Forum - Banjo Ben Clark

Which way do you learn to play.....?

Short story, hopefully. When I first started trying to learn banjo I bought some Murphy Henry (see, got it correct this time) DVDs to learn. She got you playing songs pretty much right away, No offense Ben…YOU have taught me EVERYTHING else. so I have known for like all of my life that I am the kind of person that learns by watching and doing I am a visual learner, show me how to play it and ill figure it out. Unlike some of you who can just look/hear at the tab/songs and play it correctly. I cannot learn a song that way. I have to hear the song in my head in order for it to sound right when I try to play it…does this make sense? So, my ? is, how do YOU learn and what is YOUR practice method. I so do love this website, along with everything associated with it and Ben is such a great teacher, I have learned more about banjo stuff on here than any DVD. I made a book years ago of different beginning and intermediate songs and every time I look through it I THINK I can play them correctly. But then how do I know if I have never heard the song before. Sorry, this was a long semi-rant, but I’m still trying to figure out my learning hierarchy.

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Fwiw, I learn in exactly the same way. I can learn anything by ear/eye/slowed down explanation, and can’t get songs from tab. I memorize everything I learn and only download tab to check every ± six months to see that I’m playing it correctly

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I’ve always learned that way too except for the memorizing thing…lol. Ill download tab just to practice it IF i know how the song sounds and is played or I’m having trouble with a certain chord move(which is an everytime occurrence). If somebody handed me a book and said: “Here do it this way”… id be like “I don’t need not stinkin’ book”. There are soooo many songs I want to learn to play and not just Bluegrass but (classic) rock songs, country, whatever is playable on a banjo. I know I am just starting my journey into banjo Nirvana, but I just want to learn as many songs as I can. Because I have a few friends that play guitar and i/they want to play something, id be like " I only know like 2 songs…and you have probably never heard of them…"

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My best working method has changed over the years…I can learn by tab, notation, ear, or sight…but for really getting it stuck in my head, I use my ears…slowing down recordings and picking them apart a note or lick at a time.

An old (now deceased) friend and bandmate of mine used to say:

The third best way to learn a given piece of material = off of a recording of who you like playing it
Second best is = go to that person and learn it from them
Best way is to have to teach it, because you not only have to be able to play it well enough to give an example of how it should be done, but need to understand it well enough to explain it.

I miss Chris immensely and will never forget the influence he had on my music and understanding manipulation of a rhythm section to emulate different famous bands of the era…it was eye opening to say the least.


I am truly sorry about the loss of your friend. I am not trying to make excuses, I will persevere one way or the other, but unfortunately here, in San Antonio, is not exactly a beehive of banjo activity. I think even if I lived back in So. Cal they have upped their game in bluegrass playing/camps.

I’m so pleased to be around you guys (and gals), because everybody here seem, like me, to use their EARS as their first learning tool. That’s what I like a LOT about this site and about Ben’s teaching method : LISTEN and WATCH how he is playing a tune. The tab is secundary, but it’s there in case something’s not clear.
That said, I love to listen to the early records of Earl Scruggs and slow them down REAL SLOW, and try to play every note he plays. At first that’s not easy to do, but with time I noticed I got (a little) better at it. In about 30 years, when I’m 90, I hope to be able to say I’m a reasonably good banjo player :slight_smile: !

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I really like it here also, at least people interject and post. But I have a ? for Ben, is there any way that you can put slower tracks for “US” beginners. It seems to me that the slowest being 160BPM and going up from there is more intermediate than beginning. 80-120 BPM seems better for beginners. IMHO.

There are tools that give you accompaniment at any tempo you wish…
For pc and Mac there is “Band In A Box” (a little bit pricey, and you have to put in the chords yourself), for iPad and Android tablets there is “iReal Pro”, dirt cheap and with song libraries (eg 300 Bluegrass standards)

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Yes once you down load a backup track…

Amazing slow downer works great for this, on mac, windows or iphone. And it’s super easy to use

I think I use the free version…

Thanks Tye…no worries…Chris has been gone many years now.

The advice he gave me was before the internet was available…But it still holds some truth for today I think.

I didn’t think you were making any excuses…we all learn best in our own way, and knowing yourself well enough to realise what your own “best way” to learn can be a great help to the learning curve.

