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Bluegrass Banjo Classics, Episode 1: "Long Journey Home"

Monday, February 13, 2017


Fingerstyle Banjo Core Repertoire Series


"Bluegrass Banjo Classics" Edition

EPISODE 1: "Long Journey Home"

by Josh Turknett,



A New Season in the "Core Repertoire" Series

Up-picking enthusiasts rejoice!

In the newest season The popular “Core Repertoire” series is now turning its attention to “Essential Bluegrass Banjo Classics.” In this first installment, we'll be taking the song “Long Journey Home” and build up a 3 finger arrangement from the ground up.

But first things first, we need to set the stage for what this series is all about.


[RELATED: If you enjoy the tutorials here, the entire book of Bluegrass Banjo Classics, which would include all tabs, video tutorial demonstrations, and backup tracks as seen here, will be available soon. Click here to have it sent to you as soon it's available.]


How To Bake A Bluegrass Banjo Song

Just like in prior editions of the Core Repertoire series, we'll be taking a song a building an arrangement from the ground up, starting with just the basic melody. The goal here is not just for you to learn how to play some songs, but rather for you to understand how these arrangements are put together so that you can ultimately do this for yourself!


"Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."



You see, all too often folks just beginning the banjo start off by learning pre-written, fully formed banjo arrangements.

In that case, all you're seeing is just the final product, and you miss out on the MANY steps in the creation of that arrangement.

The expert player may be able to go through those steps quickly and automatically, thanks to YEARS of experience and practice - but you'll never reach that point if you don't learn that same process yourself.

It's akin to a pro golfer saying to a beginner “just grab a club and swing like this” without ever covering the components like grip, setup, stance, and so on. Even worse, oftentimes the arrangements that are learned are well beyond what's appropriate for a player's current level.

This approach will work out kind of ok if your goal is to just learn to pick a few tunes on the banjo.

It's not so great if your goal is to one day learn to do things like jam with others, pick up new tunes “on the fly,” improvise, or create your own arrangements of songs by ear (which is why so many aspiring players end up struggling with these things).

So, for each song in this series, we'll walk step-by-step through the process of creating an arrangement from scratch. You'll not only be learning how to play 12 classic songs for bluegrass banjo, you'll also be learning how to create your own arrangements for bluegrass banjo.

Learning the recipe will unlock an entirely new universe of possibility for you.

In this opening episode, we'll review the basic recipe for creating a bluegrass banjo arrangement, and then will walk through that process using our first tune in the series: “Long Journey Home.”


Bluegrass Banjo - the Basic Recipe

When it comes to bluegrass banjo, we can consider an arrangement of any particular tune as having 3 primary components. They are:

  1. Melody notes - the notes of the melody
  2. Drone notes - a note that rings out in the background through much of the tune. This is usually the 5th string.
  3. “Decoration” notes - notes that aren’t part of the primary melody. These are all those extra notes that give the banjo its signature machine-gun, rolling sound (and is why people think of banjo playing as “fast”).


As this breakdown illustrates, in a typical fingerstyle arrangement, many, if not most, of the notes being played are not primary melody notes. For the early player, this can be an enormously confusing situation.

This becomes all the more perplexing if one tries to learn these types of arrangements from the start. It’s quite common for a beginning player to lament the fact that their playing doesn’t match the sound of more experienced banjoists, despite the fact that they’re playing all the notes.

And the reason it doesn’t sound the same is usually this: whereas an experienced player is capable of emphasizing the melody notes in their playing, this is beyond the technical capabilities of someone at an earlier phase in the learning timeline. Early on in one’s banjo playing days, it can be difficult to distinguish between the melody, drone, and decoration notes, much less emphasize particular notes in his or her playing.

For these reasons, it’s critical that the beginning player learn arrangements appropriate for his or her current position along the Timeline of Mastery. Remember, habits are far easier to create than undo, so it’s far better to build them right from the start.

And it's also critical for the developing player to understand what those melody notes are BEFORE even setting about to learn an arrangement. Otherwise, he or she has no hope of emphasizing them appropriately.

