Learn the tunes and techniques of some of the legends of old-time banjo, taught by one of the icons of contemporary old-time music.
Check out these songs featured in the Old-Time Banjo course.
Learn the tunes and techniques of one of the legends of old-time clawhammer banjo and one of Bruce’s personal heroes: Wade Ward.
Wade Ward’s solo version of the square dance tune “Mississippi Sawyer” is a little different than the way it would be played for a square dance, in that it drops a beat at the end of each part. It’s played in double-D tuning: aDADE, where the fourth string is D, third string is A, second string is D, first string is E, and fifth string is A. Bruce shows you the tuning and gives you advice on getting in tune. In addition to walking you through the basic A and B parts of Wade Ward’s version of “Mississippi Sawyer” phrase by phrase, Bruce shows you some of the embellishments and variations that Wade Ward played on “Mississippi Sawyer,” including some cool pull-offs and slides. He also talks about how Wade would accent the brush on the offbeats by playing all four strings and separate the brush from the melody on the high strings, giving it a great propulsive feeling.
Wade Ward played the traditional song “Reuben” (also called “Reuben’s Train”) in an unusual E major tuning (g#EG#BE), in which the fourth string is tuned to E, the third string to G#, the second string to B, the first string to E, and the fifth string to G#. Bruce shows you the tuning and then walks you through both parts of Wade Ward’s version of “Reuben,” which includes a short (four-bar) B part that starts with an E7 chord and a strong melody note on the seventh. You’ll also learn a pull-off embellishment you can add to the basic bum-ditty pattern.
The fiddle tune “June Apple” is an old-time music standard and, not surprisingly, Wade Ward had a unique way of playing it. It’s in A tuning, the same as G tuning, but tuned up a whole step, and the B part includes a flatted seventh chord, G in the key of A.
“Wade’s Lost Indian” is in an unusual tuning: F#DADE, which is like double dropped-D tuning but with the fifth string tuned down to F#. The A part is “crooked,” meaning that it isn’t just a straight eight or four bars, but consists of two 4½-measure parts. And while it has only a couple of melodic phrases, they occur in different places in the second half of the A part. The B part of “Wade’s Lost Indian” is straighter than the A part, with four regular phrases played in succession. In addition to walking you through the basic A and B parts of “Wade’s Lost Indian,” Bruce shows you a few variations on the last phrase of the A part as well as a “reverse double thumb” lick you can use at the ends of the B part phrases.
Wade Ward’s recording of the song “Married Man’s Blues” is one of the first he ever made, recorded in 1925 for OKeh Records. In this lesson you’ll learn how to play “Married Man’s Blues” instrumentally as well as how to backup your singing. Bruce starts by showing you the tuning he sings “Married Man’s Blues” in: an F tuning that is the same as G tuning but tuned down a step. Then he shows you the instrumental version, which is based on a simple bum-ditty strum and includes some bluesy slides and drop-thumb licks. Bruce also shows you how to give the song a nice syncopated feel by leaving out the first note in the drop-thumb pattern. You’ll also learn how to backup your singing on “Married Man’s Blues” by taking a simple bum-ditty strum pattern and adding some of the melody notes as you sing.
“Polly Put the Kettle On” is a classic old-time dance tune and Wade Ward’s version has some interesting rolls and drop-thumbing. It’s in double-D tuning (aDADE), and the B part of consists of three four-bar phrases. In addition to the basic A and B parts of Wade Ward’s version of “Polly Put the Kettle On,” you’ll learn some variations, including a couple different ways to play the roll that starts the A part and some syncopated phrases in the B part.
Wade Ward recorded the square dance tune “John Lover Is Gone” (also called “Johnny Lover’s Gone”) with fiddler Glen Smith. It’s in the key of D and played in double-D tuning. Bruce plays the whole tune through slowly and then breaks it down phrase by phrase, starting with a roll across the top two strings and a thumb note on the fifth string on the downbeat.
Wade Ward’s version of the old-time favorite “Shady Grove” has two parts and some unusual timing. It’s in an A modal tuning: aEADE. Bruce breaks it down for you phrase by phrase and talks about accenting the backbeat and varying the timing of the pull-offs that start the tune and the hammer-ons in the middle.
