Forum - Banjo Ben Clark

Learnin' By Ear

I usually pride myself on my ability to pick out instruments when listening to music, turns out that doesn’t translate well into being able to figure out what’s going on. I’ve been hearing some of my old favorite songs (like this one: and thinking to myself “that’s a nice ‘slow’ rhythm” that sounds like a great first target for something to learn and be able to show off to friends with.

Perhaps it is something that sounds easier than it is, but do any of you have any “learning by ear” tips for how to pick up things like what picking pattern/roll they’re using and what notes they’re playing?

(Now back to roll practice :P)


Nice song!
Love the tempo.

I normally write out the chord progression fist. (generally Bass notes on 1 & sometimes 3)

For the rest I’d run it through some slowdown software like Amazing Slow Downer and transcribe it by matching notes on my instrument one note & one lick at a time.

It’s a slow painstaking process when first doing it but as with other things musical it gets easier with repetition…


I have never been fully successful in learning an entire tune by ear on the banjo save of the Murphy Method Lessons but I have on accordion & bagpipes I tend to think that growing up in Scotland I have more of an ear for Scottish tunes but struggle to play Scottish tunes on banjo weird I know.

What I am hearing from video is some Celtic, Single String, Melodic and Forward Roll sounds. (Not Scruggs) I am not familiar with the melody but as Dave suggests writing out the chord progression and slowing down the tune would help although strictly speaking that’s not learning to play by ear as I see/hear it. Listening is the KEY. Listen to the tune over and over again until you can hum every note with the video turned off. Then pick out the melody on your instrument. Some folk have a gift for this we meagre mortals have to find other methods like slowing down and writing down the chords or TAB. I am blessed that other folks have those skills and share their knowledge with me. Maybe @Michael_Mark may be able to help here.


Hi @Fiddle_wood Dave in this statement are you saying you play a 3rd as a lead note in a measure? I don’t play bass I am thinking in terms of using this as a variation on TAB I tend to use the root note for each measure When I tab stuff out.


Learning by ear is something that took a bit of time before I could call myself good at it. I would say it came on a timeline of weaning off tablature, listening to recordings a lot more, listening to other players more, etc. I remember the first time I actually used rolling backup. My old in-person banjo teacher went through Ben’s utility rolls with me and then told me to jump in as he started playing guitar and singing Man of Constant Sorrow. I discovered the dynamics of backup with those rolls, and my subconscious realized that I had more freedom than I thought I did playing backup.

I worked on smoothing out my chord changes, etc., and a while later my family and I attended a Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver concert. Joe Dean, the banjo player at the time, was playing rolls that sounded somewhat like the utility rolls. And since a lot of DLQ’s songs have a similar structure, I got to hear that roll over and over and over again, and I didn’t let it out of me. I didn’t have to learn it… it ingrained itself in me.

That style of roll, which has been used by like every single Scruggs-Crowe etc. style players, is my immediate foundation for backup.

So I kept on subconsciously learning to play by ear. I listened a LOT to DLQ, RSKT, etc. and could hear things I didn’t before.

This is why it’s sort of difficult for me to give rock solid advice, because I didn’t really make that much of a conscious effort to learn by ear. It just happened.

My ability to pick out things different from what I’ve been playing I think is kind of a side effect of seeing in my mind’s eye the things I regularly play over and over again. I also have synesthesia, so I think that helps me to visualize things too.

In the song you posted, the banjo is mirroring the whistle in the beginning. This is the basic melody of the song. The melody notes are something like D-F-G-G-G-g-G-A-G-F-D, but I’m thinking more along the lines of low5-flat7-1-1-1, etc., but I’m also not really thinking along those lines as much as I am subconsciously thinking “red-pink-silver-silver-dark blue…” You may not see the colors, but I think you can train yourself to see the intervals.

Hope this crazy ramble helped you somehow!


Wow, that’s a nice tune.


I agree @Michael_Mark it’s hard to explain how you play by ear, you just kinda do. Just playing and listening a lot is what helped me the most.


Bass normally plays the root note on those beats…if you match that you’ve got a good start on the progression.


The writing down is for reference & remembering.

It can take so long to learn a measure sometimes that you may forget how the previous measure was even played. You’re still learning it by ear…just taking precaution against forgetting it.


Thanks Dave

My interpretation of playing by ear is just picking up the instrument and playing the tunes that are in my head. I can do that with the bagpipes, harmonica and the accordion but frustratingly not on the banjo. I first have to learn the tune either by video instruction or TAB. Although with the TAB I am also listening whilst reading TAB

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Took reading this to knock some sense into my head and scrape the melody out on my violin to get a footing for which notes I need to play, and even figure out the key.

And thanks all for the wonderful discussion, this all helped me out a bunch :slight_smile: