Beginning Banjo Camp: The Rest of the Story

Murphy Henry

So, I’ve done all I can right now to help Casey get ready to leave. Which gives me a few minutes to tell you more about the camp and what we taught.


As you know, our teaching is always hands on and our banjo camp motto is “less talk, more playing.” I think we definitely achieved that goal this weekend.


We asked the students to come prepared to play the first three Murphy Method tunes: Banjo in the Hollow, Cripple Creek, and/or Boil Them Cabbage Down. If they were able to vamp any, that was a plus, but not a requirement. I think I can safely say we played those songs to death!


At our “Meet and Greet” which was the first thing on our agenda Friday afternoon, it became clear that the students really wanted to be able to play with other people but did not have jamming situations available and—this was a biggie for almost everyone—when they tried to play in front of anybody (including their teachers) they were so nervous that they could not play well. Some of them would freeze up and weren’t able to play at all.


I am proud to say that by the end of the weekend almost everyone had played one of those songs by themselves in front of the other students. And they played them VERY WELL. They played IN TIME and they PLAYED THROUGH THEIR MISTAKES. And most of them were also able to do the vamping to the song they played. I received such a charge from witnessing that that I was buzzing around long after camp was over. And I’m still euphoric over their progress. And their courage. Because, by their own admissions, most of them were extremely nervous when they were playing. Terrified is actually the word that comes to mind!


One of the reasons they were able to do this is that we had played through those songs so many times all together. S-L-O-W-L-Y. And they were playing them correctly and in time. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to play slow and steady and to do many, many, many repetitions every time you play. As we keep saying, lots of practice will clear up most playing problems. You also need to listen to what you are playing and to listen to the tune on the DVD. Do they sound the same?


After the Meet and Greet, we got out the banjos, and in one big group, we played through our three tunes. Slowly. My local students Susan and Zac had volunteered to play rhythm guitar which helped the students hear the tunes—and the chord changes—better. But, you know what? Since these were Murphy Method students to begin with, they were already playing pretty well—with good timing. And since they knew how to use their ears, as we played together, students were able to tweak their own timing. Somebody said, “I thought I could play Cripple Creek till we started playing it!” That is why playing with others is so important!


For our second session Friday we divided the class roughly in half (dividing along the lines of those who could already vamp some and those who could not) and began working on vamping and hearing chord changes. As always, hearing those chord changes is difficult. And, even though we do it by ear, in the beginning it’s almost impossible to get away from learning the patterns by rote, especially on the instrumentals. I was working with the vampers, so I told the students, “For now, just memorize the pattern: GGCG, GGDG.” (That’s the A part of Cripple Creek.) Then as they played the pattern, I believe most of them began to hear the changes. We worked on the vamping to all three songs, so that by itself was a lot of vamping!


Meanwhile Casey was busy with the non-vampers, showing them the F position chords and having them vamp to one of the easiest singing songs, Blue Ridge Cabin Home. They later moved on to Boil Them Cabbage Down.
Thus ended the first day of teaching. We broke for supper at 5 and met back at the Barber Shop that evening at 7 for our evening concert. Some of my local students joined Red and me in sitting down and playing casually for a couple of hours. Susan, Zac, and Mark played banjo, Bob Van and Janet played guitars, and Bill played bass. Some of the songs we played were:


Blue Ridge Cabin Home

Mary Dear

I Saw the Light

Train 45

Head Over Heels

Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms

Salt Creek

Sally Goodwin

Down The Road (which Zac sang)

Will the Circle

You Are My Sunshine

Lonesome Road Blues

Old Joe Clark

John Hardy

Foggy Mountain Breakdown


We ended with When the Roll is Called Up Yonder as we had ended so many of our Wednesday night concerts years ago. Everyone played so well. And improvising was definitely happening. I think and hope the students at the workshop got an idea of what can be achieved on the banjo when you work your butt off, you learn by ear, and you play often with other people. It can be done, folks!


Our Intermediate Camp is scheduled for March. Hope to see some of you there!


3 thoughts on “Beginning Banjo Camp: The Rest of the Story

  1. Mark Heilman

    I really enjoyed attending the Friday Night Jam. It was so nice to meet some of the campers and talk a little about our common interest. One gentlemen said he was from Seattle. I think he must have gotten the prize for farthest traveled.

  2. Martin Bacon

    I know there were good vibes in Brill’s Barber shop. Taking my first lesson there is etched in my memory permanently.

  3. Bobby Diebold

    Thanks so much for letting us know how it went! Attending a MM banjo camp is on my bucket list!!!

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