The driving sound of the banjo is at the heart of many styles of roots music. Get started with basic chords, strums, and fingerings, along with simple bluegrass rolls, accompaniment patterns, clawhammer style, and more.
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.
As heard in his live performances and recordings, Bill successfully bridges traditional and contemporary sounds and playing techniques, creating music firmly within the bluegrass tradition while drawing on a broad knowledge of classical, jazz, and world music.
Since the 1980s, Bill has been in the center of the progressive bluegrass/new acoustic music movement, beginning with his Virginia-based band Cloud Valley featuring Missy Raines and Steve Smith. Over three decades, Bill has appeared with David Grisman, Peter Rowan, Tony Trischka, Dry Branch Fire Squad, Mike Seeger, Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard, Laurie Lewis, Jody Stecher, the DePue Brothers, the Contribution, Jim Hurst, and Lynn Morris, to name just a few. Bill also assembles first-rate progressive acoustic ensembles to perform his own music in the Bill Evans String Summit, which has included Scott Nygaard, Todd Phillips, Josh Williams, Don Rigsby, Matt Flinner, Chad Manning, Joe Walsh, Tashina and Tristan Clarridge, Mike Witcher, and Sharon Gilchrist.
Bill is also an expert player of mid-19th century minstrel and late-19th and early-20th century classic banjo styles, authentically performing these styles on historical instruments in his solo performance concert "The Banjo in America."
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 has served as a consultant to the National Endowment for the Arts and is the former associate director of the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro, Kentucky.
Bill is the author of Banjo for Dummies, the most popular banjo book in the world; has produced six critically acclaimed instructional DVDs for AcuTab Publications, Homespun Tapes, and the Murphy Method; and is the co-author of Parking Lot Picker’s Songbook: Banjo Edition from Mel Bay. Bill has been a mainstay at many of the most important banjo and bluegrass music camps around the world for the last decade, including Steve Kaufman’s Acoustic Kamp (Tennessee), Sore Fingers Bluegrass Week (England), Midwest Banjo Camp (Michigan), and the California Bluegrass Association Music Camps. Bill hosts his own annual California Banjo Extravaganza and the NashCamp Sonny Osborne Banjo Camp.
Bill learned one-on-one from an impressive list of banjo gurus: Tony Trischka, Alan Munde, Bill Keith, Ben Eldridge, Sonny Osborne, and J. D. Crowe. In turn, he has probably taught more one-on-one banjo lessons than anyone else in the world. His list of former students is impressive: Chris Pandolfi (Infamous Stringdusters), Greg Liszt (Crooked Still), Wes Corbett (Joy Kills Sorrow), and many others. But Bill is just as adept at instructing old and young learners who just want to have fun in a jam session or local band.
You can play the jam-session favorite “Wagon Wheel” using just two roll patterns, the alternating thumb roll and the forward-reverse roll. With Tablature
Beginning Banjo Lessons
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BANJO BASICS In four introductory lessons, you’ll learn everything you need to know to get ready to play the banjo, including how to tune the banjo, how to use fingerpicks, and how to use a strap to balance the banjo in your lap. You’ll also learn about the different parts of the banjo, and even a few simple chords to get you started.
ESSENTIAL ROLL PATTERNS Roll patterns are essential to the sound of bluegrass banjo and any kind of banjo music played with picks. Once you get a few roll patterns under your fingers, you can combine them with basic chords to play some favorite songs.
Introduction to Bluegrass Roll Patterns Get started with bluegrass banjo by learning the alternating thumb roll and the forward-reverse roll and how to play them with G, C, and D7 chords.
The Pinch Pattern Learn “the pinch pattern,” a classic accompaniment pattern used in bluegrass banjo, and play the popular gospel song “I’ll Fly Away.”
The Forward Roll The forward roll is an essential element of bluegrass banjo because it provides the characteristic drive that defines bluegrass. You’ll learn the basic forward roll and a few variations and practice them with simple chords before you use the forward roll to play the bluegrass classic “Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms.”
