Enda Scahill’s Banjo Tutor

Enda Scahill’s Banjo Tutor

A North American View

Enda Scahill’s Banjo Tutor: A Review

When Mick Moloney told me that Enda Scahill, the prominent Irish tenor banjo player, had a banjo tutor coming out I was excited. Mick stated categorically that this was going to be the best book/CD combination of its type so my expectations were high, to say the least.

I probably have every Irish banjo tutorial including Gerry O’Connor’s tapes/CDs/books/CD-ROM and Sully’s tapes/books, have read everything that there is on the Net in the way of “how-to” and have taken classes with a number of prominent players after which I have tried to find the essence of the class and write about it at http://www.banjosessions.com. When “Enda Scahill’s Irish Banjo Tutor” arrived yesterday, I eagerly dove into it to see if it lived up to the hype.

I received two books, the tutor and an accompanying TAB version of the tunes. While I don’t use TAB at all, I knew that this addendum was specifically written for the overseas market so I felt that I could not review it for North American readers unless I looked at that part too. (By the way, the postage was USD13 from Ireland which is included in the price, maybe Enda can work out a distribution deal with Mel Bay.)

The tutor is 76 pages and two CDs of exercises and tunes. A lot of thought went into the design of the book and you can tell that this is a labor of love and teaching experience. The TAB book is in black and white and designed to substitute TAB for notation.

Churchill once observed that the United States and Great Britain were “two countries divided by a common language.” North American users might find some of the usage a little different, but once you change your vocabulary the meaning becomes quite clear. Here are a few translations: pluck = pick; plectrum = pick; velum = head; quaver = eighth note; crochet = quarter note. Most of the rest is the same.

It is a little strange at first to find a long section on “Correct Plucking” and not think about chickens, but you get used to it. And as you will see, “correct plucking” is the essence of the book.

The tutor starts out with very basic technique including holding the banjo, good posture and alignment and the admonition to RELAX. Don’t skip over this part, relaxation is the key to good technique and later on to both speed and precision. I suspect that this is the least understood aspect of banjo playing yet there is no performance skill in any field that does not require relaxation in order to be quick and efficient. If you are relaxed then only those muscles needed to perform are working. Any use of other muscle groups will only slow you down or change your posture leading to poor performance. Next comes correct alignment, right and left hand placement and how to hold the pick/plectrum.

A lot of this is already familiar to many of you, but don’t overlook it. The pick hold was especially important to me since I hold my pick exactly the same way Enda does while Mick Moloney told me he held it “the wrong way” but was too far along to change. The main point of holding the pick is written in all capitals: “DO NOT SQUEEZE!” which is very good advice and goes along with the relaxation meme.

If you go to the web site (http://endascahill.com/Enda_Scahill…ll_Home.html) you will see that one of the main selling points is a “structured set of rules for plucking” that is the heart of his system. Once you are automatically using the system, you can advance fairly quickly to more interesting things. In any performance field basic technique has to be learned and internalized before the more sophisticated techniques can happen. Otherwise you are just going through the motions and will never achieve the consistency and efficiency that hallmarks master level players. In addition you will never achieve any kind of style. It is clear that Enda understands this concept because he is very adamant that you always play this way. (“Always means Always” he says although there is one exception.) From this base he builds the rest of ideas all the way into very advanced playing.

This is what I really like about the tutorial. It is comprehensive and complete built around a logical system of right hand use. He calls the right hand the engine of the music. This is an insight shared by almost every teacher I have come across (Andy Statman, Peter Ostroushko, Gerry O’Connor, Roland White all said exactly the same thing) and it is my experience that right hand technique has to be learned before you can improve. The entire book is mostly about developing right hand technique.

He does touch on left hand techniques, but only to show how he does it. In the back of the book there is a fretboard map and fingering chart which uses mandolin fingering, the most popular method around. But he refers you to the map when he discusses left hand and only when he talks about reaching the high B (and at one point a high C#) does he become more specific.

I play a different system of left hand, the cello method learned from Gerry O’Connor, but the differences regarding the problem of second and third position are so little that I found his ideas helpful. The main point is that left hand technique is not anywhere as important as right hand technique. Andy Statman says that the differential is 90/10 in favor of the right hand.

