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.
Download a PDF list of all the Bluegrass Banjo lessons so you can keep track of your progress.
Bluegrass Banjo Lessons
A Bluegrass Banjo subscription includes:
More than 48 in-depth bluegrass banjo video lessons
New lessons added every month
Detailed tablature for every lesson
More than 32 complete tunes and breaks to songs
Lessons in the styles of bluegrass greats like Earl Scruggs, Don Reno, J.D. Crowe, Bill Keith, Béla Fleck, 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 ROLL PATTERNS 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, andanother 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.
FIRST BLUEGRASS SOLOS 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 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.
ESSENTIAL EARL 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, includingan 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’ 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.
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. 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 BackupYou’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.
SINGLE-STRING STYLE 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 to 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.
BLUEGRASS BANJO LEGENDS Learn some classic licks and solos by bluegrass banjo legends like J.D. Crowe, Don Reno, Bill Keith, and more.
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.
Dixie BreakdownThe 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.
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.
BUILDING SOLOS 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.
“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.
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.
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.
JAM SESSION FAVES AND OTHER BANJO TUNES
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
FIDDLE TUNE BACKUP
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.
CONTEMPORARY BLUEGRASS BANJO Learn some fun non-bluegrass material in these lessons.
Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds 2017 is the 50th anniversary of the release of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and in honor of that momentous event in the history of pop music, you’ll learn Bill’s arrangement of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” Bill’s “chord-melody” arrangement begins with 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.”