Forum - Banjo Ben Clark

Didn't think I would hit a plateau yet

Howdy y’all, I have been hesitant to voice this question for several excuses but here it is.
I feel stuck in my playing, I practice daily and am trying to be diligent to learn new, but when i first started a year ago I made the classic beginning mistake of skipping steps here and there to try to get out of the beginning stage and not have that name, but as you can imagine I tried playing intermediate and advanced songs and even managed to learn a few, but I couldn’t get better at them, got stuck and relapsed to one song.
So now I go back to the beginner learning track and thoroughly learn the lessons and I am now working on the rest of the songs in that track, I felt good about my playing. But now I seem to be stuck again, I’m not progressing hardly at all (compared to learning a new beginner song every day, as I was.) I don’t know ANY backup at all, and dont even know where to start on that. And yes I tried the very first backup lesson. Now ok let me tell you my goals. I want to be able to play with others, nothing extraordinary just good enough, and I want to play and make up rolling backup for country songs. And eventually play live music for the parties we will host. But that goal seems insurmountable when I pick up my banjo and practice, now I LOVE to play and practice, no trouble there, but I just want to do better. They say practice practice practice, and I know that that’s part of it but it’s also how you practice that counts.

There was that long enough of a forum read for ya?

Post your answers below.

As if there is any other place to put them.:woozy_face:


Paragraphs are always nice…just saying :nerd_face:

Keep on keeping on…it happens to everyone.

Have patience.


I will certainly watch the advice that is given on this thread. I have been where you are before and I am there now. I am also trying to pull myself out of the hole.

Here is what I have decided to do. I am sure that it is different for each person, but this is what I am going to try. My goal is to be able to play with others. I am in the process of selecting five songs to start with. My goal with each of these songs is to be able to play a beginner lead for the song and to also be able to be able to play backup for each song. I will start off slow on all these songs and move them along, speed wise, as I progress.

I am selecting songs from the beginner learning track.
John Henry
Old Joe Clark
Nine Pound Hammer
Cripple Creek
? For the fifth song


Hey buddy, I would suggest that you just stick with what you are doing and continue to practice. If you think about it, the more you learn and the better you get, the progression will slow down. I have the same goals it seems. I know I will never make a living playing the banjo (although I keep telling my wife to prepare for the move to Nashville), but I would like to be able to play in jams and with friends at some point. I take the lessons that Ben provides, and I can play them, but I am like, what do I do now. I can’t just play these same measures over and over. so I feel we are in the same boat, lol. However, I love the joy doing what I can do brings, so I keep at it, and hopefully one day it will all come together.


Hey hey! I’m learning/playing those same songs, what are you doing for backup?


Another beginner here. In several of Ben’s lessons he says something to the effect of “you may think you’ll never be able to do this now, but if you just keep at it, you will”.

I can’t tell you just how true this has been for me! I’ve had to work on some of the techniques for months, but eventually my fingers learn how to do things that they couldn’t do at all when I started working on them (and I thought they never would).

It’s not just about “learning how” it’s also about “exercising your fingers in ways that allow them to get better at moving in certain ways” and that takes time.

Well, that’s the way it seems to be going for me anyway.


Hi Jesse good_post Let me reassure you that what your going through is quite normal. You study and practice for hours and see little or no progress for your efforts. But one day you’ll pick up the banjo and your fingers will pick the right strings and fret all the right notes. I know from personal experience because I have trodden that same path.

You have reasonable goals. I set might a lot higher and lost count of the times I had a train wreck.

You say you started a year ago well in terms learning banjo you’ve barely got started. My advice for what it’s worth is focus on the fundamentals for the next six/twelve months. Work on your roll patterns. slides hammer-on’s & pull offs. Get to know your chord shapes. In short work through @BanjoBen 's beginners path and this time try to avoid skipping lessons. If you can commit to that you will be a whole lot better player than you are right now.

A friend once told me that every lesson you learn you will retain. You might not be able to recall the lesson when want to but it’s there in your subconscious.

