Welcome to Step 7! You’ve made it to the end!
Or is it just the beginning???
In this video, we’ll begin by reviewing all that we’ve learned in this course. And then I’ll share with you thoughts about where to go from here, and close with the song you’ll learn in the first bonus installment.
Your Mission: Watch the video, and then go forth and pick thy banjo with your thumb and forefinger! Remember to continue revisiting the prior steps and exercises.
THE LESSON (STEP 7)
3) The Laws of Brainjo: The Art & Science of Molding a Musical Mind – the book outlines the theoretical principles of the Brainjo Method of instruction.
4) The Course Book (when ready):
BEATS FOR BANJO TRACKS
All right, you’ve made it. Welcome to the final episode, in the how to play two-finger thumb-lead style banjo and seven essential steps crash course for the total beginner.
Congratulations. You have reached the final step in our series and may have a few little bonus episodes after this one. But after this we will conclude the primary seven steps. And with all of this you will have the fundamental technical building blocks for two-finger thumb-lead style banjo and be able to make all sorts of incredible music just with what you’ve learned.
In this video, what we’re going to do is review the key concepts that we’ve been over and then I will share my thoughts about where to go from here if you want to continue to develop this style and to continue to develop your ability to finger pick on the banjo and make amazing banjo sounds.
Okay, so now let’s talk about our key elements of two-finger thumb-lead style banjo. And I’m going to use our first section of Pretty Polly, the song we’ve been working on, to illustrate all the basic concepts that we’ve talked about. So let’s start with the basic rhythmic structure of 2-finger thumb-lead. And again, I’m referring to the primary kinds of songs that you play, which are in regular even beaded measures, not in odd time signatures like waltz time, even though you can play that way, two-finger really shines in the way it’s structured here.
So in this particular section of Pretty Polly, we have four measures. This is written out in 2:4 time signature. Not that important that you know that, but it means that there are two downbeats per measure. And remember that we have organized two-finger thumb-lead into this repeating 4 unit structure that consists of a downbeat an upbeat, and in between that, two offbeats. So this is the primary structure, or scaffolding, upon which we put all the techniques of two-finger thumb-lead banjo. And the first thing we put into that structure is the melody with our thumb, with our thumb essentially playing melody on strings four, three, and two.
While we’re at it, go ahead and make sure your banjo is in our tuning, which is G modal, D on the fourth string, G on the third, C on the second, D on the first, and G on the fifth. And right now all that you see in the tab is the melody to this first section of Pretty Polly.
Okay. So that’s our basic building block and now we fill in the rest. And now what we do is we take that melody and we add in all the extra stuff that really makes the banjo so unique and makes it sound like a banjo song. So if you recall, the next thing we did was we added in drones. So now let’s put up what we had after we added in our drones.
And remember we have a couple of different options for our drone notes. We have playing the fifth string with our thumb. And again that’s going to be on our down and upbeats because that’s the purview of our thumb. And then we also have the option of playing the open first string with our index finger as a drone. And if we wish, in some instances, we can play a pinch on the down and upbeats when we’re playing thumb on the fifth string if we want to bring in the index finger drone at the same time, we can do that.
So those are essentially our three droning options. We have the thumb either on the fifth string or the pinch on the down upbeats and the index finger on the open first string on the off beats. So now here’s what our melody sounded like after we fleshed it out with all the drones.
And once again to remind you, remember how many non-melody notes there are more, more non-melody notes in there or drones than there are melody notes. Again, one of the unique features of the banjo and one of the reasons why people find it so confounding when they first listen to it.
And then the last thing we can do to fill out this structure is if we wish to, we can add notes with our fretting hand in the form of hammer-ons and pull-offs. And those can be either on a string that we’ve just plucked as hammer-ons there or a string we haven’t plucked, and the same with pull-offs.
All right, so that again allows us to add in melody notes on the offbeat if we have a song that has melody notes in the offbeat and since the thumb is only playing notes on the down and upbeat, if we want to play a melody note that falls on an offbeat, we have to use our fretting finger to do so.
