Note:  Bob Altschuler is a member of the HVBA and also the banjo player for our Member Band, Dyer Switch.  This article originally appeared on Banjo Dan's Blog and we thank Dan Campbell for giving us permission to reprint the interview here.

From the author:  Bob Altschuler recently responded to several questions that I emailed to him and his responses are below.  Bob’s articles in Banjo Sessions and Silver Strings have helped me to learn and improve as a banjo player so I hope this feature will help in some small way to promote his music – Banjoman Dan

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Bob’s distinctive bluegrass banjo style merges traditional bluegrass with blues, swing, and newgrass. Bob has taught banjo for over 30 years and is head of the beginner track at Banjo Camp North in Massachusetts (www.mugwumps.com) . Mel Bay’s “Banjo Sessions” online magazine at www.banjosessions.com and “Silver Strings” at www.angiesbanjo.com feature his many instructional articles, and his innovative picking has been heard on radio and television commercials. Bob has a workshop chapter in Gene Senyak’s 2008 book “Banjo Camp!” which also features Pete Seeger, Tony Trischka, Alan Munde, Bill Keith, Janet Davis and others. He performs and records with the Dyer Switch Band, www.dyerswitch.com and on Facebook.

Below are links to some of Bob’s performances on YouTube and his email address:

1 – Do you have advice or words of wisdom for banjo beginners?

Here are some basic suggestions for banjo beginners that I have found helpful over the years.

a) Find a good teacher you respect and like. Get recommendations about teachers from other students, look on line (Banjo Hangout and many other sites), ask at music stores and contact local bluegrass associations. A good instructor should be patient, knowledgeable, provide definite structure and direction and tailor lessons to your abilities and goals. Find an instructor with as many of these traits as you can, because good teachers inspire you to keep playing through the learning process. Some people can learn banjo without a teacher or with minimal lessons, but generally it’s much harder and takes a longer amount of time. Also, without the structure of lessons it’s easier to become frustrated and give up .

b) Determine how much time you are willing to invest in practice each day, and play every day, even if you only have a short amount of time available. Practice at least 1/2 hour each day. Of course, this is subject to work, family and life in general, but setting aside time is essential to learning to play. Keep your banjo out on a stand so it’s right there to pick up and play. That way you don’t even have to find the banjo case and open it.

c) Develop good playing habits right from the start. It’s much harder to correct bad habits later on (hand position, timing, etc). Play slowly and with good timing. Speed will come later, and timing is extremely important. Learning to use a metronome really helps with timing.

d) Learn chords and backup early on because backup is as important as learning breaks. When you play with others you play lead about 20% of the time or less as a general rule. You play backup about 80% of the time. And, if you know the chord positions, you can play a basic break at a jam by playing rolls over the chords,

e) Play with others as soon as possible. Find jams and other banjo, guitar, fiddle, etc. people to play with, even if you just play chords and strum along at first. This will greatly accelerate your learning. If you can’t find a jam, start one. Find other players to help you get a jam going.

f) Supplement your learning with web-based instruction sites (many are free), books, DVDs, workshops and banjo camps. There is a large amount of self-directed banjo instruction available, and you should take advantage of it. Places to start include Peter Wernick’s site at www.drbanjo.com . and Banjo Hangout at www.banjohangout.com. Subscribe to Banjo Newsletter at www.banjonews.com.  It is a wonderful resource which has great beginner information and tabs.

g) Listen to banjo recordings to hear what bluegrass banjo should sound like. This will help keep your motivation up and is just fun to hear. Earl Scruggs, JD Crowe, Sammy Shelor, Sonny Osborne, Alan Munde, Jim Mills, Ralph Stanley and Greg Cahill are some of the masters to listen to.

2 – How many weeks, months or years did you practice before you performed in public? What was your first public performance?

I took lessons for several years and started to pick informally at parties, jams and with friends after I had been learning for a few years. Playing with and in front of other people really helped me learn faster. Luckily, I had several friends who had guitars and who were willing to pick with me while I was a beginner.

