Evie gets you started on your clawhammer banjo journey by talking about the African roots of the style, showing you the parts of the banjo, and explaining open-G tuning (the most common banjo tuning). She also gives you advice on how to hold your banjo comfortably, what kind of banjo works well for clawhammer, and what gauge strings to use. You’ll also learn good hand position for both hands and how to get in tune.
The I, IV, and V chords are the most commonly used chords in any key, and in the key of G those chords are G, C, and D. You’ll learn to play the bum-ditty pattern with G, C and D chords and then play (and sing) “You Are My Sunshine” with the same chords. You’ll also learn some handy exercises that combine chords with the bum-ditty pattern as well as single-string patterns.
G is the most common key to start playing the banjo in, and the G major scale consists of the notes you’ll need when you start playing melodies in the key of G. Learn how to find the notes of the G major scale in relation to the chords you already know.
By using pull-offs, hammer-ons, and slides you can get different sounds on the banjo, play more melody notes, and create more intricate rhythms. You'll learn to play each one and how to add them to the bum-ditty pattern.
Your first clawhammer banjo tune, “Cotton-Eyed Joe,” is a well-known old-time fiddle tune with the typical AABB fiddle tune structure. And it features some of the pull-offs, hammer-ons, and slides you learned in the previous lesson, so it’s a good tune for practicing them.
With your second clawhammer tune, “Nancy Rowland,” you’ll begin to explore the fingerboard a little more. “Cotton-Eyed Joe” stays at the second and first frets but this great old-time dance tune moves you up the neck of the banjo. The B part starts up at the fifth fret, where you’ll learn a new D chord. Evie gives you advice on getting used to moving your fingers up and down the neck.
Learn the classic old-time tune “Cluck Old Hen” in a new tuning: G modal, also called “sawmill” or “mountain modal tuning.” To get into this tuning you simply tune your B (second) string up a half step to C. This gives the banjo a haunting sound that is used in a lot of old-time clawhammer banjo music.
To play the old-time favorite “Waterbound” (also known as “Stay All Night” or “Water’s Up, and I Can’t Get Across”) you’ll go back to G tuning. In addition to the basic melody you’ll learn a few variations to each part, with slides, pull-offs, and drop-thumb licks.
There are several versions of the traditional favorite “Shady Grove.” The one you’ll learn here is in G modal tuning, the same tuning as “Cluck Old Hen.” “Shady Grove” is a one-part tune, and you’ll mostly play the melody, not chords, when you’re playing the melody by itself or singing the song. You’ll also learn some variations to the basic melody, including more hammer-ons and drop thumbing.
So far, you’ve learned tunes in G and G modal tuning. The old-time favorite “Say Darlin’ Say” is in a new tuning: double C. Evie starts by showing you how to get into double-C tuning and how to play the I, IV, and V chords in double C. You’ll play a simple bum-ditty pattern with these chords, so you can get used to fingering them, and learn the C major scale. “Say Darlin’ Say” has unusual timing, with just three short phrases, so you’ll start by singing the song and get it in your head before starting to learn it. Once you’ve got it down on the banjo, you’ll learn some variations on each phrase.
The old-time song “Goin’ Across the Sea” is also played in double-C tuning. Evie starts by playing and singing it through and then shows you the song’s chord structure. Then she breaks the melody down, playing each phrase in a “call and response” so you can play along with her. The variations you’ll learn include some drop-thumb licks that give a nice rhythmic variation to the melody.
The well-known murder ballad “Pretty Polly” is another modal tune, played in G-modal tuning. You’ll start learning it by singing the melody while playing a bum-ditty pattern on the open strings. You’ll also learn a hammer-on lick to play between lines of the song, and then learn the banjo melody by matching the banjo part to your voice.
The beautiful old-time song “The Blackest Crow” is a waltz (in 3/4 time). Evie sings it in the key of A, in G tuning with a capo at the second fret. You’ll learn how to use a capo, and either tune your fifth string up to A or use a “railroad spike” to capo your fifth string. Then you’ll learn how to turn the bum-ditty pattern into waltz time (bum-di-ditty) as well as another pattern where you play melody notes on the first and third beats of the measure. You’ll learn to play the chord progression with the bum-di-ditty rhythm before learning the melody to “The Blackest Crow.”
The great old-time fiddle and banjo tune “Ducks on the Millpond” comes from the Round Peak area of North Carolina and was often played by old-time masters Tommy Jarrell, Fred Cockerham, and others. The tune starts with a new technique that breaks the standard clawhammer pattern by putting the fifth string thumb note on the downbeat. You’ll also some variations, and get advice on practicing your drop-thumbing.
