Forum - Banjo Ben Clark

Memorizing songs=

Hey y’all,

I had my first porch picking meet up with some really fantastic guitar, dobro, and banjo players today. It was a lot of fun but also very daunting for me. I pulled out some of my banjoben tabs and they played along with me. I play mandolin. It was great to see the songs come to life, though in between songs I could read they played songs I had heard and even played before but I couldn’t keep up with them. Half the time I was unable to remember the notes or the melody to the tune and then when I heard them play it I still couldn’t keep up or process the changes quickly enough. I ended up just kind of watching a lot when I didnt have a Tab print out in front of me. I know it will take years for me to get to the same level as them and have a more natural feel for playing along with others, but I’m wondering if there are any tips on how to improve. It felt awkward and I’m kind of an introvert . It was difficult for me to take risks and sound so out of sync with everyone. They were all nice good people of course, but still, I like to get better. Does anyone have any tips on how to improve memory retention or even ear training? I purchased a mandolin fake book that banjo Ben once recommended and am going to bone up on learning the basic melodies to songs first, but I can’t begin to think how to memorize them. Any tips would be appreciated.


I am a relatively new Banjo picker myself.

My advice is to just KEEP GOING! I mean… that was a great experience for you which I am certain will pay dividends moving forward. You have that first one under your belt, right? It can’t get any worse as you will acclamate to them.

Listen, I WISH I had that chance… although I did have a picking session with a Mandolinist and a guitarist (my 15-year-old rocker son who dislikes Bluegrass in general) and a guy who plays Uke and harmonica. We found a “common voice” with some Beatles, Amazing Grace and Blues. :+1:

In the end, it was just some harmless fun. Nobody was recording, right? In my view MUSIC is a LANGUAGE… and some music is always better than NO MUSIC. Just as in conversation, everyone’s voice contributes to the whole… and each voice is what makes it a conversation, right? Eloquent or basic, simple or complex… loud and soft…

Also… see if you can pair off with the players one day here, another day there… maybe… before the next porch event and just keep practicing and playing. It is expected but good that they were courteous and encouraging with you.

Another thought… Enjoy the SUCCESS of having those bright spots where your practice tabs “came to life” to fuel and give you courage to make MORE musical moments at the next porch pickin’ party. Don’t dwell on the negatives, ENJOY the positives! KNOW that the next adventure will be better because you will be more prepared and have a much better idea what to expect next time.

Try to commit the songs to memory… not that tabs are bad… but for the sake of chord structures and song format for changes… and always listen to yourself and others…

Get back up on that horse… and RIDE… RIDE like the wind to your next opportunity to collaborate… and never look back.

That’s my humble 2 cents.

Now, we both will read what the more experienced players have to say… what input they can share… but know this… as you represented for us… your fellow Banjo Ben members… I know I am not alone in saying we are proud of you.

Imagine… without Banjo Ben, you would have been silent… well ‘cept for singin’… but certainly without your Mando in tow!



Way to get out there. I will listen to the tune I want to learn a lot so it is running through my head all day. Then when I get practise time, before I pick up my instrument I play a backing track I’ve found or made and hum or whistle the melody along and clap or tap toe at the same time. Increase speed to what it is typically played at.
On Thursday I had a breakthrough with Red Haired Boy being able to keep up with jammers that play in local bands. Three years ago I couldn’t even basic vamp backup that tune. Repetition until your muscles just do it on auto pilot. I was able to think about relaxing instead of ‘Oh, here comes that tricky part’ and that got me through.
I don’t remember where I heard it but “Don’t practice until you get it right. Practice until you can’t get it wrong”. Good luck.


Hi Kristopher,

Welcome to @BanjoBen 's Forum, one of the best way’s to memorize a tune is to LISTEN to it over and over till you can sing or hum it in your head. I am not a mandolin player so I can’t offer any advice on playing mando but I can tell you that beginner banjo players experience much the same sort of problems playing with others.

The first thing you gotta do, is put away the TAB at a jam session. TAB is a tool for helping you learn to play your instrument of choice when your at home on your own.

Search the Mandolin section for lessons on how to play Rhythm & Backup once you have a few patterns down in your head put away the TAB and pull up one of Ben’s Guitar or Banjo solo’s and strum along. Playing along with Ben helps prepare you for playing with others. Get to know the melody and most important the chord progression. By listening you’ll learn to anticipate chord changes.