I had been playing banjo for about three or four years when we formed the band “Shagbark Hickory.” This four piece group included friends who played guitar and bass and a very talented 15 year old singer /guitarist we met at a party (we were 25 years old at the time). We played at friends’ houses and parties and practiced for about six months, and then around 1975 took the plunge and played our first paying performance.

It was at a tavern in Albany, NY, and luckily for us the audience seemed to really like us and was very supportive (they had quite a bit to drink before we began to play). Things took off from there, and we played a lot of places over the years. We morphed from a four-piece acoustic bluegrass band to a five-piece electric/acoustic bluegrass/country rock band and then back again. The band drifted apart in the early 1990′s. I’ve had the good fortune to have been playing and recording with the Dyer Switch Band since 1996.

3 – What type of banjo do you play? What banjo did you start out with?

I play old Gibsons and a Nechville Nextar. I love the tradition and sound of the old Gibsons, and I also get to play a high-tech Nechville. For me this is the best of the old and new. I have also performed with Ome, Stelling and Cox banjos.

My first banjo was a Harmony, with a plastic rim and resonator. It was a good beginner banjo and sounded fine. I traded in the Harmony for an Aria, and then got my first really good banjo in 1980 when I bought a 1977 Stelling Starflower.

4 – Who are a few of your favorite banjo players?

Earl Scruggs, Alan Munde, Tony Trischka and Greg Cahill are some of my favorites.

5 – What are some of the commercials that have featured your picking?

They were commercials for Saratoga Race Track, a chain of stores in shopping malls and car dealerships. It was fun to record them and to see how studio recording works.

6 — Do you have suggestions for how a beginner should organize a one hour practice session?

Here are a few preliminary thoughts about practice.

  • Committing to a regular practice schedule will help you learn faster and retain more. One hour a day is optimal.   Depending on your schedule, you can split daily practice time into a few shorter sessions.
  • Use a metronome as much as possible. Ask your teacher how to use it or go online to banjo sites for information. When I went to the studio to record on the first Dyer Switch Band CD, I discovered that my timing on some songs needed cleaning up. I started to use a metronome more and still practice with it periodically, especially before going to record.
  • Make sure your banjo is in tune and set up correctly for optimal sound and ease of playing. If the action is too high or the bridge is in the wrong place, the banjo will work against you. Inexpensive beginner banjos can sound fine if set up to bring out their best potential.
  • Repetition is key to learning banjo. Focus on one thing at a time and repeat it until you are comfortable.  Repeat breaks until you have them memorized and don’t need the tab any more.
  • Having goals will help with practice. Some examples are learning to play a tune from tab, memorizing tunes without the tab, playing evenly with a metronome and learning a new roll or lick.
  • Playing along with recordings or videos helps. Also, the slow and intermediate jam DVDs by Peter Wernick are very useful. I’ve had many students practice along with these, and they gained basic jamming and improvisation skills.

To organize a one hour practice session, I follow these general guidelines (adjust them for less or more time)

  • For the first 15 minutes, play exercises, rolls and licks using a metronome. Licks and rolls are modular units that will show up later in different combinations in many breaks to songs. When you practice and learn them they will be familiar later on and songs become easier to learn.
  • For the second 15 minutes, work on new tunes. Learning them in sections is useful, so you can concentrate on smaller chunks until you have the whole break memorized. Use a metronome.
  • For the third 15 minutes, practice tunes you already know. I have a list of tunes I practice periodically so I don’t forget them.
  • For the last 15 minutes, there are several possibilities. Work on specific problem areas (part of a tune, a technique, timing, etc), experiment on the fingerboard and see what comes out (pick out a simple melody, try to make up some rolls or licks), play along with a recording or DVD, or write breaks for specific chord progressions. I write chord progressions on tab paper and ask students to write breaks by stringing together licks from tunes they know and then adding melody notes where they can. I’ve had some students make up breaks I liked so much that I’ve used them for performances.

7 – Please mention any other banjo related comments you would like to include:

Two last thoughts-

  • The banjo is a magical instrument. How does all that great sound come out with only five strings and just three different notes in G tuning?
  • Persistence pays off! It takes a long time and a lot of practice to become proficient in bluegrass banjo, but it is well worth doing.

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