My big chord list

As anyone who reads more than a post or two of this blog knows, I like to make documents: lists, exercises, whatever. There’s something about making a beautiful document that gives me almost as much satisfaction as playing. Maybe it’s because I’ve done so much playing already. In my career as a symphony trumpeter I performed a couple of thousand concerts and have nothing but memories and a few bad recordings. The music just vanishes into the ether. I know that’s part of music’s charm β€” up with live music! β€” but I do occasionally like to have something physical to hold in my hand after the work is done.

The crowning jewel of my recent efforts is my big tenor-banjo chord collection. I’ve been working on it for years (literally) and don’t ever expect to finish. πŸ™‚ I decided to keep it in an all-text format for reasons of compactness and ease of updating. Here’s an excerpt of what it looks like in its current edition:

excerpt from Tenor banjo chords

Click here or on the picture to download a high-quality PDF of this masterpiece. (The link will take you to, where you then need to click on “Tenor banjo chord list”.) I’d love to hear your opinion of it. Remember, this is my life’s work, so if you think it’s crap, be gentle. πŸ™‚

Finger-independence exercise

When playing scales and other music, I’ve noticed thatΒ after an open note I often find myself fingering the wrong string because my fingertips have lost contact with the banjo. To avoid this, I find it helpful to place a finger in advance, before I need it. This helps me to keep my place on the fingerboard. For example, the two small notes in this example (A and F) are fingered where notated, but not played until two notes later:

2016-03-19 blog post (placing fingers in advance)

For this reason β€” and many others β€” I see that is is necessary to be able to move each finger from string to string independently, without moving the other fingers at all. (Otherwise they might bend a little and cause the other strings to buzz.) So I (who love to create exercises) have created “Finger-independence exercise (1)”. (It is number “(1)” because I expect I’ll be creating more finger-independence exercises in the future….) When I practice it, first I place all four fingers on a single string in a straight line. I then move one finger from string to string, trying fanatically not to move my other fingers at all. If I feel one of them touching another string, I consider that a mortal sin. I also try to keep all four fingers right behind their respective frets, not allowing them to slide up or down the string.

Of course, such perfectionist study is extremely demanding and shouldn’t be continued too long. I never do this exercise more for than 10 minutes at a time.

Anyway, here it is, for anyone who is interested. Click here or on the image to download a high-quality version in PDF format. (It will take you to a web page where you have to choose “Finger-independence exercise (1)”.)

2016-03-19 Finger-independence exercise (1)

Practicing chord changes

I’ve been planning on starting a Dixieland jazz combo for years, plans which were underway even before I had to stop playing the trumpet. In fact, the reason I chose the tenor banjo was because I still wanted to participate in this (still theoretical) group.

There’s another reason I wanted to play the banjo: Some years ago, while my trumpet chops were still working, I ran a jazz combo (regular jazz standards, not Dixieland) in my spare time. We were starting to get gigs, mostly weddings, and we could have gotten more. It was a lot of fun! But one thing ruined it for me: It was often almost impossible to find a decent jazz pianist to play with us. They do exist in Seville, but they are all inundated with work. Every gig was a crisis for me, as I had to search high and low for a piano player who was free. Most of our personnel stayed the same from gig to gig, but the pianist was always changing. It was a nightmare.

So if I can play the chordal/rhythm instrument myself, that problem is no more.

In a few weeks I hope to start getting musicians together and finally get the group underway. (Here in Seville there is no point in trying to do anything musical until Easter, as all the wind musicians are busy accompanying the Holy Week processions.) I am using the time to prepare the technique I’ll need for the Dixieland group. The tenor banjo can do lots of types of music β€” chord melody, song accompaniment, even classical music β€” but what I really need now is chordal accompaniment for a band. Trouble is, I’m not very good at it because I am slow at changing chords. (It’s amazing how quickly and smoothly a good player can run through the most difficult changes. Not me, though!) So I’m trying to work out how to improve this. Here’s my tentative system for practicing chord changes, adapted from the way I used to practice hard stuff on the trumpet:

1. I take a new piece, for example “St. Louis Blues”. The version I have starts like this:

St Louis Blues (beginning, for blog) - 1

2. I try out various inversions of each chord and decide which ones I am going to use. I then write them above each chord. The inversion is identified by the soprano note. So, for example, a “V” over a Gm chord means to use the inversion that has the fifth (in this case, a D) on the first string.

