Forum - Banjo Ben Clark

Constructive Practice

Greetings All,

First let me say that I am so thankful that this year, 2020, is almost behind us. It has been a learning year unlike any of the many I have lived.

Now as we head into the New Year I am reaching out for help. I picked up the mandolin back in 2010 and started taking lessons for a local guy. The lessons went something like this – go buy a book – bring it in and I’ll tell you the best songs to learn and then you memorize them from the tablature. Then he would record the rhythm and melody while playing the guitar – this gave me something to practice. The instructor would gradually turn to metronome up faster and faster until he thought I was playing fast enough. The problem with this – it wasn’t clean. This went on for about two years and I learned a handful of songs.

In 2016 I became a Gold Pick member with Banjo Ben thinking and hoping this would replace my lessons and it did. However, it did something else – it through me into a state of “what do I do first!” I mean there was so much to learn from the site. I wanted (and still do) to play clean – fast – learn song quicker – be able to jam and not worry about what song someone called out because I could improvise it. This is what I wanted and still want. I am certain that this site will teach me everything I need to know to do all this and more but, I am a type of person that needs order to everything – my OCD will not allow anything else. So, with so many things to learn where do you start? I looked at and studied the theory lessons. I looked at the scales – all the scales, major, arpeggio, pentatonic – tried to learn all of them but, haven’ yet. I tried the build a break – the endings. Understand I am able to learn a portion of all of these but, I don’t know how and when they are used. I found for me learning by ear seems to be easier. When I say learn by ear I mean have a YouTube video and slow it down and repeat it over and over until I get it. I tried this with Ben’s lessons by using the TEF file – the problem I have with that is that the sound to me sounds like a harpsichord and not a mandolin.

All this babble to ask – can anyone recommend a good – productive – system for learning clean, fast, accurate, jam with anyone, playing? I know you all know what I am talking about and to answer a question – I practice twice a day for 1 to 1 ½ hours per day. Again I apologize for the babbling but, I am hoping I am not the only one to ever experience this and someone can offer some help.

Thanks and I pray that everyone will have a truly blessed New Year!


I’m listening for replies too @mipen

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I am sure this is something @BanjoBen can guide you through.

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Interesting question Mike P. When jamming with friends with an unfamiliar song, I normally vamp through the chords a few times just to learn the chords & melody. Basically building the “trunk of the tree” before adding branches. After I learn the chords, then I pick out the melody along with the vamps and add familiar turnaround licks. With this firmly learned, then add more fill, runs and embellishments to suit as well as different style solos to the same song to show creativity. Works for me. I sure you will find much more detail from other helpful members here… Happy PIcking!


I think everyone learns differently and there are many different methods to play. And maybe you are already a better player than I am.

I have been playing probably around 12 years now -I went to a few bluegrass camps had a Homespun learn to play mandolin DVD learned some fiddle tunes and have been playing in a very amature band for all that time.
So I could play chords and work out a meager break.

You would think that after 12 years of that one might start getting pretty good but no I kind of got stuck and never progressed much. Part of that is that I could go weeks without playing much and also had a carpal tunnel issue that made it hard to play long and which I finally got fixed last January.

So after I recovered from that surgery I decided that I really needed to make the effort to learn to play all over the neck and not just the first 6 frets and or some particular break higher up. In other words to be able to move all around the neck forwards backwards up down diagonally skipping spaces or whatever without losing my place always staying in key. It took me a few months to get pretty good at that just playing the major scale to bluegrass songs. I bought every Gibson brothers album so had about 162 songs to play against. I started off with a subset of the slowest ones.

After I had the notes down pretty well I added double stops tried to work on speed, added blue notes, slides hammer-ons, and trying to add in some of the more distinctive riffs etc… and that is pretty much all I practice usually an hour or more each day.

While I am still a ways from being a good player I feel like I am headed the right direction and can see steady progress. My biggest hurdle is speed. I just do not seem to be able to move my fingers in a coordinated way fast enough -part of that might be that I am 60 and I am asking my fingers to do something which they have never had to do before. But part of that is just learning efficiency of motion which I think is very gradually improving. But I also think that good style is as important or more important than speed. So even if I never get to be a fast player I think that I will eventually learn how to play well.

Once you learn this then playing along with any song in general is no problem -although being able to say -replicate a fiddle tune on the fly and stay very close to melody would require great talent I think.

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You need to understand chord progressions well…to the point of intuitiveness.

Listening to others for cues and recognizing where they are leading can be very important & helpful

Having “go to” licks available in every chord is helpful

Speed comes in it’s own time…learn patience

To learn to jam with others you need to jam with others…no amount of isolated practice can equal the experience of playing with others.

Timing is more important than notes. You can miss a note without others noticing so much…missed timing can throw off the whole group. (in a jam with two pros the other day I got a compliment on my mando playing: “that’s a great chop; perfectly in the pocket even on the wrong chords!” haha…)

Stick to doing what you can…not what you wish you could. (I was way over my head at the jam mentioned above…so I mostly stayed simple on leads or just played rhythm & what I was VERY familiar with for licks.)