It’s an excellent topic

I bought Song Surgeon to do the exact thing. I had not had any success with SS playing the downloads, but I just went and downloaded the John Henry track and it played fine. Must have been operator error…:crazy_face:

Hi @tye705 I am a proud student of the Murphy Method. Murphy was the person who inspired me to take up the banjo. Like you I am first and foremost a visual audio learner. My first five years I worked my way through Murphy’s entire catalogue and I learned a lot from it.

However the Murphy Method like ALL the other teaching methods I have worked with has its limitations. In my second year as a Murphy student I knew that if I wanted to get past the basic banjo lessons I had to study with other teachers and teaching methods and that meant I had to learn to read TAB. Like you I am a distance learner with no easy access to good teachers so I have to rely on books, video and online instruction.

I struggled with TAB in the beginning simply because I was working from books and none of it made any sense. I was however lucky enough to find and befriend Geoff Hohwald at the time I needed him the most and he opened the door and taught me how to read TAB. Which allowed me to explore much more challenging instructional material.

But as I got past the basics progress was really slow and all but ground to a halt as most of the so called “Instructional DVDs” were really just slowed down demos, no explanation of what was going on and many of the TABs were inaccurate.

Around this time @BanjoBen had started posting video’s on YouTube and he caught my attention, I was drawn to his cheery cheeky character, his gift of communication and his talent for playing banjo. At first I didn’t rate him highly as a teacher but the more I watched him the more I knew he had a gift for teaching and signed up as a life member…

Ben brings together both styles of teaching the audio/visual and TAB and with his excellent communication skills he makes the process of learning so much easier.

Some teaching methods that rely heavily on TAB are so boring I have fallen asleep 5 minutes into the lesson. But never have I fallen asleep on one of Bens lessons. His TABs are 100% accurate and when used in the tef format with TefView or TablEdit you can listen and play along with the TABs as your learning the tune, lick or musical phrase making the task of learning so much easier and a joy to learn.

You ask " So, my ? is, how do YOU learn and what is YOUR practice method."

My answer is this. In the same way Murphy, Geoff and Ben teaches it. I take it one measure at a time.

I practice each musical phrase over and over until I commit it to memory before moving on to the next. Much in the same way a child learns to walk or ride a bike. The child falls picks his/her self up and tries again until it no longer falls over. Patience, Practice and Perseverance and lot’s of it is required learning to play the banjo.

What you may not realise when your learning to play a tune is, your not just learning to play that tune your are actually learning the mechanics of playing lots of tunes, your learning where to find certain sounds and how to change those sounds with slides, bends etc, You are also learning to make music and the key to learning music is to LISTEN. If your learning from TAB the key to learning TAB is to LISTEN and READ the TAB as you watch it appear on the screen as each note plays. Learning to play banjo from TAB just involves learning additional skills. It doesn’t come easy you have to work at it.

Gifted people can pick up an instrument and play. I am not a gifted musician I have to work hard to learn a tune.

I hope this helps answer your query and goes some way to busting the myth that we all find learning to play banjo easy.

P.S I just wanted to add that in the beginning the learning process can seem overwhelming. If you approach the learning process knowing that learning to play the banjo is a life long learning experience. The more you study and practice the easier the task becomes. Few people get to the level of Earl Scruggs. Earl was gifted the vast majority of us are not. Be the best you can be. Study hard and practice long but above all have fun.


Archie thank you very much for all of that. I now do not feel like the “Lone Banjo Learner”. You are correct that Murphy has great DVD’s to learn by, but once you get past them, you have to find better info. There are so many teachers out there and online, sometimes it is difficult to choose the one you think will give you the best “bang for your buck” in learning. I did sign up with Ben years ago when I first got into banjo, but I didn’t really learn much, it wasn’t any fault of Bens. But now that I have started to relearn and really WANT to play and have matured (well for the most part) to get better. When Ben is doing a lesson and i am trying to learn it, he’ll play a roll or pattern and i;ll just know it because i have played or heard it in other songs. It is so nice to have some of the patterns and rolls repeat themselves in different songs. one less thing I have to worry about learning. My problem is that I want to get good fast and I have to realize that this is not something you learn overnight, Ben and Tony T and Murphy and all those other fantastic banjo players all had to start in the beginning. My only regret is that I didn’t start or stick with it when I was young, or maybe I would be on the other side of the computer screen “looking out” instead of this side “looking in”. I know if I had an awesome banjo teacher by me somewhere I would probably camp outside their home until they either called the police or taught me how to play. I agree Ben is a “Cheeky Lil one ain’t he Gov’ner”. Well if I stay motivated enough and dedicate some time and hard work I can be fortunate enough to play a song or 2 with Ben someday. I so truly appreciate everybodys input here. The fact that Ben chimes in to is awesome, I would think some teachers have “other” people to answer all the questions, but not here. Thank you to all the players and staff that make this website great.

