Welcome to Step 2! In this video, you’ll be picking out the next section of “Pretty Polly” by ear and learn your next 2 finger thumb lead banjo technique – the 5th string drone.
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 2)
YOUR PRACTICE EXERCISE
2) The Laws of Brainjo: The Art & Science of Molding a Musical Mind – the book outlines the theoretical principles of the Brainjo Method of instruction.
3) The Course Book:
BEATS FOR BANJO TRACKS
Okay, welcome to step two in the How to Play 2 Finger Thumb Lead Style Banjo in Seven Essential Steps, crash course for the absolute beginner.
Again, this video is going to be covering the second step and if you haven’t seen step one, I would strongly recommend watching that one first and learning the exercise taught there as well as the intro and getting started videos. In this particular video, what we’re going to be doing is continuing to learn another section of our demonstration song, Pretty Polly and a new technique to go along with it.
And just like we did last time when we learn our new section of the melody, we are going to be doing so by ear.
Previously I mentioned that one of the more unique things about the banjo is it has a lot of extra notes being played in addition to the melody, sometimes refer to those as decorations. Probably more decorations than you would hear in most other instruments.
That gives the impression that the banjo is an instrument that’s played fast. That’s one of the myths out there about the banjo is that it’s an instrument for fast music, which is not true, the music that’s played on the banjo is not any faster than any other music.
But having more notes going on or more notes being played per unit time, gives the impression to the listener that it’s being played fast. And one of those kinds of decorations are drone notes.
A drone is a note that sounded in the background in a piece of music. A note of a particular pitch that’s always of the same pitch that’s sounded continuously or relatively continuously throughout a piece of music. And it is a feature of traditional music all over the world, but drones are not as commonly heard in modern music.
And that’s probably why people associate the banjo with an older sound than maybe some other instrument. And of course the main drone on the banjo is the fifth string. You have this open fifth string, which is also sometimes referred to as a drone string.
It’s constantly sounding the same note in the background throughout a piece of music, whereas the pitches of the other strings are changing on the banjo. The fifth string is always the same pitch.
Now the cool thing about 2 finger thumb lead banjo is that you actually have to drones. You have to fifth string drone, but you also have the first string drone. Your melody notes are almost exclusively going to be played on the second, third and fourth strings with the thumb and then your drone notes are not just the fifth string, but the first string.
And I think that’s part of why 2 finger thumb lead has a really old timey sound is because you have the extra drone note. And today we’re going to be learning the fifth string drone and in a later episode we’ll be learning playing the first string drone.
And just as a reminder, make sure your banjo is in G modal tuning. That’s the tuning we’re using to play the song Pretty Polly. That is 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.
And so one thing you’re going to notice as we are adding in this fifth string into our arrangement, is that there are going to be instances where you have to make a decision about whether or not to keep a melody note or to drop a melody note in favor of a decoration like the fifth string. We’ll be coming up against that in this episode as we work through Pretty Polly.
And anytime you are arranging a song for the banjo, there are countless decisions to make like this where you’re deciding what technique to use, whether to play a melody note, whether to add a drone instead and so forth. So much so that you could conceivably spend your entire life playing different versions of Pretty Polly continuously and never duplicate them and have many more to play and still be playing with them, the rules of 2 finger thumb lead style.
And I say that because some people get the idea, hung up on the idea that there’s a right way to play a song, which is absurd when you consider that how many different possibilities there are out there for even a relatively simple melody like Pretty Polly.
There are countless numbers of ways you could play that 2 finger thumb lead style and at A, be within the rules and sound like 2 finger thumb lead and be 2 finger thumb lead and sound great. Don’t think there’s ever any one way you have to play things.
There may be a way a certain person played it one time in history or one day when it was recorded, but that’s just a reflection of their own set of decisions they made when playing the tune.
The truth is that yes, there’s a set of rules that makes 2 finger thumb lead styles, two fingers only style. But within those rules there is a ton of room for creative expression. And the further you go along your journey of banjo playing, the more I would encourage you to explore all that territory.
It always starts with first identifying the melody and then from there adding on what sounds good to your ear. For those of you who have read the Laws of Brainjo series, you know that the first law says to learn to play like the masters, we must learn to play like the masters.
And the idea behind this series of initial videos is to show you the path that’s taken in taking a tune and taking a melody and fleshing it out in a particular style, which is whatever master player does.
Just like if you go to culinary school to learn to be a chef, you don’t do so by memorizing a bunch of recipes. You do so by understanding the elements of cooking, how they all are assembled together to make great food, and so that then you can do that for yourself and create your own recipes that are unique to you.
And I think one of the reasons why a lot of people struggle with the banjo is because it’s oftentimes taught as a set of recipes rather than the underlying structure that the very peoples whose music you’re trying to emulate or that inspired you, the structure that they used. And so that’s exactly why we’re building this song from the ground up in this series.
