Rich writes:

I’ve been learning clawhammer, both by myself (with the Ken Perlman book and Bob Carlin tapes) and with some neighbors who I discovered are closet pickers. I’m very interested in bluegrass style as well. My wife has offered to get me your Beginning Bluegrass Banjo tape for Hanukkah, and I’m enthusiastic. I have two questions first, though. Since I’m relatively comfortable on the banjo, could I start here instead of “Get Rolling”?

Yes, you can skip “Get Rolling“, as it’s really just to get you started, though I have found that even people who’ve been playing for a while might still need work on making chord changes and keeping the rhythm going *in real time*, that is, with no hesitations, stops and starts. Get Rolling starts ultra-easy, with just strumming expected. The bar is raised when the viewer is expected to keep a roll going as they change chords. When it’s time to change chords, it’s time to change chords! No getting around that in the real world, and a play-along recording is sometimes an ideal way to instill that reality in a person before they start trying to play with others.

By this time, I have two good other play-along DVDs (“Bluegrass Jamming“, and “Bluegrass Slow Jam“) where a lot of full songs are done by a full band. I would recommend getting either or both of these, and learning to follow chords while rolling, along with the other backup ideas presented.

Secondly, I’ve gotten conflicting advice about trying to do both. Some people say it would be too confusing, others that it would slow down progress in both styles, while a third see them as complementary. What do you think? Is there an advantage or disadvantage to trying to learn both styles at the same time?

The three-finger Scruggs style is a challenge not to be underestimated. Fluency in it is pretty comparable to learning a foreign language fluently. A number of partly-unconscious systems have to work smoothly together, and it’s not just a “single pattern”, or a “memorization” thing. Real fluency, like what happens in a spontaneous spoken conversation, is necessary before a bluegrass banjo player is “there” as a competent player at the intermediate level.

Many people on that journey have opted out at some point, basically because “it’s hard”, and they get discouraged. There is no way for me to know whether you would be one of those people, due to the “dilution” of your efforts with clawhammer. If you stick with both, they will probably help each other, though you’d probably go faster in one style if you just stuck to that style. Some things work about the same with the two styles, so that is synergistic. They’ll both get you concentrating on rhythm and melody, which is all to the good.

I don’t think there’s any real harm in trying to do both simultaneously, but be on the lookout for whether progress in one or both quests seems to be suffering from the dilution of efforts, and if that is happening, pick the one you feel most hooked on, and save the other for later.