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Bluegrass Banjo
with Bill Evans
About This Course
Learn to make your banjo drive the band or play sweet melodies, with solos to well-known songs and tunes, backup techniques, and more.
Try a Sample Lesson
In this lesson, you’ll start adding roll patterns to the melody of “Blue Ridge Cabin Home.” Every melody has a rhythm and when Earl Scruggs was working out his breaks, he tried to keep the melody’s rhythm intact as he added the roll patterns, letting the melody dictate what kind of roll to use. Bill shows you some ideas for choosing rolls. For example, if you have a melody note that’s held out for a long time you can try a forward roll, and when the melody notes are closer together you can try an alternating thumb roll or a forward reverse roll. Bill walks you through an entire solo here, with embellishments and fill-in licks.
Meet the Instructor
Bill Evans
Bill Evans is an internationally recognized five-string banjo life force. As a performer, teacher, writer, and composer, he brings a deep knowledge, intense virtuosity, and contagious passion to all things banjo, with thousands of music fans and banjo students all over the world, the product of a music career that spans more than 35 years and includes appearances with David Grisman, Peter Rowan, Tony Trischka, Dry Branch Fire Squad, Mike Seeger, Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard, Laurie Lewis, Jody Stecher, and many others. Bill has a master’s degree in music from the University of California, Berkeley, with a specialization in American music history and he has been a scholar/artist in residence at many universities across the United States. He is also the author of Banjo for Dummies, the most popular banjo book in the world.
Peghead Play-Along Tracks
Peghead Nation is creating a library of accompaniment videos (and downloadable MP3s) for songs and tunes that are taught on the site, classics that you'll find at many jams and picking parties. As a subscriber, you have access to this library and can use the tracks to practice playing tunes and songs at a slow or medium tempo with guitar accompaniment. New songs will be added regularly.
The Bluegrass Banjo Subscription Includes:
  • More than 90 in-depth bluegrass banjo video lessons
  • New lessons added every month
  • Detailed tablature for every lesson
  • More than 75 complete tunes and breaks to songs
  • Lessons in the styles of bluegrass greats like Earl Scruggs, JD Crowe, Bill Keith and more
  • High-quality video with multiple camera angles so you can see closeups of both hands in action.
  • Play-Along Tracks so you can practice what you’ve learned.
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Bluegrass Banjo Course Outline
In these three introductory lessons, you’ll get started with basic roll patterns: a pinch pattern, the alternating thumb roll, and the forward reverse roll. You’ll also learn the pattern responsible for the classic bluegrass drive, the forward roll, as well as some variations, and another classic Earl Scruggs roll called the “lick roll,” so-named because it’s used to play one of the most common fill-in licks in bluegrass.
Learn to combine roll patterns with song melodies and classic licks to create great bluegrass banjo breaks.
Man of Constant Sorrow

The classic bluegrass song “Man of Constant Sorrow” uses a scale called the modal scale or minor pentatonic scale. You’ll learn the G modal scale and the basic melody of “Man of Constant Sorrow” before adding forward rolls and some melodic embellishments to create a complete solo. 


Blue Ridge Cabin Home

Learn to work up great Scruggs-style solos using the bluegrass classic “Blue Ridge Cabin Home.” You’ll start with the chord progression and learn to find the melody within the notes of the chord. Then you’ll learn to embellish the melody with hammer-ons, slides, and pull-offs before adding roll patterns. 


Intros and Endings

It’s important to kick-off a song or break with a solid intro played in the rhythm of the song. In this lesson, you’ll learn some classic intros played by Earl Scruggs, J.D. Crowe, and other greats as well as a few endings, including the double-tag ending and the “shave and a haircut” ending. 


Whiskey Before Breakfast

The fiddle tune “Whiskey Before Breakfast” is a jam favorite of mandolin and fiddle players, but doesn’t lay out as well on the banjo. You’ll earn an easy solo banjo-friendly using chord shapes as well as some ways to back up the tune when fiddle or mandolin players are taking a solo. 


Melodic-style banjo involves playing a scale by alternating notes on adjacent strings, allowing the notes of the scale to sustain into one another and thus creating a very smooth sound. This way of playing was first popularized by Bill Keith in the early 1960s and is an essential element of contemporary banjo as played by players such as Béla Fleck and Noam Pikelny.
Intro to Melodic Style

Learn to play a G major scale melodic style and then use the technique to play the well-known fiddle tune “Devil’s Dream.” 


Melodic Style in the Key of D

 You can play melodic style in other keys, of course, and in this lesson you’ll learn the D major scale melodic style and use it to play the melody to “Whiskey Before Breakfast” in the key of D, with the fifth string tuned up to D.


Melodic Style in the Key of A

Learn to play melodic style in the key of A without a capo using the popular fiddle tune “June Apple.” “June Apple” uses an A Mixolydian scale, which is the same as the major scale but with a flatted seventh. 


“Deck the Halls” Melodic Style

Learn a melodic-style arrangement of the Christmas-time classic “Deck the Halls” in the key of G. Bill shows you the melody in open position and reminds you how to play the notes of the G major scale melodic style. Then he shows you how to play the melody to “Deck the Halls” melodic style and add some rolls as well as scale and chord tones to make a full banjo arrangement.


