Banjo

“I received your jam camp orientation materials today. After looking it over I am wondering if I am getting on board a bit late. I know two songs that I can play, Worried Man and Bile Dem Cabbage Down and I have never sung either one, I am not even sure what the words are! The only person that has ever heard me play banjo is my wife and son, and I rarely play when they are around. If you think I should wait a year and be better prepared I will. Your thoughts?”

The info materials tell people how to prepare, assuming they have time to prepare. The prep is not necessary, just recommended. The requirements of the camp are spelled out, and if you meet them (can tune your instrument and play 4 chords) you qualify and can get a benefit from the camp.

You would be better prepared for next year if you took this year’s camp. The practicing you’ve done thus far (learning two songs by tablature only) is not good prep for jamming. I would say you should have started by working on different skills, but at the camp I make it clear what sorts of practicing are most beneficial, and you’ll get a chance to work on them.

Right now, you might try seeing if you can keep a simple standard roll such as TITM repeating while you change chords between G and D7. If that goes well, try using different chord changes. This is not a necessary skill, but if you can do it, it will be very satisfying to use in as accompaniment behind songs.

The camp itself can benefit you a lot as it will bring you face to face with what it takes to actually play music with others, and you will get a chance to do exactly that, for a few days. You can fit in just chording along. We keep it about as easy as it can possibly be (start with a bunch of two chord songs). Be assured there will be others there with zero jamming experience and confidence.n

Category: Banjo
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Absolutely we do not require or even recommend a 4-finger D chord. Many people seem to think that D is “supposed to be” a 4-finger chord, but it actually sounds *better* as a 3-finger chord, leaving the 4th string open. The open string is a low D, after all, so that chord sounds fuller than a 4-finger D. I suggest using all but the ring finger, leaving it free to play the 4th string (or the 3rd) when and if the melody calls for it. The 4-finger version I guess is often taught because unlike the 3-finger one, it’s a movable position, usable at other locations as an F chord, G chord, etc.

In the key of G, the easy 2-finger D7 substitutes fine for a D. But that substitution doesn’t work in the key of D, where the D7 is not interchangeable with D. BUT… there’s an easy alternative D chord, a simple 2-finger D, like the 3- and 4-finger versions but where both the 1st string and the 4th are left open. That D chord is not the best-sounding one, but is workable.

The key of D is well-worth getting handy with, generally needing only D, G, and A. It’s the most workable alternative to playing in G, and is often used when the singer can’t easily sing a particular song in G. That’s why our “required chords” list is G, C, D, and A. On the banjo G and A are pretty darned easy, and the easiest D is easy too, so we have the bar set as low as possible to make it easiest for people to come and learn how to jam.

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It would fit in at the jam camp, but it’s appropriate to mention that clawhammer is not the “style of choice” for bluegrass, and the reasons for that.

On one hand, any song playable in Scruggs style (3-finger picking) banjo can also be played in clawhammer style, and as an accompaniment in a group setting, either style of banjo would work. If played well and tastefully, it can sound good in a variety of bluegrass settings. As a good example, the late Merle Watson did some fine clawhammer work on Doc Watson’s most “bluegrassy” record, Greenville Trestle. Ralph Stanley and others have occasionally played clawhammer style, perhaps a single song in a set, as a welcome novelty.

However, the reason the style is not normally heard in bluegrass is that, depending on what sort of clawhammer style is used (single notes, vs. more of a rhythmic strum), clawhammer banjo is not as clear and distinct as 3-finger picking is, and may either be too quiet to be heard, or else possibly “muddy” the rhythm sound that already includes a good amount of guitar and mandolin. While in informal bluegrass jam situations clawhammer may fit in easily, you will almost never hear it in a performing bluegrass band, for the reasons given.

All that said, I am happy to welcome clawhammer banjo players to a bluegrass jam camp, since their playing should fit in just fine. However, during the camp when it comes to learning soloing, they will encounter the limitation I’ve described.n

Category: Banjo
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