Archive for the ‘Banjo’ Category

Creative Processes and Products- Order and Chaos in Dialogue

March 5, 2016

Jim Simmons no guitar

By Jim Simmons

When beginning to write your own music, you will quickly discover the need to record your ideas. Soon after this discovery, another usually follows: namely, the need to make decisions about the ideas that have emerged.

These two problems have many solutions, and that is a good thing, because as you grow in your craft, so too, will your craft change. Even stranger is the fact that your creative process will also undergo its own changes and life cycles. Let me give an example:

Genesis used to write all of her chords down on paper, with the lyrics underneath, but now that her guitar technique has improved beyond simple chord playing, she’s found it difficult to describe what her guitar accompaniment is doing with words, letters, and symbols on paper. After trying to notate riffs and ideas simply by labeling them as they occurred (idea 1, idea 2), she became frustrated at never quite remembering what she had played. So, then Genesis began to video herself playing the ideas.

Now, what could some of the hidden difficulties be in the new approach? Perhaps our song writer still has the necessary and difficult task of sifting and choosing before her, and this may not just apply to different sections of the song—perhaps, she’s discovered there are two versions of a section that seem equally satisfying, and she can’t choose between them.

I have recently been undergoing certain changes in my own creative process, similar to the ones described above. I want to offer a few encouragements to any creators out there who’ve struggled with such challenges.

First of all, your song, project, piece, whatever it is—it doesn’t have to be the end-all-of-all perfect artistic/musical statement that you make. So, don’t feel the need to put all of your ideas into one song/piece/etc. Hopefully, you’ll write more in the future, so leave something else to say for later projects. Secondly, if you have differing versions of a musical section, that may be a good thing, since deliberate variations often lend interest to the listener. Regarding creative process, remember that just because it’s a “process” doesn’t mean it has to be systematic. It’s true that sifting through videos, audio recordings, lead sheets, and other sorts of sketches can be a chore, but such work will always bear fruit. Even if you wind up creating “too much” material, you may eventually use some of the leftovers to get you started on another work.

Lastly, creativity is, in my mind, more a way of life than a means to an end. It’s true that an artist should seek to share their work with others, and that it’s a shame when an artist never gets their ideas out of their head. But, similarly tragic is an artist haunted by perfectionism and the fear of failure. As good as you (and I) want that song, or piece, or project to end up sounding, creating music and art are values in-and-of-themselves. So, on one hand, be passionate about the quality of your finished product. But, on the other hand, be free, messy, methodical, imperfect, and committed to the chaotic, ordering process of creativity.

Here are some videos documenting a piece as it grew. I was sick at the time, and not very concerned with my playing technique, so some of the notes sound pretty bad, and some of the videos end with me more frustrated than satisfied, but I am so glad I can now reference these for the new version of the piece that is now underway.


Happy Creating!

Jim Simmons


Part 1


Part 2


Part 3


Part 4


Part 5


Part 6


Changing Your Banjo Strings

March 12, 2012

Want to learn how to tune your own banjo strings? Check out the latest video by Lesson Studio Instructor, Wilson Harwood!

ImageChanging Your Strings for the 5 String Banjo:

The Cluck

October 2, 2011

by Wilson Harwood, Banjo, Uke, Guitar and Bass Instructor at The Lesson Studio

Wilson Harwood, Banjo, Uke, Guitar, Bass Instructor at The Lesson Studio

Wilson Harwood

It has been a great pleasure and somewhat frustrating task to learn the cluck.  Until a month ago I didn’t even know what the cluck is.  For those of you who are also wondering what the cluck is I will give you my own definition.  The cluck is a technique used by claw-hammer/old time banjo players.  It is used as a percussive accent where the players uses the nail of the middle finger to strike a string and then immediately stop the string with the index finger nail resulting in a resonant “cluck.”  Those last two sentences are much easier written than performed. The cluck is not easy and I have had trouble creating the perfect resonance each time. With some steady practice you to can cluck!

If you are starting out learning the cluck, bring your middle and index finger together so they are touching. Next put your index finger slightly behind your middle finger so that it is touching the underside  of you middle finger.  Now strike the middle G string with the outside of your middle finger nail and let your index finger follow through and stop the sound of the string. If done correctly you will get a loud resounding “cluck.”  Practice this method slowly and deliberately at first and then work in the frailing pattern.  The cluck replaces the strum or “dit” when you frail.

Below are some helpful resources to learn more about the cluck:

And some more descriptions on clucking:

5 Resources That Will Enhance Practice Outside of Your Lesson

April 3, 2011

By Wilson Harwood, Guitar, Banjo & Bass Instructor at The Lesson Studio

Wilson Harwood, Guitar, Banjo & Bass Instructor at The Lesson Studio

Wilson Harwood


Many ambitious musicians choose to save a few dollars by teaching themselves.  I, myself, fall into this category as a banjo player. I currently take lessons for classical guitar, but cannot afford/find time for banjo lessons. As a teacher and student I am a huge advocate of learning from a teacher because it speeds up the learning process while also keeping you focused.  However, I also know that due to finances and time, many people choose to teach themselves at some point or another.  Below is a list of five resources that will enhance your lessons or help guide you if your not currently taking lessons.


