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Chord Nerd Tip #10: Festivals, Camp, and Non-Traditional Techniques

Posted by Banjolio on Friday, June 6, 2014

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Before I get to the lesson, I just want to ramble on a bit ….

Summer’s here and it’s music festival time!

I’m very happy that I live only 5 miles from the Nevada County (California) fairgrounds, which is the home of many music festivals, including the yearly California Bluegrass Association’s Father’s Day Festival, which will be June 12-15 this year. Here’s a link with more info:

I’ll be there, listening to great music, drooling over all the instruments in the Luthier’s Pavilion and helping out my buddy Al in his Perfect Pitch Capo Booth. I look forward to meeting Eric and other Banjo Hangout Hanger-Outers and pickin’ some tunes.

But wait … there’s more! For 4 days before the festival, there’s also a music camp in the same location, featuring a number of regular teachers (including Bill Evans), plus many visiting teachers—from the acts that come to play the festival. More info on the camp: .

I attended the camp as a student for 4 or 5 years, and then became a volunteer. For 5 or so years, I’ve done volunteer grunt work setting things up and tearing them down, but I’ve also had the opportunity to be the teaching assistant in a number of classes taught by some wonderful players. I assisted in the beginning Clawhammer Banjo class with many different teachers, including: Evie Laden, Wayne Erbsen, and Evo Bluestein. Every teacher had a different, but valid approach, and I learned a lot about teaching from all of them.

This year, I’ll be assisting Kathy Kallick in a Guitar and Singing class.

In addition, what I consider the “perk” of volunteering is that I get to teach a couple of afternoon workshops. (The main “assigned” classes are in the morning; afternoon workshops are open to anyone who’s interested.) 

In the past, I’ve taught workshops including: banjo chords (go figure …), 5-string swing and guitar for banjo players.

This year, I’ll be teaching (for the second time) Non-Traditional Banjo Techniques, which is basically anything that isn’t Scruggs or Clawhammer, and Intro to Guitar in Open G Tuning (which is very close to banjo tuning).

For those of you who can’t make it to camp—or choose one of the many other workshops offered at the same time—here’s a bit of the Non-Trad stuff I’ll be presenting. (Finally ... the lesson ....)


Beyond Scruggs and Clawhammer

Have you ever entered a jam and pulled your banjo out of the case to a chorus of rolled eyes, earplug insertions, wry comments or people slipping out the back door? Of course this wouldn’t happen at a Bluegrass or Old-time jam, but it is likely at jams featuring other types of music.

Just as you wouldn’t want someone to join in your Bluegrass jam and pound out Latin rhythms on congas or blast everyone with a brass section, folk, blues, and swing players don’t want you to turn their song into Bluegrass.

You have to fit in with the style of music at that jam.

To play banjo with music that doesn’t normally feature banjo, you can steal techniques from other instruments, including guitar (folk, classical and jazz), mandolin, ukulele, and even tenor or plectrum banjo.

The goal is to open up your playing to different tonal and rhythmic sounds so you play more types of music.

Here are just a few of the possibilities. (You may have to remove your fingerpicks for these):

Tonal Variations

Too begin with, Bluegrass players can take off their picks to lower the volume and mellow the tone. Try jamming with a ukulele player (or 3) ... you have to get quieter to hear them.

Also, you may have noticed that most Bluegrass players pick near the bridge to get that bright, cutting tone, and many old-time players often claw up over the neck to get a mellower tone.

Try playing what you normally play, but move your hand around, from the bridge to the 12th fret. Hear how the sound changes from bright to mellow.

It is common to take advantage of this in classical guitar (and classical banjo). When they play a piece with a repeat, they’ll often play the first one bright and loud, then on the repeat, move their hand up to the neck and play it softer and mellower.

If you play without picks and have fingernails, then you can use another classical guitar trick: Change the angle of attack of your finger so it gets more or less skin along with the nail.

4-Finger picking

This is common in folk guitar, but works well on banjo. Here are a few basic patterns. Come up with your own variations.

Pick and Strum

It’s just the bum-dit part of the clawhammer bum-ditty. You can hit the bum (single note) downward if you’re a clawhammer player, or pluck it upward with your finger or thumb if you’re a picker. Use one or more fingernails for the down strum parts. (Here's where those fingerpicks may cause trouble.)

Now, instead of a single down-strum, try an up-down-up strum.

And here's a fun rockish chord lick:

Uke Strumming

Try strumming these triplets: down-up-down, up-down-up. This strum works great with a particular Beatles song.

Index Finger Flatpick

Something that works well for me for as a style variation is to use my index finger as if it were a flatpick. You can do simple strums, note-strums, single-note lines, and combinations of all of the above. A good clawhammer fingernail helps with this.

Plus, you can quickly go up and down on a single string (or two strings) to get that mandolin tremolo effect.

Chop Chords

From mandolin and swing guitar we can steal chop chords. If you play closed chords, you can cut the chops short by loosening your grip on the strings.


You’re holding a drum … bang on it once in a while. Scrape it with your fingernails to get a brush sound. Try hitting it in different places to get different sounds.

Clawhammer players can bang their thumb down on the head as they place their thumb on the 5th string.

Single-Note Playing

Try playing single notes in the Classical (guitar and banjo) style using your index middle fingers, instead of thumb and index. With your thumb free, you can use it to damp the strings you’re not playing, taking away some of that overtone ring.

You can also try using rest strokes when picking without fingerpicks to really give the notes a punch.

That’s just a small sampling of things you can do to get different sounds out of your banjo. There are many others. I’ve put a number of then in the book Banjo Aerobics, but I’d like to hear from other players … what do you do when want to get a different sound out of your banjo? How do you fit in with non-Bluegrass and non-old-time players? 

Michael Bremer is a writer, editor, publisher and banjo player. He is writing and publishing the Banjo GED series of instructional materials, and also writes and edits for Hal Leonard.

Banjo GED #1: Chords! Chords! Chords! teaches you everything you could ever want to know (and more) about playing chords on a 5-string banjo in G tuning.

Banjo Aerobics (published by Hal Leonard) is a book of exercises to help you gain technique and better understand the banjo neck.

Clawhammer Cookbook (published by Hal Leonard) is now available. Here's a link to it on Amazon:


1 comment on “Chord Nerd Tip #10: Festivals, Camp, and Non-Traditional Techniques”

bhniko Says:
Tuesday, June 10, 2014 @10:16:12 AM


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