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!)