Frequently Asked Questions
Q - In what order should you go through the DVDs?
A - This is probably the question we get the most often. For the answer, we'll refer you to two blogs Murphy wrote on the subject. The first one is called "Beginning Banjo Track" and the second one is called "Intermediate Banjo Track" (just click on those titles to go to the posts.
Q - How fast should I go through the lessons?
A - Once again we'll refer you to the blog, because the answer is already written out nicely and concisely: "How Fast Should I Move Through The Lessons."
Q - Do I have to be able to play a song up to tempo before moving on to the next song?
A - Absolutely not! And here is the relevent blot post on that topic: "The Issue of Speed."
Q - I am a struggling beginner on the 5-string banjo. I have been trying to play for over a year and a half and seem to have hit a wall. I am having trouble with the rolls. I have many of your tapes and you seem to focus on the chords. Surprisingly, the chords have not seemed to be an issue for me. I am not to a point that I can play with other musicians yet, but I would like to. I have tried and do not seem to know what to do to play along. I have no idea what roll to use to make it sound right with the song being played. I just ordered your Vamping DVD, with the hope that I will at least be able to sit around the camp fire on the beach this summer and play along. –Struggling in Maryland
A - Good to hear from one of my students. I'm really sorry to hear that you have hit a wall. That's no fun! Before I try to give you an answer, can you give me some more info. I'm not quite understanding where you are. Can you tell me what songs you have learned from our DVDs. How much do you practice? I'm a little confused when you say our tapes seem to focus on the chords. To my mind, they focus on the rolls and how to put the various rolls together to make songs. So say more about that.
Q - Murphy, First of all, thanks for responding. What I mean to say is that the camera is on your left hand while you explain the rolls. I guess I don’t put the two together very well. I understand the theory of the rolls and that they go together to form songs. I guess I am missing a few links in the chain. I do use tablature right now. I recently decided to go back in order to go forward. I am focusing on practicing the rolls and working through the chords until I can smoothly do that. I found that to get pretty boring in the past and started to try to play easy songs from yours and others DVDs.
A - I'm going to be blunt here, because you seem quite frustrated with where you are with your banjo playing. You do NOT have brain damage! You're just going about your learning in the wrong way.
Q -If you had to learn all by yourself and had no teacher to play with, what would be your approach? That is my situation. I wish I lived close enough to take lessons but alas, I don't. Folks around here all play a mean Cripple Creek but are not much interested in the Melodic style (Keith, Trischka, Tony Ellis). I am struggling through some tab books and enjoying it pretty much. I play a lot of my own tunes, which are very melodic and up the neck. Any recommendations from you on course books? Thank you, Thom
A - Since I don't learn well from books (and strongly advocate against learning from tab) I would find all the albums I could with the style of playing I wanted to learn and slow them down on my turntable (or CDs and slow them down with Transkriber...same difference). I would find any festival I could get to within driving distance and go to it and pick with as many people as I could there, coming home inspired and studying up on as much as I could in between times. I might seek out some camps where the players that I like are teaching. (I know Bill Keith will be at Banjo Camp North.) If it's your own tunes you want to play then you certainly don't need any instruction for that. Just find another willing musician, teach them the tunes, and pick away!
Q - I have noticed many good banjo players fretting the fifth string with their thumbs while playing up the neck. I have many of your videos and some others as well, but have never seen this technique addressed. I have tried it many times and always get a thud on the fifth string. Can you reveal the secret and explain how it is done, please? -William
A - There is not really a secret. You just hook your thumb over the top of the neck. It does take some practice to get a clean sound, though. It's a technique used mainly in back-up and is a fairly advanced skill. You don't mention what level of playing you are at, but I wouldn't try to work on the thumb thing unless you've been playing for four or five years at least. We will soon have a DVD addressing the subject of backup, which will teach the thumb-over-the-neck technique, so keep an eye out for that!
Q - I'm thinking about trying to learn upright bass and saw that you guys had a couple of DVD's on it. Do I need to know anything about the upright before buying them? How far can they take me? I can already read bass clef due to some previous piano experience. -David
A - You don't need to know anything at all about bass to use the beginning DVD. It starts you right at the beginning, assuming you've never picked up a bass before. They can take you all the way to playing a killer slap-bass solo!