Descending Melodic Licks

In this lesson, Bill shows you a series of long descending licks using melodic patterns that you can combine with Scruggs-style playing in bluegrass tunes. These kinds of phrases were a hallmark of the playing of banjoists like Bobby Thompson, Ben Eldridge, and Alan Munde, and some of them come from fiddle tune melodies like “Blackberry Blossom.” Bill shows you descending melodic banjo licks that work over G, C, and D chords and how to combine these licks with Scruggs-style phrases.


Learn great solos and licks from the father of bluegrass banjo, Earl Scruggs.
Classic Licks
Learn essential licks played by Earl Scruggs that that can be used in all kinds of songs, including licks from “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” “Shuckin’ the Corn,” and “Earl’s Breakdown.” These licks can be used for backup or lead playing and include some backup licks for C and D chords as well as a classic ending lick for a solo.

Up the Neck Licks

Venture up the neck for another series of essential Earl Scruggs licks that Earl played in “Lonesome Road Blues,” “Foggy Mt. Breakdown,” and many other songs, including an up-the-neck lick from “Foggy Mt. Breakdown” that uses a “choke” or bend. You’ll also get advice on how to string these up-the-neck licks together for solos and backup. 


Foggy Mountain Special

On May 19, 1954, six months before Elvis Presley made his first records, Earl Scruggs recorded the first rock ’n’ roll banjo tune, “Foggy Mountain Special,” which you’ll learn in this lesson. It moves through a few different positions up the neck, so Bill shows you where and how to shift positions, using the fingering that he learned from Sonny Osborne (who learned it from Earl himself!).


Sally Goodin

“Sally Goodin” is one of the classics of the bluegrass and old-time fiddle repertoire, and Earl Scruggs recorded a great version on Foggy Mountain Banjo that’s an essential part of Scruggs’s repertoire. It’s played up the neck using some techniques that you can use in other tunes, like “Lonesome Road Blues,” “Sally Ann,” etc. 


Fireball Mail

Earl Scruggs included “Fireball Mail” on his groundbreaking 1961 recording Foggy Mountain Banjo, and it’s one of the all-time great banjo tunes. You’ll learn Earl’s way of playing “Fireball Mail” down the neck as well as his classic up-the-neck solo, which will help you get used to the up-the-neck fingering you’ll use for many other tunes. 


Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms

Learn an Earl Scruggs solo to the jam session favorite “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” as well as some variations. Earl played three solos on the version Flatt and Scruggs recorded for the Mercury Sessions in 1949. You’ll learn the first solo as well as some variations that Earl played in subsequent solos. 


Ground Speed

Earl Scruggs’ instrumental “Ground Speed” is a banjo classic and popular in jam sessions. It’s unique among Earl’s banjo tunes for a number of different reasons, which Bill explains to you as he walks you through Earl’s version of the tune, pointing out his fingering, roll patterns, etc. 


Flint Hill Special

Earl Scruggs’s instrumental “Flint Hill Special” is one of his classic tunes that features Scruggs tuners. The tune has three sections, as well as a short solo banjo intro using the tuners. Bill walks you through each part and also shows you a variation and ending Earl played on Flatt and Scruggs’s Live at Carnegie Hall album. You’ll also learn how to set up Keith tuners and how to use them to play “Flint Hill Special.”


Pike County Breakdown

The banjo instrumental “Pike County Breakdown” is one of the first tunes Earl Scruggs recorded when he joined forces with Lester Flatt in 1950. It includes some single-string playing, which was unusual for Earl. You’ll learn the first solo that Earl played, as well as the concluding solo from the record.


The Ballad of Jed Clampett

The theme song to the Beverly Hillbillies, “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” was a Number 1 hit song for Flatt and Scruggs, although in the version you’ll hear under the opening and credits of the  TV show, the banjo part was played by Don Parmley of the Bluegrass Cardinals. In this lesson, Bill teaches you a version based on the banjo part played by Earl Scruggs on Flatt and Scruggs’ hit recording.


While it’s great fun to play banjo solos, when you’re playing with other people in jam sessions or a band, you’ll spend most of your time accompanying singing (your own and others) as well as the solos of other instruments.

This accompaniment technique uses movable chords. It’s great to use in a jam session when you want to get out of the way of the other instruments but still provide rhythmic support. You'll learn to vamp with F and D shapes in a variety of different ways and practice vamping on “Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” “I’ll Fly Away,” and other bluegrass songs.


Forward-Roll Backup

You’ve probably heard bluegrass banjo players playing rolls behind the singer in a bluegrass band, or behind another instrument’s solo. You’ll learn how to do that in this lesson, choosing the best forward rolls to use in open position in one- and two-measure patterns. You’ll combine those patterns with a G fill-in lick to play the chords to “Blue Ridge Cabin Home” and also learn a two-measure forward-roll pattern with a two-beat “escape roll” that allows you to easily start a new forward roll with each chord change.


