I just want to take a moment to wish everyone a Merry Christmas (or a respectful Happy Holidays for those so inclined)! Of course I have an ulterior motive. . . I was teaching a lesson the other day, and the subject turned to Christmas songs. The old fashioned sing-along Christmas carols that we all grew up with and love are—for better or worse—permanently emblazoned on our memories (my apologies for assuming that you grew up with them—no offense intended if you didn’t); therefore, they are the perfect vehicle for learning to play the banjo by ear!
The same can be said for popular songs in your particular religious/cultural tradition, “campfire” songs, nursery songs, hymns, and a whole host of familiar American folk songs that we learned in grade school. If you find yourself humming or whistling along with the ubiquitous Christmas muzak when shopping at the mall, then you know what I mean; what better way to learn to play what you hear?
Most of the older songs—Jingle Bells, Rudolph, Frosty, White Christmas, Silent Night, etc.—are simple two, three, or four-chord songs that should fall as easily from your fingers as they do to your voice and ear. Some of the more-sophisticated songs—The Christmas Song, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, Christmastime Is Here, etc., take a bit more experimentation; maybe next year?
Playing the banjo at Christmas parties is also a good way to put the banjo in a favorable light; everyone is in the mood to sing, and you may find folks saying “I never knew you could play that kind of music on a banjo!” What better way to “sell” the banjo than by connecting with folks at a sing-along level, at the time of year when they are most likely to actually sing along?