No.

Casey won't make little Dalton read before he can talk. That's not how people learn!

Take a hint.


Murphy Henry

In the midst of everything else that’s been happening in my life, in the lives of our family, I don’t want to forget to give you the follow-up about son Chris’s song, "Walking West to Memphis." As I told you, it was nominated for IBMA Song of the Year. Well, as it turned it, Chris’s song didn’t win, BUT the album that it appeared on, Help My Brother, by the Gibson Brothers, did win Album of the Year! And Leigh Gibson did thank Chris and all the songwriters from the stage of the Awards Show which I thought was very classy. Chris handled not winning with much aplomb and grace. I think he understood that just being nominated (that old cliché!) was a real honor. And he received several text messages right after the winner was announced, most of which said, “I still think your song was the best!” Which helped!

Red and I were sitting right beside him at the Awards Show, while Casey and Dalton and my niece Natalie Pate along with Red’s mom, Renee, and his uncle banjo player John Hedgecoth were sitting in the balcony. We were all so proud of Chris for writing such a great song! And he’s got many others which are equally as good. I look forward to their finding their way onto other albums. You go, Chris!

Murphy Henry

So, my banjo student Mark comes in yesterday for his lesson with a story to tell. He says he was driving home from work, listening to my CD, M and M Blues, which I had given him on our shared birthday, May 18. It was not his first listen, of course, so it didn’t hurt my feelings when he said he’d gotten tired of listening to me and, wishing for a change, had turned the CD player off and turned his radio on. Much to his jaw-dropping surprise, there I was again, playing “John Hardy,” my name glowing cheerfully at him from the digital display. “Turn me off, will you?” I seemed to be chuckling. “I don’t think so!” Needless to say, Mark was a little freaked. Apparently the Universe was thinking, naw, you really haven’t heard enough of Murphy!

So many thanks to either Chris Jones or Ned Luberecki, two of the DJs on the Sirius XM show, “Bluegrass Junction,” for playing “John Hardy,” which is one of the cuts on the Stelling Anthology CD. Mark was also mightily impressed by the bass playing on that tune which was done by my fav-o-rite bass player of all time, Casey Henry! I might also mention that Ned has a couple of dynamite tunes on that same CD, with the extremely clever titles “Emergency Pulloff” and “Nedscape Navigator.”

I now return to my previous engagement, writing the General Store column for Bluegrass Unlimited. This short blog was brought to you by a cup of instant Starbucks! Buzz!

Casey Henry

I come to you yet again from the campus of Maryville College in Maryville, Tennessee, where I'm teaching at Kaufman Kamp. It's my eighth year here (I's a little hard to keep track...) and this year I got a promotion from banjo/mandolin/fiddle/guitar 101 instructor and slow jam leader to regular banjo instructor. For the first time this year I get to see all levels of banjo students and it is great!

Yesterday I saw the beginners and the advanced class. (I so want to call them the "advanceds." I don't think that's really a word but it should be.) I taught the beginners the high break to "Boil Them Cabbage Down" and then we vamped to it. I taught the advanced class a slightly obscure Earl Scruggs tune called "Silver Eagle" (he recorded it with the Scruggs Revue) and we vamped to that, and then talked about some little backup licks they can throw into their vamping to spice it up a little. Unfortunately "Silver Eagle" is not on any of the Murphy Method DVDs, so no potential sales there, darn it, but they all seemed to like the tune.

thumbtack banjo

Here's some impromptu bulletin board art that I noticed yesterday in my dorm while I was waiting for the elevator. I didn't make this thumbtack banjo, but I thought it was pretty cute!

Today I see two intermediate classes and, as usual, although I see them in a mere 75 minutes I have not yet decided what we're going to do. I typically make that decision once I see who is in the class and what they already know. I have some possibilities in mind, though, that include a high break to "Blue Ridge Cabin Home",  "Salty Dog," maybe some simple backup licks. You'll notice that all those choices ARE on the DVDs. I think people like to be able to take home with them the things that they've learned at camp. And I like them to buy DVDs, so that's a win-win right there.

It was three years ago, from this very dorm building, that I wrote our very first blog posts. In the three years since we've written about everything from banjo lessons and jamming to gigs and touring to mandolin bridge making and flying airplanes. You'll do doubt have noticed that we've lost a little steam in the last few months. We've gone from posting to every single day (how did we DO that??) to three days a week, to once a week if we're lucky. One reason for this is that we've already written a LOT about the topics relevant to teaching and learning bluegrass by ear, so we don't want to repeat ourselves. Another reason is that summertime is just SO busy it's hard to make the time to sit down and write. And as I pointed out to one of our students, no one pays us to blog, so everything we do that someone is giving us money to do (like record lessons and send out orders and play gigs and write magazine columns) gets done before blogging. But we certainly have no plans to discontinue blogging, so we'll keep on posting sporadically with news and tales from our playing and teaching experiences and we hope that you'll keep on reading!

Happy Birthday to you,

Happy Birthday to you,

Happy Birthday dear Murphy,

Happy Birthday to you!!

...well, the sale is over, but we'll leave the birthday wishes up so that Murphy can enjoy them any time!

Murphy Henry

I don’t blog much about bass players. Mostly that’s because I don’t teach many bass players. But perhaps it’s also because they tend (as a general rule with Missy Raines the notable exception) to be a bit quieter than banjo students. A bit more subdued. More likely to just quietly roll with the flow.

Bill Morrison, the subject of today’s blog, is all of the above. At least on the occasions I have to interact with him, which is at the lessons. (He did, however, show a surprising flair at the square dance classes! And he has a droll sense of humor.)