The classic old-time dance tune “Mississippi Sawyer” is in D with two standard-length parts of eight measures. The first part starts with a melody up at the fifth fret, so Evie gives you advice on fingering and walks you through each phrase, showing you some variations with drop-thumbing and hammer-ons.
The Civil War tune “Soldier’s Joy” is an old-time classic and played by all sorts of roots musicians. It’s in the key of D, played in double-C tuning with a capo at the second fret. You’ll learn to play and sing it, with some variations for the phrases of the melody that repeat.
The dance tune “Spring Creek Gals,” also in D, is a “crooked” tune, which means it doesn’t have the usual number of four or eight beats to a part. Evie starts by showing you the “crooked” A part, which includes a fair amount of syncopation. The B part of “Spring Creek Gals” is a little straighter than the A part, but still has some syncopation, and the melody is mostly played on the lower strings, which can be tricky.
Learn the old-time classic “Buffalo Gals” in the key of G. You’ll learn a few different ways to interpret the melody on the banjo, including some variations that use drop-thumbing, pull-offs, and the Galax roll.
The old-time tune “North Carolina Breakdown” is in the key of G and covers a lot of the fingerboard, from the low D string to the B note high up at the ninth fret on the first string. Evie begins by reminding you where the G-scale notes are up at the fifth, seventh, and ninth frets so you’ll be able to find them easily when the tune goes there. The B part of “North Carolina Breakdown,” which starts on the IV chord, is probably the most memorable part. Variations include a syncopated strum on the offbeats.
“Waynesboro” is another great old-time tune in G that uses the whole fingerboard. Well, at least up to the ninth fret. The A part uses some internal drop thumbing, in which you use your thumb on the G string. You’ll also learn a syncopated phrase (called an “I-skip”) that skips a note played on the downbeat. The B part of “Waynesboro” starts up at the ninth fret and moves back down through the seventh and fifth frets. You’ll learn some variations on this simple melody that use small chord shapes and drop thumbing.
This great, rhythmic tune is played in A modal. It’s pretty straightforward melodically, but is often played at a fast tempo, so keeping it simple is important. Evie also talks about playing just the top two strings when you strum, which will give your playing a tighter, more percussive sound.
The old-time fiddle tune “Pretty Little Widow” is in A major tuning, but the second part has some notes of the G chord in the key of A, giving it a “modal” sound even though you’re not in A modal tuning. In addition to the main melody you’ll learn some subtle variations with slides and partial chords.
You already learned a version of the old-time and folk standard “Shady Grove” in G modal, which is probably the most common way to play it, but in this lesson Evie shows you another version in A major, with the song starting on the V chord and with a second (instrumental) part, as opposed to the modal version, which just has one part.
The old-time classic “June Apple” is in the key of A, but it has a strong G natural note (the flatted seventh of A) in the melody. You’ll learn the melody to both parts and to sing the melody of the second part.
This great A tune comes from fiddler Benton Flippen. The A part is one continuous melodic line, without much repetition but with some cool slides and little melodic variations. The B part starts up the neck and ends the same as the A part. You’ll learn a new IV chord up the neck, and get advice on making the shift from the fifth fret back to open position.
There are a lot of versions of the fiddle tune “Sugar in the Gourd,” but the thing that ties them together is the melody of the sung words. You’ll start by learning a basic version of the vocal melody, the A part, and then how to add some variations with drop thumbing, I-skips, etc.
“Jenny Get Around” comes from Kentucky fiddler John Salyer. It’s a “crooked” tune in A, and Evie starts by showing you how to listen for the patterns in the melody and focus on the melody by singing it without worrying about counting it. The B part is also slightly crooked and uses some of the phrases you’ve already learned in the A part. Evie shows you where each phrase starts, counting you through them so you understand each phrase.
Clarence Ashley’s version of “The Cuckoo” is a classic modal clawhammer tune in the key of A. It features the “Galax roll,” and Evie gives you advice on playing the quick strummed notes of the Galax roll clearly and distinctly. You’ll learn the instrumental verse of “The Cuckoo” as well as a banjo part to play when you’re singing.