Up-the-Neck Backup

Learn some of the classic up-the-neck backup licks you’ve heard players like Earl Scruggs, J.D. Crowe, and Sonny Osborne play behind singers. Bill shows you one-measure and two-measure “In the Mood” patterns using a forward roll up and down the neck with the F-shape chord position. Then he shows you how to play backup to “Blue Ridge Cabin Home” using the two-measure “In the Mood” pattern in the keys of G and C. You’ll also learn an important backup lick using the D chord shape that can be used for any major chord, up or down the neck.


Putting It All Together
You’ve learned solos to songs and instrumentals, how to accompany people using rolls and vamping, great bluegrass banjo licks, and lots more, but in this lesson you’ll learn how to put all those things together as you play a song from beginning to end with a band. Bill uses the song “Blue Ridge Cabin Home” to demonstrate the banjo’s role in a band and what kinds of accompaniment patterns and licks he chooses depending on what else is happening in the song.

Hot Earl Scruggs Up-the-Neck Backup Licks
In this lesson you’ll learn some hot Earl Scruggs backup licks played up the neck. The first lick is commonly referred to as the “Six White Horses” lick, which is played out of an F shape. Bill also shows you some variations on the lick that include bends and triplets. The second backup lick is called the “Salty Dog Blues” lick. Bill shows you how Earl played it on the Flatt and Scruggs’ recording of “Salty Dog Blues” as well as some variations he played on “Your Love Is Like a Flower,” “Blue Ridge Cabin Home,” and other uptempo songs. 

Fiddle Tune Backup: “Sally Goodin”

In this lesson, you’ll learn how to back up a fiddler playing a fiddle tune, either in a duet context, a jam, or a band. Bill is joined by Peghead Nation fiddle instructor Chad Manning to demonstrate Scruggs-style fiddle backup on the classic fiddle tune “Sally Goodin.” Bill shows you a number of different roll patterns, licks, and vamps that you can combine to create a compelling and driving backup sound.


Fiddle Tune Backup in D: “Soldier’s Joy”

In this lesson you’ll continue learning to play backup for fiddlers, this time in the key of D, which a lot of fiddle tunes are in. Bill explains that he likes to play fiddle backup in D without a capo, and tuning the fifth string up to A. He reminds you of the I, IV, and V chord shapes in the key of D and then gives you lots of great ideas about what roll patterns and licks to use in D when you’re backing up a fiddler. 


Backup Using Target Tones

Bill shows you a concept he learned from a jazz piano player, the idea of targeting a note in the upcoming chord, and how to use that idea in your backup playing. Bill shows you how to use a two-measure forward-roll pattern with a two-beat “escape roll” to target notes in the next chord in a chord progression, using the chord progression to “Your Love Is Like a Flower.” He also shows you JD Crowe’s backup part on “Your Love Is Like a Flower” from the Bluegrass Album Band recording of the song.


Getting Ready for a Slow Jam

Being comfortable playing with others is your goal as a banjo player and slow jams are a good place to start. Bill talks about what you need to know and do to get ready for a slow jam, including how to play songs that you don’t already know. Bill is joined by guitarist Scott Nygaard, who shows you what basic G, C, and D chords look like on the guitar so you can follow along in a slow jam if you don’t know the song. Bill and Scott also play and sing the bluegrass standards “Nine Pound Hammer” and “Long Journey Home” as you would in a slow jam.


Bluegrass Banjo Jam Survival Skills

Taking up where “Getting Ready for a Slow Jam” leaves off, Bill starts his Jam Survival Skills lesson with capo tuning tips, showing you a variety of capo and fifth-string tuning strategies for playing in all keys, including D, E and F.  Then Bill gives you advice on quickly learning new tunes on the fly by analyzing the tune’s form, thinking about I, IV and V chords in new keys, and following the guitar player’s chords. He also discusses jam etiquette, talking about when it’s appropriate to join a jam session and how to choose appropriate tunes and tempos to keep all participants involved. Bill ends by playing and singing “Your Love Is Like a Flower” and “Little Maggie,” leaving space for your solos.


Slow-Song Backup

Two-finger backup (or “teardrop” backup, as Sonny Osborne called it) is commonly used on slow bluegrass songs. You can hear Earl Scruggs play two-finger licks on the Flatt and Scruggs song “I’ll Just Pretend.” Bill uses the traditional folk classic “Bury Me Beneath the Willow” to demonstrate slow-song backup using thirds and sixths in this lesson. 


Right-Hand Technique: Timing and Tone

In this extensive lesson on right-hand technique, Bill covers picking-hand positioning, playing with a relaxed hand, practicing with metronome, and more. Bill uses his own experience as a player as well as his observations and conversations with players like JD Crowe, Ron Block, and others.

In the 1950s banjo path breakers Don Reno and Eddie Adcock developed this technique in which scalar melodies are played much like a lead guitarist or mandolin player. In the hands of modern players like Béla Fleck and Noam Pikelny, single-string style is an exciting element of contemporary banjo that opens the door t0 improvisation and playing jazz and classical music on the banjo.
Single-String Exercises
Bill explains the single-string technique, which involves alternating the thumb and index finger (and sometimes the middle finger), gives tips on picking-hand position, and shows you a series of picking-hand exercises that cover many of the moves you’ll need to get comfortable with single-string style. You’ll also learn some guitar-like scalar fretting-hand exercises for playing single-string style, including four different positions for playing a G major scale, three of which can be transposed to other keys. 

