Paul Hawthorne's Web Site

Gestalt Banjo?

Gestalt picture, could be vases or faces

gestalt - gë-shtalt, -talt, n., often attributed to German, 1. a structure of physical, biological or psychological phenomena so integrated as to constitute a functional unit with properties not derivable from its parts in summation, 2. the synergistic organization of a system, 3. the sudden completion that occurs when the last part is added, 4. The phenomenon of being able to view the whole in different ways interchangeably. This picture could be either a vase or two faces looking at each other. Both are valid ways of viewing it.

banjo - ban(,)jo, in southern U. S. often -jër, n., plausibly of African origin, similar to Kumbundu mbanzaÅ“, 1. a musical instrument of the guitar family with a long fretted neck, drumlike body and usually five strings which are strummed or plucked with the fingers, 2. phonetically similar to Japanese for toilet, loo, rest room, WC.

August 2020: I am finally investigating publishing the second edition of Gestalt Banjo. The details need to be worked out and that will take some time; no promises just yet.

If you want to be notified of developments, please use the contact form to express your interest.

This page previously had a link to "How to Order Gestalt Banjo." I have removed that link for now, hoping that something definitive will replace it. For Paul's last thoughts on how to get a copy, see his note.

In the world of fingerpicked (especially bluegrass) 5 string banjo, there is an essential and incontestable truth. If it is not played with precision and/ or drive, it just doesn't get it. Timing, tone, and power are all ultra important, and come from the picking hand. The unrealized truth is that tunes are less important. This is one of the big reasons why so many people quit, because by using traditional learning paths their playing does not sound like professional music in a reasonable time. And this is because of the usual focus on playing tunes instead of on learning to play the banjo. They are not the same.

Cover of Gestalt Banjo v1, eighth printing This book is unique. If the idea of learning to type before writing a novel makes sense to you, it follows that a thorough training of your picking hand would be wise before learning lots of tunes. With less information to keep track of and fewer decisions to make than with tunes, you will learn faster and better. This book provides a series of new, logical, believable and effective strategies to do just that, making it possible to learn to play any sequence of strings effortlessly. These strategies are valuable for all fingerpicking banjo players to utilize.

Cutting to the heart of the matter, since the traditional approaches have a 95%+ failure rate (people quit without learning to play), any truly alternate approach deserves examination. This happens to be a very valid one. You have found the new and better way. I devised it because after playing for 15 years, I still had rotten timing. I needed to fix my playing.

Gestalt Banjo presents different ways of understanding what is needed to play the same music than has been common in the past. This is just like the different ways of seeing the picture at the top to this page, or a major shift in the scientific way of looking at a system, like the shift of thinking of the earth as a flat to its being round. While the word gestalt is uncommon, it is the exact correct name for this book and these strategies, and that is why I have chosen it.

This is the very best information for training your right hand, and it also happens to be easier. Since there is no doubt that I am biased, here's what a few of the purchasers of this book have had to say:

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"Kudos on the book. My students are actually learning to play the banjo, not just muddle through tunes, and it's helped me develop a more versatile right hand. Who would have thought that after more than 25 years of playing I'd actually be able to improve my right hand attack. Nice work! ........I'm happy to support your efforts to revolutionize the art of banjo instruction."

Michael Telzrow, Richmond Hill, GA

"This should be required reading for every beginner. You explain a lot of the things I can never think of to ask my instructor while I am there but wonder about later.....

"My tutor just gave me Devil's Dream to work on. When she went over it in class she showed me note for note what I needed to do. It got real confusing real fast. But after class when I sat down and looked at the tab and broke it down into 4 note rolls it only took about two days to memorize it. Each day I can play it a little better than the day before. This is exciting stuff. Thank You!!

"The information in your book is not found in any other book I have, and I have a lot of them.... Your examples, word cues, breaking rolls down into 4's, roll elements, and practice suggestions all make complete sense to me."

Al Garvin, San Martin, CA

"I have given your book an in-depth read through and I am very impressed at the amount of thought and analysis you have given to the contents. Conceptually, the 4-note grouping of notes vs. 8 is very intriguing and I have begun work on that, with noticeable progress....

"You are the first person I have ever heard recommend versatility/flexibility in right hand position other than the x and y positions that every Scruggsian instructor speaks of...."