Learning to play backup helps you to build confidence to play with others.

Now go to YouTube and search for bands playing the same tune, try playing along with each of them, you will find that few bands play the tune exactly the same. Some play it fast some play it slow, some play in a different key. What this does is exposes you to different situations and will help you build confidence when you come to play with others.

At this stage don’t worry about trying to play the melody, note for note, that will kick in when you relax and get comfortable. Once you learn a solo. put the TAB away and practice playing whilst listening to yourself. Use TablEdit in your practice sessions to help you build speed - See my link below for more info.

Keep in mind playing with others is different to playing on your own, other folk may play the same tune but will more often play it differently to the way you have learned it. Don’t be afraid to tell the folks in the group that you are a beginner. Ask them if they could play one or two tunes slowly to help you get comfortable.

One last thing if you don’t have TablEdit click on this link.


Memorizing is fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t teach you to jam.

Anyone can get fooled when playing something they are not familiar with.

Examples: I played a great jam yesterday…all the musicians had 40+ years experience…a vocalist chose key of A for a song…we got done and the mando player (who is awesome good, sang tenor to the song, and has played with several well known bands) mentioned when the song was done that because we didn’t do the song in Bb he couldn’t pull off the Jimmy Goodreau break he had learned to it…

  I played several songs yesterday that I'd never heard before without messing them recognised the "lead-ins" the other musicians were playing...this comes with experience and lots of listening, but eventually you can recognise the hints other musicians will give you so you can hit the next chord even if you don't know the song.....such as: if you are playing in key of G and playing the G you hear someone emphasise a G7th's a good bet the next chord is a C....This happens a lot and a good musician who recognises that someone doesn't know the song will use them to help lead you through the progression. 

To me, jamming is more about ear training… recognising chord progressions (and chords) and having some “go to” licks that you can use in each chord. Specific melodies are great, but unless you learn to transpose them you’re stuck in one key when that song comes around. The chord progression is the foundation of the song…everything else builds upon that.

Examples: The first break I ever took in a jam on guitar was a simple “G run”/“Flatt Run” in the scale of each new chord in the song.
My first ever mando break in a jam was simply running the scale of each chord that came along.

I always suggest knowing the chords first, then work on the melody…Hint: the melody/lead break mostly lies in different variations of the notes you use to pay the chords…


Hey crohnieks,

Congratulations on finding players to sit, pick, and jam with!

It can be daunting to pick up the tab for a song that you like and see what appears to be an overwhelming number of notes to memorize. It can be downright intimidating to join a jam, they call out a song you know, you get your hopes up, and they kick it off at 240 BPM, or worse yet, they pick a different key than how you know to play it.

There are some great suggestions posted. Everyone has an approach that works for them, but the basics remain the same… start slow, recognize the chord changes, learn the chord progressions, work on timing, and break the song down into manageable pieces.

What works for me is a process similar to what Ben presents in his “build a break” lessons.

Learning the song
Before I even pick up the mandolin, I listen to the song several times, focusing on the melody.
Then I open the tab, or by ear if no tab is available, find and learn the basic melody on the mandolin. If you print the tab out, you can highlight the melody notes.
Use a metronome, Tabledit, or backing track to keep everything in time. If learning by ear or no tab is available, try the application called “BestPractice” ( ) if you have the mp3 for the song, enabling you to slow the song down without altering the pitch. Best Practice also enables you to change the key of the song by adjusting the semitones. I typically start very slow… 80 - 90 BPM and add 5 BPM as I am comfortable doing so without introducing too many errors
When comfortable with the melody, I dial the BPM back to a slower setting and begin adding the filler notes and embellishments one or two measures at a time. When I can get through the entire song, I begin adding 5 BPM as I am comfortable doing so without introducing too many errors. Rinse and repeat.

For memorization
I break the song down into bite size and easy to manage pieces, typically 2 - 4 measures at a time
Again, I use a metronome, Tabledit, or backing track to keep everything in time. I typically start at a slow BPM and add 5 BPM as I am comfortable doing so without introducing too many errors
After I believe I have the song memorized, I play the song in its entirety at least twice by memory to help identify any measures that are giving me trouble, then zero in on them for additional work
Lastly, make the song “yours”. Don’t be afraid to experiment, but keep the song recognizable.

To expand your horizons …
Once you have the song memorized and you are comfortable playing it… play it in a different key, or two, or three!




