Banjo Hangout Logo
Banjo Hangout Logo

Premier Sponsors

Banjo Lovers Online

Discussion Forum

Hide these ads: join the Players Union!

 All Forums
 Playing the Banjo
 Playing Advice: Bluegrass (Scruggs) Styles
 ARCHIVED TOPIC: The best advice that John Hartford ever gave me...

Please note this is an archived topic, so it is locked and unable to be replied to. You may, however, start a new topic and refer to this topic with a link:

Ragaisis - Posted - 05/27/2008:  05:52:16

This is a follow up to a posting on learning from tab vs. working out your own arrangements. Before people get bent, I'd like to say that I have no problem with folks just wanting tab and not having to go through the hours and hours of effort to work something out. That level of effort isn't necessary to enjoying the banjo.

However, I'm a huge proponent of working out your own version of a tune. And the main reason is something that John Hartford once told me at a song writing workshop...

He explained that "style is based on limitations." The pros chose to work out an arrangement and play it based on a number of influences, but a major constraint to how something is played and, just as importantly - how it isn't - is the arranger's limitations. Maybe he is strong on forward rolls and less on reverse rolls so he includes more forward rolls. Maybe he can't play melodic scales well but single string comes effortlessly. Maybe inside rolls are nigh-impossible. But no matter what the limitation is, the tune was arranged around those limitations to the benefit of the person doing the arranging.

You have your limitations, too. And so do I. And we work with and around them just like everybody else.

So here is why it is important to work out some of your own arrangements... When you play someone else's arrangement, you're taking on his limitations in your playing as well as your own! You're actually making it harder for yourself than it needs to be. And you'll never be able to hear and present your own "voice" on the banjo since it will always be overlayed with the limitations of someone else. Yes, that person might be a great picker, but that doesn't make this any less true.

Don't be afraid to work it out on your own. So what if it takes 20 times as long? In the end you'll have an arrangement that falls better under your fingers, you'll remember your break more easily, you'll have a much better appreciation for the tune and how it is constructed, and you'll find that improvising on that tune becomes a piece of cake because you took the time to learn the instrument as well as the song.

That's not a bad gain in trade-off for the extra time and effort.

Pick it solid,


The plan was simple. Unfortunately, so was Bullwinkle.

jbalch - Posted - 05/27/2008:  06:11:05

Great advice from a true master. Thanks!

Rich Weill - Posted - 05/27/2008:  06:26:54

Chris, that's a great way of looking at the tab question. In other words, don't feel bad that you can't play a particular tab arrangement better than you'd like. The person who wrote it might not be able to play your arrangement any better -- because his strengths and yours may be completely different.

Harold Streeter, in his Banjo II Course, emphasizes the difference between the tablature notation of a song and the original standard notation. The standard notation may (depending on the song) be what the composer actually wrote. Tablature almost always is just one interpretation of how the song might sound. That's why Harold's course always starts from the standard notation, and has you work out your own tab arrangement from the original source.

Unplugged - Posted - 05/27/2008:  06:32:15

Good advice. No real disagreement at all. However, there is a flip side to this point of view.We can also say that style is also based on strengths. Thus, in imitating/learning another picker's arrangement, one can also learn those stylistic strengths. That is the main reason (for me) that tab can be helpful.

Then comes the challenge (opportunity) to work up one's own arrangements/style with more possibllities and resources. I LOVE taking a (tabless) new song and working up my own interpretation (based on my own - new? - strengths, and - old? - limitations).

As you state, though, different folks have different goals for their banjo picking. Thanks for passing this on.

- Steve

"Sometimes you gotta create what you want to be a part of."

Edited by - Unplugged on 05/27/2008 06:42:01

Wes Lassiter - Posted - 05/27/2008:  06:41:21

Really solid advice

Banjo Wes
All things excellent are difficult as they are rare.


banjorandy - Posted - 05/27/2008:  08:50:37

great advice

Bojangles42 - Posted - 05/27/2008:  11:47:39

I love these discussions, because they give you a full 360 degree view of a topic. I find the different views informative, and refreshing! This allows for me to go through and pick out what I believe applies to me, and leave the rest.

It is so much better than the sometimes "Dog piling" that occurs!

slopdropper - Posted - 05/27/2008:  13:20:11

Great topic Ragaisis. It has certainly helped me. Thanks all for the advice given

Keep On Keepin On

frmertd - Posted - 05/27/2008:  18:28:07

Very , very solid advice. Thanks for posting.
PS . What I usually do is take the part of someone's arrangement I like and change parts I don't like. For instance, I can't play melodic well , any melodic lick, I fool around for an hour or so and convert it to a scruggs type thing that still is close to the melody.
Great advice.