Anyhow, he and his banjo-picking wife Susan along with Bob Van on guitar, Nancy on mandolin, and the Fabulous Ruth Steelman, also on banjo, have been playing together regularly now for some time and have started performing occasionally at nursing homes. (I keep trying to get Bob to blog about that.....hint, hint, Bob.)

So, at Bill’s lesson this week we were talking about their latest nursing home gig. He said it went fine, that the only confusing part for him was the addition of How Mountain Girls Can Love to the show—played in C—when it wasn’t on the set list. (That, of course, is the bluegrass way!) Bill is learning to play in C and we’d actually been over Mountain Girls in that key, but having the song thrown at him unexpectedly (so to speak) was a little disconcerting.

And unlike banjo and guitar players, bass players don’t have the luxury of throwing on a capo. They can’t just slap that thing on at the fifth fret and play out of G position. They have to learn to play in all the keys. So, on the spot, Bill was having to transpose from the comfortable key of G to the harder key of C. Under pressure. While he was on stage.

I was asking him how that went when he uttered the priceless line which became the title for this blog. He said, “I got a little confused. But I just kept playing. F is the C, isn’t it?”

Oh, yes it is, Bill! I understood exactly what he meant. And was proud of him for the mental peregrinations that brought him to that conclusion. Can you follow his meaning? Think about it. In high-faluting technical language he was saying that F is the “four” (IV) chord in the Key of C. Just like C is the “four” chord in the Key of G. In other words, F is the C!

The moral of this story (if there is one) is that everyone has their own way of thinking about this stuff. You go, Bill!

Casey Henry

Happy Groundhog Day!! Punxsutawney Phil predicts an early spring. That’s sure an appealing thought in the face of today’s twenty-degree high temperature.

I owe you a blog. I was supposed to blog on Monday, but I forgot amid the craziness. I’m in Dallas, Texas, working on the Super Bowl halftime show. This is my fourth Super Bowl. I’m part of the stage crew. Our task is to get the stage on and off the field for the show. This year the Black Eyed Peas are the band. They are totally uninteresting to me. I don’t know any of their songs, although I did recognize one of the songs they are doing in the show. I didn’t, however, know it was a BEP song.

My job is assistant volunteer coordinator, which means that I check in volunteers for our rehearsals, make sure they have all signed the necessary waivers, and do a lot of waiting around while they are practicing moving stages around. Many of the same people work on the show every year, so I’ve made some good friends over the course of these four years.

This year’s curve ball is the weather. Last week it was seventy degrees.  This week it’s twenty degrees. With ice. The wind chill below zero. Every single person made a trip to the sporting goods store to buy long underwear and outerwear. I myself got a lovely pair of ski pants almost exactly like a pair I have at home in my drawer and never wear. So now I have two pairs of ski pants to not wear.

Tonight’s rehearsal (minus ten wind chill predicted) is the first time we’ve seen the band. We’ve had our own stage rehearsals. The field cast (the kids on the field that dance around) has had their own rehearsals. We’ve had a combined rehearsal. But this is the first time the actual performers will be present. The volunteers are very excited about that. I’m just glad that the stadium is enclosed and therefore many degrees warmer than outside, with no wind!

No banjo action to report so far this year. If something comes up, you’ll be the first to know!

Red Henry

Today we'll talk about what may be an unpleasant subject: PRACTICE. While some learners find it easy to play one or two or six or seven hours a day, some can't get the energy or time for 20 minutes. But it's important.

I can talk from my own experience. As I get older it's harder to get up the energy to practice, but sometimes there are special events coming up that make it easy. Right now, I'm practicing mandolin and singing every day, to get ready for a CD which Christopher and I plan to record in a couple of weeks. And you know what? Practice helps, even if you've been playing a long time. I'm playing and singing a whole lot better than I could a month ago. I was pretty rusty, but now I'm getting back into shape.

Is it hard for you to practice? Remember that it's a lot easier to start practicing and sound good after just a day or two off, than it is if you haven't played for a week. That by itself is a good reason to play a little every day-- you'll sound better when you play again. In fact, play every day if you can, even if it's just for 20 minutes. Or 15 minutes. Or 10 minutes. Then when you get a chance to practice for a longer time, it'll be easier to play and sound better!

As I've said before in these pages, 20 minutes a day is better than 2 hours on Saturday. If you go from one weekend to another without practicing in between, it can be hard to even pick up your instrument and play! So even if your schedule is rushed, when you have a few minutes in the morning or evening, play a tune or two. Your fingers will be glad you did.


Red Henry

Folks, we've had a terrific response to our first 6 DVDs offered as digital downloads (details here). We didn't know quite what to think of this new technology at first, but when we put these 6 up on line, the response from old and new students has been excellent. It appears that the downloads have a bright future for the Murphy Method. These are our titles available at present:

Beginning Banjo Volume 1
Beginning Banjo Volume 2
Slow Jam with Murphy and Casey
Picking Up the Pace: More Slow Jamming
Easy Songs for Banjo
Beyond Vamping: Fancy Banjo Backup as you can see, it's a great bunch of titles. Now, we're working on 8 more DVDs, which will be available digitally in a few weeks:

Banjo for Misfits
Vamping: Beginning Banjo Backup
Improvising: The First Stage
Beginning Guitar
Beginning Mandolin
Beginning Bass
Beginning Fiddle
Beginning Dobro

These will occupy us for a while, as we take care of all the details about putting them on line. I'd estimate that it will take about 5 or 6 weeks to have them available. But from now on, we need to hear from you. Which of our DVDs would you most like to see available this way? We'll have about 25 more DVDs, and need to know which way to go. Please let us know, either through your comments on this post, or by way of the "Contact Us" button on the website. We can't promise that your favorite DVD will be on line soon, but your opinion is important!

Red Henry