As an instructor in ETSU’s Bluegrass, Old Time, and Country Music Studies program, and having taught several students privately as well, I’m well aware of the struggle many would-be students face when trying to learn to play a musical instrument. Between work, school, family, and other obligations, there’s often little time left to meet with a teacher. However, today brings good news for those potential banjo players who just can’t find someone to schedule lessons at 11:00 p.m. Banjoist Bennett Sullivan has released two great apps for iPhone and iPad: Pocket Lick: Banjo and Listen and Learn: Banjo.
Sullivan is a strong proponent of learning by ear as opposed to solely from written notation such as tablature. In his own teaching of banjo students, he noticed that many struggled with moving from reading tab to learning by ear, and some told him they were simply trying to memorize the tab without actually learning the song. On Sullivan’s website, he says, “I needed some way to make sure my students were using their ears, so I began sending tab with some measures and notes missing.” After talking with technologically-minded friends, he got in touch with Czech app designer Jiri Markalous, who was the mastermind behind the Banjo Rolls Trainer and Chord Notes Player apps, to help him create his apps.
The two apps combine actual recordings with tablature in order to help both beginning and more advanced banjo players learn new licks and train their ears. Listen and Learn: Banjo is extremely helpful for beginners, in particular. It includes nine complete songs, with more coming soon in updates, which students can listen to and practice along with at home (or wherever else you might have your banjo and your iPad). Songs include beginner banjo favorites like Cripple Creek, Cotton Eyed Joe, and Reuben. There are options to speed up or slow down the tempo as you learn the song, and bubbles that pop up on the screen at various points throughout the songs as a way for you test yourself by playing your banjo into the device’s microphone. Especially helpful are a metronome and tuner that are included in the app.
Pocket Lick: Banjo will likely soon be a favorite of pickers who are past the beginner stage. It’s sort of like an app version of Ned Luberecki’s Sunday Banjo Lesson on Sirius/XM – it takes you slowly through the steps of many famous bluegrass banjo licks by the best in the business, including Earl Scruggs, Bela Fleck, J.D. Crowe, and Scott Vestal. It provides a split-screen video of both the right and left hand positions, as well as tab and audio. Personally, I spent almost an hour last night just browsing through all the licks available and wishing I had my banjo with me so I could practice. Banjo players who have previously been limited to shaky YouTube videos, or just listening over and over to their favorite recordings, will be excited to see the licks laid out in a simple and visually appealing manner.
For those who favor guitar, Sullivan and Markalous have also created Pocket Lick: Guitar, which has the same format but pulls from the catalog of such greats as Tony Rice, Doc Watson, and Bryan Sutton. An added bonus of these apps is that they don’t require an Internet connection – once downloaded, they can be used anywhere.
The headline of the apps’ website says that “learning banjo should be fun.” It certainly will be with these apps. Though they don’t quite replace the feeling of learning knee-to-knee with an expert, they are excellent additions to the musical learning process, especially for those whose schedules might not allow them to take traditional lessons.