"There''s only three chords in

worth - Posted - 05/27/2008:  18:51:26

That's great advice, I spend far too little time working out my own arrangements, but I try to justify it b/c I only have a limited amount of time to play a day,and I can pick up tabs so much faster. I definitely find myself reading tabs for songs I know and pulling new phrases I like, and trying to work things I like from one song into another. As an aside, in what context did he say that? I'm probably pointing out the obvious, but that's a song lyric of his from "Trying to do something to get your attention."

"A banjo will get you througha time with no money, but money won''t get you through a time with no banjo." -John Hartford

Ragaisis - Posted - 05/27/2008:  19:49:17

Originally posted by worth

As an aside, in what context did he say that? I'm probably pointing out the obvious, but that's a song lyric of his from "Trying to do something to get your attention."

Yup, I was aware that it was a line used in the tune.

As for the circumstances, I was playing a small stage at the Telluride bluegrass festival back in the mid 80s. Hartford came up and sat front and center and stared at me until the set was done, and then came back stage to chat a bit. We talked about his style vs. my style and why I couldn't get that "Hartford feel" in my playing no matter how hard I tried. He then gave me the "style is based on limitations" speech and elaborated on it. He told me that it was foolish to try and play like him and I should play like myself. I could play his tunes, but I'd better do it in my own style.

He then signed my banjo head and gave a song writing workshop where he taught everybody how to write a song. And his method works... But that doesn't stop my songs from being crap.


The plan was simple. Unfortunately, so was Bullwinkle.

cottontop - Posted - 05/28/2008:  05:31:51

My current teacher is always giving me tabs. I can never play them they way they are written. So, I usually work out my own arrangement. I used to think I was cheating or just taking the easy way out, but really, the "easy way" is just easy for me and may not be easy for someone else.

KS Banjo Cat - Posted - 05/28/2008:  05:49:05

Brilliant words of wisdom from Mr. Hartford. For years I had been frustrated trying to learn songs the way it was recorded and struggled primarily because of my limitations (real or imagined). I could hear how it was to be played but could not always convince my fingers to cooperate. When you reach the point of identifying your limitations and playing to your strengths you are making music in your own style and that can be as rewarding as being able to copy one of the pros. My wife sometimes reminds me I am not playing or singing a song the way it was recorded but that's OK with me, cause I'm playing the song the way I want to.

"Going Back to Winfield"

Rich Weill - Posted - 05/28/2008:  06:34:00

Originally posted by worth

I spend far too little time working out my own arrangements, but I try to justify it b/c I only have a limited amount of time to play a day,and I can pick up tabs so much faster.
It's a lot less complicated than you might think -- and the more you do it, the easier it gets. Some people try to work it out on paper. I see no need to do that. If you know the song's chords and can pick out the melody, you're home. It's also helpful to organize the rolls you know according to which string they start on. [Alan Munde's new book, "Getting Into Bluegrass Banjo," has an entire section on this subject.] Earl was once quote saying "that he basically played the melody with his thumb or his index finger, whichever seemed best, and filled in the gaps with whatever was left over." Makes it sound simple, doesn't it?

Ragaisis - Posted - 05/28/2008:  06:57:53

Originally posted by Rich Weill

It's a lot less complicated than you might think -- and the more you do it, the easier it gets.

So true. After a while you can almost "see" how a passage is to be played when you hear it. And that vision is based on your own style.

I used to have a hard time playing fiddle tunes in the key of D melodically out of open G tuning. I tried tabs of tunes I liked, and I could learn them, but they always felt...klunky. Then I sat down and worked out Whiskey Before Breakfast and St. Anne's Reel and suddenly the entire key made much more sense. I saw how D scales (and there are - literally - thousands of ways to play a one octave D scale on the 5-string banjo) fit under my fingers and where positions for those scales transitioned from one to another. Working out the melodic versions of these tunes so that they fell naturally under the left hand and involved no obscene right hand macninations became something that was no longer feared. I was able to choose and use positions and patterns that made sense to me as well as fell within my "strengths and limitations" limits. This sort of effort begets an easier time the next time around.

So, when do I decide to throw out my original arrangement for New Camptown Races and try to work one out in the "proper" key of Bb?

Pick it solid,


The plan was simple. Unfortunately, so was Bullwinkle.

John Allison - Posted - 05/28/2008:  11:28:46

Great advice and well stated. I have been trying to say this for what seems like years now but never so well put as your post. And so true, the end result is a rendition built around your strengths (both mental and pysical) by avoiding those pitfalls that could be created by your weaknesses. The end result is truely yours and something that can be appreciated by all for what it is not for being a good copy of someone elses rendition. Thanks for your post.

"Courage is Fear that has said its prayers.

Edited by - John Allison on 05/28/2008 11:30:19

Hide these ads: join the Players Union!

Hangout Network Help

View All Topics  |  View Categories