1) Youtube:


At the top of the list is everyone’s best friend, Youtube. If you haven’t used it as a tool yet then do a search of your favorite song. Chances are you will find a lesson along with the recording of the song. Youtube is also a great way to get inspired.


2) UltimateGuitarTab:


Everyone has heard or experienced finding tab online only to realize something just doesn’t sound right.  I recommend this resource with a bit of caution.  I find tab to really speed up the learning process and can help you navigate the fret board when learning by ear fails you.  Use tab as an aid, but not the sole source for learning a song.  Try using the tab to help you while also learning by ear or on Youtube.


3) Books, Books, and More Books.


It feels overwhelming to step into a music shop and browse the books they have. Many seem either to easy, to hard, or simply don’t make sense.  Some guidelines when choosing a book are:

a)     Look for concise wording with out to much clutter on the pages.

b)     Look for books with CD’s or DVD’s. They really do help.

c)      Hal Leonard and Mel Bay are good beginner publishers, but may seem boring to the advancing musician.

d)     Try to stay away from books with extensive chord diagrams. I find many songbooks derive from piano parts not guitar parts.


4) Jam Sessions, Friends, Neighbors, Ensembles


Here at the lesson studio we teach ensembles to give students experience playing with others.  Private lessons are great instructional tools, but they will not give you experience playing with people.  Go to jams or open mic nights to play or simply watch.  You might meet others who would like to play on a regular basis.  If you have friends or family that also play, ask them if they would like to start a group or a regular jam session.  Mainly, until you play with others you will not feel the immense improvement it will bring to your playing.


5) Blogs and Music Subscription Services:


Hey, look, you are reading this blog and learning about some new techniques. Check out some other blogs such as,, Blogs will introduce you to new music, ideas, and musicians. They are a great way to get connected to the musical style you like.


Lastly, if time is your problem than maybe online lessons are the right choice.  More and more teachers are selling tab or full videos online.  I have come across a great site for metal guitarist at Kristofer Dahl is from Sweden and is a bit of a character, but also a great teacher.


Remember, these resources are helpful in enhancing your lessons with a teacher face to face.  I cannot emphasize enough the value in taking regular lessons.  If you have to take a break from lessons, use this advice to help keep you on track until you start lessons again.



July 15, 2010
Wilson Harwood, Banjo/Guitar/Bass Instructor at The Lesson Studio

Wilson Harwood

By Wilson Harwood, Banjo/Guitar/Bass Instructor at The Lesson Studio

I am sure we have all read books, been to classes, and heard our music teachers talk about practicing. I am going to add to the discussion in hopes that a simplistic approach may turn you on to the daunting task of practicing.

In Tina Lynn’s book, “What I wish I knew when I was 20” she states that things are best managed in threes. Using Tina’s advice I found that practicing is also best managed in tasks of three. Start your practice session with a warm-up.  Without warming up our tendons are too tight to play our instruments. They need to stretch and ease into our playing.  Warming up could be running through scales and arpeggios or it could mean playing a simple song that doesn’t require much strength.  The choice of  a warm up is up to you and is best if it is something you are working on. Examples of warm-ups include working on vocal pitch, exercises with a scale, or playing through the chords to a song.

After warming-up we move on to the second part of practice.  The goal is to focus.  I think everyone feels that they have so much to learn that 30 minutes of practice will never lead them anywhere.  The truth is that little steps towards a goal will be much more rewarding than trying to practice a handful of things at once.  For your second and third parts of practicing pick two things you really want to learn. This could be a technique, memorizing song lyrics, or working on a lead. The important part is to narrow exactly what it is that you want to accomplish. The more focused that goal is, the easier it is to practice.

Now that you have chosen a warm-up and two goals to work on you are ready to sit down and practice. Hear are some tips while practicing:

  • If you are feeling frustrated with one of your goals, move on to the next or take a break. Walk around the block and get some fresh air and then come back.
  • Engage your mind. Write on your music and try to visualize how you would play a part on your instrument. Interact with your music and try to avoid passive noodling around.
  • Practice without your instrument.  Listen to the songs you are learning. Test yourself by saying note names if you are learning to read music.  Practicing does not have to mean playing your instrument.

Here is the simple re-cap:

  1. Warm-UP
  2. Practice Goal 1
  3. Practice Goal 2

Its up to you how long you spend on each part.  Remember to practice the same goal at least three days in a row to really sink it in to your brain. Most of all have fun feeling that you are accomplishing your objectives.

Can You See What You’re Playing? And I’m not talking about the notes on the page.