Red-Haired Boy

If you’ve got the basics of single-string style, you’re ready to play your first tune in this style: the jam session favorite “Red-Haired Boy.” You’ll learn two versions, including a slightly more elaborate version that fleshes out the melody with a few additional notes for a version that a flatpicker like Doc Watson might play. 


Forked Deer

Learn to play the fiddle tune favorite “Forked Deer” in the key of D in open position using single-string technique. You’ll get started by learning the D major scale in open position using some open strings and also in a closed position where you fret every note so you can move the position around the neck. Bill also gives you advice on getting a smooth legato sound while playing single-string style. 


The Banjo Style of J.D. Crowe
The Banjo Style of J.D. Crowe
 Explore the great J.D. Crowe’s banjo style by learning some of his typical licks from classic recordings of “Old Home Place,” “Blue Ridge Cabin Home,” “You Don’t Know My Mind,” and others, including his electric guitar-inspired intro to “Hold Whatcha Got.” 

JD Crowe’s “Gonna Settle Down” Solo

 The solo J.D. Crowe played on the Bluegrass Album Band’s recording of the Flatt and Scruggs song “Gonna Settle Down” contains a lot of licks you can use in other songs. 


J.D. Crowe’s “Blue Ridge Cabin Home”

 J.D. Crowe played a couple of classic solos to “Blue Ridge Cabin Home” with the Bluegrass Album Band. Learning both solos gives you a great look at the possibilities for negotiating melodies on bluegrass tunes. 


Old Home Place: J.D. Crowe’s Solo

The bluegrass standard “Old Home Place” was written by Dean Webb and Mitch Jayne of the Dillards and famously recorded by J.D. Crowe and the New South in the 1970s, when that band included Tony Rice, Ricky Skaggs, and Jerry Douglas. That self-titled recording, often referred to as “0044,” the Rounder Records catalog number of the record, influenced the course of contemporary bluegrass for decades. You’ll learn J.D.’s classic solo from that recording in this lesson.


JD Crowe’s “You Don’t Know My Mind”

JD Crowe’s banjo solo on Jimmy Martin’s song “You Don’t Know My Mind” is a bluegrass classic. It includes a lot of cool pull-off licks, some of which were influenced by country and rock ’n’ roll guitar players.


JD Crowe’s “Nine Pound Hammer”

Bill pays tribute to the music of banjoist JD Crowe and guitarist Tony Rice and the music they made together in JD Crowe and the New South from 1971 to 1975.  In this lesson, you’ll learn two JD Crowe solos on “Nine Pound Hammer” from Tony Rice’s first album, Guitar.


JD Crowe’s “Big Spike Hammer” Solo

In this lesson you’ll learn JD Crowe’s solo on the Bluegrass Album Band recording of the Osborne Brothers’ song “Big Spike Hammer,”  featuring some of JD’s multiple hammer-on and pull-off licks. Bill also discusses the concept of note separation and how the left-hand can contribute to this important element of J. D.’s sound. He also discusses the 2–3 slide and hammer-on on the third string (the “Cripple Creek” slide) and how adding a slight bend to both embellishments can get you closer to both Earl and J. D.’s sound and technique.


Don Reno Tunes
Dixie Breakdown

The Don Reno banjo classic “Dixie Breakdown” features a series of up-the-neck passing chords, which are great for moving from one place to another on the banjo. The first part of “Dixie Breakdown” has the same basic chord progression as the second part, but is played mostly in first position, using a lot of forward rolls. 


Follow the Leader

Don Reno’s “Follow the Leader” is a classic bluegrass banjo instrumental. You’ll learn two versions, Reno’s single-string solo and a roll-based solo. Bill’s version captures the flavor of what Don plays without being an exact note-for-note transcription. 


Banjo Signal

Don Reno recorded his instrumental classic “Banjo Signal” on November 8, 1954. The first part of “Banjo Signal” features fifth-string fretting high up the neck combined with a one-measure forward roll. The second part is short and includes an early melodic-style phrase.


Bill Emerson Tunes
Sweet Dixie

In honor of Bill Emerson’s 80th birthday, you’ll learn his tune “Sweet Dixie” in the key of C. It features a lot of pull-offs combined with a forward roll and played as eighth notes, so it’s a good opportunity to work on your pull-offs. Bill walks you through the arrangement measure by measure, and gives you advice on playing the pulled-off note at the exact same time as you play the next note in the roll pattern.


Cowboys and Indians

Bill Emerson recorded his great instrumental tune “Cowboys and Indians” in the 1970s when he was playing banjo with the Country Gentlemen, and Jim Mills has also recorded a version that is the basis for this lesson. “Cowboys and Indians” is in the key of C minor, and to play it you tune your banjo to drop-C tuning, with the low D string tuned down to C.


