Forum - Banjo Ben Clark


So…I have learned tons of new songs from this site and love the arrangements, but I’m having a lot of trouble memorizing them. I’m totally dependent on the tab. I’ve played them over and over and over, but don’t seem to be getting any closer to memorizing them. Suggestions???

This is a good topic. I also struggle with learning Ben’s tabs in a manner that is useful to me in a “live” situation.

Back when I first started working with the tabs, my method was to start learning at the first measure and proceed measure by measure until I could play the entire piece at a moderate speed (maybe around 160 bpm) with Tabledit. Then I’d essentially start over at measure one, relearning measure by measure without looking at the tab, until I had it locked in my head. After I was freed from the written tab I’d work on my speed until I had it where I wanted it.

It wasn’t long until I recognized some serious problems with this method, though. I noticed that after I had learned about 10 breaks, it was taking all my practice time just to keep those learned breaks fresh in my memory. I wasn’t able to learn any new songs without losing the ones I had already sweated over. Also, I realized that when I got in a jam and missed a note or two, I had no where to go and I’d just crash and burn.

After I studied on it a while, I figured out that the cause of these problems was that I had learned each break as a long series of individual finger manipulations. I was trying to memorize thousands of individual pick strokes without a frame of reference. It was analogous to trying to type the individual letters of the Preamble to the Constitution from memory without recognizing words, sentences and paragraphs. It can be done, but it ain’t easy.

The partial solution I have come up with is to start learning, not with the first measure of the break, but rather with the chords. I’ll play along with the Tabledit rhythm track (if there is one) or better yet with a Youtube recording until I have the chord progression solidly in my head and under my fingers. Next I work on figuring out the simplest version of the melody I can come up with. I do this by ear (and by eye if I’m using Youtube), not with Ben’s break.

Once I’ve got this frame of reference to work with, I start with Ben’s tab at measure one and as I memorize the pick strokes I try to see how they fit into the chord shapes of the song’s progression. I also pay attention to which notes are part of the melody I previously worked out and which ones are the fancy embellishments that make Ben’s tabs sound so nice. The chord shapes and simple melody provide me with a structure that gives meaning to the tab beyond just a series of memorized pick strokes, and now if I’m in a jam and forget part of the break, I have something to fall back on.

As I get more familiar with a particular break, I’ll start looking for ways to vary it. Since I know the chord progression and melody, this isn’t too tough to do, and a lot of times it happens by accident when I make mistakes on the memorized version and stumble onto something cool.

Once I reach this stage the break tends to stay with me. If I want to regurgitate it note-for-note for a recording or something, I might have to review the tab, but otherwise I can usually come up with a reasonable facsimile of Ben’s original work.

Hope this helps. I’ll be interested to see how others approach this problem.

Larry is doing a more thorough job than I and I suspect it works well.
I haven’t been the king of memory. My method has been to site read (slowly) until it sinks in a bit, then work on the problem parts. An odd thing about that is I remember the hard parts longer. There’s some songs that have stuck with me, but many of them I’d have to go back to the tab.

Great post, Larry!

I pretty much just take it measure by measure. First figuring out the best way to finger each part. I play the tef file for about two measures at a time, see how it sounds and try to copy. Once I have about 8 or 10 measures, I’ll play that untill I don’t have to look at the tab. Then add a few measures at a time until I’m done.

The more times you do this, the quicker you’ll become at memorizing. I can memorize most any of the tabs in about 2 or 3 hours. Then I just work at polishing it over the next few days. When I’ve played it enough, I am going by what it sounds like and not by memory. I think that’s why it’s hard to slow something down to teach someone after you’ve played it awhile. You are not going by memory of the individual notes anymore, but how they all sound together. This is helping me to keep on going when I miss a note, because I know where the next “sound” fits in… most of the time. :smiley:

Just listen to Bens recording a bunch of times. Thats the quickest way to memorize. The tab shows fingering, but unless you listen, you will revert to using your own favorite licks once you stop reading note for note. In my experience…

— Begin quote from "MDAWANA"

So…I have learned tons of new songs from this site and love the arrangements, but I’m having a lot of trouble memorizing them. I’m totally dependent on the tab. I’ve played them over and over and over, but don’t seem to be getting any closer to memorizing them. Suggestions???

— End quote

I spend a lot of time with the tab , but I also do this: I take a break and let it soak in I have found that I can actually play it better if I let a few days go by before trying to play it again . may not work for every one but it does for me . some of them are simple enough I can play it well after a break others take two or three breaks . finding what works for you is the key though.

I remembered something I once read (and since it was written it has to be true). It suggested that doing something directly before going to bed enhanced the memorization process. I just thought I’d throw that out there.

