Will I Ever Get Better?

“Will I ever get better?” is the perennial cry of the pre-beginner (folks say there is no such thing as a pre-beginner but I have been one for 10 years…) or beginner player. We always feel just a tad bit “lacking” in improvement despite all of our best efforts. The truth is that we have more than likely made more progress than we know.

I have been playing banjo for over 10 years. I tell folks that I SOUND like I have been a banjo player for “at least 10 minutes” which always gets a chuckle. The truth is somewhere in between.

The other day I pulled out some of my old song sheets. I was watching the “Muppet Movie” and was inspired to try my old arrangement of “The Rainbow Connection”.  It actually has what NOW seem modest chord forms: Em, Bm, Bmajor, C, D7, and of course open G. Back when I first learned it I complained to my teacher about the Em and Bm; “Why are you so mean? Why do I have to do those chords? Can’t you make it easier?”

Today it is a different story. I can easily make those chords and the song is so much fun to play. I had no idea, 8 years ago, that it would EVER happen this way. And when I was first shown a C chord, I moaned for weeks. I can close my eyes and make a good C chord today but I NEVER thought the day would come those many years ago.

Sharing these stories is just a way of telling you that YES, you WILL get better!
So how do you measure this “unknown” progress?

  1. For those of you who have been playing a few months or more and are despairing, go back and pull out some of your first songs and play them. Easier than the first time? They should be…only we tend to forget how hard they seemed when we first learned them. You can borrow my old friend, “The Rainbow Connection”, if you can’t find any of your own favorites.
  1. Do you have a friend that you play with? Did you ever think you would be playing with anyone or in front of people? I never did.

The first time I had to play in front of a group it was at an elementary school. The school called the factory to see if someone would come out and read to the children during “literacy” week. I volunteered…heck, I at least knew how to read.

We set the date. The “week of” they call back to remind me and said, “Oh, and don’t forget your banjo so you can play for the kids.” WHAT? Who said anything about playing? So, I started practicing a couple of simple tunes but quite frankly, I was terrified at the thought of actually playing in front of anyone. I asked for the 1st graders, figuring they wouldn’t notice if I goofed up. I read them the book about the Yak who overcame his fears and we had a good time with that. Hey, I told you I could read. Then it came time to play. I thought it best to be honest with the children so I told them I was afraid because I had never played in front of anyone.  I mustered up “Twinkle-Twinkle Little Star” while they sang and we also sang “Happy Birthday” to the child whose birthday was closest to that day. OK…I did miss a few notes but they didn’t notice my fumble or were too polite to say so. They all clapped and one sweet child looked up at me from her seat on the floor and said “You played really good.” God Bless Her! Since that day, I have taught others to strum banjo, played at our factory open house during the holidays and actually did a program or two at our local libraries. If you had told me I would do THAT 10 years ago, I would have questioned your sanity!

  1. If you have a metronome, this is a marvelous tool to help you understand how far you have come. Start out at the slowest speed and do a series of banjo rolls. The fact that you KNOW your banjo rolls is also an indicator of your progress. Now bump up the speed just a little and continue with your roll patterns. As you continue this slow upward progression, you will eventually hit a point at which your roll pattern playing begins to lose integrity. In other words, playing at that faster speed is not clean, clear, and crisp. Stop there and review how FAR from the slowest speed you have gone. That’s progress.
  1. Can you read tablature? That is something we tend to forget we didn’t know how to do until we took up playing the banjo.
  1. Can you play by just listening to a tune? That is a skill you have developed.
  1. How many songs do you know? Remember, you didn’t know even ONE when you first started.
  1. Can you sing and play at the same time? That is not an easy thing to do in the beginning. Your hands have to know where to go while your mouth is moving. I know that sounds silly but the first time I tried to sing a new song and play; I realized how hard it was. Until you have the muscle memory in your hands, your singing is distracting! Those of you who play should understand what I mean.

If you have never played a banjo or any other acoustic stringed instrument, then now is a great time to start charting your progress.

What do you need to make this happen?