How to Play “Wagon Wheel” You can play the jam-session favorite “Wagon Wheel” with just two roll patterns, the alternating thumb roll and the forward-reverse roll. You’ll learn the chords to “Wagon Wheel” and get advice on keeping your roll pattern going while changing chords.
FIRST MELODIES The next step to learning to play breaks (or solos) to songs, after learning chords and roll patterns, is to start finding melodies on the banjo.
This Land Is Your Land Learn the melody to the classic folk tune “This Land Is Your Land.” Once you’ve learned the melody and chords, you’ll add rolls to create a complete banjo break.
Banjo in the Hollow A great bluegrass banjo tune for beginners, “Banjo in the Hollow” primarily uses the forward-reverse roll, with a couple of simple chord positions up the neck.
Cumberland Gap “Cumberland Gap” is one of the most common bluegrass tunes, a favorite of fiddlers and banjo players alike and heard at nearly every jam session.
“CRIPPLE CREEK” USING SLIDES, HAMMER-ONS, AND PULL-OFFS The next step to creating great-sounding banjo solos is to start embellishing the melodies with slides, hammer-ons, and pull-offs. In three important and comprehensive lessons, you’ll learn to add slides, hammer-ons, and pull-offs to the old-time and bluegrass favorite “Cripple Creek.”
ACCOMPANIMENT TECHNIQUES 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.
Vamping 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.
Playing in 3/4 Time Also called “waltz” time, 3/4 is the time signature for numerous folk and bluegrass songs, including “Goodnight Irene,” which you’ll learn in this lesson. You’ll learn how to modify 4/4 roll patterns you already know so you can play them in 3/4.
Accompaniment with the Forward-Reverse Roll The forward-reverse roll is a great roll to use when playing backup on bluegrass classics like “Nine Pound Hammer,” “Little Maggie,” and many others. You’ll learn some variations of the forward-reverse roll and then use them to play the chord progressions to “Nine Pound Hammer” and “Little Maggie.”
Clawhammer Banjo Also called “frailing” banjo or old-time banjo, clawhammer is the main technique used by old-time banjo players and it’s also great for accompanying singing. Bill shows you the basic clawhammer stroke, with tips on right-hand position and some exercises that will give you a good start on clawhammer style.
Using a Capo Learn how to use a capo to play in different keys. Bill shows you a few different kinds of capos, how to put them on the banjo, and how to raise the fifth string accordingly with “railroad spikes.” You’ll then learn how to use the capo to change keys if, for example, someone at a jam session plays a song in different key than you do.
BLUEGRASS BANJO SOLOS OK, backing up people is all well and good, but we know what, as banjo players, we really want to do: play cool solos!
Clinch Mountain Backstep Those lonesome-sounding tunes, like “Man of Constant Sorrow,” “Cluck Old Hen,” and “Clinch Mountain Backstep,” are called “modal tunes” and use a different scale, which you’ll learn in this lesson. Then you’ll learn a solo and backup for “Clinch Mountain Backstep.”
I’ll Fly Away You learned how to accompany “I’ll Fly Away” with pinch patterns in an earlier lesson, but now you’ll learn how to use different roll patterns to play a solo for “I’ll Fly Away.”
Soldier’s Joy The bluegrass jam favorite “Soldier’s Joy” is in the key of D, and is a good example of how to play in the key of D without using a capo. You’ll learn the chords in D, the basic melody of “Soldier’s Joy,” and how to fill in the melody with the alternating thumb pattern in the first part and forward-reverse rolls in the second part.
Jingle Bells The seasonal favorite “Jingle Bells” is a great tune to break out at holiday parties, whether you want to accompany singing or play a solo. You’ll learn both an easy accompaniment pattern that combines the pinch pattern with the alternating thumb roll as well as an easy lead arrangement of the chorus of “Jingle Bells.”
MORE ROLL PATTERNS You can go a long way just using the roll patterns you’ve already learned, but there are a couple more patterns you’ll want to learn to really master the bluegrass style.
