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Customer Review

95 of 100 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Great read. Tough for beginners., December 29, 2003
By A Customer
This review is from: How To Play The 5-String Banjo (Paperback)
So, there I was. A thirty-something workaholic looking for a new hobby to unwind a bit, but with very little in the way of musical experience. Nonetheless, inspired by a local Allison Kraus concert, I found a hot deal on a great used banjo on E-bay and I was off and running! What fun! I'm hooked on the 5-string twang!! About 3 months or so at 30-minutes a day (give or take) and I can play well enough to entertain myself - and my wife and the cat can at least stay in the same room!

Not many banjo instructors in New England, so I thought I'd go in for a few good teach-yourself manuals. I bought four. In order of usefulness they were - Revised Banjo Primer by Geoff Hohwald - First Lessons Banjo by Jack Hatfied - How to Play the 5-string Banjo by Pete Seeger - How to Play Banjo by Tim Jumper.
The Banjo Primer was the best of the lot. I was able to make good progress with about 30 minutes practice each day. The instructions were clear and the tunes were fun to play (Cripple Creek, Boil 'em Cabbage Down, Worried Man Blues). It was VERY helpful that the book came with a CD. Some lessons I just couldn't get until I heard them played, then they came easily. Each lesson is played at three speeds, but I've pretty much given up EVER matching the insanely fast top speed.
First Lessons was next best. It also came with a useful CD with multiple speeds and I think I've at least got a shot at the top speed. It also includes tracks with only the backup musicians so you can jam on your own (I haven't reached that point yet). The choice of music wasn't as good - the intro claims that well-known songs are easier to learn, but I found them to be cliche and boring (Tom Dooley, Old Time Religion, Good Night Ladies). It was much more fun to learn a song I didn't know and finding myself actually playing something that sounds like bluegrass after the long struggle!
Both books cover roughly the same techniques and both focus exclusively on Scruggs Style picking (all plucking, almost no chord strumming). It's turning into my favorite style. But my goal is to play well enough to sit in on a local bluegrass jam, so I've also started to learn other styles (e.g. frailing) that will let me strum on chords in the background to build confidence. For that I need other books, but so far I haven't found a good one.
By all accounts, Pete Seeger's book seems to be the classic in the field. It started as a set of hand copied notes and it really is lots of fun to read. I hope that once I improve a bit more I'll be able to get more out of it. My guess is that its the book you'd want if you already had a community of pickers around to lend advice and guidance. As a teach-yourself manual though, I'm finding it tough going.
How to Play Banjo is the worst of the lot. To my untrained eye it seems more like a guitar book than a bluegrass banjo book. The focus is on chords and strumming (which is good for my next step I suppose), but it's just boring. The instruction is minimal and the music uninteresting, at least to me. I tried several times to get into it but found myself quickly going back to the other manuals when I realized I was no longer looking forward to my practice times. I finally threw in the towel on this one when I used it to try to learn "frailing". I like to think I'm a smart guy, but I just didn't get it. And I don't think it was me. Maybe if it came with a CD that I could listen to I could work it out. I'm now in the market for an alternative, but in the meantime I'll keep pickin' with the Scruggs Style.
One last bit of advice. I highly recommend getting at least two books. I found myself much more motivated jumping back and forth between the Primer and First Lessons - when one got too hard or too boring, I'd work on the other for a few days. A great trick to keep from getting stuck. I'm in the market for some "intermediate" books next and I'll probably take the same approach.
Happy Picking!!
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jan 28, 2014 4:06:55 AM PST
jpdcusa says:
Now, I understand why I never made much progress on the instrument. I got this book and a used 5-string when I was in high school in the '60s and had the same frustrating experience. I always thought it was just me.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 15, 2014 4:36:49 AM PST
Paul D. Race says:
Thanks to the reviewer above for saying more than just "this book sucks." I learned out of this book, and it's still my favorite because it covers so many different styles. I was more interested in learning Pete Seeger's style of playing than Earl Scruggs (durned hippie that I was), and this book did the job, "homey stories," and hand-drawn tabs and all. But it also explained a little about Scruggs picking as well. Most books today focus on Scruggs picking ONLY, which is better if you're only interested in Bluegrass. (That's what the people whining about needing JUST G tuning are really trying to say - this book doesn't meet their core need as well as some of those that have been published since.) So if you want to learn Bluegrass specifically, find another book to get started. If you want to learn several ways of playing the banjo, come back to this one, and it will show you things no other banjo book shows.

- Paul Race, Creek Don't Rise
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