Wednesday, September 9, 2015

How To Use Enda Scahill's Banjo Tutor, Part 1

Enda Scahill's banjo tutor is, in my opinion, the best book of its type available to anyone interested in learning the Irish tenor banjo.  It comes in two volumes, the first published in 2009, the second in 2012 (with a revision in 2014 for both), and it spans not only four years of planning and publication but also a change in Enda's career in which he went from a part time job with the Brock-McGuire band to full time with WeBanjo3.  In addition there is a third book, The WeBanjo3 Tune Book also published in 2012, that serves as a graduate degree for banjo players even though Enda doesn't look at it in that way.
In this blog entry I'm going to focus on the first book, appropriately known as Volume 1, and go through the advantages and disadvantages of both the book and learning from a book.  In addition I will illustrate some of the principles with videos that I took in 2009 just before publication that Enda graciously allowed me to publish on YouTube.
The book really doesn't have any disadvantages.  The problem lies more in the reader who may or may not realize what is important.  A word of advice: It is all important.
Enda Scahill is one of those people we are lucky to have around.  A prodigy on the banjo, he won a number of competitions and was well known as a banjo player before he wrote the books.  He also taught Irish tenor banjo on the side and it was because of his teaching that he began to develop a system of playing traditional music on the banjo.
There is no question that if you want to learn to play an instrument, the best way to accomplish this is to have a teacher.  For most of us this is not a viable solution unless we live in a city like Chicago.  The other alternatives are to attend workshops on a regular basis, search YouTube for lessons, find a good book on the subject, or try and invent the wheel.  Any or all of the above is possible but unless you have a good system to start with, most likely you will find your self floundering around trying to become a good musician.
A live teacher will not only give you that system, but will be able to give feedback on a regular basis and serve as model that gives you all of the non-verbal cues you need to succeed.  The danger of not having a method of monitoring progress is that a fundamental system may never take effect and there will be lacunae in your basics that will slow progress in the long run.
Enda appears to have written these books with this in mind.  While his tutor is ideal for use with a teacher, because it covers all of the basics in great detail, an astute student can get the basics as long as he or she is aware of what is needed.
It may seem a little condescending to point out which end of the banjo is the playing end, but there is a good reason for including these details: beginners come in all forms and some are total newbies with no knowledge of music.  Still I advise that you not skip over even those parts that seem obvious because sometimes they are not.
Enda starts with the central theme of his entire tutelage, relaxation and efficient alignment.  These principles are mentioned in the "Goals" section of the book, that part that almost everyone skips, and you should pay attention because if you don't, it will be much harder to work with the system and it is hard enough as it is to keep paying attention when you don't have good feedback.
You will see the term "RELAX" all through the book.  There is a good reason for this, most people don't relax when they play, especially in public and that alters how you play.
So far we have only seen a few pages of the first volume yet they show extremely important issues that have to be taken into account.  Don't skimp on this advice from Enda.
Next is basic hold and right hand.  His descriptions are clear, but because students often come in with some ideas already taken hold, ignored.  That is not all bad, but Enda is trying to teach an efficient method as a basis for playing that can be altered later on as you develop a style.
Here are two videos on pick hold:


In both cases, relaxation is emphasized.   This is not the only way to hold a pick, but it is the way he teaches and it is integrated into the whole system.

The next basic aspect, and probably the most important issue that Enda brings to learning the banjo, is consistency in "plucking" ("picking" in North America) and learning to do so in a predictable manner.  He introduces the idea of alternating directions in reels and later on a variation for jigs.

This is a concept that is not emphasized in other tutors and it akin to learning bowing in the violin.  As you develop, strict adherence to patterns will change, but if you don't have a basic understanding and practice it you will never be able to vary from it.  Otherwise it is chaos and you can't improve beyond your talent level in a chaotic environment.
Throughout the book he shows tunes (and there is a CD that lets you listen how they sound) and shows the pick direction needed to play them well.  As a beginner you will be on shaky ground if you don't follow the directions he gives.   Later on, having an automatic understanding of pick direction will help with the more advanced techniques, and in this series of books there are plenty of them.
Lastly he teaches the most sought after and most understood aspect of tenor banjo, the triplet/treble.  You will note that I put in two different names for this ornament, that's because Enda makes a distinction between a single note treble and a multiple note triplet.  I just call them all triplets even though there is another written triplet seen in hornpipes that also confuses the matter.

Here is my take:

Here are several of Enda's takes:

A triplet exercise in class.

And a little lesson on triplets up and down:

Here he shows what relaxation and good technique can really do.

These are just the basics (and really not all of them) shown in the book.  There is a large section of tunes to be learned and practiced if you want to nail down these basics.   And this is just Volume 1.
It's important to note that by just reading the book and looking at videos you will not become an Irish tenor banjo player.  You have to put in the time and you have to be able to reproduce the basics in a consistent and efficient manner.  One of the pleasures of owning this series is that as you progress, you learn more from the early basic stuff that the book has.  This is a consistent finding with all performance arts, the basics are essential and they have different meanings as the artist progresses and develops his or her own style.
In my next blog entries, I will continue to go through Volume 1 and move on to Volume 2 and the Tunebook.

MJ Keyes
8 September 2015


  1. Thank you - this is a very helpful writeup!

    I just got Enda's banjo tutor book and I'm really struggling with his style of pick hold - I think I am, according to Enda, using a 'pencil grip' normally - but I can't seem to get comfortable in the other grip;

    Here's a quick video I did of my playing (with mistakes), trying each pick grip - first my usual - I always seem to get tangled up at high speeds and miss triplets. Second the 'Enda style' grip - which seems uncontrolled and awkward;

    If you wouldn't mind I'd love it if you could take a look and let me know if you spot any glaring issues! Is it just a matter of getting used to it/practice?

    1. Sondra,

      Your style of pick grip is OK, it is not as efficient as it promotes just using the fingers to pick the string instead of the wrist, but with practice you will do well with it. The natural grip is the most efficient way to assure that the wrist stroke is used well, but not everyone plays with it (see the MdKenna grip) and if you are consistent and efficient you will do well.

      If you want to use the natural grip, I suggest you brush your fingers on the head the way you do with the pencil grip. I play that way and it gives me some orientation to the head. Just try not to plant those fingers as you will start to pick with fingers only which not only gives a poor tone, but also is very inefficient.

      Speed comes with practice and a good basic technique (along with relaxation.) Session speeds are often too fast for ornamentation anyway and you won't be heard that well in the mess of sound. As you develop style and technique you will naturally deal with speed in your own way. Remember, you are Sondra, not Enda or Gerry.


    2. Thank you for the reply! After experimenting a bit, I think I've found a sort of modified-natural grip where my index finger is less curled, but my thumb is flat across the top - it's comfortable and allows me to hold the pick more loosely/relaxed and pick from the wrist.

      Also appreciate the speed tips! I'm going to be working a lot on picking patterns and relaxation in the near future to help with picking up speed.

  2. I have two questions: First, I just got Volume 1 and 2 in the mail but don't have anything that will play CD's. Are the CD's online anywhere?

    Also, how hard should I be hitting the strings when I pluck?