Theme Time

The banjo instrumental “Theme Time” comes from bluegrass great Jimmy Martin, who used the tune as the “theme” for his radio show on the Louisiana Hayride in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Bill Emerson is the banjo player on the original recording and Jim Mills has also recorded a great version. The song features a movable lick in the second half of the tune, played through C, G, A, and D chords, while the band hits “stops” behind the banjo. 


Home of the Red Fox

Bill Emerson’s banjo tune “Home of the Red Fox,” recorded on his album of the same name, has become a favorite of artists like The Infamous Stringdusters and Billy Strings, and you’ll often hear it at jam sessions.


Welcome to New York

Bill Emerson wrote the banjo tune “Welcome to New York” in the 1970s and recorded it on his album Welcome to the Red Fox. It’s in the key of D, played with a capo at the second fret, and has an unusual chord progression: the first part is D–C–G–D, while the second part uses a G minor chord.



Learn some classic tunes and solos by bluegrass banjo legends like Bill Keith, John Hartford, Bill Emerson, Ralph Stanley, and more.

Bill Keith: “Santa Claus”

 The great melodic banjo pioneer Bill Keith recorded his tune “Santa Claus” with Bill Monroe in 1963. The chord progressions bears some resemblance to the song “I Don’t Love Nobody,” but it’s definitely its own tune. It’s not as challenging as some of Bill Keith’s melodic tunes, with a lot of Scruggs-oriented rolls as well as some of Keith’s signature melodic licks. 


Alan Munde Interview

The great Alan Munde joins Bill in the Peghead Nation studio for an exclusive interview. Alan gained fame as one of the innovators of contemporary bluegrass banjo as member of Country Gazette and on his albums with Sam Bush and the Kentucky Colonels, as well his own highly influential solo albums. Bill and Alan discuss his banjo playing and music, with advice about practicing with a metronome, improvising, creating melodies on the banjo and more. They also talk about melodic-style banjo, arranging fiddle tunes, etc., and finish by playing a medley of three fiddle tunes in D: “Whiskey Before Breakfast,” “Angeline the Baker,” and “St. Anne’s Reel” (the tab for which is included). 


Ralph Stanley’s “How Mountain Girls Can Love” Solo

 The great bluegrass singer and banjo player Ralph Stanley passed away recently. Learn Ralph’s solo on the Stanley Brothers classic “How Mountain Girls Can Love,” recorded in 1962. Ralph often used the forward roll, relying heavily on his index finger, which often plays the melody on the fourth string. You’ll also learn a couple of Ralph’s signature licks: an ending lick and a fill-in lick with a tenth-fret choke. 


Doug Dillard: “Doug’s Tune”

Many people will recognize “Doug’s Tune” from the Andy Griffith Show, where the tune’s composer, banjoist Doug Dillard, was a member of the fictional Darlin’ Family. “Doug’s Tune” has a bit of a ragtime feel and some unusual syncopations. It’s played out of G tuning, and that’s where you’ll learn it, although Doug Dillard recorded it with the capo at the fourth fret, which makes some of the stretches in the second part easier.


Ben Eldridge: “Appalachian Train”

The instrumental tune “Appalachian Train” (also called “Appalachian Rain”) comes from songwriter Paul Craft and banjoist Ben Eldridge, who recorded it on the Seldom Scene’s album Old Train. The tune is played in G-minor tuning, in which the second string is tuned down a half step to Bb.


John Hartford: “Steam Powered Aereo Plane”

John Hartford’s influential 1971 album Aereo-Plain includes the song you’ll learn in this lesson: “Steam Powered Aereo Plane.” Hartford’s style is unique, especially in the way he used roll patterns, and the solo to “Steam Powered Aereo Plane” that Bill transcribed is a good example.


Sonny Osborne’s “Sunny Side of the Mountain”

In this lesson you’ll learn two solos to the bluegrass standard “Sunny Side of the Mountain” that the great Sonny Osborne played on the late-1970s Osborne Brothers recording “The Bluegrass Collection.” Sonny’s banjo style was influenced by country music and musicians, especially piano and guitar players. You’ll learn both of Sonny’s solos, the first, more straightforward solo, and the incredible second solo, which ends with a wild flurry of licks.


Learn to build a Scruggs-style solo on any song using the melody, roll patterns, fill-in licks, etc.
Long Journey Home

Explore building a solo from scratch by playing three different solos to the bluegrass classic “Long Journey Home,” starting with one that just adds forward-reverse rolls to the melody. The second solo combines pinch patterns with some classic Scruggs-style licks that stand in for parts of the melody and the third solo replaces the pinch patterns with roll patterns. You’ll also learn an intro to kick-off the solo.


I’ll Fly Away

Sonny Osborne’s version of the gospel favorite “I’ll Fly Away” is a great illustration of how to build solos by taking the melody and filling it out with roll patterns and licks. You’ll learn Sonny’s banjo solo to both the verse and chorus of “I’ll Fly Away” in this lesson. 


Bury Me Beneath the Willow

Learn to construct a solo to the traditional favorite “Bury Me Beneath the Willow” by adding roll patterns and other bluegrass banjo licks to the melody. Bill starts by showing you the chords and melody of “Bury Me Beneath the Willow,” and then shows you a basic arrangement that adds different rolls to the melody. He also talks about Earl Scruggs’s approach of “playing the syllables”—phrasing the melody the way a singer would—as a way to add more variety and interest to a basic arrangement. Then he shows you an arrangement of “Bury Me Beneath the Willow” based on this approach. 


