Ideas for a melody-chord fingering chart

So many banjo books start with the idea that you have to spend a lot of time learning single-note melodies before you start playing chords and — heaven forbid! — chord melody. As a former trumpet player — and thus by nature a melodic rather than chordal thinker — I am comfortable with this. But maybe it would be better to start beginners RIGHT OFF with CHORD MELODY, from their first note, as if it were the ONLY WAY to play the banjo.

In other words, it might be nice if the beginning tenor-banjo player would simply learn that the note+chord combination

F note with F major chord

is played on frets 023X (the teacher or the method book could suggest fingerings). At this point there would be no need to learn any theory. For the student, it is just a melody note with a chord symbol on top of it, which equals a specific fingering.

Then, as if it were simply another note, he/she would learn that

F note with G7 chord

is played 243X. Again, no chord theory — that could come later. In other words, at the beginning, you just learn that

low F note + F chord = 023X

low F note + G7 chord = 243X

(etc.)

Within a few weeks, of course, the player will learn the “real” explanation of just what chord melody is and how it works. But it seems to me that a beginning student’s lack of theoretical knowledge is no reason for him/her not to start right in on chord melody.

So (I was thinking) … what if somebody did write a banjo method for absolute beginners based ENTIRELY on CHORD MELODY? How would they organize it? I am familiar with a lot of beginning trumpet method books, and you could do worse than to imitate them.

One thing which beginning trumpet methods always have is a COMPLETE LIST, on the first or last page, of ALL the fingerings used in the book. It is presented in reference order (usually chromatic), not learning order (which is the job of the lessons in the body of the book). The student can refer to this list any time he/she has a doubt about fingering. (The most proactive students will probably be fascinated by the list and try out all the chords on their own, which will presumably do them no harm.)

This list has to be simple and easy to understand. Beginning trumpet fingering charts generally have a very simple and elegant presentation:

Beginner's trumpet fingering chart

Although the above chart is for beginners — a more advanced one would include alternative fingerings and higher notes — even an advanced chart is very simple and almost impossible to misunderstand.

I started wondering whether I could make a trumpet-style fingering chart for this (theoretical) beginning banjo method. Chord diagrams are all very well and good, but there must be an alternative which is more space-efficient but still very easy to understand. Of course, since each melody note on the banjo has several possible versions, depending on which chord is to be played with it (not to mention the many alternative chords), a “simple” banjo fingering chart will necessarily have more entries — and more fingering numbers — than a trumpet chart. But it could still be SIMPLE.

My first idea was to have my chart look something like this, very similar to the trumpet chart shown above:

            

I like it a lot — it is easy to understand and occupies very little space. The very definition of elegant and simple. (Note: I have chosen to use actual pitch for the notes, as is common in chord-melody methods.)

However, there is an equally elegant, though less space-efficient, way to present the same information. And it has the advantage of centuries of tradition, so it will be instantly understandable to any banjoist. It is, of course, tablature:

F note with F major chord and tablature            F note with G7 chord and tablature

(Another advantage of tablature is that is easy to create in my music-editing program, Finale.)

A practical application: I am presently learning “Oh, Susanna” in C major, from Tim Allan’s Notebook, pp. 22-23. It is a simple chord-melody version of the tune in two octaves, and Tim very sensibly starts out with a list of all the versions of the four chords used (C, F, G7 and Am), including some short “etudes” to practice the chord inversions. All the C chords come together, then an etude, then F and an etude, and so on.

I wouldn’t change a thing about Tim’s presentation, which is perfect for what he is teaching. But if I were going to write the absolute beginner’s banjo method described above, perhaps I would print something like the following at the beginning of the book:

Fingering chart for Tim Allan's

(You can click on the above image to get a nicer PDF version.) By the way, I added a few chords that were not in Tim’s listing.

Of course the above chart is just for one piece, “Oh, Susanna”. A complete chart for an entire book would include more chords. Over the next few weeks I will experiment with this format to see if it is at all useful, adding new (basic) melody chords as I come across them.

Okay, you ask, so what’s the innovation? Well, in fact, I would not be surprised to find out that someone else has already done exactly the same thing as I have described here. But if they haven’t, I guess my new twist is the idea of making a reference list of melody chords in chromatic order, with no attempt at including anything other than fingering. I know this is an anti-intellectual approach, but, remember, it is only for beginners.

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