Tag Archives: intermediate camp

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!)

Casey and I are excited that our Intermediate Banjo Camp is coming up soon in Winchester, Va. We’ve been in the Banjo Camp Bid-ness (as we say in the South) only a few short years and we look forward to this cozy, intimate weekend, working closely with about 20 students. We are proud to say our students always learn a lot, and they certainly have taught us a thing or two!

One thing we learned pretty quickly is that students who survive our Beginning Camp…I mean students who LOVE our Beginning Camp in October often want to continue to feed their banjo euphoria by coming to our Intermediate Camp in March. I totally get that. In fact, I encourage students to strike while the banjo is hot, because life has a way of making other plans for you, as I’m sure you all know. To support these dedicated beginners, we’ve started offering a “I Just Barely Became An Intermediate Student By The Skin Of My Banjo Head” level. Which we shorten to “Newbie Intermediates.” You all are welcome at our Intermediate Camp!

Here’s what you Newbie Intermediates can expect:

First of all, our camps differ from other camps in that we have a list of prerequisites for each camp. These songs give us a foundation for our teaching and put all the students on the same page. For instance, to attend Beginning Camp you have to be able to play:

Banjo in the Hollow

Boil Them Cabbage Down

Cripple Creek

To move on up to the Intermediate Camp, Newbie Level, you simply add three songs. (And stir!)

I Saw the Light OR Foggy Mountain Breakdown (low break) Both songs teach, for the first time, the all-important “tag lick.”

Blue Ridge Cabin Home (“roly poly” version)

Bury Me Beneath the Willow (“roly poly” version)

These six songs plus the vamping will get you into the Newbie Intermediate class. Using those songs, which everybody in the class can play, Casey and I can then teach other Intermediate Skills such as:

How to Trade Breaks in a Jam (When do I come in?)

Improvising On the Fly At a Jam (How do I come up with break to a song I’ve never played before?)

Using a Capo (How the heck do I find the vamp chords when I’ve got a capo on! I’ve lost my markers!)

How to Interchange Licks in Songs You Already Play (Really? I can do this?) Yes, you can. We call these “upgrades.”

Our focus is never on speed. We focus on helping you develop the courage to play a break in a jam by giving you the tools you need. (Which are listed above.) Nowadays, we almost never focus on teaching new songs. You can get those off of our DVDs. Instead we focus on teaching you to actually play the songs you already know in a friendly jam setting. And that’s what we do with the Newbie Intermediates.

What do we offer our Advanced Intermediates?

First of all, the Advanced Intermediate class also includes you Intermediate Intermediates (which always reminds me of the character “Major Major” in the book Catch-22). The prereqs for our Advanced Intermediates are all of the above plus a few songs of your choice from this list:

Foggy Mountain Breakdown (low and high)

John Hardy

Old Joe Clark

Lonesome Road Blues

I Saw the Light

Worried Man

Two-Dollar Bill

Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms (a must!)

The Advanced Intermediate class plays faster (but not too fast!) and we move through the new material faster. In this class we almost always work on whatever new thing I am currently gung-ho about in my banjo teaching. This year it is playing in three-quarter (¾) time. Working with my own Tip Jar Jammers this past year, I have come up with a great list of songs in ¾ time that work with ¾ time roly polys: Amazing Grace, Before I Met You, In The Pines, All The Good Times Are Past and Gone, and Angel Band. We will start out with the simplest way to play these and then, if the class is willing and the creek don’t rise, we’ll move on to a more complicated way.

We will also be delving into my last year’s passion, playing in the key of C without using a capo. We’ll take one or two of the three-chord songs you already know in the key of G, and learn to play it in C. Doing this usually leads us into a discussion about playing in D, which opens that can of worms labeled “I hate to tell you this, but when you capo at the second fret you’re not always playing in A.” Huh? Really? Yep, really. You could be playing in the key of D! Casey and I will explain all. And then we’ll let YOU play in D—based on what we just learned to play in C.

Our goal in this camp and all our camps is to help you become better banjo players. We want you to walk in on Friday playing at one level and walk out on Sunday playing at a higher level. We do this by playing the songs—over and over and over—that you already know how to play. Sometimes we will play them at different capoed positions, usually A (two frets) or C (five frets). We also encourage you, gently, to play improvised breaks to simple, three-chord songs that you’ve never played before. But this is only after we show you how.

