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Contemporary Bluegrass Banjo
with Wes Corbett
About This Course
Learn the style of contemporary three-finger banjo used by Béla Fleck, Noam Pikelny, Ron Block, and others. With lessons on single-string and melodic style, fingerboard theory, improvisation, and more. For intermediate to advanced players.
Try a Sample Lesson
Wes shows you some ways to vary the melody of “Cripple Creek” and introduces the concept of “melodic style” banjo. Melodic-style was invented by banjoist Bill Keith, who devised a way to play linear note-for-note melodies where you never play the same string consecutively. Wes walks you through the variations phrase by phrase, pointing out how each variation relates to the original melody.
Meet the Instructor
Wes Corbett
A banjo player of uncommon grace and facility, Wesley Corbett began classical piano at the age of two. He began playing banjo in high school and has spent the last 17 years studying, touring, and teaching. Wes has recorded and performed with numerous musicians, including Joy Kills Sorrow, the Bee Eaters, the Biscuit Burners, the David Grisman Quintet, Molly Tuttle, Sierra Hull, Sarah Jarosz, and many others. After a few years touring with the Molly Tuttle Band, he recently joined the Sam Bush Band.
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 Contemporary Bluegrass Banjo Subscription Includes:
  • More than 40 extensive lessons in the three-finger style used by Béla Fleck, Noam Pikelny, Ron Block, and others
  • Essential right- and left-hand technique lessons
  • Theory and fingerboard lessons relevant to contemporary banjo
  • 30 complete tunes to play
  • Detailed tablature for every lesson
  • 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
$20/Month For One Course
Additional courses only $10/month each!   •   Save 20% with an annual subscription
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Contemporary Bluegrass Banjo Course Outline

Wes talks about his banjo, a Hawthorn top-tension, explaining what top-tension banjos are, how they’re different, and why he likes them. He also talks about a few of the features of his banjo, including the radius fingerboard, Price tailpiece, Snuffy Smith bridge, and fifth-string “spikes.” He talks about tuning the head, which he tunes to F#, the same note Béla Fleck tunes his banjo to and a bit lower than some people tune the banjo to. He also talks about the picks and string gauges he uses.

If you’re taking this intermediate to advanced level banjo course, we assume you know some basic roll patterns, but to make sure you know the most important roll patterns, and the ones you’ll use most in this course, Wes shows you three basic patterns, starting with the forward roll. He shows you the forward roll starting with the thumb as well as on the index and middle fingers. He follows that with the backward roll (starting on all three fingers), the thumb alternating roll, and the “zigzag” roll. 
To become fluent in finding and creating chord shapes, it’s important to understand how chords are created, so Wes starts this lesson by talking about how basic major chords are built. Then he shows you three major chord shapes, giving you advice on fingering each of the shapes. He also gives you an accompaniment pattern to play with the picking hand, often known as vamping, and shows you how to move the shapes to different places around the neck. You’ll also learn about the seventh chord, which has four notes—adding a seventh to the root, third, and fifth of the major chord—and the minor chord, in which the third of the major chord is flatted.

In this lesson, Wes give you lots of ideas on creating variations to standard arrangements of a tune, using the banjo classic “Cripple Creek.” For those who may have never learned “Cripple Creek,” Wes provides a basic Scruggs-style version of the tune that includes the essential techniques of slides, pull-offs, and hammer-ons. The he shows you some ways to vary the melody of “Cripple Creek” and introduces the concept of “melodic style” banjo, which was invented by banjoist Bill Keith, who devised a way to play linear note-for-note melodies where you never play the same string consecutively.


Wes introduces the concept of harmonized scales and explains how they are essential to learning to play melodies on the banjo, or any instrument. He shows you to play a major scale starting on the root and starting on the third and combine them to create a major scale harmonized in thirds. He walks you through the thirds on the second and third strings, pointing out how the shapes of the thirds change as they move up the neck, and how to play them within a roll pattern. You’ll also learn the harmonized scale in thirds on the top two strings and a version of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” using these shapes with the melody on the top string.


Continuing with the lessons on harmonized scales, Wes shows you how to take the patterns you learned in the last lessons and move them to different keys, specifically the keys of C and D. He starts by showing you the harmonized thirds patterns in the keys of C and D, and then how to play “The Banks of the Ohio” using harmonized thirds in C.


