Sight Reading for the Banjo-Introduction

Over the next few months I plan to release some elementary/beginning sight-reading exercises for the banjo.  *PDF located at the bottom*

After years of teaching students banjo and noticing that while TAB is great for some things, it’s not producing students that can name the notes up and down the fingerboard.  With the violin or piano, students are taught the names of the notes from day one, especially if they start out reading notation.

DISCLAIMER: Due to the nature of the bluegrass banjo (rolls), sight reading notation is NOT the best introduction to Bluegrass banjo. I generally use my own short-hand notation system to introduce students to rolls/bluegrass banjo, at some point using TAB and learning aurally as songs get more complex.  However, it doesn’t have to be an all or nothing situation.  I strongly believe a person can learn bluegrass, TAB, while strengthening basic music skills that will help them later in the music journey.

Is sight-reading worth your time? It depends on your goals and is up for you to decide.  If you want to play for friends on your back porch then perhaps not.  If you have a wide range of interest, like popular/film music then sight reading is great because there are so many “Fake books” available that aren’t written in TAB but musical notation.  If you envision yourself doing this as a career the world of musical notation opens up an entire world to you that’s not there otherwise.

The primary goal for this method is for students to learn the names of the notes up and down the fingerboard.  This is why after some internal debate I have decided to use the alto clef in these studies.

Alto clef is not as common as treble clef; viola is the most well known instrument that uses this clef.  However, using the alto clef, all of the notes can be read at pitch with very minimum use of ledger lines.  The banjo is unlike the guitar in that it lacks the bass register (namely the 6th and 5th strings of the guitar), partly why I decided to go against the grain of the normal method of teaching Treble Clef using octave transposition.

Once you can name and read the notes up to let’s say the 10th fret on the banjo I strongly recommend students begin to learn treble clef as well.  In the old days, people had multiple clefs to read from and those C Clefs moved around on the staff.  This minimized the number of ledger lines.

So let us begin learning how to sight read on the banjo.  The only assumption being made is you know your musical alphabet and how many steps are between each note (half or whole step)

First off, let’s introduce the ALTO CLEF and where the notes are on it’s staff.

The alto clef is sometimes referred to as a C Clef.  The 3rd line from the bottom or the middle of the staff is where the clef points and merges.  This point marks what is called MIDDLE C.  This note is very important.  It’s the same note as if you were sitting at an 88 key piano, occurring right in the middle.  Hence the name.

As you go up into space above this, you get a D note, found on the 1st string of your banjo open.

The note that sits on the line up from the C is an E or 2nd fret of the 1st string.  This continues as show in the diagram with the notes F and G.  G is located at the 5th fret of the 1st string.  This note is also the 5th string of your banjo open.

So the range of these notes on our instrument is the 2nd fret of the 2nd string up to the 5th fret of the first string.  The exercise are presented to get you started, there is no “tune” or melody and that’s intentional.  Randomness is so the student doesn’t memorize the patterns instead of reading them.  A common problem.

Lastly, I HIGHLY recommend my students to read the notes AWAY from the instrument at first, to the point that you can say out loud, “C, E, G, D, etc.”  This isolates the mental away from the physical, once the mental is sped up the physical part will quickly follow.  Above all we don’t want the notes on the staff to become only finger patterns, as you go through the exercises eventually see if you can hear the sound internally BEFORE pressing the note.

To Print the the first banjo sight reading exercises, go here to view and download the PDF file:

Banjo Sight Reading

When you are done with this exercise, the second installment is located here:

Banjo Sight Reading part Two

Jody Written by:

Professional Musician of 27 years. I've performed on the stages of Carnegie Hall, The Grand Ole Opry, and The Ryman Auditorium. I've also played in 6 different countries. All things Banjo and Acoustic Guitar.

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