Welcome to Step 1! In this video, you’ll learn your first foundational technique, and will begin to start developing your ear and picking out tunes by ear.
Your Mission: Watch the video, and then practice the assigned exercise along with the “Beats for Banjo” practice tracks.
When To Move On: Move on to the next lesson when you can play the assigned exercise cleanly and with good timing along with the backing track (any tempo is fine).
THE LESSON (STEP 1)
PRACTICE EXERCISE (gDGCD tuning)
BEATS FOR BANJO TRACKS
All right. Welcome again to the ‘how to play 2 finger thumb lead style in seven essential steps’ crash course for the total beginner. It’s about time we started picking these banjos, right?
That’s what we’re going to be doing. You’re going to be learning your first technique in this video. Now through the next several videos, you are going to be learning all of the fundamental techniques of 2 finger thumb lead style banjo and you’re going to be doing it in the context of one primary song and that song is Pretty Polly.
Why Pretty Polly? Because it’s awesome. It is a fantastic song. It is in a modal tuning, a modal key. You don’t have to worry about any of what that means. It just means that it sounds really cool.
It’s perfectly suited for the banjo. It is part of kind of the banjo tradition. Really gets you to understand what makes the sound of the banjo so cool and the unique things about the banjo that you don’t really hear on other instruments.
So it’s in this what we call modal tuning which is a big part of the banjo tradition and really highlights some of the special qualities of the banjo. So it’ll sound fantastic and it sounds fantastic without you having to do a whole lot of stuff with your hands so you can learn the fundamental techniques and then get some great songs.
And really that’s kind of the core feature of 2 finger banjo in general. And if you want to listen to Pretty Polly, there is a link in the video description and I’ll put one on this video as well. You can click on it.
Okay. So the next step then is to get into the tuning that we’re going to be playing this song in. You’ll keep having your banjo in it each time you come back to these videos. So this particular tuning would be referred to as gDGCD, okay?
And if you’re familiar with standard G tuning, which is kind of the standard tuning that a lot of bluegrass banjos play in, the only difference between that and this is on the second string, it’s tuned one half step up to a C from a B. If you don’t know what that means, don’t worry about it. So that means our open fourth string, not the fifth string, not the high string, but the fourth string is tuned to a D.
And I would recommend if you don’t already have one, you can use an ambient tuner or you can use a tuner on your phone or anything. I particularly like these clip on tuners that sense the tuning by the vibration. So this particular tuner that I have is made by D’Addario.
And again, with any tuner, you just play the string and then you will adjust the tension on the string one way or the other to bring it to the appropriate pitch. And it’ll let you know that when you have a green letter, not a red one.
So we have a D on the fourth string, a G on the third, a C on the second, a D on the first, and a G on the fifth. So your third string and fifth string are both tuned to a G, just an octave apart. The fifth is higher. And then your fourth string and your first string are also an octave apart.
Low D, higher D. And then now you have your C on the second string. Another way to check is that your fourth string at your fifth fret should be equal to your open third string. Again, if you’re not used to fretting yet, don’t worry about it. Your fifth fret of your third string should equal your open second. And your second fret of your second should equal your open first string.
So now just once again, play all the open strings, four, three, two, one, five. Okay? And I should point out that that’s how we refer to these strings. So the one furthest from you is your first string. The one closest to you is your fifth string. And then the in-between ones are numbered accordingly. One, two, three, four, five. All right.
Okay. Now let’s get our hand in position. So how do you put place your hand in this style? There are a couple of options. I do recommend that you anchor your hand.
What I mean by that is that instead of having your hand just floating in the air, have one finger touching the head of the banjo and there’s a few possibilities here. One is just your pinky finger. That’s what I do. I just keep my pinky on the head of the banjo. That’s my anchor and that works well for me.
Some people just anchor their ring finger and that’s another option. Earl Scruggs classically anchored both fingers, your pinky and your ring finger. That’s another option. Now what I find is that the 2 finger anchor works if your pinky finger and your ring finger are close together in size.
Mine are not. If they are not close, you will have to place some tension in your hand in order to keep those fingers anchored. And we do not want tension. Lots of problems can develop if that happens. So if your two fingers aren’t close in size, your pinky and your ring finger, then you might find it tricky to anchor both and prefer to just do the pinky.
So again, my suggestion would be try the pinky, if that feels pretty good, stick with that. If not, try the ring, and then try two fingers. Anything is going to feel a little bit awkward at first if you’re just getting started. But I do recommend sticking with anchoring one of the fingers.
