We just finished up our SIXTH Beginning Banjo Camp here in Winchester. I had one of the best groups of intermediate beginners ever, and this was mainly due to their own hard work before the camp. They all had learned their prerequisites and they all knew their vamp chords which made playing together so much easier. Norman was one of those hard-working students. With his permission, I’m sharing our email exchange which began in August. These are real emails. I have lightly edited them to take out details about airplane flights and directions to Winchester and the price of eggs in Alaska!

Emails, August 2016 BC (Before Camp)


I'd like to come to your beginner camp in Oct. and, since I'm from Colorado, would like to dovetail that with a lesson or two. Perhaps come on Thursday for a lesson, stay till Monday for another Sunday afternoon. If you have any energy left.

I've been picking away for some time but need direction, better practice habits and so forth.

I've not played much with others but know a reasonable break to the songs that you've mentioned, plus some back-up. I'm open to suggestions.

There are banjo teachers closer by but they're generally band members and not in the business of instruction.

Thanks for your help and I look forward to hearing from you. Norman  ...continue reading

I've taught at many bluegrass camps down through the years, and one thing I noticed early on is that the various instruments have little common ground when it comes to tunes. Tunes that are easy for the fiddle or mandolin, like Liberty or Soldier's Joy, are not easy for the banjo. Many lead guitar players start with tunes like Red-Haired Boy or Salt Creek, which are ADVANCED-level banjo tunes. (And even the chords are beastly.) Guitar players cannot usually take breaks to Foggy Mountain Breakdown. Fiddle, mandolin, and banjo players can sometimes find common ground with Cripple Creek or Boil Them Cabbage, although capoing to A for these can be a struggle for beginning banjo players. But these aren't great tunes for lead guitar players.

This disconnect is frustrating. How can you get a jam off the ground if no one knows the same tunes?

For years I dealt with this by having fiddle and mandolin players play their tunes, banjo players play their tunes, and guitar players play their tunes while everyone else scrambled to find the chords or just sat and watched. THAT, friends, is not a jam session. That is an organized practice session. A jam session is where everyone gets a shot at participating in the tune.

It took me a long time to realize that the common ground for student jams has to be singing songs.

ASIDE: I just remembered that this idea initially came to me forty years ago when I was discovering bluegrass at the University of Georgia where I was in the Pre-Med program. (That would last only a few more shaky semesters until "the lure of the honky tonk" wrecked my young life!) When I would come home on weekends I wanted someone to play bluegrass with, and who were better candidates than my four musically talented younger sisters. Argen, our middle sister, was particularly keen on it and she played guitar. But, really, what's the fun of playing only banjo tunes when neither you nor the guitar player is very good or very fast? So, early on, we all started singing bluegrass songs together. That way everybody could participate and I still got to take all the banjo breaks!! Win-win! Our early bluegrass repertoire was eclectic, since we were newbies and had barely heard of Flatt and Scruggs: Delta Dawn, Bugler, Let The Church Roll On, Brush Arbor Meeting, How Mountain Boys Can Love (gender flipping even then!), I'll Fly Away, Farther Along, They Baptized Jesse Taylor, Brethren We Have Met To Worship, and lots of other hymns. I started songwriting early so we also sang Grandmother's Song, There's A Frog In the Pond, and The Florida Song. The point was everyone participated.

BACK TO THE BLOG: Is this focus on singing songs a perfect arrangement? No, it is not. But even if you can't play a break, the chords themselves are not hard to follow and even bashful singers can "pour out their hearts in song" and make a joyful noise! And, with some basic improv skills, three-chord bluegrass songs are flexible enough to accommodate very very very simple breaks. Some of my lead guitar students can pick out the melody to songs like Do Lord and I Saw The Light and Worried Gal on the spur of the moment. It's pretty amazing. My one fiddle student can play about anything as long as she knows the song in her head. Banjo players are learning to do "roly polys" to easy songs. Mandolin players? I'm working on something for you!

The point is, with singing songs you don't have to know a preconceived break to be able to make a stab at playing something! As my friend Marty Bacon points out, "Bluegrass may not be easy, but it is accessible."

Of course, making a stab at playing something requires a great deal of courage. You have to take that leap of faith and accept the fact that you're gonna screw up. Just like learning to walk, you're gonna fall down, you're gonna scrape your knee, you're gonna bump your head. But does this embarrass a kid? No way! It may piss her off and bring on some tears, but she gets right back up and tries it again. And pretty soon: WALKING! RUNNING! Skip, hop, and wobbling!

