Teach my pop to pick the banjo
July 30, 2010 11:37 AM   Subscribe

Clevelandfilter: Who gives good beginner banjo lessons in Cleveland?

A few years back, Dad's wife gave him a cheap, open-backed banjo. He's never played an instrument, but he loves the way banjo sounds. Problem is, he's never once picked it up. I'm out here visiting him now, and out of nowhere he asked if I'd give him a quick lesson, "Just tell me how to hold it and what to do with my fingers." I don't play banjo (guitar player here) but when I've visited him in the past, I've been able to fake a fingerpicking style on his poor unloved instrument that would have Clarence Ashley spinning in his grave -- but to my old man's untrained ears, sounded good. I don't want to teach him bad habits, though, so I want you to help me strategize about how to get him to pick the thing up, get over his fear of being a total novice at something, and start wailin on that thing.

He just moved to Cleveland, and I want to pay for him to take a lesson or three -- just enough time with a teacher so he learns how to hold it, basic chords, a little bit of theory, etc. I think once he's had a few hours with a tutor, he'll realize he likes it and it's not as hard as he feared, and he'll be off to the races.

So: What's a reasonable price for an hour-long lesson? Any bluegrass music stores in the area that I should visit while I'm here? What's the minimum number of hours of lessons he'll need before he'll take to it, assuming he's interested in playing, just daunted? Recommendations for great beginner's books (with tabulature, since he can't read music)? CDs or websites that a reasonably tech-savvy 60-year old would be able to make use of?

Thanks much. And if any of you plays banjo in the Cleveland area and would be interested in earning a few bucks and helping out my old man, MeMail me and let me know your schedule and rates.
posted by andromache to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (4 answers total)
I had been taking drum lessons when I moved to Cleveland, and my plan was to find a student at CIM to give me lessons. Of course, life got in the way and I never continued learning drums, but that would be the first place I would check if I were you. I imagine that many music students give lessons to make a little extra cash.
posted by amro at 12:04 PM on July 30, 2010

The first step is to figure out what style your dad's interested in. You mentioned Clarence Ashley, who played in the old-time 'clawhammer' or 'frailing' style, which is usually played on open back banjos.

There are those who like to argue over whether clawhammer (newer term) is a fancier form of frailing (older term), but don't worry about it.

The machine-gun rapid finger-picking style that most people think of when they hear the word "banjo" is variously called "bluegrass style", "3-finger style", or "Scruggs style" (if you want to get pedantic there are more subcategories, but "3-finger style banjo" you should be pretty well covered.) 3-finger banjo is usually played on resonator banjos.

Annoying purists will tell you that you must have a resonator banjo to play bluegrass, or an open back to play clawhammer which simply isn't true. Open back banjos tend to be quieter and mellower, and won't have the bluegrass sound. Conversely, resonator banjos can make clawhammer style tunes sound loud and harsh. But you can play whatever you like on whatever you've got.

The clawhammer and bluegrass styles are pretty different. The effort to reward ratio is way, way higher with clawhammer than bluegrass. I came to clawhammer banjo from guitar, and by the end of one lesson I was already playing something that sounded more or less like Cripple Creek. Within 6 months or so of regular playing, but not militant practicing, I sounded like I pretty much knew what I was doing.

In contrast: I took some 3-finger style lessons a couple of years later and very quickly discovered that getting that smooth, rapid sound requires literally thousands of hours of mind-numbingly boring practice to build up the required muscle memory. From the standpoint of just picking up the banjo and having fun with it, I always try to steer people to clawhammer unless they're really hardcore, obsessive bluegrass fans.

There's a searchable members directory at The Banjo Hangout where you might be able to find some teachers in the Cleveland area (you might need to create an account to search, I haven't been there in a while.)

RE: online resources, check out Patrick Costello's stuff at funkyseagull.com. (He's got a lot of clips on YouTube, for instance this Introductory clawhammer lesson. Actual how-to-play stuff starts around 16 minutes,) I really like his overall message, which is that this old-time/folk stuff is a living tradition and as such, you can stop worrying about "playing it right" because there's no one authoritative master version for a song like Cripple Creek. Know your roots, but don't be a slave to them. Just play the tunes and have fun.
posted by usonian at 12:56 PM on July 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

Hmm: tricky.

Pete Smakula closed Goose Acres in 2006 and passed away couple years ago. Greg Stiles passed away a couple of months ago, but Heights Guitars is still open, and as far as I know, still offering lessons. Maybe call Heights Guitars and ask about Pete Ambrosone, the banjo teacher.
"Professor Pete" has been playing and teaching banjo for the past 30 years and is currently in "The Crooked River Fire Brigade", a local/regional bluegrass band. Pete books lessons in banjo, (both Scruggs style and frailing/clawhammer style, often known as "mountain style" ) guitar ( Bluegrass flatpicking, Travis-style fingerpicking ), and Mandolin in the Bluegrass and old-time country styles. Pete's musical influences include Doc Watkins, Earl Scruggs, Bill Monroe and Chet Atkins.
posted by Herodios at 1:27 PM on July 30, 2010

Best answer: I'm over-using this response, but ask/search on Banjo Hangout.

I think Clarence Ashley mostly played two-finger, thumb lead style.
posted by scruss at 2:32 PM on July 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

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