All right, now what we’re going to be learning in this video is just plucking the strings with our thumb and focusing here on the third and fourth strings. And again, this is called 2 finger thumb lead style, and the reason it’s called thumb lead is because the thumb is playing the melody notes. And it is going to be playing the melody notes on strings three, four, and two.
Whereas the other strings, one and five, will function primarily as drones, meaning sounds that are kind of going on in the background to add some atmosphere. We’ll be talking more about that in a later video, but for now we’re going to practice playing melody notes on the third and fourth strings.
Okay. Now the basic picking motion with a thumb is pretty straightforward. It’s pretty much what you would be inclined to do if you’re going to try to pick the banjo. You’re just going to put pressure against the string and then pluck forward.
And that’s probably the main thing, is the pressure is forward against the string rather than up towards the sky. We want to push into the string, not up away from the banjo, but parallel to the head of the banjo.
Okay, so the next thing that you’re going to need to know for these exercises and for playing this first part of the song is how to fret the strings. So fretting means pushing the string down behind one of the frets. When we do that, what we’re effectively doing is changing the vibrating length of the string and that changes the notes.
The shorter the string, the higher the pitch, the faster it vibrates. So when we’re playing an open string without fretting anything, then it’s vibrating between the nut here, the top where the string comes over, the white part, and the bridge. And when we fret, we’re shortening the length. Now say third fret of the fourth string, I’m shortening it now that’s vibrating between the bridge and this third fret here. So that’s essentially all we’re doing is shortening the string. Lower note, higher note.
Now what we want to do when we’re fretting is we want to essentially get a clean note with as little pressure as possible. To do that, we want to press down on the string just behind the fret, but not on top of it, and put enough pressure on there to sound a clean note, but not any more.
And again, it will take time to figure out where that is. But one good way to practice that is to start with as light of pressure as you can, which will give you a little buzzy note, and then gently press. And you’ll notice if you do that, it doesn’t take very much pressure to generate a clean note.
The other thing that you want to be mindful of is to be bringing your finger down perpendicular to the fretboard as much as possible, primarily to A, direct the force in the right direction. So the more you’re able to direct the force towards the fretboard, which is the direction you want the string to be going, the less force you’re going to have to apply, because there’s less wasted motion or force that you’re going to be giving.
So that’s one reason to go as perpendicular as you can. The other is, you don’t want to be touching the other string. So in this case, I’m fretting the fourth string. If I’m at an angle, I might be touching this third string, and while I may get a nice clean note on my fourth string, if I didn’t pick the third string, it’s dead. My finger’s deadening it. So I don’t want that to happen. So I want to make my finger more perpendicular. That way I’m not interfering with that adjacent string at all.
So just take some time to practice fretting the strings, right now focusing mainly on using your middle finger or your index finger. And it doesn’t really matter, anywhere you want. Just mess around, noodle around, pressing down on the frets at different spots.
Most of the time on the banjo, most stringed instruments in general, but especially the banjo, the saying goes, the money’s in the first five frets. Most of your time is going to be spent in these parts of the fretboard. It’s where the banjo really shines. This is really where your fingers are going to be most comfortable changing notes and changing frets.
Okay, now we’re going to start learning our song, Pretty Polly, specifically the melody notes, because that’s what our thumb is going to be responsible for. So I will sing the first part of the melody, which goes ‘Polly, pretty Polly, come go along with me.’
Now you heard that melody, me singing it. Now I’m going to play those same notes on the banjo. Sounds like this. ‘Polly, pretty Polly, come go along with me.’ That’s what we’re playing on the banjo. And one of the things throughout this course that you’re going to learn is how to link up the sounds that you hear singing to sounds in the banjo. ‘Polly, pretty Polly, come go along with me.’
Now I’m going to have you try to find those notes, and we’ll break this little part into two sections. So here is a diagram with all of the possible places where you might find these melody notes. So I’m going to narrow down the possibilities here. So the only options for notes here are these orange dots.
So if you see an orange dot at the top of the fretboard, at the nut here, that means it’s an open string as one of your choices. So you have the open fourth as one of your choices. You have the third fret of the fourth string as one of the choices. You have the open third, that’s one of your choices. And you have the third fret of the third string as one of your choices. Four notes here, for this initial melody part.
