Neil Griffin,
Complete Bluegrass Banjo Method
(Mel Bay, 1994)

What an excellent book! I am so glad I bought it! This book most definitely will teach you plenty of banjo picking skills, music theory, techniques, scales, chords, roll patterns, etc. When it says "complete," the author and publisher weren't kidding. Mel Bay also offers an accompanying cassette or CD so you can actually hear the songs in the book.

The book starts off explaining both traditional music notation and tablature. Every song and/or exercise has both traditional and tab notation. There are sections on how to tune, pictures explaining how to wear and use the thumb and fingerpicks, key signatures, time values of notes, chords, playing pinch chords and rolls as accompanyment to another instrument or singer, introduction of the various notes per each string on traditional music notation (with it's accompanying tab underneath) and various strum patterns.

The next section introduces the all important roll patterns for Scruggs-style bluegrass picking. So you get forward roll patterns (ex: forward roll during chord changes), backward rolls, thumb-alternating rolls, square rolls, combination rolls, etc. Griffin also gives tips on daily practice patterns and exercises. He gives advice such as, "I urge you to go over these patterns every time you pick up your banjo for the next six months, no matter what else you are working on. Many students learn one or two rolls really well but still slow down and struggle when others occur in solos. These patterns MUST become 'second-nature' or 'in-the-fingers,' so to speak, if you wish to become a good banjo player."

Later chapters introduce slides, hammer-ons and pull-offs, fills, endings and use of a capo. An entire section is devoted to solos, although Griffin advises students not to learn this section until they have thoroughly mastered all the roll patterns from the previous chapter.

Section 2 starts getting into more advanced banjo playing. It opens with various alternate tunings for the banjo then moves to chord studies and music theory such as the I, IV, V and I progression, moveable chord forms, dominant and diminished sevenths, etc. This is the section of the book that also begins teaching how to play higher up on the neck and also to my surprise and delight a detour into banjo playing for blues, boogie music and then into "melodic" or "chromatic" (a.k.a. fiddle-scale) picking styles. Griffin admits they are only brief introductions since entire books can and have been written that teach these styles of banjo playing. However he provides enough to broaden your playing skills and give you an idea to see if you like it enough to want to learn more elsewhere.

This second major section also introduces an "Advanced Solo Song Selection." He starts off with the advice: "Be sure to read the next four pages on chord diagrams, circled tab numbers, the choke, and chimes before you start playing the solos. This information will help you understand the solos much better. ... Many of these songs have both high and low versions [i.e. high on the neck and low on the neck playing positions] with a mixture of 'Scruggs' and 'Melodic.'"

I've commented mostly about the lessons packed in this book but I would also like to mention the tune selection. This book is chock full of traditional piecess. Some I didn't recognize but many I did. Most of them are traditionals that many people will have heard many times before so they'll know how they sound even without the added benefit of the accompanying cassette/CD.

In my opinion those traditional songs sound great with fast banjo picking to back them up! It completely cast them in a new light for me once I started practicing them with the various rolls and chord progressions, solos and fills I learned from this book. Anyone interested in learning how to play the banjo should find this book helpful.

- Rambles
written by Dana Fletcher
published 19 April 2003

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