Great topic…I rassel with this problem, is there a one size fits all? Coming from many years of classical and reading music tabs are like a foreign language…memorizing I really have to work at it,sometimes I lay awake thinking of new plans to play a tune without looking at notes…is there an answer?
Therefore I conclude for us slow or unteachable this maybe the backdrop:
1.An art teacher once told me, while trying to capture a painting of a still life using water color,
This is your creation…if you want an exact duplicate …just take a photograph.
2.Does every measure require every written note? Possibly no but the timing must be there …as even the non
Music major will know if a beat is missed.
(when I dwell on all the written music scores there are, and the length of this life on earth, I am going to just
Settle on playing most of the measures with a few notes that identify something pleasant to the ear)

         However I will still continue to try to discover that short cut to this skill, also keep posting as there is a diamond
         In every post.

Well lets see the topic is? can’t remember :mrgreen: :stuck_out_tongue: Seriously guys, good topic, and timely for me as I have been the last couple of months concentrating on memorizing tunes. It is indeed a daunting task for me as well. It seems I just need to play over and over and every day until they sink in. A couple I have actually set a day aside and worked on just one for hours and hours and finally get it. Whiskey before Breakfast I have been on now for the last three days a couple of hours a day. Almost have it to memory. BUT!!! my greatest challenge is getting them up to tempo. Today I was working on Grandfather’s Clock,AGAIN! and I think Ben’s final rythmn is about 200 bpm, I just can’t get close. I am up to about 150/160 and that’s a challenge for me. I am beginning to wonder if I will ever get there. I have been on this tune for months and for some reason it has been particularly hard for me. Any of you have this one up to full tempo?? Jerry

I play Grandfather’s Clock some, but I don’t really know how fast I can play it. There is a lot going on in that one. Sure is fun though, it’s worth the effort!

The final speed on quite a few of Ben’s songs are pretty fast, so it’s not surprising that the top speed is tough to achieve. Quite often there is a big jump between the fastest rhythm track and the one below it. It’s a fine goal to be able to play them at those speeds, but on the flip side, it’s just an arbitrary speed. If you can play it at a speed that is enjoyable, then that’s good enough! As time goes by, it will continue to creep up there. In the mean time, if you need something other than the speeds he has recorded, just use the Tabledit file or a metronome (or just set the speed that you want with your foot).

Hey Shawn how’s it going? Ya I have been on GFC for a good while, it was a tough one for me to get a handle on, up to a pretty good speed now but don’t know if I will ever get to Bens’, it is kind of deceiving doesn’t sound that fast until I try to keep up. Just keep working on it. I just started on Double Eagle and am having a bit of trouble on picking the melody line out at my slow learning tempo, others I get right away. Guess we all have our little quirks…LOL, Jerry

This is a great topic and it shows the wide variety of differences each of us has in approaching learning music.

I love how Larry has very carefully thought through and dissected his process of memorizing. Everyone seems to have different ways to help them learn.

My approach is quite different from others on this site. My degree was in classical guitar performance, so I am used to memorizing lots of notes and both right and left hand techniques. As was mentioned by another, the more difficult the tune, the easier time I have in memorizing the part. This is probably because of the level of attention I must use to learn it. However, when I was playing jazz (about 25 years), the concept was to memorize the head (melody) and learn to improvise in a creative manner over the harmonic structure of the tune. Unlike bluegrass, rarely was the melody used as the primary inspiration for the solo. Bluegrass and jazz differ in this respect. Bluegrass is centered on melody, even during the breaks (solos) while jazz improvisation is most often focused on creating a totally new melody over a given chord structure. The only time the original melody was given center stage in a jazz solo was occasionally during improvisations over ballads.

As far as this website is concerned, I have not bothered to learn any of the tabs note for note. Rather, I use Ben’s arrangements to learn how he embellishes melodies with respect to the harmony that is currently playing. In other words, I am much more interested in how he treats a melodic line when played over a specific chord. Ben has a very clean and interesting way of treating “improvised” melodies and I wanted to learn what he his thinking by analyzing his arrangements. This way I can learn how to get a similar color when playing any tune that has a similar chord structure. The reason I learn this way is so that I can transfer that knowledge to any song of any style.

For me, in both bluegrass and jazz, the job of the soloist in a given situation, is not to play a precise, memorized solo, but to instead use his/her knowledge and creativity to present a solo that matches the moment. I would bet that many folks would argue that I have it all wrong and that it is more important to work out a precise solo to be repeated when it is your turn to take the lead. However, I enjoy the energy and thought process that happens in the spontaneous creation of a solo, flying by the seat of your pants, so to speak. And my favorite guitarists are those who sound good (great) soloing in this fashion (listen to David Grier when he is just jamming with other folks).

