Forum - Banjo Ben Clark

Effective Practice

Ben! And others! I’m sitting here tonight having not touched my banjo in months. I took it out of the case and played the six tunes I’ve got down pat and yeah it feels good… But … I realized that I’ve kinda hit a plateau. I have pretty ok technique now. I can whip off a couple little tunes and impress some instagram followers… But I can’t sit in and play at a jam.

Like, I know how to play the banjo but I feel like I can’t play the banjo. Ya know??

So I’m sitting here wondering how I can get from a guy who can play a few tunes to becoming a real banjo player. Are there some lessons on the site that can put me on the path of effective practise that can get me going on playing in a jam or a band or improvisation. Basically to become that guy that can follow along any tune, and even take the banjo break?

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Fretboard geography, waypoints lessons and bag-o-licks would likely be the way to go. Also learn how to change the three main major chord shapes (F-shape, D-shape, bar-shape) to minors and 7ths. Not sure the last part is on the site here.


Hi @markmacrae Welcome to @BanjoBen 's forum, Ben is on a family vacation so it may be a few day’s before he responds.

Let me say right off the bat your not alone but you’ve come to the right place to find help.

Whilst your waiting on Ben getting back to you take look at the lessons on banjo backup start with some easy vamping lessons. Once you know a pattern find a tune that you know. Using a mandolin or guitar solo from Ben’s list of mp3 practice your backup at the slowest speed.

Once you get good and comfortable with the chord progression. Look at a few lessons on rolling backup then apply the rolling backup to the tune you’ve been working on. Once you get comfortable doing that try mixing the vamping an rolling patterns.

Playing with others generally means that you are providing accompaniment to their solo spot this also includes singers. YouTube is a good source to find others to practice with. Rather than searching for headliners or specific tunes try searching for bluegrass jams. A lot of your time should be spent LISTENING trying to figure out which KEY they are playing in. Not every tune is played in G at a jam session. Once you figured that out the KEY make a note of the tune title and key. Save the YouTube link to your favourites then with your list you will be ready to practice.

As your listening just play rolls or vamp over the chord progression, most of the time you will get it wrong, don’t get disheartened it’s part of the learning process. The more you listen and try to figure things out the easier things begin to fall in place.

Even though you can play a few tunes I would encourage you to work your way through the Beginners Learning Track as there is a lot of stuff in there that will add to your knowledge and skill level.

Study the two Waypoint’s lessons in the Intermediate section and the Fretboard Geography Course with Alan Munde


Welcome Mark. Archie nailed it; both with the declaration that you’ve come to the right place and with the advice on playing along with the mando & guitar mp3’s. I’ve been on the same plateau, but after doing these ride alongs over the last month, my playing is getting closer to that first live jam session.


Thanks for the reply, Archie. I appreciate the “actionable” advice. I will try to put these ideas into practice this week. I miss my banjo and I want to get back into making it part of my daily routine.


Always keep your banjo within easy reach, that way you’ll be more inclined to play it.

Oh, it’s out and visible, staring at me every night in the corner next to the TV… I just need a system for effective practice that can take me where I want to go.

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Hi Mark,
In my humble opinion, there’s no silver bullet. There is no one way to get you where I think you want to be (I want to be there too :slight_smile: !), For what it’s worth, I would suggest to learn as many tunes as possible, and learn them thoroughly, because after you know dozens and dozens of tunes, you will be able to use parts of one song and apply them in other songs, thus starting to “improvise”…
So, keep pickin’ !

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As @Erwin1 say’s there is no silver bullet, no shortcuts. If your not gifted it’s all down to study and practice lot’s of it.

I said earlier, your in the right place to find help. All the tools are here on this site to take you from a rank beginner thru to a fairly accomplished player. All you gotta do is pick up your banjo make sure it’s in tune and start your journey.

To make your practice effective for a jam my suggestion would be to go and study the jam you want to join in on.

Go once (or more) and just listen

maybe record (using stealth) some of the songs or parts of them

write down what songs they are doing…chances are they will do many of the same next time.

spend time observing those who play the same instrument as you…this can really help with ideas

then you have an idea of what you have to learn and work on to be involved and feel comfortable with it

final statement: There is no substitution for playing with others if you want to play with others…rhythm and play-along tracks can help some, but it is not the same as playing live with other people.


