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Years ago, I had the pleasure of attending a workshop on fingerpicked banjo by the great Mike Seeger.
It blew my mind and, thinking back, changed the course of my banjo life in several ways.
In the span of an hour, Mike took us through a tour of a dizzying number of unique and wonderful styles of fingerpicking, introducing me to a world that, until then, I barely knew existed.
Beyond being phenomenally entertaining, it also raised a few questions.
The conventional wisdom, or the prevailing story that I’d been told, was – and still is – that when learning to play the banjo, you had to choose your “style.” You could learn bluegrass or old time, Scruggs or melodic, index or thumb lead, 2 finger or 3, and so on, and so on….but you could only choose one. So choose wisely!
And almost the entire body of banjo instruction respected those divisions.
But if that were true, then how was it that Mike could effortlessly glide from one style to the next to the next?
Furthermore, why hadn’t I heard any of this great banjo music he was playing before?
I’d started out playing “bluegrass” banjo. And like virtually everyone else who starts out learning bluegrass banjo, I was taught “Scruggs” style, using the typical instructional methods to do so.
I’d been under the impression that fingerstyle banjo essentially began and ended with Scruggs style and its subsequent offshoots.
But if it was possible to play all this wonderful music on my banjo, like Mike Seeger was, I sure as heck didn’t want to miss out on all that!
The quest to answer those questions led me to discovering an incredible new world of music.
It also led me back to the drawing board for fingerstyle banjo, to essentially start over from scratch.
And I’m sure glad I did.
I realized that the usual method of learning “rolls” as the foundation had backed me into a musical corner that I now had to escape from.
Don’t get my wrong, I’m a big fan of Earl Scruggs – he’s a big reason I picked up a banjo in the first place.
But I now see Earl as one of many in a long line of great up-picking banjoists, and I now see the traditional roll-based method of teaching Scruggs style banjo (which, of note, was not Earl’s idea) as one that’s needlessly complex and inefficient.
(RELATED: If you’re interested in learning all styles of up-picking in a way that’s aligned with how the grown up brain learns music, then you may enjoy the Breakthrough Banjo course for fingerstyle banjo. Click here to learn more.)
That experience also led me to explore as much of Mike’s recorded works as I could get my ears on, including the rich body of material from his time with The New Lost City Ramblers, including today’s gem: “The Miller’s Will.”
Mike fingerpicks on that version, which is how I initially learned it (after first having to decipher that he was playing out of aDAC#E tuning- gCGBD 2 frets up).
Below you’ll find the clawhammer version for this song, and I think you’ll find each imparts its own unique flavor to the song (click here if you’d like to view the tab for it, too).
The Miller’s Will – clawhammer banjo
Such is the nature of nonsense.
The Miller’s Will (3 finger banjo version)
aDAC#E tuning, Brainjo level 3
Notes on the Tab
In this arrangement, I’ve tabbed out the part I play in the banjo “solo,” as well as the vocal backup I play on the banjo while singing.
For more on reading tabs in general, check out this complete guide to reading banjo tabs.