I started playing the banjo in the early 60’s when there was no tablature and few banjo teachers. I would almost say that there were no banjo teachers, only banjo players. If you wanted to learn to play the banjo you had to sit there and copy what the player was doing. Kind of a monkey see, monkey do approach. Few people had tape recorders, so it was unusual to tape the lesson. You had to rely on your memory if you were going to learn. One advantage of this approach is that the student spent lots of time listening to how the teacher got certain sounds or tone from the notes. Players 30 and 40 years ago had to listen to learn and as a result their listening skills were significantly more advanced than most students today. I’ve listened to old recordings of me sitting around in the 70’s on both the guitar and banjo and even though what I was playing was not complex and in some cases repetitive, there was a strong emphasis on melody and the tone and clarity of the notes. In fact I was rather surprised to hear how good it sounded. Before listening to the tape I just assumed that I would use it as an exercise in determining how much I had learned and progressed. In fact when recording what I was currently playing and comparing it to the older examples, I was surprised at how thin sounding the newer playing was.

The ability to listen is a lost art among most beginners and intermediates. In fact most people do not develop listening skills until they start playing with others and get feedback. The ultimate feedback listening training environment is in the studio where the player listens back to what he has recorded along with an engineer and other members of the band. At this point the player’s playing is compared to others and problems with his tone, timing, and technique are very apparent. The player can then keep experimenting by recording his solo over and over and gain experience in bettering his playing and improving his listening skills. Typically the player will improve to a certain level but will need to share the experience and knowledge of other musicians who have gone before to reach his potential. As a beginning or intermediate player you can simulate the studio listening feedback experience by purchasing a tape recorder and recording yourself and carefully listening to it. . You can start with a simple cheap recorder. In fact anything that uses a cassette tape should be close to free.

Why don’t students focus on their listening? Basically because there is a false belief that the sound, excitement and energy of the banjo is contained in specific arrangements or licks and the yellow brick road to learning the banjo is really a search for the perfect lick or the perfect arrangement. Energy and money is spent on clinics, books, new instruments, learning licks, and practicing certain arrangements. In many cases the player is playing the arrangement out of time, and missing techniques and does not understand what the problem is or how to solve it. The only thing they know is that their playing is inconsistent. Some days they get through the song, other days they cannot play anything. They never know when they pick up the banjo if it going to be a good banjo day or a bad banjo day. Its kind of like you don’t know if it’s going to be a good hair day or a bad hair day until you get out of bed. We certainly cannot solve the listening void with one article but I will give you a couple of things to do to start you on your journey.

Let’s start with an experiment with tone. The first thing many students think about when discussing tone is the tone of a particular instrument based on the quality of the banjo, the particular tone ring, the set up. Little mention is made of the effect of the player on the tone of the instrument. The player’s effect on tone has to do with several things including the attack which is the speed and the force with which you play the string, how the left hand notes the strings, how long you hold the strings before you release them, tremolo and basic techniques such as the hammer on, the slide, and the pull off. How thick your picks are, the gauge of strings you use and the height of the strings affects tone. Another is what is referred to as the X Y position for the right hand which we will explore today. This simply means where your hand is in relation to the bridge vs. where the neck joins the body. Right Hand placement affects tone on the banjo more than anything else. Let’s do an exercise to increase our right hand tone awareness.

Tone Listening Exercise Try this experiment:. Play the 2nd string open. Start by playing this note with the right hand next to the bridge. Play the note 5 or 6 times and then let it ring for 5 seconds the last time you play it. Listen very carefully as you are doing this. Now move your right hand towards the neck 1/4 of and inch and play the string and repeat the process. Keep moving up the neck in 1/4 inch increments listening carefully to the volume and tone of the open string in each position. After doing this for a few minutes determine the spot at which the note sounds the best. Because the distance from the bridge to the neck is approximately 8 inches, you will play the string at 32 spots for each note. The magic spot where the note sounds the best, I refer to as the bulls eye. When playing at the bulls eye the volume and tone of the banjo will increase. Now note the 2nd string at the 8th fret and do the same thing with the right hand in 1/4-inch increments. Now at the 12th fret then the 15th fret and then the 21st fret. Once again play the string at each 1/4-inch location 5 or 6 times and then let it ring for 5 seconds the last time you play it. For each note on the 2nd string you should find a specific right hand position that sounds the best. Spend lots of time doing this and listen very carefully. Remember that each note has the perfect position of the right hand to achieve the perfect sound and that moving the right hand as little as 1/4 inch can make a big difference.

A few things you will notice after doing this: 1. The banjo sounds best when playing notes at the 1st through 5th frets with the right hand within 2 inches of the bridge. 2. When noting notes from the 15 through the 21st frets your right hand will be close to the neck. 3. The louder notes on the banjo are above the 15th fret. 4. As your right hand moves towards the neck you need to play with less force. 5. Even with less force, the notes above the 15th frets will be louder than other notes on the banjo. 6. Playing the strings softer and harder will affect the tone. Sometimes softer striking the strings will result in more volume. 7. It usually takes 6 months to be able to hit bulls eyes on all of the notes on your banjo and requires considerable listening focus. This includes knowing how hard to strike the strings for each note. There is a free lesson on the X Y position at the following link if you want to see a video example.

Metronome Listening Exercise In prior e zines articles we’ve discussed how to use the metronome in detail and the subject of getting feedback. Reviewing these may help you to improve your metronome skills. To do this exercise: 1. Set the metronome to 100. Play a 7 note* forward Roll playing 1 note for each click of the metronome. Before playing the banjo listen to the click for 30 seconds and let your body get into the click. Completely relax. Once your body is in sync with the click, play the 7 note forward roll along with the click. The 7 note roll in order of strings ( ALL ARE OPEN STRINGS) is 5,3,1,5,3,1,5 pause.( Including the pause there would be 8 beats). The right Hand fingers are (TIMTIMT PAUSE) Listen carefully and make sure that every note of the roll occurs as the metronome clicks. Set the metronome to 120,140, 160, 180, 200 and 240 and repeat this exercise.

Here’s the challenge. At this point there is no way for you to be sure if you are in fact playing with the click. There are several ways to test this:

1.Record the metronome and yourself and listen back to it.

2. Have your teacher work with you on this at increasing speeds. Tell him you want to devote an entire 30-minute lesson to this.

3. Have another friend count as you are playing along with the metronome. They will count 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8, 1 number per click. Every time your thumb plays the fifth string, your friend should be on 1. To do this your friend will have to completely ignore the banjo and focus on the click.

*The 7 note roll is shown about half way through the Forward Roll Explanation video.

Let me know if this brought forth any new insights. Geoff

Geoff Hohwald is a Master Banjo Player and Banjo Teacher who has played and taught the banjo for more than 40 years. He wrote his first Banjo Book in 1979 and since then has helped thousands of banjo players worldwide become better and more knowledgeable players.  His Banjo Primer book has been used by countless banjo teachers including some of the top players and teachers in the world. Geoff’s learning materials can be seen in over 2,000 music stores and is visible all over the internet on YouTube, Facebook, & Banjo Compass. He has conducted over 50 week long banjo classes at John C. Campbell Folk School and at his facility in Dahlonega, GA.

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Geoff Hohwald is Master Banjo Instructor who has been teaching and playing banjo for over 40 years. Geoff wants you to become the banjo player you have always wanted to be. He has written numerous banjo instructional books, teaches one-on-one banjo lessons, and even hold regular banjo camps at his mountain retreat in North Georgia.