It is not lost on me that many great players use a completely memorized solo to play again and again when doing regular concert work. My guess is that this would be a simpler system when performing day in and day out. In that case, practicing a specific note for note solo would be just a matter of working out the notes you want to play and rehearsing them (many hundreds of times) until you can play them backward and forward. There are many great guitarists who play extremely well thought out solos and are highly technically proficient (think Andy McKee). However, for me, it is the instant creativity, the lightning fast thought process turned into melodies that I find most appealing.

So memorization is not as big a concern for me as it might be for another player. Most of my energy goes into learning what sounds (melodic colors) I like and how to get those sounds when I am taking a break.

Great thoughts Doc. If I could, flying by the seat of my pants would be the way to go… instead of a performance, it would be more of a creative process. That certainly sounds more appealing. Unfortunately for me, my on the fly creative efforts seldom approach what I want. I can often hear it in my head, but I don’t have enough chops, experience or knowledge to translate it in real time. Certainly not at BG speeds. I think it’s great that this is your goal.

I also think you picked a great model for BG treatments. Ben’s arrangements are great. I am often amazed at the beauty (and maturity) of the lines when learning them. Even at a slow speed, it’s often a beautiful arrangement. I like how he works alternate chords into the melody as well. The first thing that comes to mind is his “advanced” version of the staple song “Wildwood flower.” Looking at the tab, starting in measure 12 he crosspicks a progression from the base C to E7, to Am7 to Edim before resolving back to the familiar F. There’s method to the madness. I am not sure he is the type that “hears” the notes and then figures what they are, or thinks of alternate chords and works the melody into them. Either way, the results are great arrangements.

I’m with you, Mike. My thoughts after reading Doc’s excellent post were, “That’s where I want to be, too, but I’ve got a long way to go to get to that level.” Bridging the gap between memorized material I play at home and the improvised stuff I attempt to play at jams is a big source of frustration for me right now. I suspect (hope) that it’s just a matter of putting in the hours until it all starts to blend together.

Larry, from what I hear of your playing, I’d say you have a very nice palette of colors and I bet you will be able to “paint” with them in new ways if that’s the direction you want to go. If you do, I’d suggest to start practicing that way. Maybe, start easy before you try Gold Rush (a thought popped up…sending an email). I hadn’t really thought of it, but I already do it with my rhythm playing. For example, last Sunday we were playing the song “No sweeter name” (not bluegrass in case anyone wondering… don’t look for a Bill Monroe cover of it). The song is 6/8 we play it with the normal emphasis on 1 and 4. There is a bridge section which sounds quite different from the verse and chorus, and on the fly, based on what I was feeling and/or hearing, I started a different kind of rhythm based on accents in 4. I had subtly pulsed them like that in the past, but went ahead full bore with the feel for the first time (and it was live with an audience). The bass player picked up on it and was with me and the drummer stayed in 3 mode… it had a nice little syncopated groove, and it was a cool kick when we popped back to 3. Granted, it wasn’t a particularly risky thing, as the band will move to a different groove in on the fly, but it was a significant change from the way we practiced it. Since I play guitar as the main accompaniment instrument (lead rhythm?) in performances on a regular basis, it makes sense that I could play based on feel/emotion at the moment. I don’t play lead melody lines (away from home) enough to expect to just start improvising without some serious effort.

Great Reply guys (Doc, Larry, Mike et al)

I will say that outside of Ben’s “Gold Rush” I have not taken the time to use his lessons to learn them note for note. Instead I use it for a resource. A resource in a sense that I will want to learn a new fiddle tune or such and I will listen to the melody over 5 or 6 different players with Ben being the basis. I will then listen to how each worked out a certain line/lick and maybe steal it while stealing a lick from Ben on another part.

My learning level seems to be the same as Larry and Mike’s. I have advanced a lot over the past year in improv, but still my fingers do not act as fast as my brain and I end up with a “bland” improv verses something you’d hear from a good picker.

I sometimes envy those blues guys as they can hang out in a certain position and play 3 or 4 notes over and over and “get it done” in a blues progression however when it comes to bluegrass we are typically jumping between 2 positions and a lot of times 3 positions (scale positions) and I fight it. Sure I can see the scales (in at least 3 positions) and I can get there, however once I get there I fall flat on my face…hoping that in another year the repetition lets me advance.

When I am learning something I try and envision the chord that the progression is going into and the scale that we are using around that chord. I am still stuck on hitting the 1/4 note of that chord when I jump into that chord as it keeps the melody and/or the progression going in my head. From there I am starting to get a good enough ear/brain to understand what notes compliment the melody but still am not fluent enough to pick the correct ones…seems when you want to add a note in the progression just blows on by you and you fall behind then stumble…at least I do.

My learning has been slow, however I have went at it a bit different. I have put as much emphasis on scale practice time and understanding music (theory) as I have learning tunes note for note. I know this has slowed my “jamming abilities” down but at some point will pay off in a big way (I hope).

