Dirk Bertels

The greatest malfunction of spirit
is to believe things (Louis Pasteur)


Practical application of contemporary and classical music theory to the five string banjo

A book for the serious musician!


Exploring music with the 5 string banjo is the result of several years of writing. It aims to bring something new to the already profuse material on the 5 string banjo. It stands apart from these other books in that it is aimed at the serious musician, whatever his or her level may be. 150 + A4 pages of text, tables, diagrams, tabs and music notation.

Beginners are advised to use this book in addition to a structured learning program, preferably guided by a teacher.

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Excerpt: Introduction

Many of the five string banjo's potentialities have remained untapped so far. This is somewhat surprising given its uniqueness, with its skin soundboard and that peculiar short string on top. Its current use in folk music however, is not surprising. Many instruments that are now more 'seriously' regarded had their debut in folk music. This book is all about unlocking some of the five string banjo's potentialities.

For a while there I was contemplating the somewhat whimsical title 'Learn the banjo in 50 years', but that would give the wrong impression since this is not really intended to be a teaching system of sorts. This book is more about exploring musical ideas, some quite novel, and relating these ideas to the current music theory sylllabus. In addition to this, some well established music principles are discussed from what I believe to be more reasonable perspectives. Hopefully this will inspire readers to enrich their current music vocabulary and maybe even venture outside the realms of classic five string banjo styles into different musical areas.

Intended audience

There is enough variety of topics in this book to appeal to a wide audience. For some topics a basic knowledge of music theory is required; for others the theory gets more advanced. There is material for the beginner as well; some fundamental concepts are touched upon in a fresh light, which should complement the musician's current understanding of music theory. Grasping music theory takes time, and people will be at various levels regarding this, but it is not rocket science after all; most of the work is done putting the theory into practice (the 99% labour versus 1% knowledge thing).

Covered material

Musical ideas need to be based on solid theory, so the first section is essentially a crash course in standard music theory applied to the banjo. The aim is not to teach these systematically - other books are better suited and more qualified to do this (Pat Cloud's books come to mind) - but to give the reader some fresh insights and translate these ideas to the banjo.

Things get a litle more practical in the second section, discussing topics such as basic shapes, alterations and progressions. The first of these, basic shapes, divides the banjo into three main areas and presents a compendium-like overview of scales, harmonies and licks for each of these areas. This section also employs a rather novel way of using charts to create chord progressions.

The third section is the most systematic of all and goes right back to basics using tetrachords as building blocks. It then gradually moves into more advanced areas such as minor scales, alterations and progressions. There is a practical advantage here: the five string banjo is ideally suited to explore tetrachords, giving the musician the opportunity to utilise the banjo's 5th string to the fullest. [It may seem to the reader that this section belongs to the beginning, but there is a reason for putting it here; a fair amount of background is needed to build the language needed in order to convey new ideas, however basic these ideas may be].

The last section discusses more individual topics such as rhythm and phrasing (using examples from John Hartford), African patterns and a study on rolls (the non-edible type).

Though heavily based on theory, all practical examples are the result of practice and experimentation, material from which readers can construct their own exercises and derive fresh musical ideas. Always keep in mind that the five string banjo in its current guise is a relatively new instrument and has been in existence little more than a hundred years. Compare this with the six hundred year old history of the violin, which b.t.w. originated as a folk instrument as well. This fact, together with the banjo's unique layout and playing technique, provides fertile ground for experimentation and inventiveness.

