The First Banjo Lesson

(This post originally appeared on Banjo Hangout.)


I've been teaching banjo for over forty years and based on what I’ve seen most students go through many of the same experiences when they first encounter The Murphy Method. They walk away from that first lesson believing that they are the only ones who have trouble remembering things, or that they are the only ones who question my way of teaching. In the following story, I decided to get creative and explore the inside of a student's brain. Let me know what you think. There could be more….

The First Banjo Lesson

Peg was sixty years old and had never played an instrument before. Now she found herself sitting in a large, funky-decorated room, awkwardly holding her new banjo and facing Jill, a woman she’d only talked to on the phone.

From the woman’s short grey hair, Peg guessed they were about the same age. As she looked at Jill across the small space between them, Peg’s stomach churned with fear. Why in God’s name had she thought she should learn to play the banjo?

She was startled to hear Jill say, “What made you want to learn to play the banjo?”

How could she explain the thrill she had felt when she first heard a banjo at Girl Scout camp? There were always plenty of guitars around but one year an older camper had brought a banjo. Peg was smitten with the girl—her first and only girl crush—and the banjo. The crush had faded after camp but her fascination with the banjo had remained. Why had it taken her almost forty years to gather up the courage to try to play it? Life, thought Peg. Life got in the way.

“I’ve always liked the sound,” she said. That was lame but it seemed to satisfy Jill who said, “Oh, okay. Do you have any picks?”

Peg did have picks, which she hastily put on her fingers. She held out her hand toward Jill as if she were displaying an engagement ring.

“Not quite, said Jill, holding out her own hand. “You got the thumb pick on right but the fingerpicks go on like this--opposite your fingernails.”

Peg felt herself blush and quickly rearranged her picks. They felt clumsy. How could she learn to play with these damn things on her fingers?

“Good,” said Jill. “Now, let me see if your banjo’s in tune. Hand it here.” She put down her own beautiful instrument and took Peg’s much plainer one. She quickly tuned it and Peg was amazed. How did she do that?

“It was mostly in tune,” Jill said with a smile, handing it back.

Peg settled the banjo in her lap and waited for further instruction. She had downloaded the DVD that Jill had suggested but she hadn’t looked at it.

After showing Peg how to position her right hand properly and telling her the numbers of the strings, Jill said brightly, “Now let’s learn our first roll.”

Roll? thought Peg. A hotdog bun popped into her mind. Girl Scout camp again. Open fire. Hotdogs on sticks. Marshmallows. S’mores.

“Now you try it,” Jill was saying.

“Sorry,” said Peg, as her imaginary marshmallow burst into flame. “What was that?”

“The forward roll. 5, 2, 1,” said Jill as she played the notes. “Start on the top string, then the second string, then the first string.”

Peg looked down at the strings. Which one was 5? All she saw was a blur.

“Let me get my glasses,” she said.

She reached for the glasses in her pocketbook, realized she couldn’t open the case with her picks on, pulled them off, took her glasses out, settled them on her nose, and put her picks back on. Damn these picks, she thought.

To Jill she said, “Sorry. Could you say that again?”

“5, 2, 1.”

Peg wondered if Jill was getting pissed.

Now that the strings were in focus, Peg played them easily. 521. 521. 521.

“Try not to break the roll,” Jill said. “Make it sound like one continuous stream of notes.” She played the roll effortlessly.

Peg felt embarrassed that she had done it wrong. Jill probably thought she was stupid. Or slow. Or too old to learn the banjo.

Peg tried again but her notes were in no way continuous or stream-like. They were hesitant and jerky. How could it be so hard to play three notes over and over? The picks were cutting off the circulation in her fingers and she could see that her thumbnail was turning blue.

“Can I try it without picks?” she said.

“Nope,” said Jill, “gotta use picks.”

Peg didn’t like Jill’s short answers and she wasn’t sure she liked Jill.

“Now,” Jill was saying, “let’s try the backward roll. 1, 2, 3.”

“Backward?” thought Peg. “1, 2, 3 is backward? That doesn’t make any sense.”

She ventured a question.

“But 1, 2, 3, sounds forward. How can it be backward?”

“Yeah, I know, it’s confusing. It has more to do with the direction the picks are moving. Forward means going from your chin to the floor and backward means going the opposite way, from the floor to your chin. Moving backwards…blah, blah, blah….”

Peg had stopped listening and was wondering if she should get a Starbucks on the way home or if that would keep her awake all night. Maybe she’d get beer instead.

She tuned back in when she heard Jill say, “1, 2, 3. You try it.”

At least those numbers were easy to remember. Peg made a stab at playing the roll.

Jill pounced on her. “Nope, nope. You’ve got to bring your thumb down to the third string. You can’t use your index finger twice in a row.”

“Damn,” thought Peg, “this is hard.” But using her thumb did make the roll feel smoother.

“Now, just one more,” said Jill. “This is called the square roll.”

Peg’s mind immediately served up a picture of the Krystal hamburgers that she’d eaten during her college years. They were made on little square rolls, always warm and soft, with tiny bits of onion on a tiny patty of meat. Peg’s stomach rumbled. She hoped Jill didn’t hear it.