Q - I have been a Murphy Method student for about 8 months. I have had excellent results with it! My question is about my thumb pick method. Your mom says in her first video to keep thumb straight, hit string, then pick comes to rest on string below the one you struck. I do all of that except after hitting the string my pick stops half way between the strings, and sometimes lifts up slightly. Is this a big deal? Should I be working to correct this, because it may take me a lot of time to learn to do it the way your mom does it. I know bass players strike a string with a finger and their finger comes to rest against the string above. Kind of like this thumb pick method except in the opposite direction. What are your feelings on this? - Paul.
A - In the flow of playing your thumb pick won't come to rest on the string below it--things just go too fast for that. Murphy was trying to make the point that you should think of picking down through the string toward the floor, rather than picking out away from the banjo head. If you are tuning, and picking the strings individually, you should be able to rest your pick on the string below. But as long as your thumb is going down and not out, you'll be fine.
Q - Are you partial to Stelling or does Gibson or one of the others suit you also?? I am a 30 year beginner and just now starting to get into the practice once again and I would like to know if the speed ever comes along? Practice, practice, and more practice I suppose!! Ralph -Greenfield Indiana
A - Both my Gibson and my Stelling are great banjos. I've had the Stelling modified to be lighter (it has a wooden tone ring), so it is not so hard on my back. Each sounds completely different but I like them equally. When I had the Stelling made (it's a Murphy Flower) I had Geoff Stelling copy my Gibson neck because it had an arched (radiused) fingerboard. I really like the arched fingerboard!
Q - What should a person look for in a banjo when purchasing one: the kinds of woods used/gauge strings etc. for the type of playing?
A - What to look for in a banjo depends on what level of instrument you need. There are many different brands of beginner-level instruments that can be found at local music stores or pawn shops. You should just make sure that the strings are not really high off the neck. When looking for a professional-level instrument, it is important to play a bunch of different banjos to see what is out there and see what you like. The common woods used in banjos are maple, walnut, and mahogany and each has a little different sound. Again, the only way to tell which you prefer is to try them all out.
Q - Hi Murphy, I am going through your Beginning Mandolin DVD. I am enjoying it. I have had some advice from an instructor who gave us an exercise on keeping our fingers down, stretching he called it on the same string. He had us putting our index finger on second fret, 4th string, then ring finger on the 5th fret, 4th string, followed by middle finger on the 4th fret, 4th string, and finally the pinky on the 7th fret, 4th string all the while keeping your index finger anchored at the 2nd fret. And you move up a string and do the same thing. How important is it to keep those fingers down like that? Especially on the same string. You emphasis keeping your fingers close to the fret board, which I do. If you think it's a good exercise I will continue with it. Susan - Colorado Springs, CO
A - I'm not a big fan of exercises because I don't like doing them myself, however, they usually do work and this one will probably make your fingers stronger and more used to stretching the distance they need to stretch. It certainly won't hurt anything and if you see improvement in the way you can use your left hand then by all means continue it.
Q - In listening to songs on the radio and Cable Music channels I hear the banjo player playing various rolls instead of vamping. Do you have on any of your tapes examples of this type of backup technique? I really like your method of teaching as I have always preferred to see it done right and then imitate that. Thanks, Greg
A - We will soon (if we don't already--depending on when you're reading this) have a DVD specifically on backup. Although it will mostly focus on up-the-neck backup, there will be some down-the-neck backup as well. However, until you get that, there are several different things that will help you on your way to being able to back up songs with rolls. First you have to be able to vamp (see Vamping). Next you absolutely have to be able to hear the chord changes (see Learning to Hear Chord Changes if you have trouble with this). And you have to be able to improvise (see Improvising). If you can do all these things then you'll have the necessary skills to roll behind songs.
Q - I am trying to learn the banjo from your DVD and am stumped when I try to change cords. My left hand fingers seem to mash two strings and it always turns out sounding bad. I was told to cut my fingernails very short but I still hit the next string over. Is it in how my hand and fingers are positioned? Do you have any suggestions since I am getting discouraged now. -Jim
A - Hitting two strings when you're only trying to fret one is a very common problem for beginners. Left hand position is a matter of very, very small adjustments. Try and adjust your chord one finger at a time to figure out exactly what it will feel like to make the chord cleanly. Do that repeatedly. Each time you'll be able to do it a little quicker. Then practice picking up your chord and putting it back down exactly the same way over and over again. With a little work you'll be able to clean up your chords. Don't get discouraged!
