Learning the 5-string banjo pt 4: You can teach yourself banjo by Janet Davis

Learning with Janet Davis

Learning with Janet Davis

It’s been about two months since I first started practising my banjo. I mentioned in an early post how I chose what to start learning. After taking some advice from the good folk at Banjo Hangout I decided to go for Janet Davis’s You Can Teach Yourself Banjo, book and DVD. For UK-based budding pickers, check out Amazon.co.uk for a bargain at the time of writing.

The combination of beginner’s guide and DVD is invaluable to anyone starting out without the benefit of a tutor or playing group. It would have been overwhelming for all the subtleties and tips you can find elsewhere to be included in this book and DVD so you may find yourself, like I did, with questions I wanted answered, such as ‘at what angle should I be aiming for to pick the string?’ Observation is key and the clear footage on the DVD really helps to emulate good posture and positions. The book really works because it is simply written and not full of assumptions about levels of knowledge. Lesson 1 is the ideal primer for those who haven’t come across tablature (tab) before (like me), or who haven’t tuned an instrument before and the basics of what the left and right hand does in the Scruggs style of Bluegrass, three-finger picking.

Taking time to learn the drills

My temptation was to go immediately to the first lesson which taught me a tune, but I am glad I didn’t. It doesn’t take long to read through the introductory lessons and then start with the simple ‘drills’, i.e. roll patterns and laying down the basic chords of C and D7, and alternating these with open G (note: getting C down was very awkward to begin with but now I don’t think about it so it does come with time). The introductory lessons on the DVD reinforces what you read in the book. I don’t think it matters which way around you approach it and now I alternate between the DVD and book at will depending on what I want to do. I find myself flicking back and forth too and re-reading and re-watching parts of the DVD. This has really made me feel at home with these self-taught guides and also slowed me down so I don’t rush through it and start practising mistakes.

Identifying my milestone

Janet Davis You Can Teach Yourself Banjo book

Janet Davis You Can Teach Yourself Banjo book

Flicking through the book I identified my first milestone. I wanted to be able to play the simple arrangement of Cripple Creek on page 28 (lesson 14). I have already described my method of practice so I won’t repeat that stuff here. Each lesson that Janet Davis has set out has a clear goal. In between there are some extra tunes to learn, for example, lessons 7 and 8 take you through two tunes to help you with the very well-used forward-reverse roll (Worried Man Blues and Mountain Dew).

Building up to the Cripple Creek milestone

Apart from the chord and roll pattern drills, I started out with Bile Dem Cabbage Down (lesson 4, pp. 14-15). I spent ages on this lesson. I really wanted to nail the tune and get my fingers used to the forward roll pattern and experiment with building speed after I had the notes down. Compared to many other musicians, I am probably relatively slow in getting to the ‘click’ stage. I know my goal and I have a good ear so I know what good, in-time music should sound like, but it takes me a while to assimilate it. I kept playing it slow to get both the ‘machine-gun’ rhythm right and fluidity throughout the tune. I still return to Bile Dem Cabbage Down now to get it even better.

I spent some more time with the three versions of The Old Gray Goose (lessons 5-6, pp. 16-17) but not as long as the cabbage tune. However I did find it useful to hear and watch what people had done with these tunes on YouTube. These lessons were particularly useful in learning different variations of the same song.

I spent less time on lessons 9-10 (pp. 20-21) as I was able to achieve the lesson goals more quickly (playing the cabbage song with the backward roll (lesson 9) and using the mixed roll in Good Night Ladies (lesson 10)). By this time I was desperate to get onto the slides, pull-offs and hammers! Who wouldn’t!

Putting Cripple Creek back together again

Janet Davis You Can Teach Yourself Banjo DVD

Janet Davis You Can Teach Yourself Banjo DVD

Janet Davis builds you up slowly to Cripple Creek by taking you through three major elements of left-hand technique (lessons 11-13, pp. 21-15). With these I found the DVD accompaniment indispensable. I watched and rewound, watched and rewound. The main thing I wanted to get right was the rhythm that these left-hand techniques introduce into the tunes. Lesson 14 on Cripple Creek itself takes you through both the parts, part A and part B. The DVD again was vital to get both the technique and the rhythm right. The split screen shows clearly what each hand should be doing at slow speed and at full speed. Here I found a full-on 3 hour practice session really useful. I could replay, copy, rewind, copy, break it down into the smallest of parts to get it right.

Then I played it all the way through slowly. I could tell my rhythm was not right as I was concentrating hard on my left hand and making sure my slides, hammers and pull-offs could be heard. It’s taken two to three subsequent shorter sessions for it finally to ‘click’ (that was this evening) and now I can happily say that I can play it perfectly (most of the time) and am now going to dwell on picking up some speed.

There are a lot of useful tips in the notes

Many of Janet Davis’s really useful tips are in notes at the bottom of each page. They are easy to miss but they are really handy. She obviously has a lot of experience in teaching and these notes must be a culmination of all the questions and problems her students have repeatedly come across.

So I have had a lot of fun with Janet Davis so far. I have now taken a sneak peak at the rest of the book and watched the rest of the DVD all the way through to see what is in store.

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