Hi @Stick I have pretty much tried all the teaching methods and I can tell you with hand on heart this is by far the best place to develop your playing skills. Work you way through all the lessons on the Beginners Track. There’s a bunch of stuff in there that will help you as you progress.

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Archie, I agree… I have learned soooo much since I have signed up. I really love doing the beginner lessons. There are a couple of songs that still give me fits when trying to play and it’s not because of the song, its a couple of chord changes that i cant seem to wrap my head around to get my fingers to cooperate. But i try and play them every day. My other question is…Is there a time frame of getting through the beginners course or is it just a matter of when you have it all down? So how long did it take you before you finally said: “hey, I can play”.

Slowing down has helped me more than anything.

“The slower you practice, the faster you learn”.


There is not a time frame.

All people learn at different paces, and most have life commitments other than music.

Everyone…let me repeat…everyone,would like to learn and improve faster than they do. You’re not alone. This is why I usually tell folks to enjoy the journey… There is always a higher goal to set once you’ve reached the present one.

.I’ve been playing different instruments for over 40 years and am still learning and still wish I was better and still wish it would happen faster…but it happens at the speed it happens…some days a far better than others…it’s on the bad ones that I have to remind myself that I do this because I love it.

I agree with Archie about playing slower…it helps with relaxing…and relaxing is a major issue with both performance and enjoying the ride…

Learning music is probably the single most potent lesson in learning patience I’ve ever experienced.

Have patience, have fun, and it will come if the effort and time are put in…


Hi @Stick on the issue of chord changes. Just isolate the section that’s causing you problems. Split it into half measures and practice each movement over and over, then move onto the next half section and so on. On tricky parts I often sit and watch TV as I practice. I am doing that right now with one of Alan Munde’s lessons.

There’s no time frame, spent as much time as you need. I often jumped between all three area’s, Much of the stuff in the beginners section I learned from Murphy and Geoff, But I still worked through Bens lessons and I am glad I did because it reinforced what I already knew and I learn a ton of stuff that I had glazed over from other teaching resources. All this stuff is linked, what you learn in the beginners section really helps in the advanced section. .


Wise Words Dave.

I can learn a song by watching and listening, but I won’t retain it for long. And it’s so time consuming. I tried a lesson from Casey Henry once and after a while I just decided to dig in and write my own tab from what she taught. All in all, it took way too long and gave me a headache. I’m sure it works great for some people but not me.

I’ll take tabs any day, tef files even better, which by the way I only discovered after joining this site. If I have video and sound tracks that I can control the speed of, well that’s gravy.

I need to hear the song first; firstly just to figure out if it’s something I’m interested in. Frankly, there are a lot of songs out there that just don’t do anything for me and sound like so many other songs and I don’t want to waste my time on them. This is why I love this site so much; Ben does a preview play of every song and if one catches my ear (and most do), I’ll tackle it. I’ve got the regular tabs, tef files and the video lessons and the solo and backing tracks I can download.

Once I have the audio tracks I can use an app like Transcribe to control the speeds and set up loops where I can zero in on a difficult lick or section where I can play it over and over til I get it. Sometimes I’ll save just that section as its own file to make it easier next time I want to listen to just that section.

I did look at several other teachers and web sites out there and this is THE one that gives me the biggest bang for the buck. And, you have this forum, where everyone is so helpful. @Archie and @Mark_Rocka and @K_G and others have helped me with some issues and Ben chimes in too. Great resources here.