March 9, 2010

By Hollie Bennett, Intern at The Lesson Studio

You know you’re a true music nerd when you start finding all the similarities between everything you do or see and how it could relate to music. And you know you’re especially bad when you just see something and bam! Now that you watched that special on the Discovery channel about outer space, you know how you can explain vibrato to the twelve year old. But really, finding those parallels between, let’s just call it this for fun, the “real world” and the “music world” can help you understand exactly what you’re doing even more than before.

Imagery is such a staple part in music, at least for me. Hearing a piece of music that really attaches itself to me makes me feel in colors, imagine stories and truly understand the emotion that the composer or performer was trying to convey. Part of me thinks that as a musician that is your true purpose in life is to tell the story, show the audience what is happening, even if you don’t know, you need to show that you do. Sometimes doing crazy things like pulling out your box of 64 Crayola crayons that you haven’t used since the fourth grade and literally coloring your music the color that you thinks conveys each part of your piece can do wonders. Even making up words to go along with what you’re playing or seeing a story that can play out in your head can get the emotional and expressive side to connect with the technical of your playing.

One of my favorite topics to bring up to students is the Olympics. I’ve probably been driving my students crazy trying to convince them to watch everything from figure skating to the super-g to curling. The parallels between musicians and athletes are really interesting to me. How much work each party puts into perfecting their own craft is mind blowing: hours in practice versus hours on the ice or snow. You can find so many similarities. Figure skating spins and trills is one of my own teacher’s favorite analogies. You can also think of the idea of balancing between technique and musicality as the way a speed skater like Apolo Ohno and J.R. Celski balance around their turns with speed skating. So go out and try to find those parallels and start imagining them will you play. It might just help even more than you’d think!

How to Excel Locally, by Wilson Harwood, Guitar and Banjo Instructor

November 18, 2009

In my experience there is nothing to help you improve your playing more than to go out and play with other musicians. To me, this is the greatest part of playing and one of the strongest ways to improve song repertoire, inspiration, rhythm and countless other nuances in your playing. We cannot forget to mention it is a whole lot of fun as well. So, for those of you in the Boulder area, here are some places to start getting out and playing. I am speaking from the perspective of a bluegrass and old time enthusiast, but this advice could help any musician.

To start, let’s talk bluegrass. It just so happens there is a Colorado Bluegrass Music Society. Their website has a great page devoted to “Jams”. On Tuesday there is a jam in Lyons at Oskar Blues. I haven’t made it up to this one, but I hear it is a big one with lots of incredible players. On Wednesday, check out “The Big Pick Bluegrass Jam” at the Pioneer Inn up in Nederland. In our very own Boulder, Abo’s Pizza hosts a Thursday night jam at 7pm. Always call ahead to check times. Those were just some local examples, but there are many more in Fort Collins, Denver, Loveland and more!

So now you have picked a bit, how about seeing some pros. If you check out KGNU‘s website, you will find a list of upcoming bluegrass shows around town, both in large venues and tiny hole-in-the-wall bars. Seeing shows is also an integral ingredient in your education (I know — life is hard; right?). Check out the Southern Sun Pub to see show times and jam times, not to mention great beer.

When I said excel locally, I really meant locally. The best way to play more than once and with those at your level is to ask friends, co-workers, and neighbors if they want to jam. Try it out and if you find it to be to easy or hard or just bad chemistry, keep looking. If it works, try to play once a week. Having a goal with a group is a great way to get motivated. Hope this first blog helps a lot.

Next time I am going to write a bit about Santeria and the music of Cuba.

Have questions for Wilson, or would you like to schedule a lesson with Wilson at The Lesson Studio? Call 303-543-3777 or e-mail: thelessonstudio@comcast.netbanjo instructor, guitar instructor, The Lesson Studio

Winter/Spring Semester Registration Begins

November 12, 2009

On Monday, November 16, 2009, The Lesson Studio (TLS) will begin its Winter/Spring Semester registration!

The dates for our Winter/Spring Semester 2010 are: January 9 – May 21, 2010

TLS has instructors for guitar, piano, voice, drums, bass, violin, viola, saxophone, clarinet, trombone, trumpet, tuba, euphonium, ukelele, oboe, cello, flute, mandolin and banjo! We also offer music therapy, a free workshop series, and summer music camp. We have an in-store drop-off/pickup for instrument repair. Included with your semester tuition are weekly instruction with the teacher of your choice; supplies including weekly goal sheets, staff paper, CDs, and music charts; assistance from three administrative staff people; free Wi-Fi in the reception area; 10% off coupon for a local music store; and best of all, an end-of-semester recital! Our Fall recital is held at the Old Main Chapel at CU and our Spring recital is held ON STAGE at the Boulder Creek Festival!

If you are a current student, be sure to let our staff know if you prefer the same day/time or a new time slot for your music lesson. If you are new to The Lesson Studio, please call 303-543-3777 for your FREE CONSULTATION today!

As always, please visit for more information.The Lesson Studio logo