In the background she heard banjo music and was again jerked back to the present.

“Now you try it,” Jill was saying.

“Sorry,” said Peg, “what was that?”

“3, 2, 5, 1. The square roll.” Jill was beginning to wonder if Peg had a hearing problem.

Peg focused on the first word she’d heard: Three. That meant third string. She picked it with her thumb. And stopped. What was next?

“Index on the second, thumb on the fifth…” Jill walked Peg gently through the roll.

Slowly Peg made her recalcitrant fingers play the strings. The numbers meant nothing to her. What she was thinking was, “String in the middle, string next to it, short string, first string.”

She liked this roll. It actually sounded like music. Sort of a loping, cowboy sound. Was this what she had heard at Girl Scout Camp? She saw a rabbit hop into her mind only to vanish when she heard Jill say, “That’s really good. Most beginners can’t get that rhythm. Why don’t we try one more? It’s exactly the same except it starts on the fourth string. 4251. Try it.”

Somehow starting with the fourth string was an easy transition for Peg. She played that roll a few times but she didn’t like it as well as the one she’d just played. Weird, thought Peg, I now have opinions about banjo rolls!

“Now,” said Jill, “let’s alternate the rolls.”

She demonstrated and Peg almost fell out of her chair. This was the sound she’d been hearing in her head. How had she remembered it all these years? The song Little Rabbit Foo Foo immediately popped into her head: “Little rabbit Foo-foo, running through the forest, picking up the field mice, smack them on the head.” This was the roll the banjo had been playing on that silly song. And now she was on the verge of making that sound herself.

“Piece of cake,” she thought.

On trying it, however, she realized that there would be no cake for her. Alternating between the two rolls was much harder than it looked. Impatient to recreate the sound that Jill had played so casually, Peg played faster, thinking that would help.

“Peg! Peg! Slow down. You’ve got to play it slow before you can play it fast.”

Peg didn’t want to play it slower. But the thought occurred to her that Jill might know what she was talking about. She stopped, closed her eyes, and took a deep belly breath. Dammit, I can do this, she thought.

Jill sat quietly during Peg’s meditative moment and for this Peg was grateful.

Slowly Peg played each roll, alternating between them, trying to feel the pattern. Then suddenly her fingers realized the rolls were identical except for the first note. Like magic, everything clicked into place. She wasn’t thinking about it, she was just doing it. She was playing the banjo!

“You’ve got it!” Jill was practically yelling. “That sounds great! Good for you!”

Peg was inordinately pleased with Jill’s praise.

“So,” Jill was saying, “practice all three of those rolls this week.”

Peg’s joy popped like a soap bubble. Panic set in. She’d forgotten about the other rolls.

“Can you tell me those rolls again?” she asked, reaching for her pen. “I need to write them down.”

“No, said Jill. “No writing anything down. Remember we talked about that on the phone? About me teaching by ear?”

“But I’m not going to write anything down. I’m just going to jot down the names of the rolls and the strings. Just to jog my memory. I’ll throw the paper away when I’m done, I promise.”

“It’s all on the DVD. Everything we went over today is there. When you watch it, it will all come back to you. Just don’t write anything down.”

“Why not?” asked Peg. She couldn’t see any harm in jotting down some numbers.

“You can’t learn to play bluegrass that way. You have to trust me on this. Just try it. If you don’t like it, I’ll give you your money back.”

Peg could tell that Jill was getting hot under the collar. Why was this such a big deal? And how would Jill know if she wrote something down?

“And, believe me,” Jill said, “if you write stuff down, I’ll know it.”

How in God’s name did Jill know what she was thinking?

“If you don’t learn this easy stuff by ear, you won’t be able to learn the harder stuff. Really. Everything builds on everything else. Are we good with this? No writing anything down? This is a deal breaker for me.”

Jesus, thought Peg. She’s serious as a heart attack. What the hell have I gotten myself into?

But she said, “Okay, I promise. I won’t write anything down.”

Jill felt relieved. She always hated this conversation.

“Good,” said Jill. “Look at the stuff on the DVD. If you get bored with these three rolls, you can go on to the next lesson. It’ll show you the chords. But don’t go any further. Don’t start on that first song. Okay?”

“Okay,” said Peg, feeling a bit shell-shocked.

“Okay, see you next week. Come on in, Fred.” Jill had already turned to the next student, who walked in with his banjo slung over his shoulder. Peg looked at his hands. Sure enough, he was wearing picks.

Peg nodded a hello to Fred, then packed up her banjo and headed out the door. Walking to her car she thought about not writing anything down. It scared her. What if she couldn’t remember the notes?  Oh, well, she thought, I’ll try it for a month. I’ve already paid for it. But I’m not wearing those damn picks.

Feeling righteous about that decision, she put her banjo in the car while musing about her first lesson. All in all, she thought, it had gone well. She really liked that last roll. What was it? Shit, she’d already forgotten. She hated getting old.