  1. Start with a good banjo. A Goodtime banjo is built to help you be successful.  This is important…an instrument with the scale cut correctly sounds musical.  An instrument that is comfortable to play with will encourage you to come back for more playing time.
  1. Get the Two-finger DVD by Barry Hunn. You will be strumming AND SINGING along in about 10 minutes or less. I have taught this simple strumming method developed by our sales manager here at Deering to countless individuals at festivals. I love the smiles on their faces when they find out it is easier to make music than they could ever imagine!
  1. Get a basic banjo book and learn about the parts of the banjo.
  2. Learn basic roll patterns.
  3. Practice slowly…using a metronome to keep the pace steady and slow.
  4. Record yourself daily or weekly…and you will soon begin to see how your playing speed improves.  Notice that your “natural speed” on the metronome has bumped up slowly over time…a true measure of your progress.
  1. Practice…I know I said this before but it is the key to true growth.
  2. Find a basic tune you like. Practice your rolls first and then move on to the song.
  3. Sing while you play. 

Before long, you will have stories of your own progress to share with others.
That’s the real sign of growth. When you can look back at the “new you” and the “now you” with a smile and a laugh, you will know the real joy of music!

June 21, 2012 by Carolina
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Carolina said:

Thanks, Chuck, for writing. I would take a look at the third section of the article I wrote this week. The 2-finger DVD I talked about is a simple strumming method that I think you will find easy to accomplish and make you feel good about what you can do on the banjo. Once you gain some confidence that you CAN make music, then you can move on to the other steps like learning roll patterns and simple tunes. With the 25 years of maturity that you have developed over time, you know that “slow and easy” wins the race! ;-) Start with the strumming and then contact me for some EASY books to learn by emailing me at info@deeringbanjos.com. I’d be happy to walk this new journey with banjo with you.
Take care…and keep in touch!

Chuck Gohn

Chuck Gohn said:

Thanks for the post. I can relate. I started playing banjo about 25 years ago because my first wife (now deceased) loved Steve Martin and I was trying to impress her. Starting with Cripple Creek and a few other common tunes I got my repertoire up to about 20. I learned on Tab but was frustrated because I never felt up to playing with a group or even another musician as I didn’t understand anything about the basics of music. I took more lessons unfortunately with Tab and I still never really learned much more. Anyway 25 years later my banjo sits but I refuse to sell it on Craig’s list. I am tempted to pick it up again but fear I will simply remain stuck as a closet banjo player playing Cripple Creek and the Cabbage song for the rest of my life. Suggestions?


Carolina said:

Hi Fran,
I loved the joke about the “exotic dancer”! If you tune the first string, first, and then fret it at the 5th fret, that is the same note you want on your fifth string.
In other words, the first string fretted at the fifth sound like the fifth string when it is in tune. It is easier to tune the first string without breaking it. This will
give you a guide to tuning that 5th string…before you go too far. :-) Of course, experience is the best key and you and I have both had the breaking string to caution
us about going too far. I hope this hint helps and thanks for writing.

Fran Welch

Fran Welch said:

Trying to tune my banjo, I have broken more G -strings than an overweight exotic dancer. This of course is the small string. Is there some way I can get the proper sound without it snapping?

PauL Bolton

PauL Bolton said:

I got alittle overwhelmed at my Banjo Class last Thursday… and was abit discouraged, but now I am going to go up to Northern Saskatchewan where there is nothing to do but canoe and fish,and play the Banjo… and altho I started playing the gaitar again tonight for solace, I realize my new best friend is really my Deering Crow Banjo…


penny said:

I’ve been playing for a year and, most definitely, feel like I’ve been stuck at pre-beginner for 11 of those months. This was a really positive post. Thanks!

Brian McCarthy

Brian McCarthy said:

My mother bought me a Banjo for my 52nd birthday. I have played it every day for the last 4 years and actually played on stage in March. My mother is gone now but I feel that connection with her every day while I practice. The Banjo brings a smile to my face and a glow to my heart. Thanks mom for this wonderful gift.


chris@chrisdowning.c said:

You forgot to mention all the books written around the idea of ten thousand hours of practice. Now that sounds like a lot of practice – and it is. But thats for getting to World Class standard, not playing in fornt of a hundred drinkers at the pub. That will take about one to two thousand hours from a standing start. It’s pretty easy to calculate where you are on that learning line.

But the big issue is how much you can do in a day and what your practice comprises. To really progress you need to be doing purposeful practice – that’s the hard grinding stuff – not bimbling through your back catalogue of tunes you already know. Real practice is really hard work and as a result you can only do about three hours of this sort of playing per day. So 10,000 hours will take you about ten years. See, I told you that was for World Class and now you see why.

But for an average player who is keen to progress at an hour a day that’s nearly 400 hours a year. So you should be ready for a pretty competant public appearance ( where you get paid to play – that’s a big differentiator) in about 2 1/2 years from a complete non-playing beginner.

