Here’s a question from Susan: Could one or both of you (Murphy and/or Casey): talk about what you look for in a student's progress that signals the student is ready to learn to play in a different key, say C?
What Susan is talking about is, of course, playing in C without a capo. It’s not a big deal to capo to the fifth fret and play out of G position.
So, when is it time to tackle a new key?
Roughly speaking, I’d say after you’ve been playing a couple of years, have learned 20 or 30 tunes, and can improvise. In other words, you want to be totally comfortable in the key of G first. I would also add that you need to have some substantial jamming experience.
What do I base this on? I base it on the difficulty that some of my previous students have had in moving into the Key of C. And I also base it on the trouble I had myself. It’s not as easy as it might seem.
Aside: One of my (many) pet peeves as a teacher is hearing that other teachers are using “Reuben” as a beginning tune. Reuben, as you may know, is in the key of D and you have to retune the banjo to play it. Sure, the rolls are easy and are mostly the same ones you use in the key of G. But getting a beginning student to retune a banjo? I don’t think so! (Even with a tuner.) And then the sound that the rolls make in G are so completely different in the Key of D. “Reuben,” in my book, is an advanced tune. And how often does it come up in a jam session anyway?
So, why is it hard to play in the key of C? For one thing, you have to use the F chord! And while you’re holding the F chord down, you often have to move your ring finger down to the second string. Not impossible, just different. And you often are moving from the C chord (three fingers down) to the F chord (three fingers down) and that’s a lot of having to keep your fingers down! There is not so much of that nice open G chord or even the often open D chord. For another thing, the “tag lick,” which is so easy and automatic once you learn it in G, it much harder in C. There is also, generally speaking, much more movement of the left hand involved because you frequently have to go up to the fifth fret first string to get a melody note. And then there are a number of totally new rolls that you have to learn. None of this is impossible, it’s just hard.
Lastly, there is the whole issue of hearing and thinking in a new key, a key in which the G chord is now the V (five) chord, not the I (one), and C chord is now the I and not the IV (four). And then there is the F chord. Oh, I already said that. Well, it bears repeating. Then there is the F chord.
In short, you need to be a fairly competent banjo player in the key of G before you tackle C. There is no reason to make things harder than they have to be by trying to learn them too soon. In the mean time, use your capo!