Remember this. Whilst playing banjo you are multi-tasking. Your hands and each individual finger has different task, Your eyes and ears are collecting shed loads of data all the time. Your brain needs time to process all this info as your learning. So take a break every few weeks. The key to learning banjo is patience practice and perseverance. Good Luck


A lot of great replies. My 2 cents is, you say you’re not making progress, but I’d be willing to bet that if you had video of you playing 6 months ago, you’d see that you are, in fact, making progress by leaps and bounds.

It’s tough to realize just how far you’ve come because you’re comparing yourself today with where you THINK you were a few months ago. I know for myself that I usually THINK I was better a few months ago than I really was.

If you haven’t already started videoing yourself playing, I’d encourage you to do so, even if you don’t share them. It’s encouraging to look back on them and see how far you’ve really come.


Hey man I think we can all relate to what you’re describing. Here’s just my two cents. I think continuing to do what you’ve been doing is great if what you’ve been doing is actually geared towards making you better. Without knowing what you mean when you say you’re not progressing hardly at all, here’s a few general thoughts. I think it’s normal for your gains (just like in lifting weights) are going to get smaller the more you progress. You said you start out playing different songs but just revert back to the same song. I can completely picture that in my own experience. Regardless of how much time you have to play, I would have a goal for that particular session. Instead of just laying out the tab and playing through it a few times, spend some time on that one lick that always trips you up (we can all think of a few). Don’t play any other part of the song just work on those two measures as slow as necessary to get it correct. Maybe that’s all you get done for the day. Then watch the second backup lesson. Or practice playing along to the mp3’s. I think if you spend intentional time every time you play (10, 20, 30 min) you will see improvement way faster than just playing through the songs everyday. Once you can get through a song (regardless of the tempo) start using the metronome and bump it up once you can get through it 3 times cleanly. The metronome will have no problem showing you which measures you need to focus on ha. And in your sessions once you’ve spent some time on what you need to get better at then just play through whatever you’re in the mood for. Gotta keep it fun. Good luck and keep it up.


Thank you all for the encouragement, I really needed it. I will be taking some notes from your replies so I dont forget a third time!

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Sounds like a normal day/week for me. Keep moving forward. One thing I do when I get in a rut is listen to a lot of music. I highly recommend listening to the Purple Hulls. Katy Clark’s banjo playing is the best of the best. Sometimes progress is hard to measure until one day you go -Oh, I played that better today. It’s a journey.


I am using basic rolling backup that I have learned from Eli Gilbert. You can find him on Youtube. The basic rolling backup that he teaches is very easy to learn and apply to any song. Once you get the basic down, then you can develop it further from there. Hope that this helps!



Here’s what I can advise… I used to be in kind of the same spot that you are, and I think the reason why is partially because I relied on tab and set arrangements to learn a song. For instance, if someone had asked me to play a song I didn’t know, my first thought would have been “I need a tab!” Tab is really a great tool, but if we aren’t careful, we can end up in the habit of needing to be spoon-fed set solos, etc. So for learning new songs, my plan of attack was to memorize a set solo from a tab or lesson so that I’d be ready whenever I needed to play it. But that’s really not the best way to progress as a banjo player overall, because a great banjo player doesn’t just have solos memorized for all 1,000 songs that they might need to play someday; they have a method for playing the songs on the fly. I saw a video once of guitarist Bryan Sutton playing a song. He said, “I’ve never heard this song before, but I’ll try it” or something to that effect, and when it came time for his solo, it sounded like he’d played it a thousand times. Do you know why? Because he probably had played it a thousand times by playing similar songs. All he had to do is put the pieces together.

Here’s an interesting analogy. Think of playing a solo like solving a puzzle. I personally love speedsolving the Rubik’s cube; and there are over 43 quintillion possible combinations that the pieces could be in. If you were to start with a solved cube and then used a preset scramble, you could just reverse the moves you used to scramble the puzzle, practice it a lot, and then volia, you could impress people by doing it quickly! But what if you wanted to solve the cube quickly and consistently with any scramble thrown at you? If you used the method above, you would have to memorize over 43 quintilllion sequences!! But the way speedsolvers solve the cube is by using a combination of intuition to get the puzzle into a state that is plausible to solve using prememorized sequences of moves (algorithms), and use those algorithms to solve the rest. These two things- intuition and memorized algorithms- are what make up an on-the-fly solve.