“Blue Ridge Cabin Home” in C

Most bluegrass banjo breaks are played in the key of G, or in G position with a capo, but it can be handy to know how to play in the key of C without using a capo. In this lesson you’ll learn chord positions for the I, IV, and V chords in the key of C (C, F, and G), as well as the C major scale in open position, the melody to the bluegrass favorite “Blue Ridge Cabin Home” in C, and how to create a solo by combining the melody, some typical roll patterns, and even a few licks you already know in the key of G.


All the Good Times Are Past and Gone

The bluegrass classic “All the Good Times Are Past and Gone” is in 3/4 time, also known as “waltz” time. In this lesson, you’ll learn how to play backup in 3/4 time and how to adapt roll patterns to 3/4 times so you can play a solo to “All the Good Times Are Past and Gone” and other songs in 3/4.


Playing in D Without a Capo

In this lesson, you’ll learn how to play in the key of D without a capo, in G tuning, with the fifth string tuned to A. You can get a bluesy sound in this tuning, and Bill uses “Man of Constant Sorrow” as an example. Bill starts by showing you the chords you’ll need to play “Man of Constant Sorrow” in the key of D, along with some roll patterns that sound good with them. Then he walks you through a solo for “Man of Constant Sorrow” in the key of D. 


Lonesome Road Blues

“Lonesome Road Blues” (also often called “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad”) is a bluegrass classic. In this lesson, you’ll learn an up-the-neck solo similar to the one Earl Scruggs played on the 1961 album Foggy Mountain Banjo, and Bill also gives you ideas on playing a more standard solo in first position. He starts by walking you through Earl’s solo, phrase by phrase, giving you advice on playing the string bends (“chokes”) that are essential to the sound of this solo and showing you how to move efficiently between positions up the neck. 


Twelve Great Fill-In Licks 
Fill-in licks are the licks that bluegrass banjo players play at the end of the solo to transition to the lead vocalist. In this lesson, you’ll learn 12 classic fill-in licks based on the playing of Earl Scruggs and J. D. Crowe, including several that combine licks to create longer phrases.

Dark Hollow

The bluegrass standard “Dark Hollow” is often sung in the key of C, so Bill uses it to explore creating solos in the key of C (without a capo) on the banjo. He starts by showing you the chords and the melody and how the two fit together. Then he gives you advice on adding rolls and licks to the melody of “Dark Hollow” to create a real bluegrass banjo solo. 


Sitting on Top of the World

“Sitting on Top of the World” comes from the blues and folk tradition and has become a bluegrass jam session standard. In this lesson, Bill shows you a couple of solos, a straightforward one and one with some more advanced licks, including a different intro and ending licks from JD Crowe and Sammy Shelor.


12 Scruggs-Style Licks on C Chords

Bill shows you a variety of licks used by Earl Scruggs on C chords, both in open position and up the neck. He starts by showing you some hammer-on and pull-of licks in open position that Earl used in tunes like “Earl’s Breakdown” and “Flint Hill Special” and songs like “Your Love Is Like a Flower” and “Cabin in Caroline.” Then he shows you a few licks that work well in “John Hardy” as well as a couple up-the-neck licks Earl played in “Bugle Call Rag” and “Lonesome Road Blues.”


Eight More Miles to Louisville

The bluegrass standard “Eight More Miles to Louisville” was written by the great clawhammer banjo player, and star of the Grand Ole Opry and Hee Haw, Grandpa Jones. In this lesson, you’ll learn four versions of “Eight More Miles to Louisville.” The first version is designed for intermediate players and features the alternating thumb roll. Bill’s second version of “Eight More Miles to Louisville” features the index leading role, while the third version moves up the neck and uses the middle leading roll, a favorite of Sonny Osborne and Alan Munde. As extra credit, Bill shows you how to play “Eight More Miles to Louisville” using a roll that comes from Béla Fleck and Alan Shelton, which Bill calls the “first string repetition roll.”


Wayfaring Stranger

In this lesson, Bill shows you how to create an arrangement of a slow song like the beautiful old hymn “Wayfaring Stranger.” He shows you the melody and chords in the key of A minor (in G tuning, but with the fifth string tuned to A), and then gives you ideas on adding roll patterns and melodic embellishments to create your own version of “Wayfaring Stranger.”


Sourwood Mountain

“Sourwood Mountain” is an old folk song that has been around for ages. There are great versions by Ralph Stanley, the Osborne Brothers, Allen Shelton, and Jim Mills, among others. In this lesson, you’ll learn how to take the melody of “Sourwood Mountain” and create your own banjo version, by adding roll patterns, hammer-ons, and pull-offs, etc. Bill’s version of the melody is based on the Osborne Brothers recording. You’ll learn to play a solo on the melody down the neck and also up the neck.



Will the Circle Be Unbroken

In this lesson on creating solos, Bill uses the Carter Family classic and bluegrass jam session “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” to show you a method of working up solos called “playing the syllables.” Earl Scruggs’s kickoff to “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” on the 1972 album of the same name is a classic example of this approach.