More advanced players may find the CDs a little boring as Enda plays the majority of tunes slowly and clearly. Don’t be fooled by this. If you skip over these tunes you are missing out on the basic technique and later on you may find yourself in trouble if you try some of the more advanced stuff. In addition the advanced material is very good, especially the part on variation.

Those of you who grew up with bluegrass or old time music will appreciate the part about variation. I find that I have no problems at all using variation in American styles of music. It seems to come naturally and most likely is the product of years of listening to the music. Variation in Irish music is more difficult for me because I am not thinking in those terms yet. I can understand them when I hear them but I don’t incorporate the “Irish” changes automatically. The section on variation was very valuable to me and is one I will have to go over time and again. When I coupled it with listening to my Enda Scahill CDs, it makes even more sense.

Overall and in particular this book is worth the money and the wait. It is, as Mick Moloney stated, the most comprehensive book on the subject, but more important it is a book with a logical system and clear goals for the student. In addition it teaches a large number of tunes that you will enjoy. Each tune is played on the CDs and each tune has a lesson to teach.

Are there problems with the book? Yes, sort of, mostly very little things. For example when discussing his string choices he puts them in mm sizes that have to be wrong (I think he meant inches instead and then off by a power – his string range is .040 in to .011 in., not .40 mm which would be .015 in.) On the other hand his advice about a wound A string is great.

Initially I objected to the term “velum” thinking it was a misspelling. However he is correct. “Vellum” is a calf skin, “velum” is any membrane. Of course we know it as a “head.”

My advice is to get this book, read it through many times and listen to the CDs over and over. If you are able to, go to a workshop or tutorial featuring Enda Scahill, he obviously knows what he is doing.

MJ Keyes
13 December 2008

Mike Keyes

Re: Enda Scahill’s Banjo Tutor

Good review. My copy arrived today -took just five days and I’m in Bangkok. Looks great and I can’t wait to have a crack at it over the holidays. Found the discussion on strings useful as well as all the detail on plucking. There are also quite a few pages on various kinds of ornamentation and variation and while the tunes (apart from the advanced tunes) are played really slowly it is good that he jumps you straight in with the reels -and the slow speed obviously helps. I’ll be a better player for it by the time I get through it all -ta me buioch diot Enda!

Re: Enda Scahill’s Banjo Tutor

I’ve already forwarded this information on to relevant plucky friends… I do love it when someone’s hard work results in advances for us all, such as this kind of welcomed guidance, and well deserved positive reviews and praise…

Re: Enda Scahill’s Banjo Tutor

I bought it also , its good , but the majority of the tunes are played extremely slowly and only a few tunes are played at normal speed at the end of the second CD. Some of the tunes I don’t like.He includes 2 of his compositions and maybe iit would have been better to include tunes that have been around for decades and are more well known I would have liked more reels on the discs and some reels played at 2/3 tempo would have been useful, of course we can always adjust the speed with Amazing Slow Downer or similar

Re: Enda Scahill’s Banjo Tutor

Unfortunately I have to wait until Christmas for my copy. Looking forward to it though!

Re: Enda Scahill’s Banjo Tutor

Hey Enda, why not take advantage of your website to record some MP3s of the tunes played up to full speed, ornamented, and such. You could record them cheaply (hand held field recorder) and create a companion to the book. I think that’d be pretty cool.

Re: Enda Scahill’s Banjo Tutor

Good idea Drinkybanjo.

Re: Enda Scahill’s Banjo Tutor

Hi Red Robin,

Sounds like you’ll be a candidate for my Advanced Irish Banjo Tutor - my next project!!

Re: Enda Scahill’s Banjo Tutor

Yes ! I will definitely buy it if its as good as this one but I have a way to go first with your first one and it’ll help me get rid of a few bad habits..Excellent idea by Drinkybanjo to put up MP3s of the tunes played at speed on your website.

Enda Scahill’s Tenor Banjo Tutor I & II - in discussion


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Enda Scahill Banjo Tutor Volume II - Mike Keyes views
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