Forum - Banjo Ben Clark

Beginner trying to learn a song

Hi, fellow banjo players. I am trying to learn a song or two but was wondering how do you guys approach it? Do you memorize it by sound, by looking at the strings you pick, or looking at Ben’s tab? I guess what I am saying is, do you memorize it by sight, sound, tab, or a combination? Also, is it true that the more you practice it over and over you will eventually adapt to it easier and be able to play it at a faster speed? Thanks!

If you are just starting out, then play the song any way you can.

Playing a song by how it sounds is ideal but, unless you are naturally gifted, that may not be possible for a beginner.

Looking at your picking hand is not a great idea. You need to be able to ‘feel’ the strings you pick. Many players will look at their fretting hand but eventually this should not be necessary (even though we continue to do it!)

I myself like to memorize the tab and then just practice away. If you use Ben’s lessons, you will find that the more songs you learn, the easier it becomes as more and more of the same patterns and actions occur. However, this takes a long time for most of us. If you learn a bunch of the beginner songs and ALL of the intermediate songs, then you’ll be pretty well equipped. That took me 4 years.

Agree to just try to learn a couple of songs anyway you can. Get familiar with your instrument and its sounds.

I started out with tabs, now moving slowly to figuring things out by ear and using lesser tabs. For me an advantage of learning from tab is that I’m automatically less inclined to look at the fretting/picking hand which is an advantage later on (IMO a player looks more ‘free’ and thus relaxed and thus interesting when not staring down at the instrument all the time).

To get a feel for the sound, which is more than just the correct notes, it is also about timing, volume etc. it is very helpful to play along with the track. Ben has now quite some lessons that include a video where he is playing the song slowly and the tab shows at the bottom of the video. This’ll give you the chance to play by tab and by ear at the same time so it is very helpful to play along with those (and later on with the full speed version).

Speed comes with time, but in my opinion you have to practice it as well in order to get comfortable with it. Not everyday, definitely not when you are just starting out. Focus on playing correctly, clean and with good timing (metronome!), but once/twice a week you could challenge yourself by increasing the speed of the metronome step wise up to that point where you are just capable (or not) to play the tune. When I get to the point that I mess up the whole tune, I will play through it at a comfortable speed a few times to make sure the muscle memory stays intact and then move on to something else. Over time this will increase speed (be aware, you won’t sound pretty), but be patient and don’t focus too much on it. I’d say first focus on your ‘groove’ (and on clean/pretty playing) as the players who can do that are the once we like to listen to and to play with.

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I think it depends on your learning ability. For instance, on every “learning style” test I’ve ever taken, I’m a horrible auditory learner. However, I’m a great reading learner, which makes tab a great way for me to learn.

With that being said, you can’t always play to your strengths and ignore your weaknesses. When I’m learning with Ben’s videos, I take his advice and have the tab printed out right beside me as I’m watching the video. But I also want to learn to be a better auditory learner, so as soon as I can get his tab even somewhat memorized, I try to pay only by ear, and make corrections by ear. I also picked up a few Murphy Method DVD’s for their strict “no tab allowed” teaching. I believe it’s helped my ear in many ways.

Here’s a simple piece of advice I heard years ago and it helped me tremendously. Get the song in your head! Get a few of your favorite recordings of the song and listen to the song as much as possible. You want to know the song so well that you hear the song in your head. This may not be for everyone, but for me, this helped so much learning a new song. In addition to speeding up the learning process, it gave me ideas for ‘straying’ away from the tab and creating my own personal touch to the song.