And think its all about talent? Well that’s where the books and research will show you its actually all about practice.

these are the best books on the research –
“Bounce” by Matthew Syed
“The Talent Code”
“Talent is Overrated”

And here’s one of the original papers these books were based on – http://www.psychologytoday.com/files/u81/Ericsson__Roring__and_Nandagopal__2007_.pdf

Basically it says that practice is the secret – not talent. All great players practice a huge amount and always have – ie ten thousand hours to get up there. For the rest of us a couple of thousand will make you the best in the County.

Lastly, if you got down to this paragraph. Practice has a lot of repetition in it, so you can work out how long it may take to get to the end of that book you have. Over many years I have been able to see and calculate that my students manage to nail a bar, two bars or a line after between 50-70 times spread over a week (say 10x through per day). Now a single line takes about 15 seconds to play ( average between painfully slowly and up-to-speed over the week), so 60×15 seconds = 15 minutes to learn each new line. So a book with 200 staves of TAB or music will take 15x 200 = 50 hours or about two months at an hour a day. My students have always found it motivating to know those tunes at the back of the book will be played by them in a known target time – they just have to keep on the plan. Of course if you don’t have a day job or a private life you can grind out three hours a day and do it in 17 days. You can only imagine how excited your neighbours are gonna be on those hot summer evenings, listening to you practicing for three hours every night as they swing on the porch.


Tony said:

I just inherited my great grandfathers four string tenor banjo. What would be the best book to get to learn how to play and accessories needed to honor his memory?

Larry Rosenberg

Larry Rosenberg said:

Wonderful article, Carolina. You inspired me to dig up my versions of “Rainbow Connection” which I have for my ukulele jam and finally play them in earnest on the banjo. The songs sounds even better on the banjo, and certainly more like Kermit who, of course, is a banjo player.


phil said:



will said:

Hi – I’ve been playing my Sierra for around 18 months now and although I’m pretty good on the forward rolls, the backward rolls are not as ‘natural’ to play somehow. In other words I can’t play them as fast as forward rolls cleanly. Is this just a brain/fingers thing that most pickers experience? Or just a case of more practicing. I was listening to the intro to ‘Dooley’ which features backward rolls and he is quick!! Thanks.


Carolina said:

Thanks, Penny, for taking the time to write. I hope you find some good suggestions to keep you going. You WILL get beyond this point in your journey with banjo. And you will have so much more fun getting there. :-)


Carolina said:

Hi Brian,
Thank you for sharing this story with all of us. You are right. Music is a way to connect us with our fondest memories or create new ones! Keep smiling…and picking your beloved banjo.


Mark said:

I can totally relate to this article. I have had absolutely no background in music, but I always like the sound of the banjo. At the ripe old age of 41 and unbeknownst to my wife, I purchased Mel Bay’s, You Can Teach Yourself Banjo. However, I had no banjo, but my wife had a ukulele and I would practice roll patterns on that. Alas, she came home from work early and caught me with my mistresses; the banjo book, the ukulele and sounding like something similar to a broken wind chime. Within a week she bought me a Deering Goodtime and surprisingly enough we found a teacher. 3 years later, I still play it every day to a point that I barely recall how foolish I must have looked and sounded. My recordings of an almost intelligble Bile Dem Cabbage are a distant memory when I am now improvising on Earl’s Breakdown, Cripple Creek, 12 Bar Blues, etc. Hopefully I can continue to play until my last breath and possibly inspire anyone at any age to grab the instrument of their choice and run with it whether you want to play exactly like their idol or make the music their own.


Carolina said:

Hi Larry,
Thanks for writing!! And thank you for the compliments on the article. :-) Yes, I love that song and the movie inspired me to play it again. Enjoy and keep in touch.


Carolina said:

Awesome story,Mark!! I enjoyed it immensely and thank you for sharing it. We are kindred spirits…only I think you play banjo much better than I do. :-)


Carolina said:

Hi Paul,
I know what you mean by getting overwhelmed in class. When I first started learning banjo, everyone else in the class played another musical instrument but me. :-( My teacher…and my fellow students were patient but I could not help feeling like I held them behind. Time passes and while I still get a bit nervous when I attend a class, the overwhelm is not so high. :-) Enjoy your time with the great outdoors and keep playing your banjo. If you ever need to write me for further help, please do so! I can be easily reaching at info@deeringbanjos.com or call 800-845-7791. Thanks for writing.


