Tag Archives: By Murphy


I’m sure you all have heard by now of the passing of the great banjo player
Sonny Osborne. As a tribute to Sonny, I’m writing an article for Bluegrass
Unlimited magazine based on Sonny’s Banjo Newsletter column. It was
called “Keep on The Sonny Side,” and every month Sonny answered
questions that readers would send in.

So…… that gave me the idea that I could follow in his footsteps and do the
same thing. So we’re gonna give this a try. And since “Keep On The Murphy
Side” doesn’t have much of a ring to it, we’re just gonna call it, “Ask

If you have a question you want to ask me, email it to
themurphymethod@gmail.com. If you do NOT want me to use your
name in my answer, please say so, otherwise I will assume that it’s okay.

Sonny said in his first column, “Any questions you would will ask, I’ll try to
answer.” I’m not sure I can be that bold, but I will try to answer any
questions relating to learning by ear, banjos, bluegrass, jam sessions, and
my book about women in bluegrass, Pretty Good for a Girl. Looking forward
to hearing from you!

Also: I still have room for a few more students. Either online (Zoom or Skype) or in person. Email me at murphybanjo@gmail.com  or text 540-533-9685. Beginners most welcome. I also teach guitar and beginning mandolin.


Seven people standing on stage playing fiddles, and one person playing guitar

Murphy (in the pink plaid shirt) playing fiddle with the Advanced Fiddle Class

Well, it’s been years since I blogged [Editor's note: it has actually been one year, four months, and ten days.] but since I just spend 5 days being a fiddle student at the Augusta Heritage October Old-Time Retreat in Elkins, W.Va., I thought I’d relive the experience by telling you about it. It was such a reversal, me being a student instead of a teacher. And on an instrument with which I have had such a tempestuous on-off relationship for decades.

Three of my banjo students were also going to go, but two of them couldn’t make it, so it was just me and Dano, who was going to take the vocal class.

I signed up for the Advanced Fiddle Class, not because I feel like I’m an advanced fiddler (I still call myself a hacker) but because I figured that, as a professional musician, at least I’d be able to keep up. However, I found myself hanging on by my fingernails! It was an odd feeling to be the slowest student in the group. (Although I’ll confess, I had already had that humbling experience when I started doing yoga 5 years ago.)

It was a small class, just 6 students, most of us over 60. On the first day, our teacher, the twenty-something Tessa Dillion (who is a fabulous fiddler), played 4 tunes for us (all very fast!) and said this is what we’d be learning during the 4-day camp. Yikes! Three of them I’d never heard, and the fourth, “Salt River” (known in bluegrass as “Salt Creek,”) didn’t sound anything like the version I teach. In fact, having the banjo version in my head actually made it harder to learn.

Luckily, Tessa was teaching by ear (yay!) and she broke down the tunes into small phrases and she played them slow and she even told us where to put our fingers. But, dang, even the names for the fingers were confusing! I use the words index, middle, and ring and she used the words first, second, third. So, when she said “third finger,” I had trouble making my ring finger move. By the time I figured out what my third finger was and got it in place, she had already moved on to another note!

Of course, if I really got lost, I had no trouble asking her to go over the phrase again, because that’s what I want my students to do. Tessa always did it willingly and graciously and slowly. I was, however, the only student who ever asked her to explain something again. After class she told me she was glad I spoke up. She said there were probably other students who needed to go over it again, too. That made me feel good.

So, in two hours of instruction I learned the whole of “Wilson’s Hornpipe.” I use the term “learned” loosely. Fortunately, at the end of class, Tessa played the whole tune slowly for us to record on our phones. And it was a good thing she did because, when I got up the next morning to review the tune before class, I had completely forgotten it! So there I am, standing in my room in my pajamas, ear buds in, listening to the tune and trying to pluck out the notes on the fiddle without using the bow because it’s 6:30 am and I don’t want to disturb anyone. It was slow going. I did have some muscle memory from all the reps in class, but there were many notes that I was still having to guess at. And that drove me crazy!

By 9:30, we were back in class, playing the tune together slowly. That helped. I was beginning to get a tiny feel for it. But now, it was time to learn another one! “Salt River”! The next day, we learned yet another whose name escapes me right now. And each day my brain was tireder and foggier because Dano and I had found a little spot where we could play some bluegrass (him on banjo and me on guitar) and we stayed up till about 11 every night jamming. A few students and even a couple of instructors slithered over to the dark side and joined us, and several folks stopped by to listen. The camp coordinator actually gave us a plug one morning and referred to that spot as the “Bluegrass Alcove”!

I kept practicing the fiddle tunes in my room, even using the bow after I figured everyone was awake. And it would be a great end to this story to have me say that I finally learned the tunes and could play them well. But the truth is, by Sunday morning, when each class went on stage to showcase a tune that they’d learned, I was still struggling to remember all the notes in the first tune, which is the one we were going to play. Sometimes I had them, and sometimes I didn’t. And I absolutely could not play it fast.

Still, I got on stage with my classmates, and with Tessa on guitar, I gave it my best shot. The thing that saved me was my joy of being on stage and my ability to keep going when I made a mistake. The strongest fiddlers pulled us through and we sounded fine.