Okay, let’s start by reviewing what we learned already. The first part of the melody for Pretty Polly, where we were only playing the melody notes with our thumb on strings three and four. I’m going to put up the tab for that. And if you’re unfamiliar with tab, I will link in an article on how to read the tab in the video description.
I’m also working on a short video that demonstrates how to read banjo tab which should be up soon and I will link it in this video when it’s ready. Let’s go over what we played the last time, which sounds like this.
Singing it, it sounds like this.
And again, I’m singing it here so you can start to link up sounds that you hear singing with sounds on the banjo, which is really a crucial part of playing by ear.
All right, so what we’re going to do now is we’re going to add in some fifth string drones in between these melody nodes. Let’s go through this measure by measure. First measure, what we have right now is this. But we’re going to already have an instance here where we going to sacrifice a melody note in the name of a drone.
The last note here, we’re going to drop and play a drone instead on the fifth string. Now this measure is going to sound like this. Again, we’re just alternating between the open third and the fifth string.
Our next measure right now sounds like this. One more time. Again, all of the down and upbeats in this measure are occupied by melody notes. And if you’re not familiar with down and upbeats, don’t worry about it. We’re going to cover that in a future episode. But the point being is that as is right now, there’s not any room in the structure of how 2 finger thumb lead works.
There’s not any room for a fifth string drone. We’re going to drop one of those melody notes and play a fifth string drone at the end so it’s going to sound like this.
Again, open third, third fret, third string. Open fourth and then fifth string. All right, next measure once again, same issue. All the spaces are occupied so we’re going to drop the second note and fill in a fifth string drone there.
All right, now let’s move onto our last measure. It’s just the open third so we have plenty of space here. All of our spots where we could put in a fifth string drone are open. What we’ll do is we’ll just alternate between the open third and the open fifth. Whenever you have space in a melody like this where there’s just a note and then there’s some empty space, you call that filler, filler notes or vamps. Where you have kind of a lot of freedom to do whatever you want in that section.
Here’s everything altogether, all four measures now with our fifth string drones added. I would suggest that you practice that for a little bit. Get that pattern of picking under your fingers and maybe try practicing along with the Beats for Banjo backup tracks and then move on to the next section and I’ll be demonstrating playing all of it along with the backing tracks at the end.
Let’s go to the next part of our melody. Here’s what we have so far. (singing) Next section goes, (singing).
You can kind of hear that the melodic contour of that is very similar to the first part. It’s almost a mirror of it except that it’s sung a little bit higher. And so you’re going to see that we’re going to be playing higher notes on the banjo, but it’s a very similar sound to the first. Here’s what that sounds like on the banjo. And with the voice. (singing).
All right, and so just like last time, I’m going to give you some choices to choose from in terms of where to find these notes. Again, the orange dots on the fretboard indicate where the possible notes are to play in this second part.
As you’ll see, there are only three choices. There are 10 notes in all that you’re picking out, but you only have three possibilities in terms of what notes to play for each of those. And so I’ll demonstrate it one more time. All right, and now go ahead and pause the video, see if you can find those notes on your own on the banjo and hit unpause when you’re ready and I’ll give you the solution.
All right, so here are the notes for that part. We’re going to start with the second fret of the second string twice for the first measure there. Next measure, second fret, second string again, then open second, third fret, third string, then open second.
Next measure we have second fret, second string again, then open second, then third fret, third string. And then the last measure is just second fret, second string. Altogether we have.
Now let’s add in some fifth string drones. First measure, we have two spots for it, easy enough. We’re just going to throw those in between the melody notes like this. Again, I’m just alternating between the second string and the fifth string and I’m fretting that second string at the second fret. And I’m fretting it with my index finger.
Next measure, right now it sounds like this. But we’re going to drop that last melody note in favor of a drone so it’ll sound like this. Next measure, right now sounds like this. We have an open spot there for a drone on the fifth so we’ll just play it there. And then our last measure was just this, just like before where we have one note in the entire measure so we’ll just add in the fifth string at the spots there and alternate again between the second string and the fifth string.
All right, so everything together now sounds like this. I’ll sing it one time. (singing).
Starting to sound really old timey, really awesome. All right, so now let me demonstrate playing all of it together with the Beats for Banjo backup tracks. All right, so now I’m going to demonstrate how to play that exercise along with the Beats for Banjo backup tracks. I will start it at 70 beats per minute.
That is the exercise to practice between now and next time. You can already see it kind of getting a real regular thumb, is kind of the key to the rhythm of 2 finger thumb lead style. And remember that with these exercises, the goal is to play, be able to play along really with any tempo, with good timing and clear notes.
The speed at which you can do it right now isn’t really that important. Focus on timing and note clarity, and do that kind of at the slowest tempo where that works. Don’t try to play it too fast right now. That’s not the objective, and that will only undermine things in the future.
And remember that you can slow down the video further by using the gear icon at the bottom. Try to get that under your fingers before moving onto the next installment and I will be releasing the next video in a few days, so I will see you then.