My two cents worth anyway…

I don’t have any “system” for learning how to play with others except for doing it a lot and be willing to forgive yourself (and others) for mistakes.


First, welcome to the forum!

@Fiddle_wood’s post explains a lot I was going to say, so he saved me from writing more- Thanks Dave!

I would just add the one thing that helps me progress the most- listening, and listening a lot. I think I learn more just from listening to records, jams, etc. than I would during a lesson or practice session. When you hear certain licks, flourishes, etc., I find that they become sort of ingrained in me, sometimes to the point that I’ll be able to play new licks as soon as I pick up my instrument next.

Another thing I decided to commit to is that whenever I jam (which is not very often), I take a solo on every song- even if I’ve never heard the song before, and no matter how hard it is or how stupid I look playing the break. This is a great learning process, especially at Cabin Camp, where nobody cares even if you just played the worst solo in the history of the song.

Happy picking!


You want what I want man! I am a guitar player and love to play with others. I can cruise along on rhythm but struggle with improvised breaks. I have some go-to fiddle tunes and some breaks I’ve learned or worked out myself but when improv time comes I can sound passable or I can lock up, freeze, then stumble to a g run to end it.

My goal is to play a break that is loyal to the melody. So I’m trying g to learn melodies but also learn how to pick them up by ear. Even if I get the first couple of notes I feel good. Then fill in with licks or scale runs.

My approach for 2021 is to spend time on a new song weekly and do my own Banjo Ben style build-a-break. So learn the melody, add scale runs, then add some licks. I hope it works - I’m sure I’ll learn a lot! I’m also planning to record myself in GarageBand. I want to lay down my own rhythm track and then add the melody and breaks.



Yep, hard to beat what Dave has written! Everyone learns a bit different, that’s for sure, and there is so much material on the site. If I were you I’d concentrate on the build-a-break lessons: but, instead of learning what I do, listen to the basic melody version and create your own, then see how it compares/contrasts with what I create.


Thanks to everyone for your replies - all were very helpful. I will do my best to implement them. Also was wondering - is the TEF file player supposed to sound like a harpsichord or is it just my computer?
Thanks again and I pray everyone had a great Christmas and wish everyone a great New Year! I for one am looking forward to getting back around people and jamming. Enjoy!

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it shouldn’t sound like a harpsichord, but it is a midi approximation of an instrument…so not an acoustic instrument sound.

Look at it as a guide for what the melody sounds like against the timing of the rhythm rather than a goal for tone…


Make sure the setting for the mandolin TUNING in the TEF file is config as GDAE and in the MODULE section is set to Acoustic Guitar (Steel) or Acoustic Guitar (Nylon) That’s the settings @BanjoBen appears to prefer.

As Dave readily points out what your listening to is a midi approximation of an instrument, a (tone) a midi frequency. How your computer’s sound card and speakers handles those tones will vary greatly to another computer setup. It’s unlikely it will sound exactly like a mandolin.

Just try to imagine it sounds exactly like a mandolin then your ear will become accustom to the sound and when you play along with your mandolin the two sounds will blend together. The whole purpose of the TEF files is to help you learn the tunes. Once learned you move to playing along with the mp3 audio files.

I hope this helps

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I have been playing for a a little over a year and my fingers still have a hard time hitting the correct frets. It’s frustrating. I usually practice 1.5-2 hours a day. Any suggestions on getting the muscle memory for the fingers? This morning’s I was practicing notation and it seemed I was going backwards. I have never taken formal lessons.
Thanks in advance.


I don’t know about you but for me I still hit wrong frets but get better at not letting them derail me. My wife had an instructor that told her any bad note you play is just one fret away from being good and you learn to slide up or down quickly enough then it is just a slide and not a bad note.

Personally I have suspected that I have some very mild dyslexia for my ability to sometimes get things backwards. For me I gave up on learned solos and just prefer to play adlib. When you play your own thing it is harder to hit the wrong fret or not be fast enough or whatever.


@swaltner Post a video and let me see what’s going on, my friend.


I will do that, thanks Ben.

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Stupid question, how do I post a video ?

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Hi @swaltner Scott Create a YouTube account. upload your video to YouTube then post the link here.


Thanks Archie

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I could be wrong but Just guessing based on my own experience is that you are probably relying too much on memorization and not putting enough time into improvisation.

Good players also put there fingers in the wrong place but they know how to keep moving. The fact is that any tune can be played an infinite number of ways. It is harder to put your finger down on a non valid note than a valid one. There are a bunch of notes that are blue notes and if you slide than any wrong note is a slide to a right note.

I would have to guess your problem isn’t really hitting wrong notes it is getting stuck after hitting a note that was not in your memorized sequence. At least that is the case for me. Getting back on the track after the train has derailed.

When you rely completely on memory then you have no fall back position. You have not trained your ear so you get lost. Find a recording of the tune you want to learn and play along. Try new note combinations while keeping the basic tune. Written music is a great place to start for ideas but the ultimate goal is to bring your own personality to them. It is much easier to mess up someone elses version of a tune than your own.