Banjo Newsletter

March 2006: Learning To Hear Chord Changes
By Murphy Henry

First, a small diversion. You can blame Alison Brown. She gave Casey a copy of this book called Outlander. Casey passed it on to me, and I passed it on to Red's banjo-picking uncle John Hedgecoth. The novel is set in the Highlands of Scotland in the mid-1700s. (The fact that the 1700s are called the 18th century drives me bonkers. If it starts with "17" it seems like it should be called the "17th century.") Anyhow Casey and John and I got majorly hooked on the Outlander series (six books so far) so we thought we should take a family trip to Scotland.

Long story short: We decided to go in August and then, lo and behold, we found out there is bluegrass festival in Scotland that very month! To bring an end to this tedious tale, we are going to be playing at the festival! The whole Red and Murphy Band, along with Casey and Chris and Uncle John. It's the 20th Annual Guildtown Bluegrass Festival. Guildtown is six miles north of Perth which is a few miles north of Edinburgh (pronounced something like "Edin-burra") which is somewhere above England. Y'all come!

Now, back to banjos.

For many people, hearing chord changes is the hardest part of learning to play the banjo. Yet it is the essential ingredient for jamming. If you can change chords, you can jam all night without ever playing one lead on the banjo.

Some people have no trouble hearing chord changes. They just hear 'em. Good for them. Bless their hearts. Whoop tee do. I'm not talking to them.

You can learn to hear chord changes. It's not a mystical talent you're born with. This month's column is devoted to those of you who are having trouble hearing chord changes. I propose to make this a year-long project. I'll try to keep up my end by presenting a new song each month. I'd like for you to keep up your end by undertaking to learn that song.

Of course we will be doing this BY EAR. So don't write anything down! You might be able to learn to play some songs from tab, but you can't learn to hear chord changes except by using your ear. You can, however, write the words down. Which is actually a good idea. If you're so inclined, you might start a song notebook.

We will focus on singing songs. Words give us something to hang on to, something to attach a melody to, something we can talk about. And we are going to use simple songs that you already know. This is another crucial point. You learn chord changes based on the melody in your mind. It's the overall sound of the song that determines what the chords are.

We're not going to be talking about theory. No theory. You're just going to be strumming the song over and over and singing it or humming it or even just listening to it in your head.

To begin with we are going to use songs that have only two chords. That's right, just two chords. G and D. Or more specifically, D-7, which is way easier to make on the banjo. G chord is open, nothing fretted. D-7, well, I'll have to tell you how to make that one. If we were face to face, I'd just show you. D-7: index finger, first fret second string; middle finger, second fret third string. (Arrrgh, I hate writing that down!) As you can see, we're not going to be using the four-finger vamp chords. Those are good for vamping, not for learning to hear chord changes.

We are going to be doing a simple strum. No picking. Just strumming with your bare thumb or your thumbpick across all five banjo strings.

Having covered the mechanics, let me say this. There is no magic formula to learning to hear chord changes. From the beginning it's all trial and error. I repeat: trial and error; hunt and peck. Everyone who learned to play bluegrass, country, or folk music, myself included, started off just like you're starting now: guessing where the chords change. You try a chord and if it's right, great. If it's wrong, try something else. If you get lost, go back to the beginning and start again. We've all done it, including the getting lost and having to start over.

And how do you know if you've found the right chord? There's only one rule: IF IT SOUNDS WRONG, IT IS WRONG.

I'm gonna make it easier by suggesting which songs to try and by telling you which chords we are going to use. But I won't be telling you where to make the changes!

Okay. Our first song will be Skip To My Lou. Here are all the words you need to get started. This is the first verse:

Lost my part-ner
What'll I do
Lost my part-ner
What'll I do
Lost my part-ner
What'll I do
Skip to my Lou my

Now here it gets tricky, not because it's hard, but because I'm trying to do on paper what is so much easier to do by ear.

On this song, you start strumming on the first word. (There are no "pickup notes." More on that next month!) Every syllable in that first line gets a banjo strum using a G chord. That's why I hyphenated the word "part-ner". "Part" get a strum; "ner" gets a strum. So the whole first line, "lost my part-ner," gets four strums. Four equal and even G strums.

The next line also get four strums, but it only has three syllables: "what'll-I-do." So the word "do" gets two strums. Or you can think of it as an extra strum after the word "do." So already you can see syllables don't necessarily equal strums. One syllable per strum is not a rule! And looking ahead, on that last line, "Dar-ling," "dar" will get two strums, and "ling" will get two strums. Again, four strums. (Oh! Every line gets four strums? Isn't that clever?)

That's all you get for a nickel. The chorus and rest of the verses all have the same chords. (Check the internet for more verses. Copy them into your songbook.)

Now put the magazine down, get your banjo out, and start strumming a G chord and singing Skip To My Lou. Strumming the chord should automatically give you a sense of which note to start singing on. It's the B note-open second string-if that helps. When the strumming starts sounding wrong, change chords! When that chord starts sounding wrong, change back! And so it goes, all the way through the song. And if you want to hear what "wrong" really sounds like, strum G chord all the way through the song! Note: If you're not singing or hearing something in your head, this won't work! It will be meaningless noise. And remember, you don't have to have a good voice.

This whole month I want you to keep Skip To My Lou in your head. Think about it--lots. Hum it. Sing it. Memorize lots of verses. Just having it on your mind will help. Let me know how you're doing or if you have questions or comments. Email: Put "chord changes" in the subject line so I won't delete you. And tune in next month for Polly Wolly Doodle.