Five-string banjo master Ross Nickerson has recorded with some of the top names in Bluegrass music. Links to his website and performance schedule are listed below. Throughout his career Ross has always enjoyed sharing his knowledge and helping others to learn to play the banjo.
Ross kindly responded to several questions that I emailed to him and below are his useful tips and advice and links to his music. Please leave any comments to Ross in the comment box after this article.
1 – Do you have advice or words of wisdom for banjo beginners?
Learn several basic one complete measure picking patterns or “rolls” and several chords and learn to pick steady without pauses through a complete chord progression. Spend significant time doing this before trying to learn songs from tablature. Another good approach is learning to play one simple song by memory from beginning to end without pausing played in steady time. Play that song over and over till you really feel comfortable with it before trying to learn new songs so you avoid learning multiple bits and pieces of songs. Learn what it feels like to play steady and in time without pauses before taking on very much tab. Shortin’ Bread, Tom Dooley, Banjo in the Hollow are good ones to start with, lots of repeats and easy to play.
I recorded a DVD called Playing by Ear and Learning the Chords that teaches how to play steady through chord progressions and my The Banjo Songs for Beginners DVD has good simple songs to learn like Shortin’ Bread and Skip to My Lou, These songs can really help banjo students learn to play the melody which is not easy especially for beginners.
2 – How many weeks, months or years did you practice before you performed in public?
I practiced obsessively at first and was thrown to the wolves’ pretty early one. I had a friend who could play guitar and sing already so we got to work pretty quick. There was a lot of baptism by fire at first but I began to enjoy it more and more. Playing with others drives you to improve and helps you to learn where your priorities in practice lay.
What was your first public performance?
High School Talent show.
3 – What type of banjo do you play?
I always had only one banjo in the past, if I wanted a new one, I sold the old one, and I wish I had a few of them back. Now I am a bit older and doing a little better financially and have a few banjos. I represent Bellbird Banjos made by Peter Nahuysen. They are great banjos that not many pickers know about. My main ax is a pre-war 1936 TB 1 with a Jim Burlile Flathead Ring and Bellbird Neck. I have two Bellbirds, a Huber, a Stelling Staghorn and a Goldstar. I recently put a JBS Jerry Sloan tone ring in my bellbird and love it. The bellbird plays so easy and looks great, a bit lighter than average too. I like them all but right now when I travel with one banjo I take the prewar. It’s almost impossible to beat the sound you get with the old wood.
What banjo did you start out with?
I had a $50 Kay which really stunk, then I got a Framus which had a cool tone that I could not put down, then I bought an aria with stew mac ring, that sounded like a pro banjo and it took my banjo playing to a much more professional level. Then, when I played Foggy, it sounded like Foggy.
4 – Who are a few of your favorite banjo players?
I think I like the usual suspects, Earl, Bela, JD, and lots of others. I have studied techniques of banjo players but I don’t spend any specific time trying to copy tone. I am sure I get that some from listening but I don’t really try to, or necessarily want to sound just like somebody else. On my banjo cruise this year I am featuring Jens Kruger. I enjoy his music and would like to learn more about his techniques, approach and skill. I am excited to have the opportunity to pick with him.
5 — Do you have suggestions for how a beginner should organize a one hour practice session?
That is a big question, but learning to play banjo by sight reading tab should likely be zero of it. That is not to say tab should not be used but I’m afraid tab books have created a large misunderstanding in the banjo learning world. Those of us who “learned to play” without tab fell in love with tab, it made it so much easier to learn songs quicker, but the key is we could already play the banjo pretty good when we discovered tab. We were used to playing without our heads in the book.
In my workshops I devote a lot of time to teaching students how to practice more effectively. One of the techniques I teach is how to learn a song from tab in a way that I feel is easier and much more effective, which is absolutely not by sight-reading it. I have a new DVD called How to Practice Banjo the teaches a practical, easy to follow way to learn songs quickly and effectively from tablature and on my DVD Playing by Ear and Learning the Chords I focus on explaining the forest through the trees with regard to playing without tab and learning to play without sight reading. I feel strongly that my instruction in these areas could be very helpful to students.
6 – Please mention any other banjo related comments you would like to include.
Since I teach banjo a lot my comments relate to those learning to play and improving their banjo playing experience. My first thought would be to ask students to please put the tab book away for most of your practice time, just use the tab to quickly learn measures or multiple measure phrases and cycle them over and over. Then move on to the next measure or section and memorize songs by muscle memory and ear recognition. Build up your skills away from reading and reacting to tab.
I also feel it would make a huge difference for students to play through the chords to the song they want to learn with a simple roll or rolls before learning the song from tab. You should always know the chord structure of a tune before you learn a song. The chords are what guitar, mandolin and bass players learn first, why should banjo players be any different.
I see students at workshops frankly having a lot of difficulty with the fretting hand which I feel really boils down to lack of practice or focus on it. I recommend exercising your fretting hand a lot more. Use the metronome when practicing the fretting hand, not just when practicing rolls. I have fretting hand exercises in lots of my instruction material including The Banjo Encyclopedia, “Bluegrass Banjo from A to Z”.
I recommend that you practice with a metronome if you are at all serious about learning the banjo; please…it’s your biggest ally. It’s not that big a deal to do but I can assure that it will make a big difference in everything you play.