As long as there have been banjos to be picked, people have been coming up with all sorts of inventive and wonderful sounding ways of picking them.
Listen to a sample of fingerpicking banjoists from a half century or so ago, and you’ll hear all manner original sounding music.
Yet, it seems like these days, even though there are lots of folks picking banjos, things kind of sound the same. All of that rich and wonderful variety, and all the originality, seems to have faded a bit.
While there are likely several reasons why that’s the case, one of those has to do with the way people typically learn how to play the banjo.
These days, the aspiring banjo picker is typically forced to choose a “style” of picking right from the start: “3 finger,” “2 finger,” “Scruggs,” “melodic,” “old-time” – what’ll it be?
So why is this a problem?
A small slice, or the whole enchilada?
All fingerpicking banjo styles are based on the exact same techniques.
And the problem is that combining technique AND a particular style right from the start, in most cases, forever locks a player into one single style of playing (for more on the neuroscience of why this happens, see the video at the bottom of this page), oftentimes long before he or she has any real awareness of what the different styles are, much less which one they like best!
Rather than learning in way that keeps the wide world of banjo sounds available, the player is now constrained to a small fraction of them.
Yet, if you avoid confusing and conflating style and technique from the get go, you’ll leave the entire world of fingerpicked banjo open.
Learning style and technique from the start is like learning how to write by copying a particular person’s handwriting, rather than starting with the basics of how to form letters.
(RELATED: the Breakthrough Banjo course for fingerstyle banjo is designed to allow you to fingerpick in any style, to give you the surest and most effective path to making EXACTLY the music you want to make! Click here to learn more.)
Anatomy of Fingerpicked Banjo
To help right this ship, it helps to go back to basics.
If we take any fingerpicked banjo arrangement, regardless of style, we find that it consists of two main ingredients: MELODY and DECORATIONS.
In every arrangement, there are notes played that are part of the melody, and there are the extra notes, the “decoration” notes.
These decoration notes are typically drone and harmony notes that fill in the spaces in the melody, creating the banjo’s signature “wall of sound” effect.
In fact, the typical banjo arrangement has MORE notes in it that are not part of the melody than notes that are.
And when it comes to style, it’s the “decorations” that matter.
If we look at any players style (or any category of style), we can find a consistent set of decisions about how to decorate the melody (which we’ll explore further below).
This is normal, of course. We all have our own preferences about anything, and an essential part of any player’s musical journey is developing those preferences.
Back to our handwriting analogy, every person will ultimately develop his or her own preferences as to how to form the individual letters, which ultimately becomes his or her own unique handwriting.
We can even find patterns in those preferences, even if the player was unaware that those patterns existed, or was intentional about using them!
With this in mind, let’s now take the melody for Blue Ridge Cabin Home (verse) and arrange it in three different fingerpicking “styles,” paying particular attention to the various ways the melody is decorated, as well as to the ways in which they are all similar.
Start with the melody
As mentioned earlier, the way different “styles” are distinguished is based on the decisions that are made about how to “decorate” the melody notes.
So, in order for us to distinguish the key features of any style, we must first determine what notes are part of the melody, and what notes are part of the decorations.
And since the melody is the same regardless of the style in which it is rendered, it’s easiest to begin there.
Below I’ll provide two audio samples of the melody for “Blue Ridge Cabin Home” – one sung, and one on the banjo.
Blue Ridge Cabin Home – singing the melody
Blue Ridge Cabin Home – melody on the banjo
Below is the tab for the melody played on the banjo. This provides the basic skeleton, or foundation, for every style. Again, it’s the notes we choose to play around the melody that distinguishes one “style” from another.
Blue Ridge Cabin Home – melody tab
Blue Ridge Cabin Home – 2 finger thumb lead style
Now we’ll take this melody and transform it first into what’s commonly described as “2 finger thumb lead” style.
In this style, the primary “decorations” are the 1st string and 5th string, both of which primarily serve as “drone” notes. The thumb typically handles all the melody notes along with all the 5th string drones, while the index finger plays all the 1st string drones (though no reason at all that you can’t use the middle).
Here’s what our 2 finger thumb lead version looks like in tab:
And here’s a video tutorial of that arrangement (followed by a backup track for you to continue jamming to).
2 finger thumb lead Tutorial (excerpt from the Breakthrough Banjo course)
Blue Ridge Cabin Home – “old-time” 3 finger style
Now, let’s add another finger into the mix to create a “3 finger” arrangement. Here, we’re essentially dropping some of those droning 1st string notes (which is all our index finger played in the last arrangement), and adding in some decoration notes on other strings, which can serve as harmony notes, or doubling of the melody.
Here’s what that version looks like in tab:
Now here’s a video tutorial of how that arrangement sounds.
“Old-Time” 3 finger Tutorial (excerpt from the Breakthrough Banjo course)
Blue Ridge Cabin Home – “Scruggs” style
Lastly, let’s decorate our melody in “Scruggs style.”
As mentioned above, the differences between 3-finger “Scruggs” style and 3-finger “old-time” are subtle. In fact, had Earl Scruggs not joined with Bill Monroe to create the band that became the defining sound of bluegrass, Earl would almost certainly still be thought of as an old-time fingerstyle banjo player (and like every other old time fingerstyle banjo picker, had his own particular way he like to pick the banjo).
The primary difference to note between this version and the preceding one is the extra syncopation – some of the melody notes are shifted from the beat where they normally occur in the melody, to an adjacent one (noted in the tab).
The other key feature of Scruggs style arrangements are the use of certain signature “licks” during the open spaces, or pauses, in the melody (measure 8, for example, where the only melody note is the open 4th string, allowing for the addition of one of Earl’s signature licks in the remainder of the space in that measure).
Here’s what our “Scruggs style” version looks like in tab:
Now here’s a video tutorial of how that arrangement sounds.
“Scruggs” style Tutorial (excerpt from the Breakthrough Banjo course)
And we’ve only just scratched the surface of what’s possible.
The options here are virtually endless, and there’s no reason to limit those options right from the beginning, long before you have any real idea of the music you ultimately want to make as a banjo player.
So how do you learn in a way that keeps those options open?
By learning the techniques of fingerpicking first, distinct from any particular style.
Once those are building blocks are established, you can then learn the many ways those they can be combined. Rather than becoming a carbon copy of a particular player and his or her style, you can instead add your own unique voice to the world of fingerpicked banjo.
Furthermore, you’ll find this approach to not only be much more satisfying, but also much easier!
For more on the subject of how to learn fingerstyle banjo more effectively and efficiently, and build the brain of a versatile fingerpicker, check out the video below (the introduction to the Breakthrough Banjo course, and the Brainjo Method of instruction):