8 thoughts on “The First Banjo Lesson

  1. Linda Cranford

    Murphy: I remember that I came to my first lesson with very long fingernails! That didn’t work.

  2. KW

    I was almost sure that I was reading my story there!
    My first teacher advised me to buy the best banjo that I could afford because it would not only be easier to learn on, the sound would inspire me to continue, and in the event that I did give up on the “Banjer” I’d at least be able to get my investment back. After my first lesson I was convinced that I had just thrown away a huge chunk of cash that would not return my investment for a few years! However, he was right….it sounded too good not to persevere on…I’m sure glad that I took his advice because I stuck with it and I’ve never needed to upgrade the banjo as my skills improved… in case arthritis makes me give up on it, the market value on that Gibson has doubled since I bought it!…. Sound advice!….pun intended 🙂

  3. Daniel S Wheeler

    Hi Murphy.
    My first banjo lesson was Sept 26,1971. It was an Adult-Ed group-session class at the local high school. It cost $6.00 for 10 weekly sessions. I’d missed the first two weeks. We used the Pete Seeger book (still in print) and the instructor handed out (I don’t dare say it) t__ and words to songs with chords. We learned mostly clawhammer and Scruggs style but spent time learning other strums to accompany singing. Part of the class was spent as a group with the instructor singing and strumming to the songs he had handed out while the rest of us strummed along any which way. The instructor spent a few minutes with each individual in the class to see if she or he had a problem or wanted to demonstrate a tune or lick to the instructor or to the class. There didn’t seem to be the big divide between Scruggs and clawhammer as one tune would be in Scruggs style and the next would be clawhammer. It was all good stuff. (still is) Fortunately, I had a cassette recorder and recorded the instructor demonstrating the tunes. Otherwise, I never would have succeeded. Having an instructor encouraged me to work at the banjo so I could demonstrate to him what I had achieved at the following lesson. The other students were mostly school teachers from surrounding towns. One of the teachers, noticing that the class divided itself into a slow group and a fast group, took an informal poll of the students. It seems that every person in the fast group had learned another instrument some time in their life. It didn’t matter what the instrument was…it placed that person in the fast group. I learned piano as a kid. All the people in the slower group were learning their first instrument.
    My instrument was a late 60s Kay with a warped neck. I was okay with that banjo until in 1974 I saw Don Reno perform in person and he allowed me play Nellie. Don was one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. After that I was unhappy with my Kay with a warped neck and ended up buying a 1925 ball bearing rim that I had Gibson build a five string neck for with Scruggs tuners. I couldn’t afford it. But I spent $1188.65 for it back when that sum would almost get you a brand new made-in-the-USA car. That is still my main banjo. 🙂
    Nowadays I play banjo in church a couple times a year (more often on Wednesday night service) either to accompany young children singing or as solo “special music”.
    Murphy. I have almost all of your banjo DVDs even the slow jam one. I don’t get to a lot of jams so they help to keep that particular music in my head between jams. One unintended consequence of watching your DVDs is I realized that I needed to learn guitar. So I bought a couple of your guitar DVDs too.
    Take care.
    Dan Wheeler

  4. Chick

    I like that word smitten you used. My father in law gave me his banjo after he aborted the damning frustration of the video lesson that accompanied his birthday present.
    “Here , see if you can do anything with this .I sure as hell cant”
    That was the challenge.
    … and there is a certain twang in that thang that needed tamed! I commenced to practice according to mr x’s video. Then I met Murphy through a buisness dealing with amutual aquaintance . She fixed me up with gratis video. I was hoked morning noon and night practice practice. But on my first live lesson I quickly discovered .I didnt know what I didnt know and what I had learned I had to unlearn.Live lessons Best money I could spend!
    Besides, Murphys pretty cool to hang with for an hour or so.

  5. Kent

    Not really like my own first banjo lesson, but it does remind me of many of the thoughts I had when I first started with the Murphy method. My first banjo teacher was a performer of very high caliber. ( I read her name in your book) While she did use tab, it was always made clear that , while tab was a good thing to record how you played for posterity, or someone else who wanted to play the same piece, it is terrible to use as music. Even standard notation is not great on the banjo. I was instructed to memorize what I played as quickly as possible. Never was I to use tab as sheet music. It was there so that I could memorize from it, not to depend on it.
    When finances became so tight that I could not afford lessons, she recommended the Murphy Method so That I could continue to learn. It was one of the best recommendations ever given. I now think things more like which chord and which roll or lick as I progress through a song. I don’t use tab at all anymore ( it is simply to time consuming), except to write what I am playing so that another picker can play my arrangement.
    Thanks for all of the fond memories.

  6. Pam

    Nice! I rented my first banjo. As I tried to hold the behemoth item, I thought what was I thinking trying to learn the banjo? It didn’t help that reading tab felt like a laborious project, not anything that would become a hobby. At that point, of course, I found the Murphy Method lessons. Loved them. After some time I realized the star lived close and offered camps and lessons. So my first live banjo lesson, which began with a mute firmly on my bridge, was more like meeting a movie star! I’ve learned so much in four short years, thanks! Pam

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