Forum - Banjo Ben Clark

Breaking the ceiling

I hope this makes sense. As a person learning the banjo, I am wondering if anyone else has had this experience. I’ll call it “breaking the ceiling.” Is there a point of “breaking the ceiling” to move from simply playing tabs to playing the song? I am at a point that where I desire more than just playing the tabs. Just playing tabs seems so mechanical, but playing the music with feeling is missing. Other than practice, what else can help to make that step from just playing tabs to playing the song? I’m thinking that using a metronome more may help. I would like to play with others, but in upstate NY where I live, I am unable to find anyone locally to “jam” with. I’ve asked at local music stores with no luck.

Another thought is developing a structured practice session for each day.

Appreciate any thoughts on this.

First, let me say that you’re not alone… everyone has that same experience.

The sooner you can ween yourself off of reading a tab and following it to the note, the sooner you can start substituting licks, “jamming”, and playing “in the moment”.

I regularly practice substituting licks, playing different speeds, varying dynamics, tone experimentation, etc. Not all that structured, with lots of rules, but more to get used to playing things “in the moment” rather than reading it.

TAB is a great tool, but shouldn’t be used as a substitute for memorising what you’re learning…

A metronome is a wonderful tool.

Do you work with the backup rhythm tracks that go with the songs here on the site? These are also a great tool for working on that “next step”.

Adding structure to your practice can be a good thing.

my day usually follows a pattern…
start out with a few little warm up exercises , concentration on relaxing
newest things I’m working on…slow & easy concentration on relaxing
then trouble licks and intonation (fiddle)…slow & easy concentration on relaxing
then either work with metronome or backup tracks on a few of the newer pieces. slow & easy concentration on relaxing
then jam time…I’ll play along with old rhythm tracks that run about 70% speed on material I am familiar with…concentrate on having fun, and listening for new things I might do.

I don’t always make it to the jam time…maybe once every two or three days…I just find it more exciting to work on newer material, so I do it more often.

Completely understand. New and learning myself. This breakthrough did not occur for me until I made myself actually memorize the song. It took quite a while, adding a little bit each day. This takes time a patience, neither of which I seem to have in abundance. Curious what others will say too.

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Now, imagine a situation, in which You live in a country, where there used to be two or three significant bluegrass bands, but not sure if there is still even one existing and a total number of people playing banjo sums up to maybe 10 people in the whole country ( I personally know 2, but I am lucky). No forums, no sites, no videos in Your own language. Yes, that is me facing the situation. Cheer up, I am making progress every day :).

Hey @randyimhoff, a quick question for you. Have you been through my Build-a-Break lessons? Those are built to train you to do this very thing…this is what they’re for. No, there’s not a quick and easy pill to take to make this happen, but if you’ll work through those lessons with me, you will learn the skills it takes to identify basic melody, add rolls to support the melody, then sub in licks to spice it up however you want.

The easiest way to see these is to go to the banjo page and click the Build-a-Break collection filter:


It’s good that you’re feeling this way. Now is the time to close those tabs and download Ben’s jam tracks. Put them in an audio player and loop them. When you can play along at full speed, you’re ready to play with other people.

Wow, ten people? Lu-cky! I believe I’m the only banjo picker in the country, but there might be two or three others (I don’t know if there’s any or not, and I definitely haven’t met any) in fact, the whole continent has a shortage :thinking:

Thanks. I’ll have to get to work on that because I’m not a tech guy, but I’ll figure it out.

I’ve worked on a couple of them, but I guess I need to review the ones I’ve worked on, look at others and spend a little more time practicing them.

I’m guessing memorization of the basic melody line is really important. It seems once you know the melody line, then you can fill in other notes, licks and ornaments.



It’s actually not memorizing only that we’re concerned with. It’s hearing the melody line and being able to find it (or know where it’s located) on your banjo neck. I talk quite a bit about that!


Thanks, Ben. I’ll review those lessons and continue to get familiar with the banjo neck.

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He’s referring to the audio tracks that should be right below the tab (I think) on the lesson page

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What K_G said. If you see TEF files, you should see the MP3 jam tracks on the lesson pages.

Thank you

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I do no know, just estimating :). But that gives me an idea to make a topic with a general questions for non US bluegrass banjo maniacs. We are new Mayflower, just sailing opposite direction…


Well, I am American, I just live in Africa but that is a cool topic idea

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I am a beginner of only 4 months so I have yet to reach any ceiling in any area ! However, I do want to highly recommend an iPad app called Tune Fox. I memorize Ben’s songs and then practice them to the “band” on Tune Fox over and over. You can probably down load Ben’s mp3 tracks and do this but I found this app could easily loop the song or lines of the song. You can also slow them down, speed them up, or capo to a different key.
Check it out! Happy banjo-ing!


Randy. A couple things I have found with this. I’m with you and going through the same thing. What I have found is like Ben said, to go through the rhythm, build a break, roll studies, Nashville number system and things like way points in G and C lessons extensively. Now after that, I play along with Ben on slower songs played on the guitar or Mandolin so my Banjo stands out from the other instruments. All of a sudden I am starting to find myself developing a style of my own. Also on Youtube I play along with slower material from people like John Hartford and John Prine songs. All slower and easy to follow. This way I don’t get so intimidated by the tough ones that my skill level is not ready to handle. Ben told me long ago that you must be consistent playing in steady increments. Lastly someone told me to go learn 10 Scruggs tune and all the answers are in there. I would suggest learning 10 complete songs from Ben’s lessons in your skill category and the answers will be there just the same. I hope this helps. Good Luck to you Randy.

@randyimhoff you have gotten a lot of input here, but I guess information overload is a good thing sometimes. So here is my 2 cents worth. When I first wanted to learn Banjo about 5 yrs ago(i kick myself for not staying with it), I located a teacher on “Banjo Hangout” that was practically right up the street from me. He was a big “Murphy Henry method” teacher… Ben is awesome about telling you about EVERYTHING. I have grown leaps and bounds by Bens teachings. So, what I would say is, try to find an online song player that you can download for free or pay for one if you have the funds (i have Song Surgeon myself) and download Bens Rhythm tracks and play them over and over at a speed that you can keep up with. I have learned that repetition is the “Key” to learning. I still have to look at the tabs on most of the songs, so I guess until you have played them like a gazillion times(did i say gazillion?) its going to be a learning experience. There is not ONE of us who haven’t been or are in the same boat as you. Be patient, if you get frustrated, like I do on occasion, put the banjo away for a while and then come back later. Just remember you didn’t learn to walk or talk or drive a car or anything else in life overnight, it all takes some time. Good luck, stay vigilant and I hope everyone’s advise helps you out and “Keep on Pickin”.