This great fiddle tune is popular among old-time and bluegrass musicians alike. It’s in the key of C and played on the banjo in double-C tuning. So far you’ve learned some songs in double-C tuning, but this is the first fiddle tune you’ll learn in double C. The A part includes a variation on the second phrase Evie learned from old-time fiddler Brad Leftwich. The second part moves up to the fifth and seventh frets and includes a IV chord (F) up at the fifth fret. You’ll also learn a variation that goes up to the tenth fret.
A fast four-part tune in the key of C, “Hell Broke Loose in Georgia” uses a lot of the neck, from the lowest notes all the way up to the tenth fret. The first and second parts of “Hell Broke Loose in Georgia” are both played over a C chord, but the third part goes to A minor. The fourth part goes back to C and is mostly played on the lowest two strings. You’ll learn the basic melody to all four parts, along with a few variations, including one with an I-skip.
The song “I Love My Honey” comes from a recording of Kentucky fiddler Santford Kelly, who sang it while strumming his fiddle. Evie’s version for clawhammer banjo is in C major tuning, which is slightly different than double C tuning, with the first string tuned up to E from D. Evie’s playing on “I Love My Honey” is based on a steady fast bum-ditty rhythm with her thumb hitting the banjo head on the downbeats. This is different than the style of playing single note melodies used in the fiddle tunes you’ve been learning. You’ll learn some of the embellishments Evie adds behind her singing on “I Love My Honey” and how she plays the melody, including a variation with triplet hammer-on/pull-offs.
The old-time tune “Western Country” is also known as “Susanna Gals,” “Susananna Gals,” and “Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss,” depending on what lyrics you’re singing. It’s a square tune in the key of D and an essential tune to know for old-time jams.
“West Fork Gals” is another great square dance tune in the key of D, played in double C tuning with the capo at the second fret. It has a nice singable melody with a few more notes than some of the tunes you’ve been learning but it sits well on the banjo and is a great tune to know for jams.
There are a few different ways to play the old-time square dance favorite “Sally Ann.” In this lesson, you’ll learn to play Tommy Jarrell’s version of “Sally Ann,” which is sometimes called “Old-Time Sally Ann.” Evie walks you through it phrase by phrase, starting with the A part, which is similar to the B part of “Western Country” but with some crucial differences. You’ll learn to play the A part in two octaves, as well as the B part, of course, which is half as long as the A part.
In the last lesson, you learned Tommy Jarrell’s version of “Sally Ann,” which is sometimes called “Old-Time Sally Ann.” In this lesson, you’ll learn a three-part version that comes from fiddler Benton Flippen. Evie shows you how it’s similar to Tommy’s and how it’s different, walking you through Benton’s version phrase by phrase.
This beautiful and popular waltz comes from Texas fiddler Benny Thomasson. It’s played by fiddlers in the key of D and you’ll learn to play it in double C tuning with the capo at the second fret. When you learned the waltz “The Blackest Crow,” Evie showed you how to accompany a waltz with a bum-di-ditty pattern, but the melody of “Midnight on the Water” is a bit more complex so you’ll mostly be playing the melody without many strums, bum-di-ditty patterns, or fifth strings.
The traditional song “Short Life of Trouble” is another great waltz to sing and play clawhammer style. You’ll learn to play the melody and accompany your vocal in the key of A (G tuning with the capo on the second fret). Evie starts by going through the chords with a boom-chuck, chuck-a waltz pattern, and then shows you the melody with some nice slides, different chord voicings, and a unique pull-off.
The old-time dance tune “Pike’s Peak” is in the key of C and played in double-C tuning. The melody goes from the lowest C up to the high C at the 10th fret of the first string. You’ll learn the basic melody of both parts as well as some variations on the A part and the B part in two octaves. You’ll also get advice on supporting your hand as you move up and down the neck as well as some possibilities for fingering variations.
The old-time fiddle tune “Lost Girl” is most often played in the key of G, but there are also nice versions in C and D. You’ll learn the version in the key of C in this lesson. The A part is really only half the length of a regular A part, but it gets played four times. You’ll learn a version in the lower octave and one in the upper octave. Evie’s version of the B part of “Lost Girl” includes a lot of drop-thumb and I-skip licks.
You’ve previously learned a version of “Lost Girl” in the key of C. In this lesson, you’ll learn the more common version in the key of G. Like the version in C, the G version of “Lost Girl” uses a lot of the neck, moving up to the ninth fret in the B part. The A part melody of “Lost Girl,” which is only four bars long, but is repeated four times, is played with lots of hammer-ons, pull-offs, and drop thumbs.