It’s the same with playing a banjo break. The psuedo-speedsolve is a set arrangement from tab, etc. So when this scramble, which is a song, comes up you can just use your memorized solve (A.K.A. solo).
But for solving a new scramble (playing a new song) on the fly, banjo players use both intuition (improvisational licks that carry the melody) and prememorized algorithms (licks that fit over a chord).

So when you practice, don’t just play songs over and over. Instead, play, listen, and examine the songs and ask…

  1. How can I apply the principles taught in this arrangement to an improvised break?
  2. What did the arrangement writer (Ben) have in mind to show me when he wrote the arrangement?
  3. If I cannot play the arrangement easily after much practice, why not? What could I change about this arrangement that will more easily suit my playing style?
  4. What exactly (name it) is preventing me from being a better banjo player right now?

When you can’t play an arrangement easily, don’t just play it over and over with a bunch of pauses thinking, “I’m a bad banjo player because I can’t play this arrangement” hoping that maybe if you play it a thousand times, you will transform into an amazing banjo player. Focus on EXACTLY what is stopping you and work on that specifically.

Learn the basics of writing your own breaks (the Make-a-Break lesson is a great place to start) and work on that principle, viewing tabs and set arrangements not as end-all be-all guides, but rather examples designed to teach principles. The goal is not to be able to play every solo on the lesson page perfectly, but rather to understand how these solos work intuitively, and apply those principles to your own arrangements.

Learn the basics of backup, and play basic backup behind slower songs. Once you have your foundation rock-solid, start to play it behind slightly faster songs. Then, add some intermediate techniques and practice them behind slower songs, then faster songs. Finally, do the same kind of thing with more advanced techniques until you can play advanced backup behind fast songs.

All this will not come super quickly. Make sure that you have the foundational techniques and principles ingrained in you, and move on only when you know those things very well. It’s better overall for your progression to know and understand the foundation extremely well than to kinda-sorta know a bunch of advanced stuff.

And, sorry for writing so much and if I seemed negative… This is what I personally have learned over my banjo playing journey, and everyone’s brains are different. I hope this long post helps you; I love to write, and sometimes I just don’t know when to stop! :slightly_smiling_face: :banjo:


that’s the best advice in the world. Well said @Michael_Mark.

I also agree with what was said aleady about listening to good music. I find when i get stuck in a rut, listening to music is one of the best things.

If your solos feel boring, take the time to learn new licks, then incorporate into your simple songs. Video yourself now and you’ll be AMAZED at how far you’ve come in a few month. Personally, i’ve been finding as many melodic licks as i can and learning how to put them into my solos on the fly.

I find even for the newbies i know, learning even simple scruggs style licks and putting them into a simple song can make your playing sound way more advanced. And again, start slow and slowly build up. Starting as fast as you can will just make lots of mess ups and a lot more frustration.

Good Luck!


@Hillbilly_picker, you’ve received some great advice above! I’m not an advanced banjo student by any means, but here are a couple of thoughts that are advice to myself, and may be useful to others. These ideas are not intended to be the entire focus of a practice session, but they could be sometimes…

  1. Have fun! Practice becomes a chore if you aren’t having fun. Not everyone feels rewarded in the same way, so try to figure out what things you’re doing that make you happy when you practice, and make sure that is always part of what you do. You have our permission to do so (as if that even mattered).

  2. Set aside at least a few minutes each session to just noodle around and explore the fretboard making funny sounds. Eventually you will find little licks that just sound good to your ears…go back to these from time to time so you can remember them. At some point, they may find a home in a song!

  3. Learn where the G, C, and D chords are all up and down the neck using the different chord shapes. This doesn’t need to happen all at once. Focus on one chord shape at a time for a few weeks, or focus only on G chords for a few weeks, trying out different roll patterns.