Thus, finding those melody notes will always be the first step in our arrangement creation process.


STEP 1: Know Thy Melody

First rule of song learning: Thou shalt never begin with the learning of a song until you have burned its melody into your cerebral circuitry. No exceptions!

Fortunately, like all the songs we'll be covering in this series, Long Journey Home has a strong and memorable melody line (and no separate melody for verse and chorus). It's also a song - meaning a melody with words to be sung with it - which greatly enhances our ability to remember it.

Here's me singing the main melody line: Singing Long Journey Home.mp3

Listen and rehearse that melody line until you can easily sing, hum, or whistle it from memory. Once you can, it's time to seek that melody out on the 5-string!


STEP 2: Find the Melody Notes

First things first, we'll be playing all the songs in this series in the every bluegrass banjoist's favorite tuning, gDGBD. So before you put on your note hunting cap, make sure your banjo is tuned and ready.

Now, see if you can find those melody notes. Remember, we're not adding any fanciful decorations to them yet, all we're looking here is the naked melody.

Once you think you've got it, or if you want a few hints, take a look at the answer tab below:


STEP 3: Decorate Thy Melody

Here's where the fun really starts. Now that we know where our melody notes are, we can begin the business of adding in some extra banjo sounds to make this sound like a banjo tune!

Things like pinches, drone notes, “rolls,” and so on.

The possibilities of how you can do this for any single melody are essentially limitless, and so this is the part any individual player can place his or her stamp on a tune (this is also the part that differentiates “bluegrass” from all the other styles of fingerstyle picking).

It's important to note here that in this process of decorating the melody, sometimes we'll adjust the melody itself to fit what we'd like to play - we may drop some melody notes, we may shift their position in time, and so on.

So, to help you understand how the melody fits in to this new arrangement, the melody notes that we've retained are bolded and enlarged in the tab below. 

Here's our melody for Long Journey Home now with some simple decorations (click here to read more on how to read the tabs):

And here's what that looks and sounds like:


[RELATED: You may have noticed this arrangement was rated at a "Brainjo Level 2." Click here to learn more about the Brainjo level system.]


STEP 4: Embellish further as desired

Now that we've already built a foundation, we can add to it further based on our own aesthetic preferences and current technical abilities.

Here's a second version of it with a few more fanciful flourishes - pull-offs, slides, syncopations, and so on - thrown in:

And here's what that looks and sounds like:

Like I said, the possibilities for decorating any melody are virtually endless, limited only by your imagination and the range of your current technical abilities. And part of any player's journey down the Timeline of Mastery is in expanding the range or what he or she can imagine (mainly through listening) and in continuing to develop one's ability to play those imagined sounds.


STEP 5: Jam On!

Once the song is firmly under your fingers, it's time to rehearse. And there's no more fun - or better - way to rehearse than alongside some backup music. 

Being able to play the song in time is a great test of how well you've actually learned it, and a great way of ensuring that if you're ever in the presence of other musical enthusiasts who'd like to pick it with you, you'll be ready!

And just a word on how to use these practice videos, which are intended to simulate the experience of a jam. In the video, I'll first play through the song on the banjo. You'll note at that time that the chords are displayed on screen in order to give you a chance to practice your backup. When I drop out, it's your turn to take the lead.

We'll continue to swap taking lead and backup until the end of the track.




And that's it! Practice up, and I'll see you again for the next installment.


Get the Essential Bluegrass Banjo Classics (tabs, tutorials, and backups)


If you enjoyed these tutorials and backup tracks, then you'll probably enjoy the complete set of "Essential Bluegrass Banjo Classics," which will include all tabs, video tutorial demonstrations, and backup tracks as seen here, will be available soonClick here to have it sent to you as soon it's available.


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Lover of all things banjo. One half of the Georgia Jays ( Founder of Brainjo, the first music instruction method targeted at the adult learner and based on the science of learning and neuroplasticity (more at

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