Melodies in Sixths

Learn to play song melodies by combining sixth intervals with simple roll patterns. Bill begins by showing you how to find sixth intervals using the F and D chord shapes and then how to play a G major scale in sixths. He also shows you how to add t-i-m-i or m-i-t-i rolls to the sixths to fill them out. Then you’ll learn to play the melody to “You Are My Sunshine” in sixths and how to add the backward roll to the melody to fill it out. Bill also shows you how to modify your rolls to create more variety in your solo.


Thirds in G, C, and D

Bill shows you third intervals in the keys of G, C, and D, which will not only help you learn the fingerboard, but provide lots of ideas for creating licks, solos, and backup. Bill starts with the key of G, walking you through thirds from the bottom of the neck to the top and giving you advice on fingering. Then he shows you the same thing in the keys of C and D. You’ll also learn some exercises that combine thirds with the middle leading roll (m-i-m-t), and how to use this pattern to play the chord progressions to “Blackberry Blossom” and “Whiskey Before Breakfast.”


Cherokee Shuffle

The jam-session favorite “Cherokee Shuffle” can be played Scruggs style or melodic style. You’ll learn both in this lesson. “Cherokee Shuffle” is played in the key of A, but is played on the banjo in G position, so you’ll play it with the capo on the second fret. Before showing you the arrangements, Bill gives you some tips on keeping your banjo in tune after putting the capo on.


Gold Rush

The Bill Monroe fiddle tune “Gold Rush” is a jam session favorite that can be played at different speeds. You’ll learn two versions: a Scruggs-style solo for when the tempo is blazing and a melodic-style solo when the tempo is a little more relaxed and you have time to throw in a few more fiddle-like scalar runs. 


Angeline the Baker

The fiddle tune “Angeline the Baker” is a popular jam session tune among fiddlers and mandolin players, so it’s good to have your own version at the ready when it’s called in a jam. You’ll learn a melodic arrangement of “Angeline the Baker” in the key of D (with the fifth string up to A).


The Old Spinning Wheel

The 1930s melody “The Old Spinning Wheel” makes a great bluegrass banjo tune in the key of C. You’ll learn the basic melody, to which you’ll add roll patterns, as well as a more embellished version. You’ll also learn how the C major scale relates to the chords in the key of C. 


Turkey in the Straw

The old-time fiddle favorite “Turkey in the Straw” makes a good melodic-style banjo tune. You’ll learn some handy up-the-neck positions to play “Turkey in the Straw” and get advice on reaching some of the trickier positions. 


Big Sciota

The old-time fiddle tune “Big Sciota” has become popular in bluegrass jam circles in recent years. It can be played on the banjo in Scruggs style or melodic style. You’ll learn Bill’s arrangement, which combines a bit of both. 


Crossing the Cumberlands

This Bill Monroe instrumental in the key of G minor makes a beautiful slow banjo tune, with some nice descending chords played up the neck in the first part and a repeating scalar melody played melodic style in the second part. Bill explains the minor scale, particularly the G minor scale used in “Crossing the Cumberlands,” and how to play it melodic style up the neck. He also shows you chord shapes in G minor you can use to accompany the song with vamping.


Jerusalem Ridge

Bill Monroe’s beautiful four-part minor-key fiddle tune “Jerusalem Ridge” is in the key of A minor and works well on the banjo played melodic style without a capo. Before he starts walking you through the melody, Bill reminds you how to play the A minor scale (which is the same as the C major scale) in melodic style, including a couple of fingering options. The timing of the third and fourth parts of “Jerusalem Ridge” is a little tricky as each part has one measure of 2/4. The third part has a distinctive D minor chord, while the fourth part goes to the key of C for a couple of measures. Bill walks you through each section phrase by phrase, giving you advice about fingering and timing.


Blackberry Blossom

The fiddle tune “Blackberry Blossom” is a popular bluegrass jam tune and a classic of melodic-style banjo. In this lesson you’ll learn to play the tune melodic style as well as some ways to vary the melody using different roll patterns, and you’ll get a strategy for accompanying the tune, which has a lot of quick chord changes. 


John Hardy

“John Hardy” is a bluegrass banjo classic and a good tune to call at jam sessions. In this lesson, Bill shows you how to take the basic melody and add roll patterns and licks to create a full-fledged solo. He starts by showing you the melody to “John Hardy” and explaining its somewhat unusual chord progression. After showing you a simple version of “John Hardy” created by adding simple roll patterns to the melody, Bill goes through the tune phrase by phrase, showing you some more complex licks and rolls you can use to play “John Hardy.”


Clinch Mountain Backstep

The bluegrass jam favorite “Clinch Mountain Backstep” comes from banjo great Ralph Stanley. The notes of the melody of “Clinch Mountain Backstep” come from the minor pentatonic scale, so Bill shows you the minor pentatonic scale before showing you a basic version of both parts of “Clinch Mountain Backstep.” You’ll also learn to play an up-the-neck arrangement of “Clinch Mountain Backstep” and how to find the minor pentatonic scale up-the-neck, primarily on the top two strings.