Randy Dockery, Germantown, TN

"Seeing your post on Acutab today prompts me to tell you about my success with your book. I've been using it for about 3 months, off and on, and have found two things to be most useful, so far.

"1. Learning an effective way to practice rolls with a metronome and rotating the beat between thumb, index, and middle. Although you didn't spell it out exactly like that, when I hit page 40 it suddenly clicked and over the past month it has made a noticeable improvement in my timing and melody note emphasis.

"2. Learning to play "Fireball Mail". Amazing how one tune incorporates such essential elements of the bluegrass "feel". Never would have thought to learn it at this stage if you hadn't mentioned it."

Terry Tombaugh, Albuquerque, NM

"I think your book should be required reading to everyone who owns a banjo. "Gestalt Banjo" should come bundled with every new banjo just like Windows comes bundled with every new computer."

Jack Cammack, Birmingham, Alabama

".....I was (once again) pleasantly surprised- it is a remarkable work. It is a superb instructional synthesis of original musical insight, advanced learning theory, human factors engineering including very sound ergonomic and engineering analysis and captures the essence of bluegrass banjo to boot. (Coincidentally these are all areas that I have some formal professional background in- other than the essence of bluegrass banjo and being born and raised listening to it in West Virginia for 35 years probably covers that.) The book is a work of genius. It is recommended reading even if you don't play banjo."

Tom Ambrose, Tehachapi CA

"I enjoyed your book very much although I may have to read it through a couple of times or so to get a thorough understanding. I'm looking forward to Volume II. Thanks for giving me just enough on your website to help me to know I wanted the book. The book didn't look very big, but I found it packed with information that will take some time to work through, although it will be my pleasure to do so."

Greg Smith, Frederick MD

"I've had my copy of Gestalt Banjo for a little less than a month, and I wanted to give you feedback on it.

"I've been playing the 5 string banjo for over twenty years, professionally, semi-pro, and for my own delight, and Gestalt Banjo is the easily the finest, most helpful banjo book that I have ever bought. Period. It is also one of the most insightful books about the process of learning and making music, too.

"Your book is absolutely not just for beginners; one of your suggestions for holding the right hand solved a technical limitation that has frustrated me for over twenty years. By curling my ring and pinky up towards my palm, I can finally play single-string rolls! On any string! Without any misses or overstrikes! (This is a HUGE deal to me, since I got turned onto Irish music way back before it was well known, and could never get the triplet rolls or fiddle-esque 'burrls' on one string. I would literally stare at my fingers, trying to will them to all strike the same string. But I could not control the extension of the first joint of my middle finger when playing on only one string. I tried everything--finger control exercises, mental imaging, playing incredibly slowly--and nothing worked. UNTIL I pulled my ring/pinky up to my palm, per your suggestion. Almost instantly, complete control over my single-string rolls.)

"This alone would make the book worth four or five or fifty times what I paid for it. I walk around the house playing Irish tunes and throwing in ornaments madly, because I finally can! I'm really grateful to you for opening this door for me.

"You have an extremely rare combination of careful analysis and clear teaching methods; other banjo/music books have offered intense musical or technical analysis but then leave the 'how do I learn this, and how does it apply to my playing' up to the reader. I was left being both grateful to you for sharing your hard-earned perceptions with us, and wondering what you do for a living, since you seem to have both a mathematical/engineering orientation *and* a humanistic, felt-sense awareness.

"I'll keep you posted on more results from going through the book. I actually haven't gotten to playing the roll elements yet, since the release of the single-string roll has sent me back to all my Irish tapes and CD's, absorbing and playing along.

"Thanks so much."

TJ Sutherland , Berkeley, California

"Got your book, and it is fantastic.

"I have been a real student about trying to find out what it means to play "on top of" or "ahead of" the beat, or how to play with "pop". I could not find it spelled out anywhere in a meaningful way. Your book is the first time the light went ON for me.

"I have worked hard for three years to really learn to play the banjo, and I was looking for the link from conventional teaching and tab to REALLY LEARNING the instrument. Your book is IT. You clearly understand a great deal about effective learning methods.

"Hurry up and finish Volume 2."

Ford Reiche, Cumberland, Maine

"I have studied your book, it has helped me so much I can't begin to tell you. I am a 6 month player and without your book I would have gone nowhere. Thanks a million."