And then the other thing that playing notes with our fretting fingers on the offbeat allows us to do is syncopate the melody. We can take a melody note that naturally falls on the down or upbeat and shift it to an offbeat note, as I demonstrated in the prior lessons.
So now this is our first section with the hammer-ons added to finish out our arrangement. So once again, that is the basic fundamental structure of two-finger thumb-lead banjo and how all the various techniques fit in. And really that’s the basic structure for finger-picking banjo in general, with some additional techniques thrown in with three finger style.
But I think it’s really important from here on out, as you’re playing music on the banjo, to always keep this structure in mind, to always be aware of what notes are your melody notes, what notes are your drones, and so forth, so that you have an understanding of what you’re trying to convey with your music and it’s not just one big string of notes that you can’t make sense of.
All right, so now, what next? Where should you go from here? Well, there are lots of things that you can do. One is just to continue playing two-finger thumb-lead style banjo. First of all, working on these core techniques, getting them really solid, take as much time as you need to get this foundation built. It will pay off big time in the end if you take the time to do it, work along with the backing tracks as instructed, and so forth. And then you will have a really good foundation that you can build on and it will pay off in terms of more efficient and effective learning in the future and much faster progress.
And I will be coming back to teach you a couple additional bonus songs for the end of this series that are good for you to move on to next. I think that’s one of the most critical things here to remember. Again, we’ve moved through this in a logical order trying to build on techniques.
And as some of you may know, I do have the breakthrough banjo course, which in there you can continue to delve into more advanced techniques with two-finger thumb-lead style, lots more songs and song tutorials. But one of the biggest keys there is that the course continues to progress in terms of building on previously learned skills so that we’re not making big leaps that set us up for developing bad habits. And so regardless of whether you continue on with that course or continue on your own, make sure that the music that you’re choosing or the arrangements that you’re playing are appropriate for where you are, that they are maybe either at where you’re at or maybe just a little bit of a stretch for you, but not so far out of reach, technically speaking, that it will lead to the formation of bad habits, which is really common.
So always choosing music and arrangements that are appropriate for wherever you are in your learning progression. And one of the great things about the banjo, and especially about this stylist banjo, is there are so many great songs that you can play that aren’t that technically complicated, but that sound amazing. And one of the most important things for you to remember is that more complicated does not necessarily mean better. And by that I mean just because something is harder to play or takes more technique to play doesn’t mean it’s going to sound better. I can’t emphasize that enough. And in fact, many times simple sounds better than complicated.
I can tell you from personal experiences that the songs that are the hardest for me to play are not the ones that people like to listen to the most. There really is no correlation and in fact it’s so much better to focus on playing things that are relatively simple with good timing and clarity than it is to try to focus on technically complicated or more complicated things with the idea that that will somehow sound better. It won’t. Especially if you’re not playing those things with good timing and clarity. It will definitely sound worse.
So remember, simple is not worse. Simple is oftentimes better than complicated. And like I said, there is an ocean of great music that you can play on the banjo that is relatively simple, melodically speaking, but sounds amazing and that’s a lot of what I focus on in the course. There’s no reason not to take advantage of all that great music before you try to start digging into things that are more technically complicated.
As I also said in the introductory video two-finger thumb-lead is a great style for not only solo porch picking, it’s great for solo banjo playing, but it’s also great for solo playing and singing, probably the best fingerpicking style for that in my opinion. So try your hand at starting to sing and play with the banjo.
Again, there are playing and singing lessons inside the course if you’re interested in that as well. Along with step-by-step tutorials for individual songs to go through what to play behind your voice when you’re playing and singing. And of course another thing you could do is learn 3-finger style.
As I mentioned in the introduction, one reason I think everybody who learns to fingerpick the banjo should start with 2-finger thumb-lead is because it builds a perfect foundation for 3-finger style, including three-finger old-time fingerpicking and three-finger Scruggs style, or bluegrass. And there’s really only very subtle differences between those two things.
And after you’ve done that, you’ll be able to play essentially the full range of songs on a fingerpicking banjo. So you will be the most versatile fingerpicking banjo player that you can be.
