Pro Musicians Share How they learned to Play

Whether we play the mountain dulcimer just for fun and to socialize, or we hope to go pro someday, it helps to learn from the best. No matter the instrument, enjoy some universal learning tips that these professional musicians are willing to share with the GODC and their friends.

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a Pro Banjo Player’s Advice to beginners

Bill Scates is a multi-instrumentalist and has played music for 50 plus years. He played rock-and-roll and folk in his younger days, bluegrass music later on, and and now plays tenor banjo, bouzouki and whistle in the Celtic band, “Roads To Home”. Following are Bill’s tips for learning to be a more skillful player.

Love the music. This may be the only prerequisite for learning to play. Without it, all the music lessons in the world won’t make you a player. People have overcome many handicaps, physical and otherwise, and become exceptional players because of their love of music. Django Reinhardt suffered severe injuries as a young man and could only use two fingers on his left hand. He became the most celebrated gypsy jazz guitarist of the twentieth century.

Listen. When you hear something you like, try to “lilt” the melody, that is “sing out” the notes… diddle-dee-dy-dah.. etc.. Some Irish musicians have developed this to an art form in itself. It’s one way to stick the tune in your head. It’s hard to play melodies that you don’t have in your head. If you’re learning to play Irish music you should be able to recognize the various tune types, i.e., jigs, reels, hornpipes, polkas, airs, etc. All of these have different rhythms and tempos. YouTube is a good tool for learning how to differentiate these tune types. Search on “jigs” or “reels” and listen to as many of these as you need to get a sense of rhythm and tempo. You can use the youtube “settings” icon to slow them down while you work on the intricacies of the tune. As your listening skills increase, try to pick out the melodies on your banjo.

Practice. You may learn to accompany your singing with a few guitar chords in a day or two. However, if you want to play a tenor banjo, (or any other melodic instrument,) with any degree of competence, you will need to practice, practice, be patient, and practice again. You may reach a point where you don’t need to practice as much but, if it does happen, it will take many, many hours of patient practice. There’s good practice and bad practice. Practice new tunes SLOWLY. How slowly? If you can’t play it all the way through without stumbling, it’s not slow enough. This happens all too frequently: You start a tune at speed, then reach the “hard” part, stumble through it, repeat, re-stumble to finish. Et voila! You have practiced the stumble and now that’s a part of the tune. DON’T PRACTICE MISTAKES.

 Bill Scates and his Celtic Band, Roads to Home.

Bill Scates and his Celtic Band, Roads to Home.

If you do make a mistake, don’t stop, continue and finish the piece. Work on the hard phrase individually until you can play it at the same speed as the rest of the tune without mistakes. If you find a phrase too difficult, rather than stumble through it, try to simplify it and make it easier to play. A typical Irish reel will have eight eighth-notes per measure (See “Learn to read music”,) sometimes even more with ornamentation. Often the measure can be simplified by playing quarter-notes instead of eighth-notes, effectively making the measure twice as easy to play even while maintaining the pace.

On tempo. Tempo indicates how fast or slow a tune is played. Tempo is typically stated in beats-per-minute (bpm) where a “beat” might be a tap of the foot while playing. (Not necessarily the same as indicated by the time signature. See “Learn to read music.”) A typical Irish reel might be played at 112 bpm. Don’t even think about playing it that fast while you are learning. At that speed you would finish a full 32 bar reel in 34 seconds. See practice comments above. Speed will come. Be patient.

Play with others. One of the best ways to hone your listening and practicing skills is to play with others. You can learn tunes by playing with recordings but you may never feel comfortable as a player until you get with another player or group and work your music into the “groove”. It’s the magic reinforcement you need!  Find a group whose music fits and join up! Have fun!

Learn to read music. I save this for last because you don’t have to read music to play it. IMO, ability to “play-by-ear” is more important,  perhaps because I learned that way. I never had lessons and only learned to read when I became more seriously engaged in Celtic music. Irish music is highly structured and the ability to compose, notate and share tunes is invaluable within the genre. A reasonably good Irish player will know hundreds, if not thousands of tunes. Annotated music is one way to keep the tunes fresh. It may be hard to remember how a particular tune we haven’t played in years may go. A quick look at the notes can bring it right back. (Of course, playing with others who know the tune may jog the memory too!)

Written music can have several forms: sheet music, (the “dots”,) ABC notation, (useful for sharing,) or even tab, (specific to instrument.) Some of the more important concepts captured in written music are: Key signature, (determines the scale notes, learn to play scales!,) measure, (division of beat,) note length, (how long is the note held relative to other notes) and time signature, (beats per measure and note length that gets the beat,) Tempo may not be indicated so it’s important the player knows how fast jigs, reels and other types are played.

Players who want to learn Irish music should visit www.thesession.org. This free site maintains a library of 14,000+ tunes in both sheet music and ABC notation. You can also listen to a midi version of the tune to get some idea of what it should sound like. It’s even possible to learn much about reading music from just this site alone.


Bill Scates group, Roads to Home, is based out of Bowling Green, Kentucky. If you’d like to learn more about Bill’s group and sample or purchase their CDs, click the button below. Get on their mailing list and you' just might get invited to one of their open jams and practice sessions.