Kerry in Denver asks:

I have a 30-year-old banjo that’s barely ever been played. I’m going to take it in to a guitar shop to see if they can repair one string and tune for me, or show me how to tune.

Changing a string is pretty simple, which you could learn by watching someone else do it the first time. You should get all new strings (about $5) because old strings sound worse and are more prone to break.

Tuning is also quite easy if you know what the notes are (G, D, G, B, D) and buy a simple tuning clip-on device to guide you. The music store you go to for strings would have them (about $25). The videos mentioned below will show you how to tune.

I have beginner books but I’m starting from scratch. I can read sheet music (I play piano and used to play french horn).

What’s your advice on getting started?

I suggest 3 videos for starters:

  1. Get Rolling. One hour, VERY easy, confidence-building play-along based on the simplest 3 chords, and some easy right hand stuff. You are playing music instantly, and laying foundation. Playing over 20 songs in the process.
  2. As soon as the first is getting too easy, you’re ready for Beginning Bluegrass Banjo, which is a full course in the basics. Two hours, will take you months to get through, and gives the rest of the foundation.
  3. Slow Jam for the Total Beginner. Two hours, 17 full length songs played slowly by a full band, and you practice following along. This is good practice for being in a real (slow) jam, and builds confidence for actually getting together with others.

There are more videos, including Bluegrass Banjo Backup, but the above three are the most essential.

Do you give private lessons?

Only to professional players or to people who’ve taken a banjo camp from me. The above 3 videos cost $80 total, comparable to the price of a lesson, and offer FIVE HOURS of very helpful instruction, a much better place to start.

I see the next jam camp in Boulder is November. How skilled are folks that attend?

In general, not very skilled at all. I require only that a person can change smoothly between 4 chords, G, C, D, and A. Not too tough! Some just barely qualify, others are fairly skilled, but they all do fine playing together. You have plenty of time to practice up and get qualified, and then some. I do recommend the camp, as a continuation of the skills from the first 3 videos.

I also recommend going to this page. As you can see, it links to lots of useful information, and I especially suggest you read the top article, Teaching Beginning Banjo Players.

No hurry getting through all this material, but it’s there for your reference.

Last point, you mention piano and french horn and sheet music. It’s undoubtedly helpful to have played music before, probably means your rhythmic and musical senses are pretty well developed. But be aware, bluegrass is NOT reading-based music. The skills are much more ear skills, and being aware of chord progressions — at first you learn to follow chord changes, then you are able to “hear” and anticipate them. Then the fun begins when you can elaborate in all sorts of ways within the chords, and learn to find melodies by ear and incorporate them.

I hope this helps. If you start by getting the DVDs mentioned and getting strings and a tuner you could be up and running within the week!

Have fun, it’s a great time once you get going.

Pete