It’s going to take a lot more woodshedding for me to be able to play those tunes! We’ll see if I make the time to practice them. If I don’t, well, I did play a lot of fiddle in the class and think I’m a better fiddler for that. And for now, that’s enough.

Murphy HenryMark, who has been taking banjo about six months now, and I had an interesting discussion at our lesson tonight. Mark said he’d been watching clips of really good banjo players picking on U-Tube and he noticed that all of them look at their left hands and none of them look at their right hands. Mark, on the other hand (no pun intended, I swear), looks at his right hand exclusively. He told me that he thinks this is hindering him from picking up speed. He’s afraid he’ll never be able to play fast if he keeps looking at his right hand. I told him I knew what I’d be blogging about tonight!

Initially I wasn’t too concerned. After all, he’s still a beginning player and he’s really doing well. He’s a little over the one song a month average and he can vamp and come in off the vamp for his breaks. What’s not to like?

But then he told me that when he’s looking at his right hand he’s actually thinking of the strings he’s hitting, as in 4,2,3,1/5,3,4,1. (That’s the double square roll, usually in C chord.) Then I got concerned. Because if he’s thinking of the individual strings, then, he’s right: he’ll never be able to play fast. You don’t want to be doing the Cripple Creek lick and thinking 3,2,5,1.

So, of course, I then asked him to play something easy and NOT look at his right hand. He played “Banjo in the Hollow” and, while it was really hard for him not to look at his right hand, he could do it. Ditto “Cripple Creek” and even “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” The songs even sounded smoother to me.

I told him that since he obviously could play the songs without looking at his right hand, what he was doing was pure habit. Is it a bad habit? I’m not sure. But since Mark was concerned, I told him to start out with easy songs, play them slow, and make himself look only at his left hand.

He told me that in just trying not to look at his right hand on those three songs he was already experiencing quite a bit of anxiety.

I told him that he shouldn’t do anything that would disrupt his playing, since even looking at his right hand he was already doing very well. I reminded him that this was supposed to be fun, not torture.

He told me that he thought he’d try not looking on some songs. But that for the rest of the lesson he was going to have to look.

I told him that would be fine.

So, I think Mark has a legitimate concern. I relate it to you as something to think about. DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT get yourself all tied up in knots if you, too, happen to look at your right hand. DO NOT ruin your playing by trying to fix something that might not need fixed (as we say here in the Shenandoah Valley). In Georgia we say “might not need to be fixed.”

Although I have not run any kind of study, I suspect that most people who play banjo long enough eventually stop looking at their right hands.

Stay tuned to the Murphy Method Blog for updates on Mark and the question “to look or not to look?”

And me? I look at my left hand!

Murphy HenrySort of a sad day here. Brill’s Barber Shop and Musician’s Shop where I have taught for the last 22 years is now empty. All the guitars that were hanging up—attached by metal shower curtain hooks and dangling from a long metal pipe attached to the wall---are gone. The shelves filled with CDs and cassettes are now empty. The pegboard that held strings, capos, kazoos, and a musical saw is now barren. All the banjos had made their departures earlier, purchased by lucky students who got some really good deals.

The talking moose, Buck, given to Dalton on his birthday by David McLaughlin and Marshall Wilborn, has found another home. (“What am I gonna do with that?” Dalton asked. “I’ll have to put it up somewhere.” He ended up having loads of fun with it, teasing the little kids who came in for hair cuts by going out in the hall and making Buck talk to them with the remote microphone.) The jackalope that Lynn Morris gave him has also been hauled away. Even the old-fashioned barber chairs are gone. My friend Patty Henry bought the ancient cash register. Dalton never rang up any sales on it, he just kept his money in there. The drawer opened when you pulled the handle. I’m glad it found a loving owner.

This was the first time I had seen the shop empty. The auctioneers loaded things up while we were out of town for Thanksgiving. I came in today to get a few of my things out and as I stared at the empty showcase and the walls devoid of pictures, I thought of a great song we used to sing at our regular Wednesday night concerts in the basement of the shop. It was called “There Was An Auction At The Homeplace” and it was written by Mike Henderson, of Shepardstown, West Virginia. One of the most poignant phrases to me has always been “the house’s heart was empty.” That’s the way the barber shop felt today. The auctioneers had come, they’d “put everything in boxes,” and they’d hauled a life away.

One of the few things remaining is my little table where I keep all my teaching stuff—Banjo Newsletters, picks, bracket wrenches, tiny screw drivers, wire cutters, cassette players, blank cassettes, Murphy Method DVDs, CDs to give away. It’s very crowded. I’ll be teaching in the empty shop though December while I look for a new location in which to ply my trade. I’ll have to dig up a couple of chairs, though. Those are gone, too. But maybe, just maybe, I’ll put up a Christmas tree.

Murphy Henry[This is my Banjo Newsletter column from May 1986. It did not, in fact, make it into my book. Guess there wasn’t enough about banjo playing in it! I reprint it here to share with you my first glimpse of Dalton Brill’s Barber Shop where I’ve taught for the last 22 years.]