Q - In the 70s and 80s, I played banjo moderately well. Retiring from the Marine Corps in '81, I rapidly became embroiled in working for a living and the travel plus time required to excel caused me to drop music. It has now been more than 20 years since I have consistently played and as I try to resume, I find that the pain in the finger tips of my fretting hand is severe. The toughness has long ago left. Any suggestions? -Ron
A - Unfortunately, left hand pain is just something you have to soldier through (no pun intended). There is no shortcut for building up your calluses. The first few days are agony and then it gradually diminishes as your fingertips get tougher. I have heard of some people using superglue on their fingertips to help, but I've no experience with that method myself. Now, if this is something other than needing to build up calluses--like a medical kind of pain--be sure to see a doctor!
Q - I am currently working with your "Beginning Banjo Vol. 1". My progress is slow but I am learning. At age 76, sometimes my fingers don't want to bend on the frets!! I just watched your clip on "Clawhammer Banjo". I am wondering if Clawhammer is easier to learn? My goal is to learn some gospel tunes on a banjo. Note that I play 99% of the time alone. I must learn from books and CD/DVDs. In your Vol. 1 I am now working on "Cumberland Gap". I am gaining speed on "Banjo in The Hollow" and "Cripple Creek". So what do you think?? I always appreciate your comments and help. I feel pushed for time!! -Bruce
A -Some people find clawhammer easier to learn, some people are more comfortable with Scruggs style. Clawhammer is definitely better to sing along with, and sometimes more fun if you play mostly by yourself, as you do. It definitely requires less right hand dexterity...left hand is about the same. You'd probably have to try it to see whether it would suit you. If you're wanting to sing the gospel songs along with the banjo, it may be the way to go.
Q - Hi Murphy, at our local jams, there are a lot of folks that play waltz time tunes. What advice do you have to help me along? There are not a lot of waltzes on the first few of your videos. Is there a possibility of a banjo waltz video? Steve
A - Playing waltzes on the banjo is not too common. The first thing to learn, which will enable you to play along in a jam, is how to vamp to a waltz. (You vamp on beats 2 and 3: rest, vamp, vamp/ rest, vamp, vamp.) One waltz ("Amazing Grace") is on our Amazing Grace Gospel Banjo DVD and that might give you a good idea of how to approach it.
Q - I really like the way Murphy plays and teaches 'Amazing Grace' - I am talking particularly about the 'waltz pinch'....and chordal playing of the song. (I hope I am making sense with my thoughts on this.) My question for you: Do you and your Mom play other waltz songs in that style - for example, would it sound right to play a waltz such as 'Paradise' .... or 'In The Pines' ...or 'Clementine'.... or 'On Top Of Old Smoky'.... will those kinds of songs sound ok with that type of waltz pinch or is there something special like tempo or melody that makes 'Amazing Grace' work well with that style and other waltzes might not work? Thank you, Phil (Katy, TX)
A - Hi Phil, Short answer: almost any song in 3/4 (waltz) time will work well with what you're calling the "waltz pinch and chordal playing." That's as good a way to describe it as I can think of! (Banjo playing is often hampered by lack of terms to describe stuff!) "In The Pines" is particularly good, as is "White Dove." I think a song like "Paradise" which if not done in 4/4 is done in a FAST 3/4 (perhaps better described as 6/8? Have to ask Janet Davis!!!!) don't work as well with this style of playing. The rhythm is just too fast. Also "Old Smoky" I don't "hear" working very well. Could be wrong. It's got too many long pauses. But true waltzes--like “Tennessee Waltz” and “Kentucky Waltz”--should work well. They're harder because of more chords. Also something like “Faded Love” works "chordaly" even though it's not in waltz time.
