Miniseries #002, Playing By Ear III

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Miniseries #002, Playing By Ear III

Hi Everyone,

These next lessons are about playing by ear. Playing by ear means to play an instrument without the aid of musical notation or tablature. It relies purely on listening to something, then trying to play it.

For beginners, the first thing I would suggest is to have command of the basic Scruggs rolls of the the right hand, especially the forward, backward, alternating thumb, and forward/backward rolls. Also, it is important to understand, and be able to use "pinches". All of these techniques can be found in the very first beginner banjo section.

The second thing I would suggest, is to have a basic understanding of chords and the three basic chord formations, those being the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd string formations. These can also be found in the very first beginner lessons.

I think it helps tremendously to be able to sing, or even hum a song or tune, before you attempt to play by ear. Even if you can hum the song in your head, I think this will really help in your playing the banjo by ear.

It also helps to know the chord structure of the song you are trying to play. Try to pick very easy songs to begin with. You can learn the chords to most songs right here on the internet, or by other musicians, or in books.

Usually, for simple songs, you will be able to find the notes to the song you are trying to play, within the first five frets of the five string banjo.

Now, for the fun part! Hum the song very slowly. The notes you sing, or hum in your head, will be the "melody notes". Now sing or hum the very first note. Now, try to find that note on the banjo,"again, usually within the first five frets".Do this for the whole song, one note at a time, until you are playing on the banjo what you are singing or humming.

After you have found all the notes, now try putting any of the basic rolls, or pinches, around the melody notes. This will take some time, but by doing this, you will be playing more like yourself than anyone else, because you are choosing how you want the song to sound.

One last thing.....a very important thing.......remember to keep everything in time. Timing is everything!

Have fun all,


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In 2009, at the age of 60, I decided to learn to play the 5-string banjo. I searched the internet for lessons and struck gold when I found David Cavage's free banjo lessons at His video hosting site was having some serious problems at the time so I downloaded as many of the lessons as I could whenever they became available. stopped operating shortly afterwards and, sadly, is no more. I contacted David early 2020 and he told me he no longer had the original master videos and feared they may have been lost forever. This amazing course of free banjo lessons, from absolute beginner to advanced player, is too good to be forgotten, so this is my attempt to get David's work back out there again so that he can teach, inspire and spread the joy of banjo pickin' to more generations of budding musicians, just like he did with me. I've rounded up all the Moose stuff I could find and put it here, so start pickin' and enjoy!-------MooseHerder.