Well, folks, greetings from the thriving metropolis of Winchester, Virginia! WE HAVE MOVED! It’s over! It’s done! No more following a 24-foot U-Haul truck through the mountains at 25 miles per hour! No more wandering around in Columbia, South Carolina, looking for Interstate 77! And no more wondering whether we are going to like this house that we have just committed a lifetime of payments to. We love it!

But, why Winchester? Well, now, I’m not really a big believer in signs but....on our first visit to Winchester, back in December, naturally one of our first concerns was to find a place where I could teach banjo. I mean, first things first. Not four blocks from the house where we were staying [with David McLaughlin], there it was: Brill’s Barber Shop and Musicians’ Shop---Specializing in Bluegrass and Country Music. Now I have taught at several different music stores in my time, but none of them has ever mentioned the word “bluegrass” in its logo, marquee, or advertising. That was Sign #1. Red and I went in and were introduced to the proprietor, Dalton Brill, who, being between haircuts, was sitting down playing his banjo. (Sign #2.) It was a Gibson. (Sign #3.)

Now in order to understand Sign #4, which is a biggie, I will have to digress for just a moment. On Christmas Eve, John and Lynn Hedgecoth [Red’s uncle and his wife, both musicians] came over to our old house in Hawthorne, Florida, to exchange gifts, see how much our kids had grown, pick a little, and gossip about Prominent Bluegrass Musicians. John just happens to be one of the best banjo players in the world. In between Bill Monroe stories, he was wandering around looking at all our books. He came back and said, “Is that a Don Reno Instruction Book you have? I’ve never seen one.”

“No,” I said, “that’s a Don Reno Song Book. I traded Don Wayne for it up in New Jersey. I didn’t know Don Reno had published an instruction book.”

“Oh, yes,” said John. “I’ve always wanted one.”

“Well, if I ever see any,” I said, “I’ll get two. One for me and one for you.”

So what do you think happened? Up in Winchester the very next week, I walked over to the rack of music books in Brill’s and found a whole slew of Don Reno Banjo Instruction Books. And that was Sign #4. I bought two.

...continue reading

Murphy HenryAs you saw on our November 3rd Blog, my good friend and banjo-playing buddy Dalton Brill died on October 29. I've been teaching at Dalton's combination Barber Shop and Musician's Shop since we moved to Winchester in 1986. As I told the folks at Dalton's funeral, our friend David McLaughlin had been instrumental (no pun intended!) in getting us to move to Virginia from Florida and one of his hooks was that he knew a place where I could teach banjo. David said it was just down the street from his house on the Olde Towne Mall.

So when Red and I drove to Winchester to check things out, we went by the shop and met Dalton. He was very gracious, as I learned he always was. I told him I'd heard he had an opening for a banjo teacher. He told me that he'd never had anyone teaching at his shop before, but he was willing to give it a try. We negotiated lesson prices and a commission for him and I was all set. It wasn't until years later when Dalton and I were reminiscing about our first meeting that I found out that Dalton didn't know me from Adam's house cat and that David had never said anything to him about my teaching there! But, as usual, Dalton rose to the occasion---being the Southern Gentleman that he was---and wanting to spare me any embarrassment, he just said sure, I could teach there. He was just hoping I could actually play the banjo!

What he didn't tell me was that his dog Shotzie---a Doberman pinscher---stayed in the back room during the day (and in the shop at night), and that I'd have to walk through there to get into the shop (unless I wanted to come in the front door and walk past all the men waiting for haircuts). I'm afraid of dogs in general (and men getting haircuts in particular), so I opted instead for crawling through a window into my teaching space. (The window was an indoor old-fashioned type that slid up and was low to the ground so it wasn't hard to do.) Dalton later told me that he got a real kick out of seeing me crawling thought that window. I guess it was sorta funny looking!

Dalton was pretty much solely responsible for all the students who started lessons with me to begin with. Not only did he run an ad in the paper, he also corralled any of his customers who showed the slightest interest in guitar or banjo. I've written about Dalton several times in Banjo Newsletter (those columns are collected in my book....) and maybe we'll post those later.

Murphy's Misfits---the first group of my students to jam together---originated in his shop and as you can see from the pictures posted on Monday, the tradition continues. The current group of unofficial Misfits (I haven't told them they are Misfits yet!) is, left to right: Chick, Steve, Bob Van, Mark, Susan, and Bob Mc. I'm the short person in the front in the green Kaufman Kamp T-shirt with the STELLING BANJO.

In the hour and a half jam we had on Saturday, we played six tunes: Banjo in the Hollow, Cripple Creek, Boil Them Cabbage, Cumberland Gap, Foggy Mountain Breakdown, and I Saw The Light. Everybody did great! We actually had NO train wrecks. I was so proud of all the students. I'm hoping to make this a regular monthly affair. We'll see! I can't stress enough how important it is to LEARN YOUR VAMP CHORDS. That's what making jamming possible. Who knows? Maybe you can stop by Winchester and join us sometime. After all, Carol Lombardo came all the way from Alaska!