  4. Include all the backup lessons from Ben’s website in your to-do list. These are great exercises and once you get some of the patterns down, revisit some of these regularly so you can eventually learn these by heart and by ear. After that, the “Gettin’ up the neck with Blackberry Blossom” near the end of the beginner track is awesome. After that, the Fretboard Geography lessons at the beginning of the intermediate track are invaluable. Don’t be disappointed if you can’t zip through these right away after first giving them a try…just chip away a little at it each session for a little while and then move on to something else. Pretty soon some of these lessons and will begin to click and you will recognize that some of what you are learning is built upon something you already know…and for me, that’s rewarding!


Thanks for sharing this source. I found the video right away and will take a look at it later. I’m looking forward to learning and applying it to something I already know. There’s another thread that talks about getting away from tabs and learning some basics that you can apply and I need to get away from my dependence on tabs.


Right now you are desperate to learn songs. The thinking is “The more songs I know, the better banjo player I am.” While there is some truth to that, it’s not the entire truth.
As a Beginner, here’s my Expert advice: Listen to what this man has to say.

Don’t worry. Ben will teach you the songs in no time! :+1:

:point_up_2::point_up_2::point_up_2::point_up_2::point_up_2::point_up_2::point_up_2::point_up_2::point_up_2::point_up_2::point_up_2::point_up_2:Do these classes, it is always good to have different teachers/resources as you go, I started focusing on back up with the help of Eli too

My second advise: After you go through Eli’s material, start applying it over simple progressions without tabs . For Example: one measure of each --> G-G-C-C-D-D using the rolls / transition notes / licks you know with a metronome. Start with one progression until you can do it on the fly. Do it SLOW first. Clean, Clear and precise is key! Speed comes naturally later. Use different lick combos for each full run unti you can call rolls/licks naturally on the fly. Once you nail this, you will be able to back up away to any song . After that, try different keys, different progressions.

Third advice read this book: The Laws of Brainjo: The Art & Science of Molding a Musical Mind (English Edition) eBook Kindle by Josh Turknett
HE is a neuroscientist who loves banjo who has great practice advise based on actual brain study. Vey cool book, it helped tons with practice

Fourth and final advise (I promise), start playing with some fellow musicians TODAY
It does not matter if you make mistakes, do a couple of songs you know first and slowly come out of that dreading yoke of judgment we all carry for no reason. If you can’t do it right now, play back up along with recordings - I promise this will help you exponentially


@Hillbilly_picker your goals my seem out of reach now but they are not unachievable. Whether you realize it or not your brain is learning technique when you play. The trick is making sure that it is good technique and the best way to do that is to go back to the basics. No shame in that. Spend time on rolls, slide, hammer ons, oh and everyone’s favorite, pull-offs. This is probably not the best analogy, but I think you mentioned you were a third generation farmer so think of your banjo playing as a crop. Now you just don’t walk out into a field and throw out some seed and expect to get a bumper crop do you. No there is a lot of prep work and factors that play into a good crop (water, light, plowing, fertilizer, spraying, good seeds). Much more to it than that I know, but you get the idea. Anyway, all those things are rolls, hammer ons, etc. Just like a good crop is built on preparation, a good banjo player is built on good technique. Again probably not the best analogy, but I think you get what I’m trying to say. Also the MP3 tracks Ben provides are the greatest thing ever especially if you are planing to eventually play with other people. It’s ok if you have to slow them down to 80bpm just use them. They really give you feel of what it’s like to pay with others. As for backup I wouldn’t worry about that too much in the beginning. You are learning skills for backup now and eventually a light switch will flip on especially the way Ben teaches it. I know he introduces vamping in the beginner course and I spent a little more time on that and It really payed off in the future. Just take the backup lessons as they come down the list. I would start paying attention to the chords in songs that you learn such as how many measures of each chord there are and things pertaining to licks such as, how many measures does a certain lick take up. The most important thing though is to just have fun. Take your time Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither was a good banjo player. We’re all in this thing together and we all want you to succeed. Hope this helps and happy picking!

P.S. Thanks for being in agriculture. I have great respect for your occupation. Without you the world doesn’t eat.


Hi Jesse, So as I was saying earlier what your going through is quite normal and as you see from the advice and support from the forum your not alone, even the professional banjo players have bad days.

Check out this fantastic interview with Ashley Campbell daughter of Glen Campbell the famous country singer.