The modal tune “Garfield’s Blackberry Blossom” is different than the “Blackberry Blossom” commonly played by bluegrass musicians. The old-time tune is also sometimes just called “Blackberry Blossom,” but is usually called “Garfield’s Blackberry Blossom” to differentiate from the other tune. Some versions of “Garfield’s Blackberry Blossom” are in the key of G, but Evie shows you a version in the key of A, played in A modal tuning (aEADE) with a capo at the second fret.
“Lonesome John” comes from the great Kentucky fiddler John Salyer and is played in A modal tuning. Evie walks you through the melody phrase by phrase, showing you some variations and how to use pull-offs instead of drop-thumbs to get some melody notes.
“Cotton-Eyed Joe” was one of the first tunes you learned in this course, but there are a lot of different versions of this popular tune. This one comes from Marcus Martin. Like most versions of “Cotton-Eyed Joe” it’s in the key of A, played in standard G tuning with the capo on the second fret.
You’ll start “making the leap” with the tune “Sourwood Mountain,” first with a version from the great North Carolina fiddler Tommy Jarrell. Evie walks you through both parts of the tune, phrase by phrase, showing you a basic version and some variations with drop thumbs, I-skips, etc.
The second version of “Sourwood Mountain” comes from West Virginia fiddler Ernie Carpenter and can be heard on an album put out by the Field Recorders’ Collective. This version starts on the low part and includes some of the same phrases as the Tommy Jarrell version as well as a number of different phrases. Each part is short (four bars) and is played twice.
The third version of “Sourwood Mountain” you’ll learn comes from Kentucky fiddler John Salyer and can be heard on the Slippery Hill website. Salyer’s version is similar to Tommy Jarrell’s in that it starts on the high part and has some of the same phrases, but Salyer’s A part is just four bars long, and his B part is eight bars long and repeats.
There are many versions of the old-time classic “Cumberland Gap.” One of the most popular comes from Tommy Jarrell and other musicians in the Round Peak area of North Carolina. It’s the only version in the key of D. Most others are in G. In this lesson, you’ll learn Tommy’s version, which is played on the banjo in double C tuning with the capo at the second fret.
You’ll learn another couple of versions of “Cumberland Gap” in this lesson. Although Tommy Jarrell’s version of “Cumberland Gap” in the key of D is popular in the current old-time scene, there are many more versions of “Cumberland Gap” in the key of G. The first one you’ll learn comes from the great North Carolina fiddler Marcus Martin, and the other comes from the Williamson Brothers and Curry, who were recorded in 1927.
The old-time favorite “Bunch of Keys” (also called “Old Bunch of Keys” or “Whole Bunch of Keys”) comes from the great North Carolina fiddler Tommy Jarrell. It’s in the key of A, played on banjo in G tuning, with a capo on the second fret and your fifth string tuned to A. In addition to a basic version, Evie shows you some different ways to vary the strums and how to play the B part in a higher octave.
The old-time fiddle tune “Jeff Sturgeon” comes from fiddler John Morgan Salyer. “Jeff Sturgeon” has three parts, of varying lengths, and is in the key of A, played on the banjo in G tuning, with a capo on the second fret and the fifth string tuned to A. Evie walks you through all three parts, phrase by phrase, showing you a few ways you can vary the melody as she goes.
Kentucky fiddler Clyde Davenport’s “Five Miles from Town” is a crooked D tune, with irregular phrase lengths in each part. It can be confusing to learn but once you get it, it’s a fun tune to play and a favorite of many old-time fiddlers and banjo players.
Arthur Smith’s “Going to Town” is in the key of G, played on the banjo in standard G tuning. It has regular length parts, two As and two Bs. Evie starts by walking you through a basic version of the A part, with and without drop thumbs. The B part of “Going to Town” starts with a repeated lick that you can play in a number of different ways.
The A tune “Jenny on the Railroad” is from the Carter Brothers and Son, and Evie learned it from the Horseflies, the popular Ithaca, New York-based string band. It’s in the key of A with a lot of G chords, so it might be thought of as a modal tune, though Evie plays it in A major tuning. The tune has four parts, ABCD, but the B and D parts are essentially the same.
There are a lot of versions of the traditional song “Red Rocking Chair.” Evie’s version is in G and is similar to the one that Bruce Molsky teaches in his Peghead Nation Old-Time Fiddle course. Evie starts by singing a verse along with the basic chords, and then shows you a “bum-ditty drop-thumb” accompaniment pattern. She also shows you how to play some of the melody notes in the accompaniment and how to play the melody when you’re not singing.
