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Teaching the Kid - VI

by Bill Gokey





The Kid was playing and practicing on his gourd every chance he got, and he was getting so he could play three or four recognizable instrumentals.  He seemed to be getting the rhythm and playing a few of the rolls in a passable manner.  He had most of my old Reno & Scruggs records and his mother said he played them so much she was hearing them in her sleep.  She accused me of all kinds of things such as, encouraging her “darling” son to create a constant din to torment her every minute of the day or night; Nancy wasn’t what you’d call a real keen banjo connoisseur! 

Since the Kid seemed to be completely serious about playing the 5-string, I thought it was about time I introduced him to music notation and a little theory.  In my estimation, a professional musician should know the names of the notes he is playing, the correct name of the chords and how to build them, the name and place of every note on the neck of his instrument, and he should have a working knowledge of music so he can understand what, where, and why he is playing the notes.

Up the steps of my front porch he ran, pounded on the door, and was peering through the glass to see if I was coming down the stairs.  I wasn’t - I was sitting in a chair at the end of the porch, drinking a cup of coffee and he hadn’t even seen me setting there.  He pounded three or four more times, put his banjo on the deck, and started down the steps.  I growled at him, “If you’re going to leave, take that piece of junk with you – you trying to set up an obstacle course so’s I’ll fall over that thing and break my leg?”   He looked startled, “How come you’re out on the porch so early – since it’s only ten-thirty, I thought you’d probably still be in bed.  I was gonna throw stones at your window and wake you up.  I’ve got the first part of the up the neck part of “Shuckin’ The Corn,” but you need to show me where it goes from there…”

I roared up in my chair and said, “I told you before, don’t ever throw stones at my x@#Z* windows.  It ain’t respectable for anyone to be stoned before noon – didn’t your mother tell you not to do that?  I saw her down at Kelly’s the other night and…”  He wasn’t even listening to me.  He had his banjo in his hands and started to crank out the up the neck version of “Shuckin’ The Corn.”  “Take that thing in the house - I don’t want the neighbors calling the police and having me arrested for having an illegal dog-fight on the front porch of my house.”

By this time, he was right at home in my house.  By the time I followed him in and shut the front door, he had put his “gourd” on a chair in my living room and got my ’27 – 4 out of the case.  Without saying a word, he got a cup out of the cupboard, poured some coffee in it, and planted himself in his favorite place by the kitchen table.  “Oh, excuse me for not having your eggs benedict and a chilled bottle of vintage Boone’s Farm on the table for a great maestro such as you.”  He was deep in to pounding out “Shuckin’ The Corn” on my old 4 – he was playing with Lester Flatt on the stage of The Grand Ole Opry and he didn’t hear me...  He stopped and exclaimed, “Right here… here’s the part I’m getting’ stuck on – right after that Yankee-Doodle part.  How does it go?”

“Play a C- dominant 7TH on the eighth fret, a D-augmented on the 11TH & 12TH fret, slide back down to the G-Major position on the 7TH fret, and then play a D-Major & D-augmented at the 12TH fret.”  He just looked at me and winced, “I don’t know what you’re talking about – those names don’t mean anything to me!  I don’t know the names of those chords or even where they’re at – show me, you play it.”  I played it for him and he told me, “That’s it – see, it’s easy for me to learn it by you showing me exactly where these chords are.  I don’t need to know all that stuff of what they’re called – all I have to do is remember where to put my fingers.”  I told him I wouldn’t be here to show him every time he wanted to play something different, and he would never be an expert player if he didn’t know what notes he was playing and how to build the chords. 

“Ya know, Kid, you really should learn how to read music and then you wouldn’t need anyone to show you anything – it’s all written down on paper.  All you have to do is know how to read it!  There’s only twelve notes of music to remember and you have to know them all if you ever want to play in a band with other musicians.”  He snapped back, “My father says people that know how to read music can’t play without the sheet-music right in front of ‘em.  I don’t need to play that way – ya don’t see Don Reno with that sheet music in front of him.  I ain’t gonna ruin my playin’ by learning how to read those fancy music notes!”  Here he was, fighting knowledge all over again.

“Look here,” I was ignoring his protests, “there are no flats or sharps in the scale of the key of C which makes it the easiest key to learn.   Here are the notes for the C-Major scale; C, D, E, F, G, A, B, and C.  Pay attention, you’re going to have to know this for the rest of your life, and if you don’t learn it you’ll never be any good at playing music with other people. Starting on the 3RD string – 5TH fret, as you can see, if you play those notes on one string, a Major scale is, the root©, whole-tone(D), whole-tone(E), half-tone(F), whole-tone(G), whole-tone(A), whole-tone(B), half-tone(C) – a whole tone is 2 frets and a half-tone is one fret.   I’m going to teach you how to build a chord the using Nashville number system.  You number each note in the scale of the key you want to play in like this: 1=C, 2=D, 3=E, 4=F, 5=G, 6=A, 7=B, and so on.  Any full, Major chord has three notes in it, and three notes only. 

A fifty-piece symphony orchestra playing a full C-Major chord is playing only three separate notes!  Of course, they are playing the same notes in different octaves, but they can only play those three notes and call it a C-Major chord.   A Major chord is built from the 1 note, 3 note, and the 5 note of the scale.  A C-Major chord consists of C, E, and G – that’s all the notes in a C-Major chord – 1, 3, and 5 notes.  If you play any other notes but those three in it, it is no longer a C-Major chord.    For example, let’s say you play 4 notes, a 1, 3, 5, and a 7 note – C, E, G, and B; that changes the sound and makes it a C- Major-7TH chord.”

“Slow down, you’re going too fast.  I can’t keep track of all these letters and numbers you’re going on with.  All I wanted was the up the neck part of Shuckin’ The Corn, and you go on with all this junk.”  The Kid was waving his arms in the air,  “My father was right – ask Gokey what time it is and you’ll tell me how to build a clock!  I don’t need to know all that crap..!”  I patronized him with,  “Oh, is the little darlin’ getting tired – he’s cranky, he needs his afternoon nap.  The mean old banjo player has upset him – jammed-up his mind and made it go tilt.  Does he want his bottle of warm milk – the one with the nipple on it?”  He started to say something and I went on, “You asked me to teach you how to play a banjo.  Learning the notes is the most important part of it all.  I’m the teacher and you’re the student.  If you don’t want to do it my way, hit the highway and don’t come back until you’re ready to learn it my way – and don’t give me any of your father’s redneck wise cracks!  Why don’t you get him to teach you how to play the 5-string?  Someday you’ll realize what I tried to do for you and you may even feel some remorse for the hard-nosed attitude you gave me when you were a wet behind the ears kid!”

 The Kid said he didn’t mean to upset me and he’d try to learn it “my way.”  I informed him that I had to go out of town on business for about three or four weeks and I’d write out what I just told him so he could learn it while I was gone.  I even drew out a chart of a 5-string neck and labeled the notes on every string at every fret for him and then topped it off by giving him an old Mel Bay Book of Musical Instruction.

As he went out my front door, he turned around and said, “I hope you don’t expect me to know every bit of this when you get back.”  I stood in the doorway and answered, “I could be gone for ten years and you’d still never know all of what I tried to get across to you today – practice, my lad, practice and study the great book of knowledge…”

I won’t write here what he yelled back as he started down the sidewalk; Hub wouldn’t print it!

To be continued if I can put-up with him…






Text Copyright ©1987 by Bill Gokey. All Rights Reserved. Used with permission. Reproduction in any form prohibited.

Edited 20 Jun 2007 by WF