The difference between musicians and non-musicians comes down to practice. I really believe anyone with working hands and a brain can play banjo if they practice and how you practice determines what kind of player you become. How you practice should be determined by your skill level, your your goals, and the amount of time you have to devote to practicing. I don’t intend to write out a practice prescription for everyone here, instead I hope to lay out some ideas that will help you create a practice plan for yourself.
If you are relatively new to the banjo you are probably still learning basic chords, beginner songs, rolls, and basic left hand techniques. At this point you should focus a little bit on each of these aspects of playing with care for proper technique, timing, and posture. Building good habits early will help you grow as a banjo player and save you from fighting yourself later.
Some of the most frustrating things for me when I was at this stage was that I didn’t feel that I knew what to practice, I wasn’t sure how much time to spend on each thing, and I didn’t feel that I had the amount of different material or the stamina to practice more than 30 or 40 minutes a day. Not to worry though, at this point if you are playing banjo 30-40 minutes a day that is a time investment that will pay off big over time. If you want to make faster gains try spending 30 minutes earlier in the day like just before or after work/school and another session of at least 5 minutes before bed. Frequency is everything when it comes to practice, ten minutes a day is likely to pay off more than 70minutes on Sunday.
Let’s say you have 30 minutes to practice. A practice plan might look something like this:
1st: Tune the banjo. For the sake of your ears and the ears of your neighbors tune your banjo.
5 minutes: Practice rolls. Focus on a handful per session and spend a minute or so on each one. Use a metronome and take care to be consistent in timing, volume, and right hand fingering. If you don’t know any rolls see my post on Bluegrass Rolls and choose one of each category for each session
10 minutes: Left hand technique. Use the finger tips to depress the strings as close to the fret as possible, curl the fingers so that you don’t touch adjacent strings, keep your left wrist straight and relaxed, and press only as hard as you have to. Relaxation is key, don’t over squeeze and don’t hold the chords too long. Get to know your chords. The first few to focus on are C G D7 and D, but other good ones are Am, Em, F, Fm, E, and A. If you learn all of these you can do almost any other chord. Make sure you use the best technique possible. The practice is in setting up each chord properly, getting a good sound, and moving between them.
10 minutes: Learn something new. You likely don’t have a lot of material under your belt at this point so you can spend a good amount of time on this one. If you are learning a new song make sure to remember good technique from the jump. If there are unfamiliar techniques in the song like hammer-ons, pull-offs, bends etc. put some specific effort to learn them well. Practice them outside the context of the song as an extension of your left hand technique. Practice the chords to the song as well.
5 Minutes: Play what you know. Since you don’t have a lot of material yet you probably only need a few minutes to play everything and keep it sharp. Still keep an eye on technique and timing. Use a metronome as much as you possibly can. There is a saying that my brother taught me, that “slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.” So practice slowly and stay relaxed, you can advance the metronome speed each day but always start at a slower comfortable speed and advance incrementally. Over time your easy speed will advance too but always stay relaxed, don’t bear down (it won’t make you faster), and advance slowly and deliberately.
If you practice like this several times a week you will get better. Also, memorize your songs. If you are learning from tabs memorize your material, the faster you get off book the better. Have fun and pick on!
Here is a little info to get you started: