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Roots music iconoclast Danny Barnes reveals his systematic approach to the banjo, with one-of-a-kind insights on improvisation, reading music, getting a good sound out of the banjo, rhythm and timing, and more.
Widely regarded as one of the most innovative and genre-bending artists in contemporary roots music, Danny Barnes’ musical interests are varied and adventurous, and he incorporates that versatility into his progressive approach to the banjo.
Although he demonstrates an appreciation for the history of the bluegrass, country, and folk music from which the banjo’s reputation was born, his inventive take on the instrument, using the banjo to play non-traditional music like rock, fusion, and jazz with electronic percussion and loop elements, is what truly separates him from his contemporaries.
He’s also one of roots music’s great songwriters and performers. “A good song has a way of speaking to everybody,” Danny says. “I have faith that more people are going to hear my songs, which is really what I have to offer. I’m not one of those virtuoso instrumentalists, I can’t compete with those guys, but the one thing I can do is write really good songs.” Part Southern gentleman, part humble artist, Barnes is being more than a bit self-effacing with this statement.
Danny has come to redefine the banjo’s perceived image in an eclectic career for which genre definitions have merely been a polite suggestion. From his early days as the driving force behind the impressive Austin Texas–based Bad Livers, a band of pioneering Americana missionaries, through a prolific solo career and the development of his trademark “Barnyard Electronics” project, a startling approach that incorporates digital technology and various effect pedals to stretch the tonal range of the instrument, Danny has always listened to his proudly offbeat inner voice.
Danny talks about the second roll he thinks is important to practice and have in your repertoire, the 1 2 1 5 roll, which allows you to move a melody up and down the banjo neck on the first string. With Notation/Tab
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The Banjo According to Danny Barnes Danny talks about the things he’ll cover in his course, including improvisation, reading music, getting a sound out of the banjo, rhythm and timing, etc., and how they all fit into his system for approaching the banjo.
The Right-Hand Stuff The engine of the banjo is the right hand, but as players advance, more attention is often paid to the left hand. On the banjo, if you have a good feel in the right hand, anything you play is going to sound pretty good. In this series of lessons, Danny looks at the right-hand and gives you advice on getting a good rhythm with your right hand. He starts by looking at a couple of rolls that are good to know, the forward roll and the 1 2 1 5 roll. He also talks about single-string technique, timing, and accompaniment.
Reading Music Danny talks about the importance of reading music notation on the banjo. He says, “It’s important to read, because it’s the language of music.” He starts by comparing tablature to notation, explaining that the difference is that with notation you’re looking at pitch values rather than the geography of the banjo neck. He also talks about the importance of learning the original melody of a piece, not just the banjo arrangement or some licks that someone might have added. You’ll get some music to practice reading from notation: a simple Hanon piano exercise, “Cripple Creek” (fiddle style), and two David Grisman tunes, “Farm and Fun Time” and “Dan’l Boone”
Fingerboard Logic The tuning of the banjo provides different places to play the same note, giving you lots of different options, which can be very helpful, but also potentially confusing. In this lesson, Danny reveals how he conceives of and organizes the banjo fingerboard. He starts by explaining how he boils the fingerboard down to three simple fingerings for chords and scales, which you can call A form, F form, and D form, based on the fingerings for those chords in first position. Then he shows you all those forms in the key of G, from open position to the top of the fingerboard. You’ll also learn how to find the A, F, and D forms in all 12 keys, starting in G and moving around the circle of fifths to C, F, Bb, etc., and how to find scale fingerings based on the chord forms you’ve learned.
Blues Danny talks about the blues component in his music, both in bluegrass and other music, including straight up blues. Early bluegrass had a large bluegrass influence, as can be heard in the mandolin playing of Bill Monroe and others. Danny has also listened to a lot of the older acoustic blues musicians, like Son House, Skip James, and Robert Johnson and this had a big influence on his own playing. A lot of blues guitar is played in open tunings, and Danny talks about how the banjo, being open tuned, can easily imitate some of the blues guitarists licks and feel. You’ll learn a tune called “The Hypothetical Blues” that demonstrates some of the blues tonality he shows you, as well as a couple of blues chord progression and chord voicings that come from swing and jazz.
Clawhammer Danny shows you how to play clawhammer style banjo. The technique is a little counterintuitive if you’re used to playing with picks. In clawhammer, you pick down with your index finger on the strings. Danny starts by showing you the basic clawhammer strum pattern and then shows you how to play “Cripple Creek” with that pattern. You’ll also learn to play the drop thumb pattern and how to use it on “Cripple Creek” and other melodies.
Clean Up Your Playing Danny gives you lots of great advice about cleaning up your playing and improving the sound of the banjo. He talks about making your hammer-ons and pull-offs clean, keeping your fingers down as you play to get chords to ring, bringing the melody of a tune out above the accompanying arpeggios, and changing the tone of the banjo by moving your picking hand to different positions, with examples from “Cumberland Gap” and “Wildwood Flower.” He also talks about playing with other musicians, in a band or jam session, and being aware of the volume of your banjo in different situations.
Isotope 709 Danny shows you an original tune of his called “Isotope 709.” It has two parts, and the second part has an interesting chord progression: Bm–D7–F–G–Bm–D7–G. Danny shows you the chords and plays the tune all the way through at a very slow tempo as well as at the normal speed. He also talks about improvising on the unusual chords in the B part by finding the common tones between the chords.
How to Read Music on the Banjo Download Danny’s hand-drawn and hand-written booklet “How to Read Music on the Banjo,” available exclusively to his Peghead Nation students. In his own inimitable way, Danny explains everything that banjo players need to know about reading music, including note values, standard notation, tablature, scales, fingering, and more.
Drop Thumb Drop thumbing is an important clawhammer banjo technique that allows you to get more melody notes and create different rhythms. Danny explains the technique, in which you bring your thumb down to play notes on the inside strings. He gives you a couple of exercises to get you used to drop thumbing and then shows you a version of “Cripple Creek” using drop thumbs. He also discusses some of the nuances of clawhammer playing in general, including phrasing and string gauges.
Banjonics Holding a heavy banjo for an extended period of time can be taxing and even, as you get older, debilitating. In this lesson, Danny shows you a set of physical exercises he’s developed, based on Tai Chi, yoga, and stretching exercises, to strengthen your body. The exercises are designed to be easy, and Danny explains the importance of making sure you never hurt yourself as you do them. There are eight parts and three foot positions. Danny explains each part in detail and then goes through the complete exercise routine, so you can do it along with him.
Three Positions, Two Octaves Danny introduces you to his fingerboard concept of Three Positions, Two Octaves. One of the challenges of the banjo is finding the right place to play a melody. Danny shows you how learning to look at the banjo neck in two octaves at once helps you make good choices about where to play specific melodies. It also helps you with fretting-hand strength and improvisation.
Wade Ward’s “June Apple” Wade Ward was one of the great old-time clawhammer banjo players, and the tune “June Apple” is a great example of his style. This tune includes one of his signature techniques, a pluck of the open string with the left hand. Danny demonstrates the left-hand plucking technique and then walks you through the whole tune. He also talks about the importance of learning tunes on the banjo from the original source.
Harmonized Major Scales Danny introduces you to the concept of harmonized scale and shows you how to find the harmonized major scale using the three scale positions you’ve been working on. He also shows you various kinds of musical applications for the harmonized scale. Then he shows you how to create full three-note and four-note chords using the harmonized major scale.
Arranging Tunes Danny talks about arranging a tune from beginning to end, with an intro, melody, variations, backup chords, and ending. He suggests that you make sure you have all of these elements, not just the melody, prepared for every one of your tunes. To illustrate how he goes about arranging a tune, Danny gives you an arrangement of “Cripple Creek” with an intro, basic melody, melodic-style variation, chords, and ending.
String Bending Danny gives advice on bending strings, in particular the importance of knowing which note you’re bending to—what your “destination pitch” is. Danny shows you how to bend whole steps and half steps, giving you advice on supporting the finger that’s doing the bend—usually the ring or middle finger. He also gives you an exercise that allows you to practice both bends.
Reading from the Mel Bay Banjo Method In this lesson, Danny talks about the benefits of using Mel Bay’s Banjo Method, by Frank Bradbury, to work on reading music for the banjo. The tunes are from the “classic banjo” repertoire and the book includes etudes focusing on arpeggios, scales, counterpoint, different keys, etc., all written for “C tuning,” in which the low D string is tuned down to C. Danny talks about the advantages of C tuning and plays one of the tunes in the book: “The Daily Double.”
Strumming While Wearing Fingerpicks Danny shows you his technique of strumming the banjo while wearing picks, which he picked up from banjoist Brad Brashears, who would play clawhammer-style banjo with picks on. Danny shows you how he strums up and down with the same eighth-note rhythm as a banjo roll, using his ring finger and pinky (the fingers without fingerpicks). He also shows you a bluesy progression you can practice on, muting some of the strums and letting others ring to create a drum-like groove, and a country-style strum to use on songs like “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”
Stoney Point In this lesson, you’ll learn the fiddle tune “Stoney Point.” Danny talks about the importance of learning a tune from the source and getting a good foundation for your own arrangement, or banjo version of a fiddle tune. In this case, Danny shows you the version of “Stoney Point” from David Grisman’s book Dawg Roots. He starts by showing you how he reads from the notation, and also how he transposes to a different octave. You’ll also learn Danny’s arrangement of the tune played melodic-style (or Keith-style).
Mikrokosmos The classical composer Béla Bartok wrote his Mikrokosmos as a series of piano exercises that start very simply and become more and more complex as they progress. They’re also great for practicing reading on any instrument. Danny shows you the first six, which are titled “Six Unison Melodies.”