First post: Trying out the banjo

Here’s my blog! Wow…. Of course, I meant to start it on January 1st, but … well, you know … lots of distractions. Today I have to go shopping for some Epiphany gifts, so I’ll write what I have time for in today’s maiden entry. (Epiphany gifts? Yes — I live in Spain, and my family, like most Spanish families, reserve most of their Christmas giving for Epiphany, January 6th.)

Anyway, on to the banjo! I used to play the trumpet professionally, but had to retire a few years ago because of focal dystonia (let’s just say, it was a chops problem, or, if you’re really interested, you can look it up). This blog is NOT about focal dystonia. 🙂

I missed music, so I bought myself a banjo. Over the past couple of years I have made several enthusiastic but aborted attempts to learn to play it. (Always found myself too busy with my jobs — teaching English and music — or other responsibilities.) This time I’ll do it! My goals are:

  • to learn to play simple chord melody at sight.
  • to get a Dixieland group started up and running.

There are a whole bunch of types of banjo. Given my goals, after a little research, I decided on what’s called a TENOR banjo. This is not the five-string banjo you see so frequently nowadays. I like the five-string’s sound and its flashiness, but it is not the most appropriate banjo for jazz. The tenor banjo has four strings, tuned in fifths, C-G-D-A, exactly like the viola (or an octave above the cello). It is not nearly so popular as it once was, but it is still the banjo of choice for Dixieland music, a.k.a. traditional jazz.

I am not an absolute beginner on the banjo, due to my various attempts to learn it in the past two or three years, and the fact that I played the trumpet professionally for some 28 years means that I know all about the technical aspects of music (reading the various clefs, chords and scales, transposition, etc.). So I hope this blog will end up documenting some pretty fast progress. At the moment my left-hand fingertips are aching, as I have not yet built up the requisite callouses. I have practiced on Dec. 30th, Jan. 2nd, Jan. 3rd and today (Jan. 4th), with increasing amounts of time. Today I gave it about two hours (!).

Yesterday and today, my major focus was memorizing the “standard” major chords, all as close to the nut as possible. These are the chords that come in the beginning books, and although I know that what I want to really master are the “moveable” chords, I also want to learn these. I went through the circle of fifths ten or twenty times each day, and I think I have these basic 12 chords memorized.

For a trumpet player, it’s weird to have to memorize a bunch of apparently random finger positions to make music. Or maybe it’s not so weird. After all, the fingerings you have to learn to play the trumpet are pretty much random until you are pretty advanced and start to analyze them more deeply. I suspect the same thing will come about for me on the banjo.

Anyway, enough for today. Christmas/Epiphany shopping calls. I’ll end with a picture of my banjo. And with my best wishes for a marvelous 2014!

Doug's tenor banjo

5 thoughts on “First post: Trying out the banjo

  1. Hi, Doug,
    I am a 7 year trumpet comeback player, really enjoying my horn and have far exceeded my skills as a high school concert, orchestra, and musical player. I have been working on banjo for about a year, ( 5 string), have also played guitar for many years. The tenor is a different animal than a 5 string, more like a guitar as you primarily use chording. Just like developing an embouchure, there are gains and plateaus, and like the horn, perseverance is needed. Keep at it, go slow, learn a new chord each week let the speed of chord changes come by itself, it’ll happen.


    • Thanks Mark! Nice to hear from a trumpet+banjo player. Speedy chord changes do seem like an insuperable problem at the moment, but I know that your advice — to go slow and be patient — is good. Lord knows I’ve given the same advice to my own students often enough!

      • Yep, that’s the key…muscle memory and repetition. Once your fingers “know” the chord shapes
        they will automatically go there without thinking about it and then the speed and ease will come. Now, if you could tell me how to own a G above high C would be most appreciative,
        you know trumpet players and range!

      • I read somewhere that trumpet players have a love/hate relationship with high notes. I thought that put it succinctly….

      • Ha, ha…so right. We hate it when we can’t play those notes, and the ones who can. It’s a good thing 99% of all trumpet music is below high C, but who remembers that?


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