No matter what I have done in life it seems that I learn “slower” than everyone else, however in the long run when it’s time for the test I know it better than anyone…if that makes sense. Let’s say you have a year to learn something…well during the first 3 months I am the “slowest” learner but once a year passes I do better than anyone else. Have always been this way through life so I figure my guitar learning will be no different…but then again there is a life worth of learning on a guitar.

I fell I am at a point where the “learning” is about to end and the “fun” is about to begin. I mean we have to face it, we all have been working of “technique” for the most part. We have not sat down and simply learned a song with a strong technique to back us up, but instead we have focused on our proper strokes, hand position, picking pattern, where we place our pick relative to the sound hole and a ton of other “technique” issues…hell even have played enough to not have to look down at our instrument for the most part. Now since all of these other issues are resolved it should be time to simply focus on “making some cool ass music”.

I relate completely to your playing out of chord positions, oldhat. I tend to do exactly what you describe in hitting the 1/4 note root when the chord changes during a break. I’m finding it a tough habit to break.

I think I’m a slow and steady learner, too. I’ve been working through the Berklee guitar books for better than two years now, and like you, I figure it’s bound to pay off eventually.

This is a humbling experience… as is all of life… but I digress…

I notice many folks saying that they are slow learners, as am I. I remember beginning to play the guitar at the ripe old age of 8 and realizing that I learned much, much slower than all my friends who were playing. This continued right through high school into college. Slow and steady I guess…

About how I approach learning. I’m one of those folks who needs to know why. (I can imagine I drove my mother nuts as a child.) When I hear a cool lick, I need to now why it sounds like that. I need to know what notes of which scale are playing in what order so that I can repeat that same lick over any similar chord in any situation. I also analyze what that lick “means” to me. Is it a “happy” lick, a “sad” lick or is it particularly “bluesy”? Does the lick promote forward movement or is it more static and sits well without any forward movement? Maybe the lick is an extension or substitution of the chord being played? And if it is some sort of extension or substitution, how is it put together to create the sound/color it portrays?

As you might imagine, a slow learner, like myself, is still grappling with these questions in his 56th year of life. As Jack Nicholson said in The Witches of Eastwick as he portrays the devil while playing the violin, “You may think me crazy, but I know music. It’s the one thing that makes me humble.”

What amazes me are folks who can play amazing stuff and know none of this. Take the Quebe sisters. When I was at one of their concerts last summer, I got a chance to meet and speak to them and their guitarist (the guy who arranges the tunes). I was stunned to hear him say that none of them reads music nor knows any music theory… HUH??? He has to be kidding… but he was completely serious and told me that they work out their tunes sitting together and learn/memorize the tunes from these “arranging” sessions.


What was even more amazing was that I attended some workshops with some of the top bluegrass guitarists in the world and their approach was very similar to the Quebe sisters. They would sit down and work out tunes without the ability to read a lick. And furthermore, they could easily put together amazing solos without the ability to know what they were doing except that at this moment they are playing over the chord G or Am and they understood what they could do with that chord. They had no idea that they were leaning hard on the b3 of the chord or that they going from the b5 to the 5 up to the 1 then down to the b7, b3, 3 and up to the 1.

Now I have pretty good ears and can work out any tune from hearing it (pretty quickly), but to have the ability to sit down once and play something you like and remember it as if you memorized it is unbelievable to me. I can do that if I know what is going on and why, but without those points of reference, I would be completely lost.

Having spent the last few years studying bluegrass, I am just now coming to the realization that bluegrass is truly handed down from ear to ear. And it is very likely that I over think the whole process (more than likely :wink: ) However, it sounds like most of the folks here are more attuned to the proper process of learning bluegrass.

By the way, both times I heard these girls live, they played the exact same solos, note for note, that they play at the end of the end of “It’s a sin to tell a lie” in the video above.

In any case, slow and steady wins this race. And in my case extremely slow… :smiley:

— Begin quote from "drguitar"

What amazes me are folks who can play amazing stuff and know none of this.

— End quote

I have run across quite a few bluegrass pickers who are more accomplished than me, but appear to be totally confused when I use language associated with music theory. At first I thought they must just be playing down their knowledge by design, but I don’t think so anymore. More than most types of music, I think bluegrass gets learned by listening, watching, and attempting to recreate what other pickers do.

I imagine most of us wound up here at Ben’s site because tend to be more analytical types (like doc describes). A lot of pickers I know think it’s kind of peculiar to learn bluegrass with a computer, and even with my slow and systematic learning style, I’ve come to see that you can’t learn bluegrass solely with a computer and/or books. I think I learn just as much by trying ideas at jams as I do with structured lessons.

I’m really glad I’ve got both avenues (structured material and jams) to explore, though. Maybe some day they’ll turn me into the picker I want to be.