Carolina said:

Hi Will,
As you have mastered the forward roll, I think it is just a matter of going back and SLOWLY practicing the backward roll pattern to help induce a more solid muscle memory on that one.
I see you have definitely put in the time, with that 18 months, so maybe just slowing down to build muscle memory more solidly will be of some good help.
Contact me at info@deeringbanjos.com if you need some more help after you have tried this.
Thanks for writing.


Carolina said:

Hey Phil,
I hear you! You can find sections of the 2-finger DVD on YouTube. You might try that first. Just strum and do the simple Barre chord that Barry illustrates.
As you have good books, try to focus on just ONE of the roll patterns, say the in and out roll. Do it slowly…very slowly. This will help you learn some muscle memory and learn where the strings are.
Once you are comfortable with that roll, move on to the forward roll and eventually to the backward roll. SLOWLY is the key. Patience with yourself is important.
You can write me at info@deeringbanjos.com or call 800-845-7791 if you ever need some more personal attention.
Thanks for taking the time to write.


Carolina said:

Hi Chris,
I can see you have a lot of experience on the subject of practice. And you are quite right, good practice habits are the real key. If you leave your banjo on a stand close to where you sit to watch TV or talk with folks, you can sneak in some extra practice time on your rolls by using a mute. It is really about integrating your practice time whenever you can. Most folks can’t spend three hours a day practicing at a pop, but 10 minutes here and there will add up and eventually you want to carve out more time because you are having fun.
Yes, most good professionals spend hours and hours practicing. Jens Kruger is a virtuoso banjo player and he spends at least 8 hours a day with his banjo!
Thanks for offering some examples of books for folks to look for. It is this kind of interaction we hope to get from our articles. No one person can have all the answers but the collective enthusiasm of our readers can work miracles. :-)

Scott Blunk

Scott Blunk said:

I purchased a Goodtime Tenor exactly 3 years ago when I was 43. Never had any prior stringed instrument experience, nor could I read a note. Began practicing in My garage nearly everyday with a Mel Bay Tenor banjo Book. Just this last month I was asked if I wanted to sit in with a group of 30 year plus experienced musicians. I accepted their offer and didnt think that I would ever be asked back. Strangely they All seemed to like My ability to play and they thought that I knew my instrument well. I was amazed and a little bit shocked as I was not expecting them to have Me back to rehearse with them again. I am now a regular player with them twice a week.

Larry Wolf

Larry Wolf said:

You hit the nail on the head! I’ve had a banjo for around 30 years. I got a cheapo for my first one then got a Gold Star later. I’ve taken a few lessons which was just a guy giving me tabs to practice. I’ve got piles of banjo books. I’d play for a few months and get up to mediocre, get disgusted and quit for a few months. Then I’d start all over again only to do the same thing. I’m finally convinced that I’ll never get any better than I am right now so I’m sticking with it. My grandson just got a 5-string so I’m going to get together with him and have some fun. Thanks for the great article. Wish I could afford a Deering.


Carolina said:

Hi Tony,
I would visit the online store and look for First Lessons Tenor, http://www.deeringbanjos.com/first-lessons-tenor, to begin your journey with tenor banjo.
You will need a tuner, http://www.deeringbanjos.com/deering-instrument-tuner, and a flat pick,http://www.deeringbanjos.com/deering-flat-pick. Those three
basic tools will get you started on having fun with the banjo and remembering your grandfather with a smile.


Carolina said:

Awesome, Scott! I love Mel Bay books too and your story is an inspiring one for all of us. Thanks for sharing it. It shows that your personal perseverance and love of the banjo took you further than you ever expected.
Congratulations! Keep in touch.


Carolina said:

Thanks for writing. With your grandson to play with, you will have more fun…and you will become better because you will play more often. I can see you are a “stick to it” kind of guy…just the kind of folks who love banjo and have fun with them. Glad you enjoyed the article and thanks for the great example to all of us! Have fun picking with your grandson and keep in touch.


Carolina said:

Thank you for writing, Chris. I enjoyed reading all about your love of banjo. You are quite a versatile player! That’s great. And you are right about leaving them out…they are easier to pick up and play that way.
I appreciate your compliments and thanks for reading the articles. :-)

Chris Cooper

Chris Cooper said:

Nice article! I bought my first banjo from Sears when I was 12, still have it and it plays well (I did put 5-star tuners, a bronze tone ring and no-knot tail piece on it ). I was also entrusted with a family heirloom from my wife’s great uncle, a pew-war Vegaphone long neck plectrum and have been learning the plectrum style for the past few years. As my banjo family grows (I have a MaBell Tenor from the 20’s and a modern open-back) I play every day and find it is a kind of meditation for me, forget the current life issues and simply immerse myself in the techniques and timings of playing. I enjoy the challenge of switching between tenor, plectrum, claw-hammer, strumming and blue grass. Each technique although different reinforces the skills needed for the others.. Keeping the banjos out on a rack and readily accessible is the key for me. Again thanks for your article.