Red Wing

The song “Red Wing” was written in 1907 and the melody has become a bluegrass jam session favorite. Bill shows you how to build a solo to “Red Wing” by starting with the melody and then adding roll patterns. He starts by showing you a basic arrangement, and then another version with some more elaborate sections inspired by the melodic banjo playing of Bill Keith and Alan Munde.



Bill’s arrangement of the Bill Monroe instrumental “Roanoke” is a good example of combining melodic style with Scruggs-style banjo. The A part of the tune uses the G major melodic scale in two octaves, while the second part uses sixths and thirds, combined with rolls, to play the melody. Bill starts by reminding you of the G major melodic scale and then walks you through his arrangement of “Roanoke.” You’ll also learn a more advanced version of the A part of “Roanoke” that matches the way fiddlers play the melody. 


Billy in the Lowground

The fiddle tune “Billy in the Lowground” is a favorite at bluegrass jam sessions all over the world. It’s in the key of C, and Bill plays it melodic style, so he starts by showing you the melodic scale in the key of C all the way up to the C on the first string. Then he walks you through each part of his arrangement, explaining why he chose to play certain phrases the way he did, and showing you some alternatives.


Bill Cheatham

The fiddle tune “Bill Cheatham” is a bluegrass jam session favorite and, fortunately, it sits well on the banjo. You’ll learn two versions in this lesson, a Scruggs-style version you can play when the tempo is high, and a melodic-style version that is closer to the way a fiddler would play the tune.



The bluegrass jam classic “Rebecca” was written by mandolinist Herschel Sizemore, and Bill’s arrangement is based on Jim Mills’s great banjo playing. It’s played in the key of B, so you’ll need to put your capo on the fourth fret (and your fifth string on the ninth fret) to play it at jam sessions. “Rebecca” is a “crooked” tune, which means that the parts don’t conform to the usual groupings of four or eight measures.


St. Anne’s Reel

“St. Anne’s Reel” is a common jam fiddle tune in bluegrass, old-time, and Celtic music circles. It’s in the key of D and Bill plays it melodic style, with the kind of melody a fiddler might play.


Ernest T. Grass

“Ernest T. Grass” is a hard-driving bluegrass banjo instrumental that was written by Ronnie Bowman and Dan Tyminski in the 1990s when they were in the Lonesome River Band, but it’s primarily associated with Lonesome River Band banjo player Sammy Shelor, who recorded it on his solo album Leading Roll.


Ashokan Farewell

“Ashokan Farewell” was written by fiddler Jay Ungar and featured in the Ken Burns documentary The Civil War, and it has become a favorite of all sorts of instrumentalists. It’s a beautiful, slow melody and Bill plays it in a “chord solo” style (as he does in his “Amazing Grace” lesson), rather than the usual roll-based bluegrass banjo style.


Learn some fun non-bluegrass material in these lessons. 
Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds

Learn Bill’s “chord-melody” arrangement of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” from the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Bill’s arrangement begins by combining the opening keyboard riff with the vocal melody, played simultaneously, before shifting to a chord-solo approach where the vocal melody is the top note of each chord. 


Silent Night

The holiday favorite “Silent Night” is not only a good tune to know for playing around the yule log, but it also makes a great study in thirds. Bill shows you how to find the third intervals on the top two strings in the key of C, and then walks you through the melody of “Silent Night” played in thirds. He also shows you how to finger the thirds in different ways, and how to find the most efficient fingering for each melodic phrase. You’ll also learn an accompaniment pattern for “Silent Night.”


Chord Solos: “Amazing Grace”

Chord soloing is a concept that comes from jazz guitar and has been used by bluegrass banjo players like Sonny Osborne and Jim Mills to play slower melodies on the banjo. In this lesson, Bill explains the philosophy behind chord soloing and shows you a chord solo arrangement of “Amazing Grace.”


The Distance Between Two Points

Bill’s original contemporary banjo tune “The Distance Between Two Points” was written with his daughter, Corey, and is featured on his recording In Good Company. “The Distance Between Two Points” is in the key of D, and Bill plays it in G tuning without a capo, but with the fifth string tuned up to A. In addition to walking you through each of the tune’s three parts, he demonstrates how he improvises on the third part.



The traditional folk song “Greensleeves” (known at the holidays as “What Child Is This?”) is a great tune to play as a chord solo on the banjo. It’s in 3/4 time and Bill plays it in the key of D minor, without a capo, so he starts by showing you the D minor chord voicings he uses, both as an accompaniment pattern in 3/4 time and then with the melody to create a chord solo.


Joy to the World

The holiday favorite “Joy to the World” works well on the banjo played bluegrass style in the key of G. Bill shows you the melody of “Joy to the World” and then how he has adapted it to the banjo using Scruggs-style rolls for some phrases and melodic style for others. He also shows you a more bluegrassy version of the first couple of phrases that comes from banjoist Tom Boyd.



Sonny Osborne’s original tune “Siempre” is a Spanish-sounding piece that features the melody played in thirds and sixths. It recalls the playing of country guitarists and was recorded by Chet Atkins.


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