Everybody wants to be a banjo star! Oh, what must that feeling be like to stand on stage in front of thousands, your banjo blowing up a firestorm and your body in a white heat! The crowd leaps to its feet as you storm through tunes like Foggy Mountain Breakdown and Under the Double Eagle, the banjo so substantial under your skilled fingers that you think you can ride it like a heavenly chariot into the sky. This is just about everyone’s idea of what it must be like to be a banjo star. Well, here’s some news: not everyone has the time to become a banjo star. In fact, almost none of us can be the kind of banjo star that commands the adulation of millions. To be a top money-making banjo star you will have to devote many hours to practicing your banjo. You will play countless gigs, master the intricate rolls of Earl Scruggs, and give your life to the banjo. How many of us can do that? Or even want to? Most of us are out there holding down a job, raising a family, or going to school so we can become better than we are. Learning to play any instrument extremely well will take a certain amount of work and dedication. Does this mean we can’t learn the banjo? No. There are always workarounds, even with the banjo. The trick is to pick realistic goals so even if our time to devote is limited, we can gain some level of mastery so you can be your own banjo, guitar, uke, flute, mandolin, dobro, whatever star.
Since we’re talking about the banjo in this article, let’s focus on that instrument. What I say here applies to any instrument you might choose to play. So what’s my plan? Do I even have a plan? Of course I have a plan. 🙂 Suppose you are just like the rest of us. You’re working hard, tired at the end of every day, and long, strenuous practice is simply out of the question. Even though you might find the time to learn bluegrass someday, is there any chance that you could play the banjo to at least some level of satisfaction? Yes! There is another way to play the banjo, and this style is as exciting as the bluegrass style! Pete Seeger used this style of playing very often, made it famous, in fact, and he called it the “up picking” style. It’s not Pete’s style. The style originated long before any of us were born. Pete perfected this style, and when I first heard Pete Seeger’s album titled “Darling Corey/Goofing Off Suite”, I was hooked on this style. I stumbled across this album in the 1960s, and it is still available on iTunes. On this album Seeger uses the up picking style extensively. And this album inspired me to learn that style.
Eventually I found my way into giving guitar lessons, and then banjo lessons. Without even thinking about the up picking style I had worked so hard to master, I began my banjo students with a healthy dose of lessons in the bluegrass style. This proved to be a mistake on my part. My students didn’t have enough time in their busy lives to learn the basic bluegrass rolls, exercises every bluegrass picker must deal with when first beginning this style. Practicing Scruggs rolls is the equivalent, psychologically speaking, of practicing scales on the piano; no one wants to do it. Students were quitting right and left. I didn’t want them to quit. Part of my living came from giving lessons. I had to find some way to retain my students. It was then that I decided to try teaching them the up picking method of playing. Before I knew it, I had more banjo students than I had time for! No one quit. Everybody stuck with it. But in the beginning of my effort I had painted myself into a corner. There were no comprehensive books available for this style. So out of sheer desperation I wrote one. I tabbed out tunes as I needed them, and eventually I had a whole book. The first copy of the book was crude because I had to lay every page out on a drawing board. I had to ink out all the banjo tablature by hand, and I wrote the text explanations on my trusty Commodore Vic 20 computer. Oh, those were the dark days of graphic design! But this crude first publication kept my banjo players coming back each week, and they learned to play the banjo. And they managed all this with practice time limited by their own busy lives. For some students, the up picking style was a steppingstone to the bluegrass style. So everyone won. Those that didn’t want to move beyond the up picking style into bluegrass were perfectly happy with the up picking style. Those that wanted to move on to bluegrass had received a solid background in banjo chords and rhythm, making entry into the bluegrass style much easier.
The up picking style isn’t nearly as difficult to master as the bluegrass style. You will be able to master recognizable tunes more quickly than if you were playing the bluegrass style. I’ve been in several local bands over the years, and although I occasionally played in the bluegrass style, it was that galloping rhythm of the up picking style our audiences really loved the most. They’d hit the dance floor like their pants were on fire! 🙂
If you think you might be interested in learning the up picking style, check out my banjo book, “5-String Banjo, Hot and Wild”, under the MUSIC BOOKS menu tab. If you want to hear how this style sounds, listen to the included tunes on the book’s description page. You can also hear me play Under the Double Eagle in the up picking style under the menu tab LISTEN, then Banjo.