Now some people have asked about a style known as a two-finger index-lead and as you might surmise if you haven’t heard that name before, that refers to a style of playing with two-fingers where your index finger instead of your thumb is playing melody notes. And my advice there, if you’re interested in that style, is actually just to move on to learning three-finger style banjo, because essentially what you’re doing there, learning three-finger style is you’re learning how to shift between playing the melody note with your thumb and playing your melody note with your index or middle finger. And that means that once you’ve added in that extra finger, you will have the technical ability to play the index-lead two-finger style, but you won’t be just limited to that style. Whereas the opposite or the converse of that isn’t true.
So if you were to start with learning two-finger index-lead, you’d be limited to just being able to play that style rather than being able to play the full range of fingerpicking.
Now if you continue on learning fingerpicking banjo, one of the things you will likely do is learn to play in other tunings. Now I deliberately chose what you might call an alternate tuning for us to start out learning, our G modal tuning. And I did that for a few reasons. One is because it is a great tuning for highlighting the special characteristics of the banjo. Another reason is because it’s very common for people who come to the banjo, especially if they have experience with another instrument, like the guitar, to think that the object of the game is to learn the chords and then play from there.
And yet as you’ve learned in this series, the banjo works a little bit differently. It’s not like the guitar in a lot of ways. So as we’ve talked about, really banjo is about melody rhythm and droning. And yes, chords can be important depending on the song that you’re playing, the style you’re playing it in, but the danger is if you begin coming at it from thinking the object is learning chords and playing from there, you miss out on exploring these other elements that are so special and important to the banjo. And you may resist using different banjo tunings because in your mind it may mean, I got to learn a bunch of new chords.
If you’ll note, we played this entire song without any awareness of what the chords we were playing were and these various alternate tunings that are used on the banjo are there for very good reason. Not only do they sound really cool, so you’ll notice this song, Pretty Polly, has this ancient sound or more archaic sound, old-timey, than more modern music, and a lot of that is because of the tuning that it’s in. The tuning not only makes the song easier to play, but it also imparts this atmosphere, this background sound, especially when you’ve got these drones going on, that is very unique to the particular tuning that you’re in.
And speaking of this G modal tuning, there are several other classic banjo songs that are in this tuning. I’ll run through a few of them because you might want to learn a few of them at this point.
Notice I’ve switched out banjos. I’m now playing my resonator banjo and I have picks on. So I mentioned in the very introduction that you can play two-finger thumb-lead on any banjo with or without picks. So I’m just going to show you the difference between how what we’ve been doing, which I was playing bare fingers on an open back banjo and now I’m going to play this little medley of songs with finger picks.
So, there, just a handful of great songs, great banjo tunes, really highlight the special features of the banjo two-finger thumb-lead in this G modal tuning. So all those are taught in the course if you’re interested.
And speaking of songs that highlight the special and unique qualities of banjo, I’m going to close out this episode by playing the song Darling Corey, which is also in an alternate tuning, a different one from G model, but a song that perfectly captures what’s great about the banjo and about two-finger thumb-lead style. It is also in an alternate tuning different from G modal, but the alternate tuning used here is absolutely critical for the wonderful sound that you hear and it’s a perfect showcase, again, of how you can create such great music with two-finger thumb-lead style, even with a straightforward melody that’s not too complicated, but you can just create this incredible atmosphere and background sound that really sounds like nothing else and that is a perfect accompaniment to singing.
So I’m going to play and sing a version here of Darling Corey two-finger thumb-lead style. And the next video in this series, the first bonus episode, I will be teaching this particular song to you. So something to look forward to.
And hopefully this series of lessons, these seven steps, has demystified the process of playing the banjo. Playing in this two-finger thumb-lead style made it seem very accessible. Again, music is something anybody can learn, it’s just a matter of following the right path. And as I said once, if you’ve learned these fundamental techniques, you really have opened the door to being able to play anything on fingerstyle banjo should you choose to do so. Should you choose to move on to three-finger old-time style, as well as three-finger bluegrass Scruggs style.