Tag Archives: flatpicking

Casey Henry

Casey Henry

I’ve written in the past on several occasions about my student Ginny (here, here, and here) who, in response to some right-hand issues, is now playing banjo with a flatpick. I think her story is unique (at least I’ve never heard of any other student switching to a flatpicking technique) and I’m really excited at how well it’s working out, after some initial floundering around on my part to find a suitable approach. I wrote my March Banjo Newsletter article about her and this post is a supplement to that article. (The magazine doesn’t have content online, so if you want to read it, subscribe already!)

Below are some sound files, mp3s of Ginny playing the flatpick versions we’ve developed of some of the beginning songs. (Click on the song title to hear it.)

First, Banjo in the Hollow. I know all of you know this one. It’s the first song on Beginning Banjo Vol. 1, and the first one we went back to each time Ginny and I started over with the flatpicking approach. She actually hates this tune, but because it’s the first one everybody learns, she ends up having to play it a lot.

Cripple Creek. I was really happy at the way this tune laid out in the playing-half-the-number-of-notes style we’re pursuing now.

Old Joe Clark. This is one of the tunes Ginny worked out on her own while I was away on tour. She said this version, “seemed to fall right out,” much like “Cripple Creek” did.

And finally Lonesome Road Blues. Ginny worked out both the high and low breaks on her own, and in this recording, from early February, you can really hear how this approach allows her to play fast. This one is at a regular jam tempo, and although it is not mistake free (and we’ve worked on the timing on the ending lick), clearly the tempo is comfortable. In this version I particularly like the lick she uses in the low break to lead into the C chord.

I’m sure you’ll hear more about Ginny in the future. Recently we’ve started learning the first entirely new song (as opposed to modifying a break she already knew three-finger style): “Groundspeed”. A whole new set of challenges has arisen, not the least of which is that the melody in the first phrase is very syncopated. Also, as is the case with a lot of the tunes Earl wrote, because it is a tune written on and specifically for the banjo, I consider ALL the notes to be the melody, which makes choosing which notes to play and which to leave out particularly challenging. Stay tuned!

Casey HenryOne of my students has been having right hand trouble lately. At first she thought it was a right hand position problem, so for months she worked on changing her hand position to one that would enable her to play smoothly. As the problem continued, though, we gradually realized it was not a position problem but a physiological one. She went to a chiropractor who discovered she had a pinched nerve in her neck that was causing the lack of control she was experiencing in her right hand. Since it takes months for that kind of thing to be treated, we were looking for alternative things to do until she sees physical improvement.

One of the ideas she had was to use a flatpick instead of fingerpicks. I was heartily in support of this idea. I have heard a banjo flatpicked Scruggs-style (by none other than David McLaughlin) and it sounds strangely cool. Two weeks ago I gave her a flatpick and we went through the rolls and a few of the beginning tunes ("Banjo in the Hollow", "Cripple Creek", "Foggy Mtn. Breakdown"). When she came back the next week she was playing with ease, albeit slowly. The strings on a banjo are pretty far apart compared to other instruments regularly played with a flatpick.

I realized that this would be a brilliant exercise for any student. You have to know your rolls cold in order to play all the same notes with a flatpick as you do with your fingerpicks. Try it. Play through "Banjo in the Hollow" with a flatpick (or your whatever your easiest song is) and see if you can do it. It sounds pretty neat and is a brilliant brain exercise.

Red HenryWe recently received a question from a guitar student who wants to learn to flatpick in jam sessions. Here's part of his note to us:

“I've been playing guitar for a bit over 40 years... I can play rhythm without batting an eye and play totally by ear... Bluegrass is my all time favorite and the one thing that I want to do more than anything else is to learn to flatpick. I have your guitar flatpicking CD but still cannot get the hang of filling in between the melody notes. I've read where you do not advocate the use of scales. What is the secret then to filling in between the melody notes? ...”

---and this was my reply:

Thanks for your note. In answer to your question (and as you've found out), flatpicking is a complicated skill. We try to set people on the road to it with our flatpicking DVD, but Murphy can only teach so much material on one DVD.

The way most bluegrass flatpickers learn to play lead is by sitting down and picking out the melodies to a lot of tunes---fiddle tunes may be best, since they have such well-defined melodies. This is because those tunes have a lot of great licks in them that can be played against particular chords. When you have a large enough vocabulary of licks built up to use in different chords, and have gotten the hang of putting them into a break when you need them, then you can assemble a guitar break to any tune you need to play. But the most important first step is LISTENING.

Before you can learn to play lead, you need to do a lot of listening. The best "input" is to listen to great lead guitarists (people who actually do play melodies and good musical licks) such as Doc Watson or Norman Blake, and also guitarists such as George Shuffler and Bill Napier, who played lead guitar with the Stanley Brothers. The more of the sound of good lead guitar you can get into your head, the more of it you can learn to play yourself!

We do not recommend that you listen to many modern bluegrass guitarists to learn this, since many of them concentrate on playing hot "jam" licks instead of the melodies to songs and tunes. However, if you are able to pick up some licks from them, more power to you! This goes for using scales too. Listen and learn any way you can.

This week we got our Flatpicking Lead Guitar video on DVD (finally) and you can order it from the website. I know a lot of times people hold off on ordering a video, waiting for us to get it on to DVD. Well, you can stop waiting (for this one, anyway!). This is the perfect introduction to lead playing. If you've been strumming away on your old guitar for years but have never quite known how to make that leap to picking leads, this is for you. Here is a sample of how it is taught. This comes from the first lesson, "Old Joe Clark":