Advice: How to work out songs by yourself

I've come across a lot of people who play Banjo really well but can't transcribe songs for them selves. Many have tried and failed, usually when they started playing, and since then have been convinced they don't have "the ear" for it. Thing is that 99% of them are wrong! If you can play a song from start to finish and know you haven't played a wrong note, or can tell if your Banjo is out of tune, then you have a good enough ear to work out simple to intermediate songs and beyond.

However I will agree that it doesn't come naturally to us all, and like our playing, it can take time to develop. It certainly took me several years of occasionally trying and to varying degrees failing before I was able to transcribe songs myself, and to help you speed up this process I am going to share some advice.

Only use your tuner once a week

No really. The first thing you need to develop is your hearing, the more you learn to focus on the sound of the strings of your Banjo the better your ear will get at hearing them, not to mention how much you'll impress your mates when you tune your Banjo by ear - that's how you spot a proper musician!

Learn the chords first

Never learn a song 1 bar at a time. Start off without the tab, get the songs chords from the internet and then simply strum along to the song working out where the chords change yourself getting a feel for the song as a whole. Learning to sing it will also when you come to play the songs melody. This will also make working out the notes much easier when you come to it.

Eventually try working out the chords for yourself. You may have already picked up on the fact that many songs, especially old Banjo tunes have very similar chords, for example G,C & D.

One issue with learning complicated songs is they often happen so fast, and this is where I'm gonna get all 21st century on you...

One thing that might stump you is key, ofter the first chord. Banjo players can use capos to adjust the pitch or movable chords. So if my first chord isn't G, I would move the chord up or down the fret board until I find the pitch. Once you have found that start chord you have a reference point and can use capo or play up the neck using F and D shaped chords. Remember at this point all we care about is learning the sequence.

Once you have the chord sequence down, try to hear if you are playing the correct shaped chords in the right position. This might not be apparent until you start to play rolls etc, and relies as much on your experience as a player then anything else, for example - If you have already learn't to play movable chords, you will be more likely to hear them in other peoples songs... Also look out for minor and 7th chords.

There are another couple of issues that might stump you. Firstly, the Banjo is not always tuned to G. With Bluegrass G is a pretty safe bet, but old mountain tunes often use modal tunings, C comes up a lot as does D, so I advise you to experiment with alternate tunings from time to time to give your ear some valuable reference points.

Secondly, and most annoyingly the recording might not be in tune. I had some trouble when I first started working out Obray Ramsey songs. He tunes his Banjo about a semi tone lower than open G, and I realized this because all the chord shapes I tried sounded too high.

Know your rolls and techniques

One thing that has helped me work out songs is knowing and practising my rolls, technique and scales. It's a fact that the more you familiar yourself with these fundamentals them the more you will hear them in the music you imitate. For example, as soon as I had worked out the chords for Down Beside The Ohio I quickly noticed he was playing a forward reverse Banjo roll for most of the song.

Using "Looping" and "Time stretch"

One issue with learning complicated songs is they often happen so fast, and this is where I'm gonna get all 21st century on you. There are several computer programs out there that can really help you. I use program called Sound Forge, which allows me to view a song as a pattern or sound wave. I can select chunks of the wave and loop it with ease, allowing we to hear the section again and again until I figure it out. I can choose which side of the stereo to listen to, which helps in situations where the banjo might be really clear on one of the two sides. Finally if I'm still struggling I can use something called time stretch, where I can reduce the speed of a song without adjusting the pitch, very handy for working out complicated or varying Banjo rolls or frails.

Sound Forge is quite expense, but there is a free version call Audacity, which has all the features I have mentioned.

Don't give up

Don't be disheartened if you can't work out a song, go try and find it on the internet and learn it, and play along with the recording, and continue to practice new and varied techniques, but most importantly try again and again because sooner or later penny's will start to drop :)

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I have been playing guitar for over 20 years, at first playing in indie bands, followed by a long stint playing rockabilly on the streets of Oxford, a short excursion into dance music, followed by looking at early blues styles. Now after a few years of listening to Dylan, Guthrie, and early Americana I find myself in possession of a banjo, and I'm addicted! Currently I play Banjo and Guitar in an Oxford based group called Swindlestock, you can hear our music our myspace page.

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