Keith Sutton, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

"I just wanted to mention that really appreciate your site and your book. I started off practicing a lot without picks, and then had big troublein trying to use them. Basically I had to relearn everything, and I have to admit I am still a beginner three years after buying my first banjo, but now at least the intermediate level is in sight. All my troubles have been in the right hand, so finding a book which digs deeply into that was very good. The play and relax technique helped me get rid of some tension and now I am on my way to finally really getting the basic rolls (or roll elements if you prefer) down. But the most important piece of advice was the one about not giving up no matter what. It seems to have worked.


Fredrik Heyman, Upsala, Sweden

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Gestalt Banjo Vol. 1 - Shortcuts to Learning the Picking Hand contains information and ideas that will benefit 99%+ of all banjo players, from those playing a few weeks to seasoned professionals looking for new ideas. This may sound far fetched, however, it happens to be so.

It is not the same old fare of rolls and tunes; rather it is an accelerating catalyst to existing instruction materials. It is a way of getting unstuck. There is a lot of detail about how you can optimize your own unique hand and body for minimum strain and for desired tone. A logical and concise method is offered to develop a flawless sense of timing with total flexibility.

picking hand with minimal bending of the tendons There are numerous clear drawings about your physical body and unique graphical illustrations of what is really going on in music. Included is a clear and understandable explanation of the elusive *3 against 4* sound of the forward roll that is intrinsic to bluegrass banjo, and how to play it with ease. This one discussion alone could be worth far more than the asked price if you have been struggling with conventional methods.

The words bounce, drive, and pushing the beat are often bandied around without any real conception of what they are, other than they are desirable to make music interesting and we all know when they are missing. I provide clear descriptions of what they really mean in a physical sense as well as in a musical one. These descriptions are to help you the logical part of your mind grasp the ideas, to help you make a connection with the sound qualities. They are the best descriptions of these imprecise terms available anywhere. There are also a large number of outside resources listed, which are updated with each printing.

It is organized to be a reference, even though the information is presented in a logical progression. Immersion is a key. You are encouraged to become an active part of the process, on the way to becoming your own best tutor. This is very different from the usual idea of a teacher or a book pouring in external knowledge. It is often advertised that a book, video, or whatever is the "magic bullet" that will turn you into a great player overnight, just spend money and your problems are solved. I don't want to convey that idea here. It just ain't a'gonna happen that way--ever. These strategies will definitely shorten the process though, and you will still have to do the learning.

It is reasonable for you to ask as to what are some of the specifics of these strategies. There is a sample section of the book available and two of the appendices (5), (6), as well as the Table of Contents with a short description of each section. The sample section and appendices have PDF files for your convenience.

I want to emphasize, nay shout: The entire idea is to use the strategies and concepts get to the point where you never think about which finger does the picking. It is to train your picking hand to follow the needs of your choice of notes. Thinking of which finger to use while playing is destructive to effortless, smooth, powerful, dynamic... you supply the adjectives....playing. In other words, learn the concepts, internalize them, and then pretty much forget the whole process...because the process is not the doing.

This is a self published project. It is a clear presentation with illustrations, musical examples, footnotes and references. I have been very detail conscious in its format, even to the point of using an oversize binding so the pages are less likely to be torn out so and it will easily lay open flat on your table.

I'll add one final piece of information. I believe in results, and to really prove the strategies, I taught myself to play left handed. They will work for you if you apply them. Then you will be able to tell other banjo players of your successes if you wish. Word of mouth is what will really bring these strategies into the genre.

If you have read this far, thanks for your interest. All the best to you and your music.

Paul Hawthorne
Bear Valley Springs, Tehachapi, California

Paul was working on some early drafts of sections of what he called Gestalt Banjo volumes zero and two. In addition, he had started one section on swing for a volume one update. Here are the links to those sections.

Volume Two, on the fretting hand, was a natural successor to Volume One that Paul had been thinking about for years.

The idea for Volume Zero came to Paul in early 2006 and excited him tremendously. It was an outgrowth of his study of effective learning. He felt he could make a significant contribution if he could help beginning players avoid the traps that lead to frustration and, worse, abandonment.


Last Updated 15 Jul 2006 by PJH

Edited 03 Aug 2020 by WF