“Sally Ann” is a favorite tune in the Round Peak area of Virginia and in all old-time music circles. There are some different versions of the tune, but Wade Ward plays the standard two-part tune in his own inimitable style. It’s in the key of D and played in double-D tuning. In addition to showing you Wade’s version of each part, Bruce also gives you a few variations that Wade played on the A part.
The fiddle tune “Old Joe Clark” is one of the most popular in the fiddling world and there are many versions. Wade Ward’s version is very distinctive and is illustrative of how “Old Joe Clark” is played in the Round Peak area of Virginia, with, for example, an E chord in the B part instead of the G chord that is used in most other versions. “Old Joe Clark” is played in the key of A, and Bruce tunes his banjo up to A tuning (aEAC#E), which is the same as G tuning, but tuned up a whole step. Wade Ward’s version of “Old Joe Clark” includes reverse double thumbs, rolls, and a cool sliding double stop.
Like so many of Wade Ward’s versions of standard tunes, Wade approaches it a little differently than what has become standard. Many of the common versions of “Cluck Old Hen” use a G chord (the bVII in the key of A) in the B part, but Wade, like many musicians in his part of Virginia, plays an E chord instead of G.
Learn tunes from old-time banjo greats like Matokie Slaughter, Claude Helton, Hobart Smith, and others.
“Jack Wilson” is a straight-ahead square dance tune in the key of D, played in double-D tuning (double-C tuning with a capo at the second fret). This version was recorded in 1941 by fiddler John Morgan Salyer and banjo player Claude Helton.
“Georgie,” sometimes called “What’ll We Do with the Baby-O,” comes from Virginia old-time banjo player Matokie Slaughter. It’s a two-part dance tune in the key of C, played in double-C tuning. The A part is pretty straightforward, but the B part starts with an alternate-string pull-off on the top string and includes some muting of the top string on the brushes. You’ll learn both parts and an alternate A part Matokie played in the lower octave.
“Chinquapin Pie” comes from banjo player and singer Hobart Smith of Saltville, Virginia. It has two parts and is in the key of F, played in G modal tuning: gDGCD. It includes double thumbing, crossovers, muting, and “hammer-ons from nowhere.”
“Five Miles from Town” is a dance tune that comes from Clyde Davenport, who is known more as a fiddler than a banjo player. “Five Miles from Town” is a somewhat crooked tune (especially in the second part) and is played in the key of D, in double D tuning (double C tuning with the capo at the second fret).
“Backstep Cindy” is a staple of the Round Peak old-time repertoire, and you can hear recordings of Tommy Jarrell, Fred Cockerham, and other old-time banjo icons playing it. “Backstep Cindy” is in the key of D, played in aDADE tuning (gCGCD, with a capo at the second fret), and has three parts, the second and third of which are crooked.
There are many versions of the traditional song “John Henry.” The one you’ll learn here comes from Virginia banjo player and fiddler Glen Smith, who had a unique, personal style of banjo playing, which is reflected in his version of “John Henry” in many ways, including the unusual tuning he chose: eBEBE.
This version of the old-time tune “Walking in the Parlor” comes from Lee Hammons of Pocahontas County, West Virginia. It’s a simple tune in double-C tuning and Hammons brings out the beauty of the simple melody with dynamics and subtle syncopation.
“Chattanooga” comes from fiddler Blaine Smith, but it lends itself well to the banjo. It’s a straightforward dance tune in G, played in standard banjo G tuning.
“Sugar Hill” is a great dance tune popular in Surrey and Stokes counties in North Carolina as well as Grayson and Carroll Counties in Virginia. It’s a two-part tune in the key of D, played in double-D tuning.
“Flying Indian” comes from Virginia fiddler Jesse Shelor and works well as a banjo tune. Bruce plays it on the banjo in an unusual tuning: gDGDE, which is sometimes called “Last Chance” tuning. To get into gDGDE you tune your B string up to D and your high D string up to E.
“Cleveland’s March to the White House” was popular among many of the older players around Galax and Grayson and Carroll counties, Virginia, including Roscoe Parrish, Emmett Lundy, and Bertie Dickens. It’s in an unusual tuning: with the capo at the second fret, the tuning sounds as gEADE (without a capo the top four strings would be DGCD).
“The Coo-Coo Bird” comes from Clarence (“Tom”) Ashley, and was included on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. Ashley sang it in the key of A, but Bruce sings it in G and tunes the banjo to G modal tuning (gDGCD). He shows you the “turnaround” that Ashley plays between verses, which includes the fill you can play between vocal lines, and then shows you how to combine the vocal, fills, and turnaround.