So here are the melody notes for the first part that I want you to try to pick out by ear using these possible choices to pick from. So here it goes. ‘Polly, pretty Polly.’ Again.
So I think six notes there for you to find, right? So pause the video and see if you can find those notes. And then unpause when you think you’ve got it. If you find it challenging and hard, don’t worry about it. You may not get them all right off the bat. But do try it first before moving on.
Okay, so here is the solution to that first part of the melody. We start with playing the open third string twice. Then the third fret of the third string one time. Back to the open third. And then the third fret of the fourth string. And the open fourth. Open, open, third fret third string, open, third fret fourth string, open.
I’m fretting those with my middle finger there because that’s kind of the position that you want to be in in general at this portion of the fretboard. Middle finger kind of has reign over the third fret, index generally over the second fret, ring and pinky over four and five, respectively. So good idea to get in the habit of middle finger on that third fret.
Okay, so we’ve learned the first half of this little piece of the melody. So now let’s learn the second half or the second chunk. So here’s where we are so far. ‘Polly, pretty Polly.’. Now we need ‘come go along with me.’ And on the banjo, sounds like this. One more time.
So once again, we have six notes in all that we’re playing, and four possible notes to choose from. The same four as our last chunk in the melody. So now pause the video, see if you can find those notes in that sequence, and then unpause and see if you got it right.
All right, so now let’s review that second part of the melody. Remember it goes like this. It’s kind of a up, down, back like that. You can see that kind of visually on the fretboard as you’re playing it. So it’s third fret of the fourth string. Open third. Third fret of the third string. Back to open third. Back to third fret of the fourth string. And then back to open third. So it kind of goes, all right? You know what I mean. So one more time.
Now let’s put it all together. First part and the second part. All right. And remember we’re going to be learning this whole song and we’re going to be fleshing it out with all of the techniques of two finger thumb lead and learning those along the way.
All right, so that exercise is your assignment to practice after this video. So the first thing to do is just get that particular sequence of notes under your fingers so that you know it and so that you can play it. And depending on what level you’re coming from, if you’ve never done this before, giving yourself a little bit of time for this. If you have some experience with a banjo, it won’t take as much time.
Once you have that under your fingers, the next thing you’re going to do is practice that along with the beats for banjo backing rhythm tracks. And like I said in the earlier video, super important to not skip this step. This is an essential piece in the process.
I promise you that if you take the time to do these exercises, which some of you may seem easy or simple in the beginning, take the time to do these, especially getting the timing down with the backing tracks, it is going to shave off a ton of time in the future for you and not limit how far you can go in playing the banjo.
Okay, so now I’m going to bring up the beats for banjo backing tracks on my computer. And I will bring up the 70 beats per minute track. So these range from 70 to 120, in increments of five, right now. However, you can also adjust the speed down slower if you’d like by using the gear icon on the bottom right of the video, which allows you to adjust to three quarters, half, and even one quarter speed.
So I’m going to demonstrate with the 70. You can choose that one as well, but if it feels too fast, you can use the gear icon to adjust it. Now you’re going to hear the fundamental beat is, booma chucka booma chucka booma chucka. And that is kind of the fundamental pulsation that’s behind so much of the traditional music on the banjo, which is why these work so well as a practice track for when you were learning to play.
So now what I’m going to do is demonstrate how to play the exercise that we’ve just learned along with this backup track. And now I’ll just demonstrate playing and singing it so you can hear how all of that sounds together. One more time.
Okay, so that is your exercise to work on and learn between now and the next video which will add a new technique. The primary goal as you’re practicing this is to be able to play along with a rhythm track with good timing and clear notes. That is the primary objective. It’s much less important the speed at which you do that.
It doesn’t really matter whether you can do that in a fast or slow pace. All that really matters at this point is that you can do it with good timing and clear notes. That’s what I want you to focus on. If you find that you’re able to play it well with a certain tempo, it’s fine to then kind of gradually move up in five beats per minute increments, just to see if you can do more. But you don’t necessarily have to meet any particular beats per minute criteria to move on to the next lesson.
And fundamentally, what you are trying to develop is a phenomenon known as automaticity. And what that means is that you are able to perform the necessary movements of your hands to play the notes and to play the music that you’re trying to play, while you are focused on something else. I
n this case, the backing tracks. And if you want to learn more about that particular phenomenon, automaticity, I’ll link to an article that I’ve written about it. Okay, so that is it for this episode. I will see you in the next installment.