St Louis Blues (beginning, for blog) - 2

3. I try playing the chords. When there is a chord change I find difficult (pretty much all of them at this point!), I write a big “X” before the change:

St Louis Blues (beginning, for blog) - 3

4. I then practice ONLY the difficult changes, with the metronome on a very slow tempo, typically quarter note = 40. (Well, okay, from time to time I do allow myself to play ALL the chords, but only occasionally. I try to spend 90% of my time on the difficult ones.) So I do Gm (V) to Cm (III) a few dozen times, then Cm (III) to D7 (I), and so on to the end of the piece. I try to let the first of the two chords ring as long as I can before moving my left hand. Not easy! Is there a trick to this?Β  πŸ™‚

5. Little by little, over the course of several days or weeks, I speed up the metronome, one click at a time.

Let’s see if this system works! If anybody reading this has any suggestions, I’d love to hear them. I really need to get better at this….

Nut-position scales

I had terrible handwriting when I was a kid, but I always wanted to make nice-looking documents. When I learned to type in about 1969, it was a revolution for me. I could finally make beautiful documents (well, beautiful within the aesthetic possibilities of a mechanical typewriter). This was deeply satisfying for me.

When I bought a copy of Finale (the music-notation computer program), I was similarly thrilled. Even when all I am making is a practice sheet for my own use, I like to do it in Finale, just because the results can be so beautiful. (Of course there are other great music-notation programs. Finale just happens to be the one I use.) And if the music is actually something I will be using a lot, it is probably worth the effort to do it on the computer instead of writing it out by hand. (For those of you who haven’t used a music-notation program, I should explain that writing music by hand is generally faster than doing it on the computer, but the latter has a lot of other advantages, like high-quality output, easy error correction, the ability to hear what you’ve written, etc.)

Since I started the banjo, I also have found it fundamental to be able to make high-quality chord diagrams. (The program I use is Neck Diagrams, available at I often combine music from Finale and chord diagrams from Neck Diagrams in the same document.

My latest masterwork is a practice sheet of major scales. As a trumpet player I was β€” naturally β€” more comfortable with scales than with chords, and I still like scales. I don’t feel in control of an instrument if I can’t play the major scales in ALL keys. The confusing thing for me on the banjo, as opposed to the trumpet, is that there are several ways to finger most notes. This means that there are lots and lots and LOTS of ways to do even the simplest scale. If, for example, I want to play this one-octave C major scale:

One-octave C major scale

all of the following β€” and many more β€” will give it to you:

One-octave C major (many versions)

I calculate that there are exactly 4,374 ways to play this one simple 8-note scale on the tenor banjo. So how to decide which to use? One could rely on books and expert advice, but banjo scales are not as standardized as, say, violoncello scales, so each expert says something different. Or one could copy the fingerings from the cello, which is a very similar instrument to the banjo in many ways … but its fingerings don’t always adapt well to the banjo, especially in the cello’s “thumb position”.

In the end I decided that, at least for now, I would use the scales that stay as close to the nut as possible. They are certainly not the most comfortable of fingerings, and I know that in the future I will learn more elegant versions, but for now at least I have a complete set to practice. Here are all 17 of the two-octave scales on the tenor banjo, as I have arranged them:

Major scales - 2 octaves - nut position
You can see they fall into groups, depending on what fret you start on.

I practice them slowly every day, just to help me feel “right” on the banjo. I really don’t expect to need B major or Gb major any time soon, but being able to play them makes me feel more at home on the instrument.

You can see a nicer version of these scales, including a few scale and arpeggio exercises, at my banjo web page,; look for “Major scales (nut position)”.

My practice spreadsheet

Hi everybody! Believe it or not, I have not quit the banjo, though I did quit blogging for a while. As usual, real life intruded and I couldn’t practice regularly, but I never completely stopped. Now I’ve got a bit more time.

I’m afraid I am something of a spreadsheet fanatic. I use them for just about everything. Okay, I don’t have a spreadsheet listing my favorite spreadsheets, but almost. I do have, for example, a spreadsheet for all the light bulbs in our home. Is that fanatical or what? (To be fair, we have something like 36 different kinds of light bulbs in our little house.)

Spreadsheet fanaticism probably doesn’t seem very compatible with music-making, but I have always (in my trumpet years) kept records of my practice. (Good organization makes up for a lack of genius….) So now I maintain a spreadsheet called “BanjoPrax.xlsx” to manage my progress and future plans. I am trying to learn several different aspects of the banjo simultaneously, and the spreadsheet helps me to keep track. Here’s an example of a few days’ practice: practice_spreadsheetI wouldn’t be without it.