Workshop in Marietta

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

Greetings once again from the Peach State, home of Ty Cobb, the Georgia Peach! I’m down here doing my weekend with the folks and have just finished fixing supper and then cleaning up the kitchen (massively dirty since this afternoon I baked and iced a birthday pound cake for my youngest sister Laurie, who on Wednesday will join the rest of the sisters in having achieved the ripe old age of fifty!). I’d love to spend the rest of the blog telling you about my cake baking experience which included borrowing real vanilla extract from our neighbor and meeting her in the yard, still in my pajamas at 2:30 pm! But my guess is most of you will be way more interested in hearing about the banjo workshop!

The Saturday morning workshop was sponsored by the wonderful folks at, John and Mark, and I had agreed to it primarily because I could combine it with my monthly trip home. Seventeen folks had signed up for the four-hour teaching session, which was held in a church sanctuary just a few doors down from (Have I said “” enough times yet?)

The tricky thing about doing a workshop is trying to find something to teach that will satisfy all comers. When I realized that we had a number of beginners in the class, I decided to go with the tried and true high break to the ubiquitous I-IV-V-I chord progression which fits numbers such as “The Prisoner’s Song,” “Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes,” and, of course, “Blue Ridge Cabin Home.” The nice thing about the break is that it can be done with basically one roll, the Foggy Mountain Breakdown Roll (2121,5215), and an up-the-neck tag lick, which is the hard part. (And is found on our Easy Songs for Banjo DVD!)

Everyone did really well playing the roll in the G, C, and D chords. But when we moved on to the choke lick, as a substitute for the D lick, people started dropping like flies. Okay, perhaps I’ve overstated that. But it was interesting (and frustrating) to see that even though the roll stayed the same, having to choke that second string (10th fret) made the roll sound SO different that it confused the fingers.

In order to give the students a rest from choking (that does sound weird…) I showed them that the choke lick could be used against a G chord, a C chord, or a D chord. (And large thanks to Mark for playing the guitar throughout the workshop!) This was fascinating to them, and precipitated several questions that I could not answer about why this was so. I told them to take it up with Bill Keith! The only answer I could give was that, yes, the choked note was an “A”. Why does that work in G? I don’t know. Why does that work in C? I don’t know. Why does that work in D? I don’t know. I just know it sounds good. Not one of my more shining moments!

The up-the-neck tag lick gave us trouble, as I knew it would, but we powered on through with many, many repetitions which is how we learned the whole song. For the most part, we played well together especially with Mark bearing down loudly on the guitar when folks got out of time. I reminded them that this was not a race, and that you didn’t get points for finishing ahead of everybody else. I also posed this question: “If I am doing the C lick, and you are doing the choke lick, guess who is wrong?”

After we had the whole break down, we looked at the chords, starting with the simplest (for the beginners) open G, first-position C, and first-position D-7. I was pleasantly surprised that everyone vamped on the off beat from the get-go. Again, having the guitar really helped because all I had to say was, “You vamp when the guitar does the strum.” And Mark was good to provide runs between the chords.

Now that we had the break and the chords, we put the whole song together with the singing. I kicked it off with Earl’s classic intro and half the class took the first break, then the other half took the second break. It sounded wonderful!

So, not only had we learned the break and the vamping, but I also hoped that everyone had seen how easy it is to learn by ear. And, almost paradoxically, how many, many repetitions you have to execute in order to commit a lick to muscle memory. But, unlike tab, even when you are playing only four notes, or eight notes, what you are doing is always musical. So, to me, it’s always fun! Especially when seventeen banjos are playing the FMB roll in perfect time!

I hope to do more workshops for in the coming months, since this one worked out so well. We’ll let you know by email, by blog, and on their website—did I mention that was—and ours!

7 thoughts on “ Workshop in Marietta

  1. rpcondon

    What a fantastic day for me! I was the lowest common (maybe uncommon?) denominator in the room and at one point Murphy asked me if I minded that she kept asking me the questions to get at where (or how unskilled) the class as a whole was. I responded, “Not at all!” I was so happy to have the attention and so pleased that no one seemed to mind my tin ear and lack of talent. My Dad and I had made a plan to learn to play the banjo together just a few months before he passed away (in 2007). He left me tons of bluegrass music which I ripped to my music player. On a run one day I accidentally shuffled to many of these selections and I recalled our pact. After the run I came into the house and announced to my husband that I was going to need to get a banjo. Bemused but always ready for anything we found out about John’s store and took a nice motorcycle ride to get outfitted with a beginner’s package. John and Mark were amazing and so encouraging. I have toiled for a year and still struggle with making the music come out. I have a tentative version of “Boil Them Cabbage Down” in my repertoire and have been stuck there. I feel like I had a breakthrough on Saturday and am filled with hope that I can progress a little more. Thanks, Murphy! I will watch for future workshops and hope to show you what I’ve learned! I am deeply involved in “Banjo In The Hollow” and am loving it!

  2. Arden Peters

    Your not knowing the music theory as to why the choke lick works against the G,C, and D chords reminds me of the old picker from the back hills who was asked if he could read music. He replied, “Not enough to where it interferes with my pickin’ “

  3. Joseph Jacobson

    Hey! I just wanted to say that I already was able to use that chord progression in a jamming session. I had worked on it a bit that afternoon (it isn’t all that hard except for when you switch from the choke to the three fingered G chord) so that night we were jamming and playing Sally Goodwin, and everyone looked at me expecting me to take a break. So I just brought the progression up two fretts (we were playing in A with the capo on the secound fret) and it actually sounded really really good. It kind of helped that I don’t take too many breaks, but you should have seen their faces. They actually thought I knew what I was doing. Anyway, I really liked the workshop (I was kind of in the back playing an open backed banjo if you remember).

  4. admin

    Thanks for writing in with your perspective on the workshop. I’m glad you got so much out of it!

    Keep pickin’,

  5. admin

    Hey Jospeh, that’s great! Way to go! We love to hear about when people can take what we teach and put it to practical use. Good work!


  6. Martin Bacon

    The only reason everyone was vamping on the offbeat was because now I can (most of the time if you don’t go too fast:)) It was fun. Thanks for doing it and I really like the comments above. I also know for sure that your method works because I counted up my repetoire this morning (27 tunes in a year if you count high and low breaks seperately – how did that happen?)

  7. Annie Osborn

    Murphy, Thanks so much! It was really exciting to meet you in person and I really enjoyed that class. I must state again that a year and a half ago, all I knew was a forward/backward roll. Not even a chord. I have watched your videos and practiced and practiced and practiced. My husband will vouch for me….(he is a bluegrass banjo widower) whenever I can, I have that banjo in my hand. Also Thanks to Mark and John….and Duck,( an awesome banjo player!!) who showed me a lick I’ve been hearing and couldn’t figure out how to play. (And as for that choke…I’ve been wanting to learn that, but it never sounded quite right….now I know why, so I keep practicing and it sounds better every day.) They have a wonderful place, love the instrument room! I think I’ll wait till my next life before I learn to ride a unicycle however! Thanks again…..I still have a long way to go till I get that “Earl Perfect”, but I’m working on it!

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