Q - Hi folks, I'm ready to get started on this guitar journey. I noticed that you recommended an electronic tuner. Can you recommend a particular brand? I skipped ahead on the Bluegrass Runs for Guitar Vol. 2 just to see where we are going and caught the one liner about fingerpicking. Will you be offering any instruction at anytime on the finger picking style? One more: for flatpickers, is the crosspicking the replacement for fingerpicking? In many songs, it sounds as if it would be preferable to have that multiple string sound. Thank you for your time. The videos are great!
A - There are lots of good brands of electronic tuners that work fine. The brand I personally have always favored is Korg. But there are many others that are just as good. And I personally prefer the ones that have a needle that points to the middle, as opposed to a digital readout. Don't buy anything too cheap! You'll probably want to pay thirty or forty dollars.
We don't have plans for a fingerpicking DVD in the near future. Bluegrass flatpickers more often use crosspicking, which is not really a substitute for fingerpicking, just a different technique. Earl Scruggs, of course, was and is a great fingerpicker on the guitar. Who knows...maybe we'll do a DVD on that one day! Thanks for your questions and good luck with your playing!
Q - I wondered if there may ever be any info on Banjo Picks. When I started banjo I used regular picks but found them alien to my fingers, which is normal since they were not there when I was born. Anyway, I bought some Ernie Ball picks and they felt better. Hand position gave me fits for about a year also. A lot of my banjo problems may stem from the fact that I have never met another person who played a Banjo. When I bought mine, I bought all they had at the store. I have never even physically seen another banjo other than the two I own. I have been playing for five years. I use no tab anymore. Only your Method, Murphy. My daughter wants to play some banjo. She asked me for a mandolin also. If I tell her wrong then I have done her a dis-service. She is eleven. Problem is that I am afraid to tell her much about picks. Need some help...... Jesse in Illinois
A - Hey Jesse, For now, a short answer. Mostly everyone finds picks alien to their fingers for the very reason described! But by using them regularly, you get used to them, so they feel "normal". As you've probably found out. I don't personally favor the Ernie Ball picks because I don't like the tone they give. Too thin for my ears. So I usually steer my students away from them. However, if they are working for you, don't change!!!!!
Q - I learned 5-string from your videos on the late 90's. Alas, I've learned that it's an instrument you have to keep up with; picking it up after years in the case - it was like wrapping my hand around an unfamiliar tree branch. So it back to the (now DVDs) again.
A - Hi John, both Murphy and I use Dunlop fingerpicks, gauge .025 (the heaviest gauge). I learned to play using them, so they feel totally natural to me. We do keep them bent back over our fingertips significantly. With light picks you can't play as hard, and therefore can't play as loudly, as with heavy picks. My feeling is that if you just start using them, and use them all the time whenever you play, you'll get used to them in a couple of weeks. I never recommend those little pointy picks because you can't get very good tone with them--there is just not enough surface there to connect with the string.
Q - Murphy, if you only pluck the first 3 strings while vamping up the neck, why do you need to hold the full,four finger chord? Thanks, MollyJo
Q - Dear Murphy, I have been interested in bluegrass music for a long time. I love to listen and sing along, but I can't play an instrument. I've always wanted too. There always seems to be some excuse not too. I see you have teaching DVDs but I was wondering about lessons. I'm a total beginner. I own no instruments either. Could you maybe point me in the right direction? Are you up for lessons? Are they expensive? I know your time is well worth the expense just on a budget, but will find a way because I am crazy excited to learn how to play. Yay!!!! Where's the best place to find used instruments...that will fit me. I seriously know zilch about this stuff.....just love music... Sincerely, Nicole, Winchester, VA
A - Hi Nicole, Thanks for contacting us. Murphy teaches lessons in Winchester, VA, and I teach in Nashville, TN. There are also some other sites that are good resources for finding a teacher in your area, including banjohangout.org. You can generally expect to spend $60-$100 a month for lessons in person. Our DVDs, however, are a great way to start and they can get you going from the very beginning. As far as an instrument goes, local music stores and pawn shops are sometimes good places to find a used or cheap banjo. Banjos in general are not that cheap, so you can expect to spend a few hundred dollars to get a decent beginning instrument. If you want to get something that will definitely be a quality instrument, I always recommend a Deering Goodtime banjo. They are well made but reasonably priced instruments. Ebay is also a good resource. Good luck in your banjo journey! -Casey