Single-string style on the banjo is a way of emulating flatpicking or single-line melody playing, using your thumb for downstrokes and index finger for upstrokes. The style was pioneered in bluegrass by Don Reno in the 1950s and developed by Béla Fleck and other contemporary banjo players. In this lesson, Wes shows you the basics of the technique and gives you a series of exercises with various string crossings and groups of four, three, and two eighth notes. You’ll also learn the fiddle tune “Leather Britches,” with the first part played single-string style, and the second part melodic style.


In this lesson, Wes shows you how he uses guide tones in his chord voicings. Guide tones are the most import notes in a chord, the notes that really define the chord and create a sense of movement from chord to chord. He shows you how to construct two voicings of seventh chords using the third, seventh, and fifth of the chord, and how to use them to play Earl Scruggs’s “Foggy Mountain Special” and “Salty Dog Blues.”


In the forward-roll style of banjo playing, melodies are played primarily by the index finger on the inside strings—second, third, or fourth strings—using forward and backward rolls. It’s a style you can hear in the playing of contemporary banjo players like Ron Block, who plays with Alison Krauss and Union Station. Wes gets you started with an exercise that combines the G major scale played entirely on the third string with forward rolls, followed by similar exercises using the G major scale on the second and fourth strings. He also shows you how to play the folk standard “You Are My Sunshine” using the forward-roll style.


Learn a melodic-style arrangement of the classic fiddle tune “Arkansas Traveler” in the key of D. “Arkansas Traveler,” like many fiddle tunes, is very notey, but it’s also quite melodic. Wes walks you through each part of “Arkansas Traveler” phrase by phrase, showing you his rolls and positions on the neck and pointing out phrases that can be used in other tunes or played in other keys.

Wes shows you his concept of mapping the fingerboard for single-string playing, which involves wide scale positions that include three notes on the fourth string, three notes on the third string, two notes on the second string, and three notes on the first string (3–3–2–3). Wes shows you how to play a G major scale with this concept running from the fourth string to the first and using positions that start on each note of the G major scale. He also gives you advice on playing scales smoothly, so that each note sustains into the following note. 

“Brushy Run” is one of Wes’s favorite old-time fiddle tunes, and his arrangement follows the fiddle melody exactly, which means that there are a few tricky sections for both hands. It’s in the key of G, and Wes plays it mostly melodic style with a touch of single string.

In this lesson you’ll learn a couple of rolls that will be familiar to fans of Béla Fleck, Tony Trischka, Alison Brown, and other contemporary bluegrass banjo players. The first is the bounce roll, which involves bouncing off a drone string (which can be an open or fretted string) and playing double stops with the index and middle fingers. After explaining the bounce roll, Wes gives you a number of exercises using the harmonized major scale with different string sets. The Shelton roll is named after banjoist Alan Shelton and has a tricky maneuver in which you play the first string with your middle finger and then with your index finger. To practice it, Wes gives you some exercises that use the harmonized major scale, diatonic triads, and the circle of fifths.
In this lesson, you’ll learn how to roll through chord progressions. Wes starts by talking about the Nashville number system, the harmonized major scale, and the most common chords used in bluegrass. Then he shows you a couple of common rolls used to roll through chord changes and gives you some examples of chord progressions to use them on.
Wes gives you some great single-string exercises using the 3–3–2–3 fingerboard mapping positions. He starts by showing you a “half position” for playing in G that corresponds to the seventh position in the fingerboard mapping scheme, and then shows you a common melodic pattern exercise in this position. Then he shows you two other half positions in G, which correspond to the third and fourth positions in the fingerboard mapping scheme, and the same melodic pattern exercise in both of those positions. Wes also gives you another couple of pattern exercises: a thirds in doubles pattern that corresponds to the harmonized scale shapes you’ve previously learned and a scale pattern played on the top two strings in which you shift upward through all the patterns and pick with all three fingers.

In this lesson, you’ll learn the traditional fiddle tune “Chinquapin Hunting” in three keys: D, G, and C, all in G tuning. The arrangements primarily use melodic style, and these are the three most commonly used keys for playing in melodic style, so it’s important to be comfortable in all of these three keys. “Chinquapin Hunting” is a relatively simple tune, with a lot of repetition, so learning it in three keys is not as daunting as it might be with a more complicated tune.