Thanks WillCoop,

It was a lot o fun and your words are encouraging. Today two of the people I played with stopped by again and asked if I would come along to another regular jam session they have. They said it was fun playing the tabs I brought and they’d like to learn some of the tunes and help me along with my ear training. They said my fundamentals are obviously there and I have good speed, but just need more experience playing with other people.


Great advice Archie…I hadn’t even thought of looking at some of banjo bens guitar solos to play along with, but will give that an the YouTube search a try.

I definitely need to learn some specific licks…I need to go voter those lessons again because I initially just played them, and that’s all. I was so focused before on just trying to get the technical aspects and timing right, but now know I need to bring a bag of tricks to the table too to feel more comfortable. I can follow the chord changes even at high speeds, but can’t always start out on them so I’ll miss a few beats when things are going fast. Also the players used some fairly funky chord progressions and chords and although I could rudimentarily identify the root notes I didn’t feel I could contribute anything other than maybe a pentatonic scale to the mix, which didn’t always sound right. Overall I could play chords along with them, but noticed I need to do some work on my strumming and chops and also on smooth changes.

Sounds like you’ve got a good start, and an idea of going forward…it’s great they were willing to take time to share with you…having others to play with can really speed up the learning process, and makes it much more fun.


The big thing I;m reading here is that they were willing to come down to your level and play along and help you and they are continuing to do so after. That doesn’t always happen. If you do anything else latch onto these players and hang on. Sounds like a big blessing to have them jam with you.


That is AWESOME- congrats!

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Kind of implied here in a couple replies… But find jams!

In northern VA, there are a few open jams throughout each month. A couple of them have “beginners jams” in that in one area players with less experience will find easier, slower songs.

I know that getting to jams and practicing playing along with a group is tremendous for ear training.

Another thing you can do is make sure you have I IV V chord progressions memorized in at least the big keys (G, A and D). That’ll cover half - more! - of what you encounter at a jam. If a song has a weird chord thrown in (like the B7 in Old Home Place, or the II chord in the chorus, for example) you can just mute the strings and chop for those couple quick counts.

Also - don’t be afraid to chord along happily at a jam and wave off the leads. After you wave of two, the leader will know you’re a pass. Getting your timing right and getting comfortable with other players is way more important than getting in your break if you’re not ready… You’re breaks will come when they come, don’t sweat it if it takes a little time…

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Regarding mandolin, I highly recommend these lessons as an approach to jamming. These are just a couple…I have MANY more on the site that will help:

This course first:

Then combine with this lesson:

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I’ll definitely check out those lessons more. I’m guilty of kind of perusing the lessons and then moving on. I’ve learned a lot that way too< but as I get better I learn there are no shortcuts. I find myself now going back through each lesson. It’s amazing how much more layered they become as you gain knowledge and skill to play the songs. I noticed just a few weeks ago that jumping up the neck was easier now than it used to be and then last night after many attempts Over the past few weeks I finally put together the chop chord progressions. I’ve been going over old songs today where I know the melody and have been playing the chord progressions instead. Just a note here too…the people I played with really enjoyed the melodic arrange,ents you had created. Most of the group plays jazz fusion, but one group member called again today and asked if he could stop by this weekend to play some more fiddle tunes!

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Cool! Yes, there are many themes that I weave into the lessons that result in cumulative retention as you watch.

Hey, Ben I tried the wreck of the ol 97’s lesson again and am putting in time on it. I was wondering if humming the tune or singing lyrics for the melody would help me to remember the basic melody while I improvise around the humming/singing. I find I can play the melody and improvise around it some when I’m looking at the basic melody, but I can’t do it without looking. It’s really hard to do, but even so, I’m having fun and came up with a pleasant variation! Nonetheless, I fall into playing the scale and lose the melody unless I write it all down. Any other tips? I noticed on some of your other videos you sometimes sing out the melody…not sure if that helps you remember it or if it’s done just to help us associate the tune with what you are trying to do.

Singing is always good, yes. If you can’t sing or hum the melody, then you don’t know it. I don’t actively sing the melody in my head or out loud when I solo, but the melody is playing on auto somewhere in my brain. This took practice to develop for me.

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Hi Kristopher FWIW I listen to the melody a lot when I am working on a tune, I tend to hum a little.

Jens Kruger said in one of his video tutoriasl that he sings the melody, it helps him connect his fingering with the notes positions on the fretboard,

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