About Backhoes and Banjos

October 4th, 2018

Learning to operate heavy equipment is like learning to play a musical instrument. Really?


Well as one example, operating a backhoe and playing the banjo do seem rather different, as the following table makes clear.


Description Operating a Backhoe Playing the Banjo
Need two hands Yes Yes
Need two feet Yes No (although it’s nice to tap a foot when you play)
Need to see Yes No (although not seeing will make it harder to learn)
Need to hear Yes Yes
Need to concentrate Yes Yes
Need to like music No No (but it helps)

Time for a little more comparing!

First, when it comes to backhoes, one of the best books around about learning to operate, i.e. developing proper skills, is Operating Techniques for the Tractor-Loader-Backhoe [1]. And in the introductory chapter, the author Gary Ober makes the following observation:

“There’s no substitute for practice. With time, operating a Tractor-Loader-Backhoe safely and productively will become as natural to you as … tying your shoes.”

Later, he places particular emphasis on “smoothness”, i.e. moving the controls in a carefully controlled way to make the machine behave properly.  Practically, being “smooth” = being precise = being safe. That takes repetition, but also lots of concentration because in order to improve, you need to pay attention to different kinds of details. In other words, how you practice is important.

Well as an amateur musician (at home), Ober’s advice sounds much like what Josh Turknett preaches about learning to play the banjo [2]:

  1. Learning to play means getting every note right.
  2. That takes lots of practising.
  3. After a while, people “give up” because they stop getting better. And that’s because they try to play too fast too soon, and don’t pay enough attention to all the details that are key to doing really well later on.
  4. And that’s why how you practice is important.

Well practising slowly means practising carefully, and carefully is at the heart of what we now call “deliberate practice”, as described in [3]:

  • Deliberate practice means learning new skills by building on previously-acquired skills. And that means learning component skills sequentially, using representative training tasks that gradually present work of increasing difficulty. In a nutshell, deliberate practice is goal-directed work with clearly defined targets.
  • Deliberate practice pushes you outside your “comfort zone”, to do things just beyond your current abilities. This requires “near-maximal” mental effort and your full attention.
  • Deliberate practice is all about feedback, to monitor yourself, notice your mistakes, and adjust accordingly.

Of course, there’s another way in which learning to operate heavy equipment is like learning to play a musical instrument: the people who do best have lots of “talent” a.k.a. “aptitude”.

And that’s because, although most anyone can develop most any skill (operating a backhoe or playing a banjo), some people learn faster and go on to attain higher levels of proficiency. To learn more, just hop over to our “Operator Aptitude” blog category.


[1] Ober, G., Operating Techniques for the Tractor-Loader-Backhoe, Equipment Training Resources, 1999.

[2] Turknett, J., The Immutable Laws of Brainjo: Deconstructing the Art and Science of Practice.


[3] [Ericsson, K., Pool, R., PEAK: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016.