Carolina said:

Hi Mark,
Yes, I understand both issues. Regarding #2, yes, just keep on going and the start over again. But, go very slowly…I mean really, really slow when you are learning a new song. We do make mistakes…I do all the time…but with repeated playing you do eventually get the movements right and the speed comes naturally. As to number 1, try not playing with the metronome for a bit. Focus on getting to each position in the song at a very slow pace on your own. Once you get the muscle memory for the movements themselves, the put the metronome back on at the slowest speed. You should find it easier to keep up once you have that muscle memory of the song better in place.
You are right on all counts…constant practice will remedy this but also PATIENCE with yourself in good doses will keep you happy. :-)


mark said:

hi carolina
am having trouble on two fronts that i know loads of practice will put right but its how to organise it i am struggling with 1)how to fret on time nb i realise it will come with time but have metronome as low as it can go and still cant do it 2is keeping going when you make mistakes ,as soon as i make a mistake i stop and go back to beginning i have been told to learn to carry on so advice re this would be appreciated as i have stated am not after a quick fix a constructive way of practicing thats all and the last thing i want is the banjo to be my enemy kind regards


Carolina said:

Hi Frank,
Yes, the banjo is good for our soul! I love Cripple Creek and Boil dem Cabbage Down!! They are two that I can actually play and they sound like they should! LOL
You sound like you are enjoying your musical journey and soon folks will ask you to teach them how to play!! Take care and thanks for writing.

Frank Fitzgerald

Frank Fitzgerald said:

Thanks for the posting. If’s good to see others are in my position as a “Pre beginner player” I was given a banjo by one of my nephews to pull me out of a big black hole after my wife died. I haven’t played with anybody else as my requests for a local beginner to join me have proved fruitless. Nevertheless I have learned Cripple Creek and Bile them cabbages and am now onto the complexities of forward, backward and sideways rolls. Because I need to keep in good with my neighbours (I live in a small terraced house in Chorley Lancashire England) who are magnificent folk, I now go daily to my local supermarket. Find a spot in the farthest corner of the car park and practice my very noisy chords, rolls, strums and anything that takes my fancy without incurring the wrath of any delicate ears. I’m still a pre beginner but it’s surprising how my daily banjo bashing eases my mind and with Gods grace and my sore fingers I will improve. I listen to the proper players and hope that I will soon be able to be at least a little as accomplished as them.


Megan said:

Hey Caroline.
This is not really regarding much that you said in your post. But I a little lost. I’ve started learning claw hammer and my teacher suggested me to stop taking classes and just buy a book but I can’t seem to find a decent or really ANY claw hammer ones anywhere. Would you by any chance know of any? Or know of anyone who knows of any?


Carolina said:

You can find all kinds of material online. Just do a google/bing search for your favorite banjo tunes and you will see many free tab sites come up.
Also, YouTube is a valuable free resource for lessons and song inspiration. Banjo Hangout is also a wonderful place to talk to other banjo players.
Have fun.


Bella said:

I know i’m a little late on this post but i am pretty proficient on learning instruments. i play the guitar and violin as well as the banjo so i can do chords very easily. they problem i have is with picking or rolls or whatever they are. I don’t play the banjo religiously or anything, no serious practicing, i just like to play it to relax and chill and i think it sounds cool. I usually just play it strumming like my guitar and enjoy the different sound of it, but i would really like to play some actual banjo songs with rolls and all that. Its a five string banjo, i don’t really know what kind because a really old friend of mine at my church has arthritis and couldn’t play it anymore and gave it to me. It doesn’t have any markings except for a large faded gold eagle on the back of it. Any websites or song would be great thank you! :)


Carolina said:

Hi Megan,
Sorry I have not written earlier but we were closed from Dec 21 through Jan 1st!
We have a good clawhammer book called Clawhammer from Scratch that I think you might like.
It is written by Dan Levenson, very experienced teacher and player.
It is in stock. Check it out on the website.
There is a more basic DVD by David Holt you might like called Getting Started.
Write me an info@deeringbanjos.com so we can talk more about this if you like.

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