The old-time song “Lazy John” comes from Kentucky fiddler and banjo player Clyde Davenport. The chord structure is a little unusual, so Evie starts by just going through the chords—in the key of G. Then she shows you the song with a “bum-ditty drop-thumb” accompaniment. She also shows you how to play the melody and accompany the song with some up-the-neck chords.
Evie gives you ideas on varying your song accompaniment and how to fill in the pauses in song melodies, including adding drop-thumbing, hammer-ons, pull-offs, I-skips, and more to the basic bum-ditty pattern as well as moving the “bum” to different strings and using chords up the neck.
Evie talks about creating instrumental breaks to songs, using the song “Little Darling Pal of Mine.” She also talks about backing up instrumental breaks when it’s another instrumentalist’s turn to solo.
“Red Prairie Dawn” is an old-time fiddle tune that was written by Garry Harrison, a fiddler from southern Illinois who wrote a lot of great tunes that have become favorites of the old-time music scene. “Red Prairie Dawn” is one of his most popular and has been recorded by bluegrass musicians and even jazz guitarist Julian Lage.
“Boys Them Buzzards Are Flying” is another Garry Harrison tune. It has a simple melody but the second part is very crooked, so the challenge is hearing and understanding the phrasing of the melody. Evie walks you through the first part and then explains the phrasing of the second part, which begins with a couple phrases in groups of three beats rather than two.
The third in Evie’s trilogy of Garry Harrison tunes is called “Ole Bob.” It’s a happy dance tune in the key of A, and in her version, Evie plays all the melody notes on the banjo, rather than simplifying the fiddle melody as clawhammer banjo players do when playing with a fiddler or in a jam session.
“Seneca Square Dance” initiates a series of students’ choice tunes, requests for tunes that Evie has gotten from students and that are popular in jam sessions. “Seneca Square Dance” is a square tune in the key of G that includes an Em chord halfway through the A part.
“Sandy Boys” is another popular old-time tune that a student requested Evie teach. It’s in the key of A, played with a capo at the second fret, and has a lot of flatted seventh notes. Like a lot of tunes, the B part of “Sandy Boys” moves up the neck and uses some of the same phrases as the A part.
There are many versions of the old fiddle tune “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” which can even be heard in Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring. Most of them are in the key of D, as is Evie’s banjo version, played out of double C tuning with the capo at the second fret.
“Cindy Gal” comes from Joe and Odell Thompson of western North Carolina. Joe Thompson and family were the primary teachers and inspiration for the Carolina Chocolate Drops, who have carried their repertoire forward. You can hear Joe and Odell’s music on Old-Time Music from the North Carolina Piedmont as well as Joe’s Rounder recording Family Tradition. Odell plays in a driving strumming style that doesn’t exactly follow the melody, but brings harmonies and backup rhythm into the music. His strumming style is perfect for dancing, which was often the milieu for the development of the music. Evie shows you a melodic version of “Cindy Gal” that is based on Joe’s fiddling playing, as well as a more rhythmic accompaniment part based on Odell’s banjo playing.
“Running Through the White Oaks” comes from the African American string band Gribble, Lusk, and York. Murphy Gribble’s banjo style, like Odell Thompson’s, is percussive and strummy and not as based on the melody as some old-time banjo styles. Evie recorded the tune with Karen Celia Heil on her Riding the Rooster album and worked out the melody of the tune in her own way, and that’s what you’ll learn here.
“Tie Your Dog Sally Gal” comes from the African-American fiddler Will Adams, who was recorded by a young Mike Seeger. It’s in the key of G, played in standard G tuning, with three parts. Evie walks you through each part, showing you a few variations on each phrase as she goes.
Whether you’re playing a song or a tune at a concert or dance, at some point you’ll need to end whatever you’re playing, so in this lesson Evie shows you some common endings for songs and tunes and how to create your own. She starts by showing you some I–V–I endings in G tuning that are one measure and two measures long, and then shows you some double-tag endings, endings that start up the neck, and endings using chord voicings.
In this lesson, Evie shows you a few ways to play triplets, which can help you when you’re trying to play a melody like a fiddler or simply want to add some rhythmic variety to your playing. She shows you how to combine hammer-ons and pull-offs and even drop-thumbs to create triplets on different strings and parts of the neck.
Watch the videos from Evie’s Zoom workshops on demystifying the banjo neck in which she presented her helpful process for envisioning the neck of the banjo and using movable chords and shapes to play any kind of music on the five-string banjo.