The “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” Roll Learn the “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” roll, which, of course, is used in the classic Earl Scruggs banjo tune “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” It’s a little more complicated than some of the rolls you’ve learned already and it can be used in lots of songs. In this lesson you’ll use it to play the classic tune “Boil the Cabbage Down.”
“Blackberry Blossom” and the Osborne Roll The fiddle tune “Blackberry Blossom” is a popular jam tune. The first half has a lot of chords, but they’re all chords that you know, while the second half is in a minor key. You’ll learn to play through the chords and melody using a new roll pattern: the “middle leading” pattern, also called the “Osborne roll” after banjo great Sonny Osborne.
MORE BLUEGRASS BANJO SOLOS
Old Joe Clark The fiddle tune “Old Joe Clark” is a bluegrass jam favorite and another opportunity to work on the “Osborne roll.” The second part of “Old Joe Clark” uses an F chord and Bill gives you a few exercises to help you get used to fretting it.
Ralph Stanley’s “Worried Man Blues” The great bluegrass singer and banjo player Ralph Stanley passed away recently. In this lesson you’ll learn a solo to the folk classic “Worried Man Blues” inspired by the Stanley Brothers’ version of the song using forward-reverse rolls.
Earl Scruggs’ “Reuben” The old-time melody “Reuben” was the first tune Earl Scruggs worked out using his three-finger picking style. It’s a popular tune at old-time and bluegrass jam sessions and it’s in D tuning. You’ll learn how to get into D tuning as well as a great solo that uses combinations of pinch patterns and alternating thumb rolls, along with an occasional forward-reverse roll. You’ll also learn two of Earl’s variations.
Dueling Banjos Made popular in the movie Deliverance, “Dueling Banjos” even reached #2 on the pop charts in 1972. It’s a great tune for learning the G major scale. You’ll learn all of the melodies you’ll need to play the first part of “Dueling Banjos” and the chord progression and rolls you’ll need on the “fast” second part.
Foggy Mountain Breakdown Earl Scruggs’s banjo tune “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” is probably the most famous bluegrass banjo instrumental. Learn exactly how Earl played “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” starting with the well-known opening lick, which is played with the “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” roll.
Wildwood Flower The old-time country classic “Wildwood Flower” is a favorite instrumental of guitarists, who usually play it in the key of C. So it makes a good lesson in playing melodies in the key of C on the banjo.
MORE SONGS YOU CAN PLAY Of course, the banjo is found in lots of music these days, not just bluegrass. Learn a few folk and pop tunes to play at jam sessions and with friends.
500 Miles The ‘60s folk classic “500 Miles” is a great song for working on playing minor chords. In the key of G, it uses Em, Am, and Bm, as well as G, C, and D chords. You’ll learn all these chords and how to use the forward-reverse roll to play “500 Miles.”
Friend of the Devil The Grateful Dead song “Friend of the Devil” is one of the band’s most popular songs and one that is often played at bluegrass jams. It’s also a good song to work on changing chords quickly.
I’ve Just Seen a Face The Beatles’ song “I’ve Just Seen a Face” is popular in the bluegrass world and, of course, is fun to sing and play at all kinds of jam sessions. In this lesson, you’ll learn to play accompaniment to it using some variations of the forward-reverse roll, and how to embellish those rolls a bit if you want to create a simple solo.
Jolly Old St. Nicholas The Christmas favorite “Jolly Old St. Nicholas” is a fun song to play on the banjo during the winter holidays, and it also uses a couple of chords you may not have played yet: Bm and A. You’ll learn an arrangement of the melody and chords using the forward-reverse roll.
MELODIC STYLE Melodic banjo is a style of banjo playing designed to play melodies like fiddle tunes that have fast-moving strings of notes based on scales. So far you’ve played breaks to songs using Scruggs style by taking song melodies and filling them out with roll patterns. In this lesson, you’ll learn how to play a major scale melodic style and how to use that scale to play the melody to the traditional tune “The Girl I Left Behind Me.”