Beginning Banjo Camp: Happy Students, Happy Teachers

We just finished up our SIXTH Beginning Banjo Camp here in Winchester. I had one of the best groups of intermediate beginners ever, and this was mainly due to their own hard work before the camp. They all had learned their prerequisites and they all knew their vamp chords which made playing together so much easier. Norman was one of those hard-working students. With his permission, I’m sharing our email exchange which began in August. These are real emails. I have lightly edited them to take out details about airplane flights and directions to Winchester and the price of eggs in Alaska!

Emails, August 2016 BC (Before Camp)


I'd like to come to your beginner camp in Oct. and, since I'm from Colorado, would like to dovetail that with a lesson or two. Perhaps come on Thursday for a lesson, stay till Monday for another Sunday afternoon. If you have any energy left.

I've been picking away for some time but need direction, better practice habits and so forth.

I've not played much with others but know a reasonable break to the songs that you've mentioned, plus some back-up. I'm open to suggestions.

There are banjo teachers closer by but they're generally band members and not in the business of instruction.

Thanks for your help and I look forward to hearing from you. Norman 

Hi Norman,

Murphy here. I’m glad you are coming to the camp. I'd love to set up some lessons. Thursday is no problem. I set that day aside for teaching campers, so as of right now, I'm open all day. What time would be good for you? I suggest we do no more than two hours at a time.

Re Sunday: I've learned, from experience, that I do not have energy to teach on Sunday! However, I'd be willing to do a lesson Monday morning, if that works for you. We could do an hour or more if you'd like. My best time would be no earlier than 10 am, but I could bestir myself to do 9 am if that worked better for you.

I wasn't sure from your email if you had worked any with our DVDs. I see that you have breaks to the songs we requested. Since there is some time before the camp, might I suggest that, if you haven't done so, you learn the break to Boil Them Cabbage that I teach on the Banjo for Misfits DVD. If you have time and are so inclined, you might learn both the low break (the first song on the DVD) and the high break (the last song on the DVD). Most students find this pretty easy. Just a suggestion to give us something more to work with in the lesson.

If you are adventurous, you might also try the first song on the Kick Start Your Jamming DVD. It introduces what I call the "roly polys" which we will definitely be working on in camp!

Looking forward to seeing you at camp! Murphy


Thanks for getting back to me so promptly. I have a few more questions/concerns. I read about Roly Polys in your blog and think I'm a bit past that stage. I have a number of rolls to draw from, including forward backward, alternating thumb and various forward rolls. That having been said, I have no problem getting the two videos you suggest so we have a common baseline.

Other songs I play (some type of break) and practice: 

Old Joe Clark

Worried Man Blues

Clinch Mtn Backstep

Virginia Hornpipe

John Hardy

Red River Valley

Blackberry Blossom

Foggy Mtn Breakdown

Whiskey Before Breakfast

Wabash Cannon Ball....and some others.

Just to give you an idea. 

I don’t, however, play with other people much. I'd like to learn how to lead into a break and smoothly transition out, play tasteful backup, be in time throughout the tune, improvise a know, the usual. And play the instrument better. Clear enunciation of notes at a reasonable speed. And be able to play up the neck. Sounds like I need to practice more. But some direction there would help, too. Good practice habits to work off of. If you think your camp plus a couple of lessons would help shove me in the right direction, I'm all in. Thanks for your patience and any suggestions you might have. Norman 


Thanks for the details. What I've usually found is that people who don't play with other people often have to sort of back up and work on playing easy songs with a group first. Even my own "live" students. It's completely different in a jam situation. So, we need some easy songs for you.

Boil Them Cabbage (low and high) as I suggested

Cripple Creek for sure (I prefer my Scruggs arrangement)

I now will add I Saw the Light and either Do Lord or Worried Man (I see you already know that one) from the Misfits DVD. If you have time.

Do you know your vamp chords? G, C, D. Can you move them fast enough to vamp?

Also, students who play alone frequently have timing issues. I don't know if this will apply to you. But it's possible. Can you play your songs start to finish without stopping? Can you keep going in time after making a mistake? Do you play your songs many times thru, back to back, before quitting? Like playing Old Joe Clark 4 or 5 times in a row?

You might also try playing along with our Slow Jam DVD. That might give you an idea of how jamming is. Also, I hear you about being past the roly polys. And maybe you are. But, again, it's all about being able to do it in a jam, under fire, deer in the head lights!

I think the camp will help you a lot. Plus the lessons. Looking forward to meeting you and trying to give some help! Murphy


I'll plan on ordering Beginning Banjo, Vol 1, Banjo For Misfits and Kickstart Your Jamming. Hopefully that's enough to get me started. Norman

Hi Norman,

All this sounds good. Why don't we shoot for an hour lesson, 5-6, on Thursday. The time is flexible up until pretty much the day of the lesson. A longer lesson is possible if we are on a roll.

Thanks for being willing to get the DVDs. I think that will really help. I am available to answer short questions by email about the DVDs once you get started.

Thanks for being willing to do the work! That is THE most important thing.  Murphy

Emails, October 2016 AC (After Camp)

Hi Murphy,

Thank you again for your patience, good humor, devotion to the learning process and boundless enthusiasm. It's contagious. I'd say it was a very productive time for all of us thanks to your ability to hone in on the stumbling blocks. It was a safe environment to start getting over the jam circle jitters, which is clearly a process and not an event. By showing us the basics of faking a break and backup, you've given us the tools to plunge further into this genre of music, and hopefully not too far over our heads. At this point I think the best way for us to show our appreciation is to keep playing and improving and follow that path where ever it leads.

Also thanks to Kathy and Kristina, both invaluable members of your ensemble.

Looking forward to getting together with you again in the not too distant future. Norman

Hi Norman,

Many thanks for your kind words. I enjoyed meeting you and working with you. Thanks for letting me pick on you! You were a good sport.

You have the musical talent to go a long way on the banjo. I mean that. The three songs you learned from the DVDs were well played. Even the one you learned from tab--John Hardy--had most of the rhythm right. (Note: stay away from tab. It is a waste of your time.)

I hope you can come back for some lessons sooner rather than later. As I said to you, you need to pursue this as much as you can RIGHT NOW, while your interest is super high.

Just don't try to move too fast thru the songs. Really, one song a month is a good goal. (More if you're doing Roly Polys, but don't do too many. They get jumbled in your brain.) Feel free to email me if you have a question.

My suggestion for your next song is I Saw the Light on the Misfits DVD. Unless you already know that. If you do, move on to Do Lord.

And if you could just find a guitar player to play along with you, that would be great!!!!!!

Heading to yoga now...Murphy

Next Beginning Banjo Camp: October 27-29, 2017

Intermediate Camp: March 24-26, 2017

Women’s Jam Camp: July 7-9, 2017

Women’s Banjo Camp: July 28-30, 2017