JD Crowe is one of the most influential Scruggs-style banjo players of the last half century, and is particularly great at playing breaks to bluegrass songs. In this lesson, you’ll learn his break to the song “Come Back to Me Little Darling” (also called “Come Back Darling”) from the Bluegrass Album Band recording. Wes starts by talking about the subtleties and timing of some of the hammer-on and pull-off licks and then walks you through the solo measure by measure.

Banjo Setup

Unlike an instrument like an acoustic guitar or mandolin, all the parts of a banjo are put together with bolts and screws. This means not only that it’s easy for banjo players to do their own setup work and adjustments, but that parts can become loose, especially when traveling. So it’s important to know how to fix minor problems. Wes goes through some basic setup issues (and shows you how to address them), like bridge position, head tension, truss rod adjustment, tailpiece height, using capos, and more.

Mary Evelyn

An original tune from Wes’s new solo album, “Mary Evelyn” is named for his grandmother. It’s in the key of E major and combines melodic and single-string styles as well as roll patterns, in particular a t-i-m-t-i-t-m-i pattern. 

Dinosaur Birthday

“Dinosaur Birthday” is another original from Wes’s solo album Cascade. This one is in the key of D major and is played in G tuning but with the fifth string tuned up to A, which is a great way to play in D major or D minor. “Dinosaur Birthday” is played in melodic-style and includes a few positions and shapes you may not have used before. Wes walks you through “Dinosaur Birthday” phrase by phrase, explaining the positions and roll patterns as he goes.

Two-Octave Arpeggios

In this lesson, you’ll learn two-octave major and minor arpeggios with an exercise that moves around the cycle of fourths. Wes starts by showing you the two-octave pattern for G major and E minor (the relative minor of G), and then shows you how to move it to the keys of C, F, and Bb.

Letter from My Darling

JD Crowe’s break to the bluegrass classic “Letter from My Darling” recorded with the Bluegrass Album Band is itself a classic and a great lesson in rendering a vocal melody on the banjo. Wes walks you through the solo phrase by phrase, pointing out the nuances of JD’s playing as he goes.

Garfield’s Blackberry Blossom

“Garfield’s Blackberry Blossom” is an old-time fiddle tune bears no relation to the bluegrass jam session standard called “Blackberry Blossom.” Wes learned “Garfield’s Blackberry Blossom” from old-time fiddler Bruce Molsky. It’s in the key of G, but with a couple of alternate pitches. Instead of a C, in some phrases, it has a C#, and instead of an F#, it has an F♮. Wes plays the melody with some rolls and with some melodic-style passages based around two-note shapes.

Pentatonic Scale Positions

Pentatonic scales are an essential part of Western modern music theory. The two most common pentatonic (five-note) scales are the major pentatonic and minor pentatonic scales, which have the same relationship to each other as the major scale and its relative minor scale. In this lesson, Wes shows you movable fingerboard positions for the G major and E minor pentatonic scales.

Big Sciota

The old-time fiddle tune “Big Sciota” was introduced to the bluegrass world through the Skip, Hop, and Wobble recording by Russ Barenberg, Jerry Douglas, and Edgar Meyer, with Sam Bush guesting on fiddle for this tune, and “Big Sciota” has since become a popular festival jam tune. Wes plays it melodic style with some tricky rolls on the inside strings.

Methodist Preacher

The four-part fiddle tune “Methodist Preacher” comes from Bill Monroe. It has four parts but a lot of the melodic material in each part is repeated. It’s a great example of using simple melodic material to create a longer composition. Wes plays it melodic style, finding ways to make the banjo sustain and ring as much as possible.

Four Ways to Play “Shady Grove”

There are numerous versions of the traditional song “Shady Grove,” including influential versions by Doc Watson and Jerry Garcia. It’s a simple melody, just eight bars long, but in this lesson, Wes shows you four different ways to play “Shady Grove” on the banjo.

St. Anne’s Reel

The French-Canadian fiddle tune “St. Anne’s Reel” is popular in the old-time, bluegrass, and Celtic worlds. It’s played in the key of D and Wes’s version is played in standard tuning without a capo, with a lot of single-string and melodic-style playing. Wes walks you through the tune and gives you advice on blending the sounds of single-string and melodic-style playing.