So, especially to all you wonderful womyn coming to our Jam Camp in July: bring your courage, your singing songs, and your big girl panties, and get ready to jam!

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

ASIDE: (Putting this first so you'll read it!) Dan and I have recently started working on playing melody-based breaks. (He had met my prerequisites: being able to play Roly Poly breaks in the jam in the key of G and the key of open C and knowing the core Scruggs repertoire and being able to play that in the jam.) But Tuesday, at our second lesson on playing the melody, we ran into a snag. His assignment had been to work up a melody-based break to the Crawdad Song. He tried and he came up with something he thought was "correct." He thought he was hearing the melody of the Crawdad Song but, in fact, he was not. Short version: I told him he needed to listen to the song more than 2 or 3 or 4 or 5 times. I told him he needed to listen to it 50 or 100 times. So, bless his heart, he programmed the song to repeat on his iPod and listened to that one song for the entire 45 minutes he was exercising at the gym. (Rowing, I think he said.) Then last night at the jam, one day after his lesson and his Crawdad Song-binge at the gym, he played his melody-based version of the Crawdad Song. And we heard it and, behold, it was good! When I congratulated Dan on his break he said, "What you said about listening was the key. I listened to it so much I got sick of it. But now I know how it goes." My reply? "YES! If you're sick of it, you'll know it!" And his playing showed that he DID know it and he DID hear it. Happy, happy teacher! I'm excited about this new teaching venture and will be sure to keep you posted!

Now, to the blog!  ...continue reading

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

I interrupt my playing with Dalton to bring you this blog!

Our Wednesday night jam was really different this time. Of course, all jams have their own flavour (to use Brit spelling!) but Wednesday we started off with just two jammers, Diane on guitar and David on banjo. So, guess who I'll be talking about? [Editor's comment: Yourself?]

My job, of course, is to figure out how to make the jam work no matter how many people are there. (I just realized that I actually got a lot of practice doing this early in life while trying to figure out how to get my four younger sisters involved in whatever activity we had going on--and still keep me interested!) So initially I thought David could play his banjo tunes in G and then we'd go to C and Diane could sing and he could do Roly Polys. It only took one pass through Banjo In The Hollow for me to realize that there was no way this would work for me! Boring! (No disrespect to David's playing, but bluegrass jamming is all about taking turns, something else I learned in childhood! Not one of my favorite lessons.)

So I said, "Diane, have you got the chords to Banjo In The Hollow?"

She said, "Yes, I think so."

I said, "Okay, you are going to carry the rhythm while David and I trade breaks."

And, by golly, she did it. First time. All by herself. And she was solid! ...continue reading

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

Our first Tip Jar Jam of the New Year was a cold one. We had two or three inches of snow on the ground and a windchill factor down near zero and still five hardy souls braved the elements to come jam. Thank you Kathy H, Ben, Kasey, David, Dan, and Steph.

So, about halfway through the jam we're singing Do Lord in the Key of C so Kathy and Dan can practice playing their breaks un-capoed in first position. Ben has moved from banjo to bass. Now, we've been playing Do Lord in the jam since we first started over two years ago. It is a Beginner Level Song which uses three chords no matter what key you're playing in.

Let me remind you that Ben went to Bluegrass Camp at Augusta Heritage this past August where he took the bass class. He learned to play simple songs in all the keys---A, B, C, D, E, F, G. So why in the name of Earl (or even Cedric Rainwater!) was he screwing up the chords Wednesday night? Who knows? I gave him The Look but that didn't seem to help.

When the song was over I looked at him and said, "What was THAT about? What was going on?" He looked right back at me and said, "It is what it is."

It is what is it? Nobody has ever said that to me in a jam before! ...continue reading

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

Well, here it is, December 31, the last day of 2014. And as Lester Flatt sang, "I've been sitting here thinking back over my life..." And what I was thinking this morning as I drank my coffee and read my favorite new author Louise Penny on my Kindle was, in fact, Roly Polys. 

For me, this was the year that all my attempts to teach improvising on the banjo finally came to fruition in the form of the Roly Polys. In addition to 40 years of teaching (and thank you Tim for that constant reminder!), several things fell into place to coax the Roly Polys into being: My wonderful teaching place in town, the Tip Jar Jams, and an amazing group of courageous banjo students.