Yeah, of course. And I’m not expecting a “silver bullet”, which is why I title this post “effective practice”. I want to put in the work, but I want to feel like the work I’m putting in is heading in the right direction.

I’ll keep learning a few new tunes as well, but I just started the waypoints lesson yesterday, as suggested and that stuff is really great. I want to be able to spend each practice doing more of that, then working on a new tune maybe. Eventually finding a YouTube bluegrass jam, as Archie suggests, to play along with.

The people that I play with are not bluegrass players though They know singer-songwriters or pop, classic rock, folk. They might know a couple Mumford and Sons songs. So just learning how to be flexible on the banjo is what I want to focus on moreso.

Yes, those waypoints lessons by Alan Munde are just gold ! If you’re interested I know a little exercise I learned from Leon Hunt, a British professsional banjo player, to get even more acquainted with the fretboard geography.
From your post, I don’t know if one of your wishes is to be able to distinguish the chords and chord changes in a song (I know it’s one of mine :slight_smile: ). In that case the lessons by Alan Munde are even more important ! And the rest comes down to practice and listening, practice and listening, practice and listening…

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Hi @Erwin1 If you think it would help others I am sure @BanjoBen wouldn’t mind you sharing it with us.

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I don’t know Archie…you are aware of how difficult to understand them blokes from across the big pond are right? :wink:

I do Dave, but I am a glutton for punishment. I attended a workshop with Leon in Perth some years back but he was still hung-over from his adventures the night before to convey any meaningful instruction. My friend and I plus one other student who signed up for the workshop came away somewhat disappointed. This way maybe I get a little of what I’d paid for and if other’s benefit then I am happy with that. Just for the record Leon is a nice guy and I forgave him for his misdemeanour long ago.

Ok, so here it goes :
It’s a little exercise that only takes 3 minutes, so it’s perfect to start your practice every day.
Take a piece of paper and draw a vertical line, so you have 2 columns. In the first column write 10 notes at random, one on each line. A note can be natural or accidental (flat or sharp), so for example the note Ab on the 1st row, D# on the 2nd, F on the 3rd, etc.
In the 2nd column, also at random, write down one of the three positions (in Ben’s jargon : Y-position, X-position, bar position, in Alan Munde’s terms : 1st, 2nd and 3rd position, Leon Hunt uses “root position, 1st inversion, 2nd inversion”).
So you have something like this :
Ab 2
D# 1
F 3
B 3
Eb 1
A# 3
Db 2
Now the purpose is to fret the (major) chord of each note with the associated shape. You start with your fretting hand on your knee, and then fret the 1st chord. Then put your hand back on your knee, and fret the 2nd chord, etc.
If you don’t know the position of the chord on the fretboard immediately, go to the chord of a note you DO know, and count up or down. For instance, if you don’t know where to find B in the 2nd position (X-shape), but you know to find the G chord in the 2nd position, then fret that chord, and slide up your hand 1 fret for Ab (or G#), 2 frets for A, 3 frets for Bb (or A#), and at last 4 frets for B. SAY THOSE CHORDS OUT LOUD WHILE YOU’RE FRETTING THEM ! You could also have fretted C, and slide down 1 fret. The important thing is that you start on a note or chord you KNOW, and then slide up or down. When you repeat that enough, a chord that was previously unknown, becomes known after a while, becoming itself a springboard to find other chords, thus expanding your knowledge of the fretboard geography.
After a while, you can expand that exercise by drawing a third column in which you randomly assign the chord to be major or minor. After that you can expand even further to include dominant 7ths and diminished chords. That should suffice as far as bluegrass goes.
Have fun !

BTW I attended Leon’s class for a week, and not only is he a supernice guy, but he also has a knack to explain difficult topics in the most simple way… much the same as Banjo Ben does !

I hear you Erwin, but what you have to remember is those guy’s on the other side of the big pond don’t understand plain English. It has to be in an American accent preferably from the Southern states. :rofl::rofl::rofl::rofl:


Roger that :smile:

That sounds a lot like an Excel Macro app I wrote a while back. It basically spits out random chords to play. You can set the time delay between new chords. I also made sone chord charts to go along with it.

You can find those here if you’re interested.

I’ve actually found British people to be in general a lot more understandable when speaking to an audience than south africans, but I’m not sure aboot the Scottish