Excerpt: Table of Contents


Exploring music with the 5 string banjo
Intended audience
Covered material
General Notes
Common music terminology
Technique-related terminology
Scale - Key - Tonality - Mode
The practical side of mastering an instrument
Understanding how the brain learns
Learning about the instrument
Grasp of fundamental music theory

Section I: Music theory applied to the 5 string banjo

The circle of fifths
Creating the circle of fifths - procedure
Resulting scales
Further considerations
Pentatonic scale modes
Pentatonic scale examples
Uses of minor pentatonic in a major tonality
Second mode pentatonic
The major tonality modes
The 7 modalities in G major
Minor scales and tonalities
The various types of minor scales
Melodic minor as a tonality
The melodic minor scale
Using melodic minor modes to alter notes in the major modes
The altered mode
The easy way to incorporate altered scales
The hard way to incorporate altered scales
Minor tonality examples
The melodic minor modality for D7
Using the altered scale on the tonic
Harmonic minor modality for D7
Examples of combinations
Examples incorporating tritones in melodie
Using diminished chords
The 3 types of diminished chords
Use of diminished harmony

Section II: Shapes and Progressions

The 3 basic shapes
Key positions and basic shapes
Chords and licks with root on the D string
Major chord
Major scale
Major pentatonic scale
Standard chords
Modal triads
F shape partial and variation
Various licks in D
Chords and licks with root on the B string
Major chord
Major scale
Major pentatonic scale
Standard chords
Modal triads
D shape partial
Extension notes
Chromatic lick
The Imaj6/9 sound
Chords and licks with root on the G string
Major chord
Major scale
Major pentatonic scale
Standard chords
Modal triads
Blues licks
Licks in D
Combining shapes
Harmonising the major scale
Altered notes and progressions
Dynamics within the major tonality
The 3 pillars in the major tonality
Progressions in a major tonality
Progressing in thirds or sixths
Progressing in seconds or sevenths
Progressing in fourths or fifths
A case for the dominant seventh (V7)
Using triads to create alterations
Practical examples
Using inversions in progressions
Combining the 3 types of inversions
Triple meter patterns
Duple meter patterns

Section III: Tetrachords

Tetrachords in the major tonality
The fundamental tetrachord
The tetrachord circle of fourths
Constructing major tonality using tetrachords
Deriving the 4 types of tetrachords
Tetrachords in the major scale modes
Introducing tetrachords to the 5 string banjo
Tetrachords based on the B string - single string style
Modal movements
Relating symmetry using tetrachords
Combining triads with tetrachords
Tetrachord/chord combination
Tetrachord symmetry
Adding bass to tetrachords
Salsa style licks
Tetrachords based on the D string - single string style
Modal movements
Tetrachord symmetry
Tetrachords based on the G string - single string style
Modal movements
Combining triads with tetrachords
Tetrachord symmetry
Melodic minor tetrachords - single string style
Tetrachords based on the B string - arpa style
3 note / 3 string patterns
6 note / 3 string patterns
Simple combinations
Altered combinations
Difficult combinations
Other 3 string RH patterns
Examples based on the patterns
Further examples
Longer phrases
Phrases spanning several degrees
Skipping degrees
Melodic phrases
Combining triads with tetrachords - arpa style
Examples in F
Examples in D
Mixed mode examples
Modal phrases
Melodic minor tetrachords - arpa style
Using melodic minor in minor keys
Using melodic minor to alter notes in the major modes

Section III: Tetrachords (continued)

Applying alteration to tetrachords - arpa style
The b7
b7 examples in G
The b3
b3 examples in G
Other examples
Combining b7 and b3
Triad with second scale fragment - arpa style
General examples
Examples using ornamentation
Shifting keys
Fourths-fifths modulation wheel
Examples fourth modulations

Section IV: Individual topics

African style patterns
Bb patterns - fifth string is sixth of the scale
C patterns - fifth string is fifth of the scale
D patterns - fifth string is fourth of the scale
G patterns - fifth string is root of the scale
John Hartford's rhythmic inventiveness
Classification of excerpts
Idiosyncrasies of the 5 string banjo
Playing technique
The uniqueness of the 5 string banjo
A study on rolls
In the beginning there were 2 and 3 (again)
Patterns of 2
Patterns of 3
Patterns of 4
Patterns of 6
Simple progressions