“Twin Sisters” comes from some recordings of two brothers, Sidna and Fulton Meyers, who lived near Galax, Virginia. “Twin Sisters” is a solo piece played on the banjo by Sidna Meyers. It’s a two-part modal tune played in G modal tuning, gDGCD, and it includes some unusual techniques for both hands.
“Pateroller Song” comes from Hobart Smith of Saltville, Virginia. It’s a fast, aggressive tune played in A modal tuning, in this case tuned aEADE.
“Tildy Moore” comes from Roscoe Parrish from Coal Creek, Virginia, who was recorded near the end of his life by Tom Carter and Andy Cahan. It’s a straightforward square dance tune in the key of D, played in double-D tuning (aDADE).
“Cripple Creek” is one of the most popular old-time tunes and there are many versions. In this lesson, you’ll learn a version that comes from Tommy Jarrell, who is more commonly known for his fiddling.
The old-time fiddle tune “Old Dad” is popular all over and goes by many names, including “Stony Point” and “Wild Horses.” In Ireland it’s known as “The Pigtown Fling.” The version Bruce teaches you here is based on the fiddle playing of John Rector and uses a lot of double thumbing. It’s in the key of G, but Bruce plays it not in standard G tuning but in “Last Chance” tuning: gDGDE.
“Shooting Creek” is a popular square dance tune in the key of D, played in double D tuning. There are a lot of versions by various musicians, including the Fuzzy Mountain String Band and Bruce’s band Molsky’s Mountain Drifters.
The most well-known version of “Wandering Boy” is the song recorded by the Carter Family, but it was also recorded as an instrumental by Frank Jenkins, fiddler with Da Costa Woltz’s Southern Broadcasters. Bruce’s banjo version is influenced by Andy Cahan’s banjo version and is played in the key of C in double C tuning.
This version of “Sugar in the Gourd” comes from Uncle Norm Edmonds and is completely different from the popular fiddle tune with the same name played in the key of A. This “Sugar in the Gourd” is a great straight-ahead dance tune in the key of D.
This version of the traditional “Fiddler a Dram” (or as it was called by the announcer at the 1938 White Top Fiddle Convention “Fiddle or a Dram”) was recorded by C.B. Wohlford. It’s in the key of A and Bruce plays it with a capo on the second fret.
“Rockingham Cindy” is a favorite of Round Peak banjo players, and Tommy Jarrell’s version is particularly interesting. It’s in the key of D and Bruce plays it in double-D tuning.
“John Brown’s Dream” is a classic fiddle and banjo tune. Bruce recorded it as a solo banjo tune on his album Soon Be Time. It’s a three-part tune in the key of A but in an unusual tuning: aAAC#E (capo on the second fret), with the fourth string tuned to an A an octave below the third-string A.
“We’ll Have a Way Hoeing Corn” comes from African American fiddler Will Adams, who lived in Ken-Gar, a predominantly Black neighborhood wedged between Kensington and Garrett Park in Montgomery County, Maryland, and was recorded by Mike Seeger in 1951.
In this lesson you’ll learn a tune from Norway, quite a departure from the other tunes you’ve been learning. But Bruce has found that there are many Scandinavian tunes that fit well on the banjo. “Knut Ramlet’s Hambo” comes from Hardanger fiddler Anon Egeland, and Bruce plays it in double D tuning.
The song “The Blackest Crow” is in 3/4 (waltz time), which is an unusual time signature for clawhammer banjo, but it works well for some songs. Bruce plays and sings it in the key of G, using standard G tuning on the banjo. He starts by showing you a right hand pattern for 3/4 time and then shows you how to add in the melody notes.
“Christmas Eve” is a great old square dance tune in the key of D, played in double-D tuning. There are a few good sources for it, including Gribble, Lusk, and York; Isham Monday; and Jim and Zelma Bowles, whose version is most like the one Bruce teaches you here.
“Robert’s Serenade” comes from Surry County, North Carolina, fiddler Robert Sykes. “Robert’s Serenade” is similar to the bluegrass standard “Clinch Mountain Backstep” and Bruce plays it on the banjo in A modal tuning (aEADE, with a capo at the second fret).