The Teaching Place (TP) finally offered a room big enough for a jam session and plenty of parking right in front. I'd tried Misfit jam sessions before---twice in the Barber Shop and once at our house out in the country---but, frankly, I didn't have the skills or experience to make these really work. (And there was no parking at our house. In fact one of the students backed into a tree coming out of our driveway which is how I met Ben Smelser when I called him to come cut it down, but that's an entirely different story!) ...continue reading

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

And what an appropriate title for the last Tip Jar Jam Blog of 2014!

We had a bodacious and Brobdingnagian crowd at the jam Wednesday night. As Kathy G said, "Just mention hooch and they will come!" Yes, we did have a small holiday party with adult beverages! The entire Campbell family showed up and as always it was good to see Drew (banjo) and Rhys (pronounced Reece, on fiddle). We have Drew to thank for the blog title!

Here's the story: I was looking for one more song to sing so Dan could continue to play in Open C. He'd already done well on Do Lord,  Circle, and I'll Fly Away, even playing some two-finger melody pinches on the latter ("when this life is o'er"; and "God's celestial shore"). The crowd was too big and too diverse to try Dooley or Long Black Veil or When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder, so I settled on I Saw The Light. I called for a volunteer to kick it off, and Drew stepped up to the plate. He was capoed up five frets as were most of the banjo players.

Drew was all excited about kicking off I Saw The Light because, as he said, "I want to play my new high break!" I told him gently but firmly (although it might have been just firmly....) that he had to kick the song off with the low break. However, nothing ever seems to dim Drew's enthusiasm, so he said, "Well, I'll play my high break second." I raised my eyebrows at his father, Jason, and said, "I don't think so" because with ten other pickers taking breaks I knew that Drew wouldn't get a second chance. This, too, did not make the slightest dint in his joy. Amazing kid. He was willing to hope for the best! ...continue reading

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

Last night's jam started off in a sedate fashion, with five banjos and two guitars circled up ready to pick. Then, while everyone was tuning up, I heard some thrashing around in the adjoining room. I did a quick calculation, ticking off students who I knew weren't coming and I couldn't quite figure out who it was. Then just as Kathy G was fixing to kick off Banjo In The Hollow (this time in G!), in walks......Bob McQueen! "Oh, there's no place like home for the holidays!" Even though he "officially" lives in Florida now, I'm sure Winchester still feels like home sweet home. He was nattily attired in all things "Steeler" from his jersey, to his hat, to his tennis shoes! Go, Big Ben!

After the excitement of seeing Bob, things settled back down for a while. We did a bunch of G tunes and then Kathy H sang I Want My Dog Back, which is fast becoming a favorite. All the banjo players--which also included Ben, Kasey and Betty---tried Roly Poly breaks and they all got an A for effort but the odd chord pattern was really throwing them, even with me yelling "Short D! Short D!" So after the song was over we "workshopped" it a bit, with Kathy H singing the melody lightly while I called out the chords and everyone Roly Polied at the same time. I now know that the first half of the break has an extra two beats of G and, as Diane (on guitar) pointed out, the second half of the break does NOT have those extra two beats of G. Confusing! Especially when you're trying to play a break on the fly. Which is one thing that makes bluegrass so much fun!  ...continue reading

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

I've been trying to write this blog about the Wednesday night jam--which turned out to be all women--for two days, but it's just not happening. As Jim Croce sings, "Every time I try to tell you, the words just come out wrong..." [Confession: I thought that was an Elton John song. Google set me straight!] 

So, ladies--Kathy H, Kristina, Diane, and Steph--we laughed a lot, we picked a lot, we had some great three-part harmony, and we tried out some new songs: Gentle On My Mind; a gender-flipped version of Dooley (no reason a woman can't be a moonshiner!), and Paul and Silas Bound In Jail All Night Long. These are probably keepers, so heads up all you Jammers! And we mentioned Mae West. There. That's it in a tiny nutshell.  ...continue reading

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

I wanted to write a quick blog just so I can show you this cute picture of me and my buddy and singing partner, Cam. Cam is Ben's grandson (he calls Ben "Pap"), and this was his first jam! He behaved like an angel, sitting on the couch and playing with a Kindle and the Ninja Turtle I had given him for a surprise. And when Kasey sang I Saw The Light, Cam was right there singing along on the chorus, with a big smile on his face. Come back any time, Cam. You da man! (Do people still say that? Or is that, like, so last year decade?)

Me and my buddy, Cam!

Me and my buddy, Cam!

...continue reading