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.
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.
“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 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.
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.
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” 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.
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.
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” 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 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.
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.