Secrets of Playing the Banjo by Ear

By Wayne Erbsen

Practically every banjo picker player dreams of being able to play by ear. What does playing by ear mean? It means playing without reading or memorizing tab.

Some lucky dogs just seem to able to pick up a banjo and just pick, seemingly without a care in the world. Don’t you just hate that? The rest of us poor schlumps have to work at it. For some people, playing the banjo is as natural as a frog jumping off a log. This article is for those of you who struggle to play by ear, but end up only memorizing a tab, at best.

For some reason, banjo players think that learning a little music theory is like getting a root canal. Well this is going to be short, sweet and far less painful. Trust me.

In order for music theory to make any sense on the banjo, you need to learn the names of the notes on the banjo on the bottom four strings up to the fifth fret. Take a look at this diagram. These are the notes you need to memorize. If you know the names of your strings in G tuning, it won’t be hard to memorize the other notes of the G scale.

To play by ear, you need to know a little bit about three things: 1) Simple scales, 2) Chords, 3) Walk-ups and Walk-downs.

1) Simple scales. This is the doe ra mi you learned as a kid. In the key of G, it’s do=G, re=A, mi=B, fa=C, so=D, la=E, ti=F#, do=G. As you can see, you start with G and go right up the alphabet – G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G. (For a G scale, you’ll use an F# instead of a plain ole F.) That’s not so complicated, is it?

2) Chords consist mainly of three notes that harmonize with each other. Major chords are made up of the 1st, 3rd and 5th note of a scale. Don’t panic! Let me explain. If we give each note of a G scale a number, it would be G=1, A=2, B=3, C=4, D=5, E=6, F#=7, G=8. So the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of the G scale would be G, B and D. Correct? These three notes are called chord tones.

3) Walk-ups are like stairs that walk UP to higher chord tone. Walk-downs are stairs that walk DOWN to a lower chord tone.

Secret #1: The first note of any melody will start on one of the three chord tones of whatever the chord is. For a G chord, the melody will either be a G, a B or a D. For a C chord it will be C, E or G. For a D your choices are D, F# or A. This is valuable information because to find the melody, you only have three choice. Three. That’s it!

Secret #2: The second note of a melody will be a repeat of the first note, or it will either be a Walk UP the scale, or a Walk DOWN the scale. After several walk-ups or walk downs, the melody will land on one of the three chord tones of whatever the new chord is.

So finding the melody is like playing a game of hop scotch. You jump from one chord tone to another, sometimes using a few notes of the scale in between.

Below is my attempt to illustrate the anatomy of a melody, using This Land is Your Land by Woody Guthrie. Start by orienting yourself by looking at the words at the bottom. The four words in capital letters show you where the chord changes are. The song starts on G, goes to C, back to G, then goes to D and back to G.

The melody hopscotches from one of the G chord tones to one of the C chord tones. and so on. In between each chord tones is either a walk-up or a walk-down.

There are, of course, many melodies that don’t follow these simple rules. However, you can count on the fact that when you change to a new chord, the melody WILL generally be one of the chord tones of that chord. The notes in between the chord tones may jump around, but they’re always either a walk up or a walk down to one of the three chord tones.

Bluegrass Banjo for the Complete Ignoramus!That wasn’t so bad, was it?

Once you become adept at finding simple melodies, you’re ready to start adding rolls to that melody.

For secrets of on how to add rolls to melody, grab a hold of my book, Bluegrass Banjo for the Complete Ignoramus! Find out why it’s one of the most popular bluegrass banjo books in America.

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