Widely regarded as one of the most innovative and genre-bending artists in contemporary roots music, Danny Barnes’ musical interests are varied and adventurous, and he incorporates that versatility into his progressive approach to the banjo. Although he demonstrates an appreciation for the history of the bluegrass, country, and folk music from which the banjo’s reputation was born, his inventive take on the instrument, using the banjo to play non-traditional music like rock, fusion, and jazz with electronic percussion and loop elements, is what truly separates him from his contemporaries.
Danny talks about the importance of reading music notation on the banjo. He says, “It’s important to read, because it’s the language of music.” He starts by comparing tablature to notation, explaining that the difference is that with notation you’re looking at pitch values rather than the geography of the banjo neck. He also talks about the importance of learning the original melody of a piece, not just the banjo arrangement or some licks that someone might have added. You’ll get some music to practice reading from notation: a simple Hanon piano exercise, “Cripple Creek” (fiddle style), and two David Grisman tunes, “Farm and Fun Time” and “Dan’l Boone.”
Danny talks about the blues component in his music, both in bluegrass and other music, including straight up blues. Early bluegrass had a large bluegrass influence, as can be heard in the mandolin playing of Bill Monroe and others. Danny has also listened to a lot of the older acoustic blues musicians, like Son House, Skip James, and Robert Johnson and this had a big influence on his own playing. A lot of blues guitar is played in open tunings, and Danny talks about how the banjo, being open tuned, can easily imitate some of the blues guitarists licks and feel. You’ll learn a tune called “The Hypothetical Blues” that demonstrates some of the blues tonality he shows you, as well as a couple of blues chord progression and chord voicings that come from swing and jazz.
Danny shows you how to play clawhammer-style banjo. The technique is a little counterintuitive if you’re used to playing with picks. In clawhammer, you pick down with your index finger on the strings. Danny starts by showing you the basic clawhammer strum pattern and then shows you how to play “Cripple Creek” with that pattern. You’ll also learn to play the drop thumb pattern and how to use it on “Cripple Creek” and other melodies.
Danny shows you an original tune of his called “Isotope 709.” It has two parts, and the second part has an interesting chord progression: Bm–D7–F–G–Bm–D7–G. Danny shows you the chords and plays the tune all the way through at a very slow tempo as well as at the normal speed. He also talks about improvising on the unusual chords in the B part by finding the common tones between the chords.
Wade Ward was one of the great old-time clawhammer banjo players, and the tune “June Apple” is a great example of his style. This tune includes one of his signature techniques, a pluck of the open string with the left hand. Danny demonstrates the left-hand plucking technique and then walks you through the whole tune. He also talks about the importance of learning tunes on the banjo from the original source.
Danny talks about arranging a tune from beginning to end, with an intro, melody, variations, backup chords, and ending. He suggests that you make sure you have all of these elements, not just the melody, prepared for every one of your tunes. To illustrate how he goes about arranging a tune, Danny gives you an arrangement of “Cripple Creek” with an intro, basic melody, melodic-style variation, chords, and ending.
Danny talks about the benefits of using Mel Bay’s Banjo Method, by Frank Bradbury, to work on reading music for the banjo. The tunes are from the “classic banjo” repertoire and the book includes etudes focusing on arpeggios, scales, counterpoint, different keys, etc., all written for “C tuning,” in which the low D string is tuned down to C. Danny talks about the advantages of C tuning and plays one of the tunes in the book: “The Daily Double.”
In this lesson, you’ll learn the fiddle tune “Stoney Point.” Danny talks about the importance of learning a tune from the source and getting a good foundation for your own arrangement, or banjo version of a fiddle tune. In this case, Danny shows you the version of “Stoney Point” from David Grisman’s book Dawg Roots. He starts by showing you how he reads from the notation, and also how he transposes to a different octave. You’ll also learn Danny’s arrangement of the tune played melodic-style (or Keith-style).
The classical composer Béla Bartok wrote his Mikrokosmos as a series of piano exercises that start very simply and become more and more complex as they progress. They’re also great for practicing reading on any instrument. Danny shows you the first six, which are titled “Six Unison Melodies.”