To support everything that you’ve learned during the day classes, we offer instructor-led jams at night in which everyone who wants to play breaks gets to play breaks. In these jams, we play slow for the Newbies and faster for the more advanced players. Kathy Hanson has been our jam leader for the last few years and we are excited to have her back again this year.

If spending a weekend actually playing the banjo, in company with like-minded people and under the tutelage of two seasoned, caring teachers (one more seasoned that the other!), sounds like your cup of tea, join us in Winchester, Va., home of Patsy Cline and Lynn Morris. All the details are here.

Ben Smelser

Ben Smelser

Trying to help Murphy again on these blogs so here goes. At 12:30 campers began checking in and picking up their name tags. After looking around I could tell that some of these faces I had seen before. Yep I was right!! Returning campers from last year's intermediate camp. Going around the room listening to introductions I noticed that some folks did a great deal of traveling. Maine, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Georgia, and Southern Virginia. Plus I noticed that most of our heads were grey/white except for one teenager, the gentleman from Maine, and one Banjo instructor. The other instructor's hair has been altered. [Ha, ha!] I would say the average age for this Camp would be probably around 55. Where are all the young people? We've all gotta do better job of getting the youth involved. How many of us wish we wouldn't have waited so long to start playing? Encourage the young! ...continue reading

Ben Smelser

Ben Smelser

Yep, that's right folks, the Thursday night Jam was held at the Courtyard Marriott to help accommodate the Murphy Method Intermediate campers who are living there the next few days while attending camp. So....that makes a big house. Bigger than mine anyhow! 

Oh yeah, I'm blogging, not Murphy, trying to help her out cause she is busy with the camp. Since we had so many folks there last night I won't get into names. But here's my take!

Once we got the room set up and everyone got in the circle we were ready to jam. I missed the first song due to Murphy forcing me to drive to her studio and get the bass. But I rushed and that was the only song I missed. [It was a 15 minute version of Banjo in the Hollow!] ...continue reading

Murphy Henry

Hey, hey, hey! We are excited to let you know that Geoff Stelling, of Stelling Banjo fame, will be coming to our Murphy Method Intermediate Camp on Friday, March 22, to give a demonstration about banjo set-up. Geoff is a whiz at banjo set-up and he knows how to talk about it so that the lay person can understand it. He will also be bringing some Stelling banjos for you to play.


As you know, I’ve been playing a Stelling for years ever since Geoff gave me one after hearing me jamming at the SPBGMA convention in Nashville. That one was a Top Tension and when I decided it was WAY too heavy to tote around, I got a walnut Masterflower since I coveted the one my student Opal had just gotten. (You know what the Good Book says: covet earnestly the Best Things!) I liked the Masterflower a “right smart” but I missed the arched fingerboard that my other name-brand banjo had. And I missed the size and shape of that other neck, which fit my hand perfectly. So, gathering all my courage together, I finally asked Geoff if he would build me a neck like that other banjo had, a smaller neck with what we are now calling a “radiused” fingerboard. He was more than willing and thus the MurphyFlower was born.


Then, a few years later, after schlepping that banjo (on my back) up and down the hills of West Virginia (Augusta Heritage camp) and across the plains of Maryville College (Kaufman Kamp), I decided it needed it to be lighter. So I took the banjo down to Geoff to see what he could do. Basically, I wanted to take out the tone ring. Ever helpful, he put together several different “pot” options and I played them all. I finally decided on what I think was an older Tony Pass rim and a little metal hoop for a tone ring. It sounded fabulous and was considerably lighter. My back said “thank you” a thousand times! (We may just have to take my banjo apart at the Intermediate Camp to see what’s in there! I did lose a bet to Marty one year when I insisted that the banjo had no tone ring at all!)


Geoff will also be offering tips about what you can do to make your banjo sound better, Stelling or not. And he will answer any questions you may have about banjo set-up, strings, tail pieces, bridges, head tension, and all that delightful minutia that trips the trigger of so many banjo players. (Not me!)


I think he’s also going to hang around and play in our little concert that night (with Steve Spence and Scott Brannon) and then remain available for jamming later on.


So, if you’ve ever wished you could ask one of the best banjo builders in the world some questions, this will be a golden opportunity!


We still have a few openings left for our Intermediate camp. As you know, we try to keep the camps small so you can have lots of individual attention from Casey and me. And we try to create a comfortable atmosphere so you can feel free to play and ask questions. We never intimidate and we think all questions are good ones! Give us a call or shoot us an email if you’d like to join us or if you just want more information. 1-800-227-2357. See you real soon!