One of the challenges that comes with learning a musical instrument or style, particularly one that doesn’t already have a highly formalized built in pedagogical structure (like classical violin, for example), is in finding tunes and arrangements to play that are appropriate for you current level of technical ability.
Learning music is a cumulative process that occurs over an extended period of time. Someone who’s been playing for 3 months won’t have the same body of technical skills to draw from as someone who’s been playing 3 years. But both would still like to make really good music! And there’s no reason they shouldn’t.
But finding music that’s right for you, that you can make sound good with the skills you already possess, isn’t always easy. You may start out to learn a tune and ultimately find that it’s too far outside your comfort zone, or that it utilizes techniques or notation you’re not familiar with or haven’t seen before.
To help you in always choosing music that’s right for you now, I’ve created a level system that accompanies all of the arrangements that are released by Brainjo. You’ll see this denoted at the top right hand side of the tab with “Brainjo Level x” on it.
(RELATED: The Brainjo Method is the first system of musical instruction that incorporates the science of learning and neuroplasticity, and specifically targets adult learners. Click here to read more about the method.)
But before I give you the description for each level, I’d like to insert a word of caution:
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that an arrangement that’s more complicated, or a higher level, is necessarily “better”. Having a lot of options or knowing a lot of techniques can be both a blessing and a curse, as it can be tempting to try to make things sound better just by making it fancier or more technically complex.
Remember this: a good melody played simply with good timing and technique will always sound far better than the most technically sophisticated arrangement played sloppily.
Some of the greatest players of all time used a very sparse style, which allowed freed them up to infuse their music with heart, soul, and great rhythm. So resist the urge to make your playing more complex just for the sake of it, or to try to tackle more challenging arrangements because you feel you must as a sign of progress.
In the end, it’s your ears that should be the judge. Play what sounds good to you. Nothing else.
I also work hard to ensure that every arrangement, regardless of its complexity, will sound great. I want the music you make to be rewarding regardless of where you’re at.
The Components of Fingerstyle Banjo
When it comes to fingerstyle banjo specifically, we can consider an arrangement of any particular tune as having 3 primary components. They are:
- Melody notes – the notes of the melody
- Drone notes – a note that rings out in the background through much of the tune. This is usually the 5th string.
- “Decoration” notes – notes that aren’t part of the primary melody. These are all those extra notes that give the banjo its signature machine-gun, rolling sound (and is why people think of banjo playing as “fast”).
As this breakdown illustrates, in a typical fingerstyle arrangement, many, if not most, of the notes being played are not primary melody notes. For the early player, this can be a confusing situation.
This becomes all the more confusing if one tries to learn these types of arrangements from the start. It’s quite common for a beginning player to lament the fact that their playing doesn’t match the sound of more experienced banjoists, despite the fact that they’re playing all the notes.
And the reason it doesn’t sound the same is usually this: whereas an experienced player is capable of emphasizing the melody notes in their playing, this is beyond the technical capabilities of someone at an earlier phase in the learning timeline. Early on in one’s banjo playing days, it can be difficult to distinguish between the melody, drone, and decoration notes, much less emphasize particular notes in his or her playing.
For these reasons, it’s critical that the beginning player learn arrangements appropriate for his or her current position along the Timeline of Mastery. Remember, habits are far easier to create than undo, so it’s far better to build them right from the start.
So the Brainjo level system is designed to ensure that you have access to arrangements that are both appropriate to your current level, and that build skills in a logical, cumulative fashion.
Overall, the factors that contribute to the overall degree of difficulty of an arrangement, and its appropriateness at any given time in the learning progression, include:
- Complexity of picking hand movements
- Complexity of fretting hand movements
- Degree of syncopation
- Type and variety of chord positions
- Fretting hand excursions up and down the neck
- Ratio of “decoration” to “melody” notes
With this in mind, here’s an overview of the Brainjo level system:
- Brainjo Level 1 – level one arrangements only utilize foundational fretting and picking hand techniques, and are of low technical complexity. These tabs are primarily instructional in nature, and designed for folks getting started with fingerstyle banjo.
- Brainjo Level 2 – level two arrangements also only utilize foundational fretting and picking hand techniques, but have a higher degree of technical complexity, and an increase in the use of “decoration” notes.
- Brainjo Level 3 – level three arrangements utilize foundational techniques, and additionally have more “decoration” notes, more fretting hand complexity, an increase in the amount of syncopation, and may use full chord positions.
- Brainjo Level 4 – level four arrangements share many of the same techniques and characteristics as level 3, but may have a higher degree of syncopation, increased demands on the fretting hand, excursions up and down the neck, and/or an increase in the complexity of the picking hand movements.
- Brainjo Level 5 – level five arrangements will be rare, and will generally challenge the limits of any player’s technical skills. They’ll require the full arsenal of techniques, along with perhaps unusual time signatures, unfamiliar chord shapes and harmonizations, or other musical oddities. Think of things like playing a Beethoven sonata on the banjo, or other ill-advised notions.