“St. Anne’s Reel” Rolling Backup

In this lesson, you’ll learn some rolling backup for the fiddle tune “St. Anne’s Reel” that outlines the chords well and adds some extra harmonic motion to the tune with some nice chord substitutions. Wes’s arrangement varies the roll patterns, alternating between the Ron Block roll, the back-and-forth roll, the forward roll, the backward roll, single-string style, etc. For more examples of how Wes plays backup to “St. Anne’s Reel” check out this video of Wes and Simon Chrisman playing the tune.

Gold Rush

The Bill Monroe fiddle tune “Gold Rush” is a bluegrass jam classic. In this lesson, you’ll learn an intermediate-level version of “Gold Rush” that combines melodic and single-string style passages with Scruggs-style licks and some phrasing in the B part that comes from Monroe’s favorite fiddler Kenny Baker.

Gold Rush, Part 2: Advanced Version

In Wes’s more advanced version of “Gold Rush,” you’ll learn the melody of the A part an octave higher, once again combining melodic and single-string style passages with Scruggs-style rolls. You’ll also learn a flashy triplet lick at the end of the B part.

Whistling Rufus

“Whistling Rufus” is one of Wes’s favorite fiddle tunes. It was composed in the 1890s by ragtime composer Kerry Mills, who also wrote “Redwing,” and both tunes later became popular among old-time and bluegrass musicians. Wes’s arrangement of “Whistling Rufus” includes a lot of melodic style, along with some roll-based passages and a snippet of single string.

Single-String Modules

In this lesson, Wes shows you some ways to play scale patterns in single-string  style using two-string modules. These are closed-position shapes that allow you to move up and down the fingerboard in a linear fashion at fast tempos.

Billy in the Lowground

The fiddle tune “Billy in the Lowground” is a popular jam session favorite. It’s a great melodic-style workout in the key of C major, and you’ll use your thumb on the fifth string a lot up the neck.

Crying Holy

“Crying Holy” is a classic bluegrass gospel song. In this lesson, Wes shows you a break that is inspired by JD Crowe’s playing but is not a direct transcription. It includes some of JD’s classic licks and signature syncopation.

Freight Train

“Freight Train” is a guitar instrumental and song written by guitarist Elizabeth Cotten that was popularized in the urban folk revival of the 1960s. It’s a great tune to jam on and also a great example of how to embed a melody in roll patterns.

“Crying Holy” in C

You already learned to play a Scruggs-style break to “Crying Holy” in the key of G in a previous lesson, but in this lesson Wes shows you a break to “Crying Holy” in the key of C. The break is mostly in Scruggs-style, in open G tuning, but includes some single-string and melodic-style passages and some cool bends.

“Dixie Hoedown” Melodic Style

The bluegrass fiddle tune “Dixie Hoedown” was written by mandolinist Jesse McReynolds in 1959 and has since become a bluegrass jam session favorite. It’s also a melodic banjo classic, and in this lesson, Wes shows you a melodic-style version of “Dixie Hoedown.”

“Dixie Hoedown” Single-String Style

In this lesson, you’ll learn a single-string version of the bluegrass fiddle tune “Dixie Hoedown” that you learned in melodic-style in the last lesson. Wes’s arrangement is a great illustration of how he uses his middle finger as a “hinge” between thumb-led single-string playing and index-led single-string playing.

Shuckin’ the Corn

“Shuckin’ the Corn” is one of Earl Scruggs’s classic instrumentals. It’s based on a 12-bar blues form and the A part is two times through the 12-bar form while the B part is just one time through the form. Wes’s version of “Shuckin’ the Corn,” which you’ll learn in this lesson, is based on Earl’s playing.

“Shuckin’ the Corn” Solo

In the last lesson, you learned a straight-ahead version of Earl Scruggs’ “Shuckin’ the Corn.” In this lesson, Wes shows you a solo he composed for “Shuckin’ the Corn” that uses some contemporary-sounding ideas that come from Béla Fleck’s playing.

Jerusalem Ridge

The four-part fiddle tune “Jerusalem Ridge” is one of Bill Monroe’s most well-known original tunes. It’s in the key of A minor, and in this lesson you’ll learn a melodic-style arrangement of the tune played without a capo.

Goodbye Liza Jane

“Goodbye Liza Jane” is a classic fiddle tune and festival jam session favorite. Wes’s arrangement combines single-string and melodic style.

Boss Fight

Wes’s fast bluegrass tune “Boss Fight” is the first track on his solo record Cascade. It’s in the unusual key of C minor, played without a capo. It has some tricky shifts and is played with a combination of melodic and single-string styles.

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