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Jan 7, 2020 - 5:26:25 AM
28 posts since 1/17/2019

Good morning. I’ve been picking for 3+ years...yes the dreaded closet picker using tabs.
While I am able to play a bit of backup, opportunities for jams are very few so for now I am content picking songs for my own enjoyment. My challenge is being able to pick so I can actually hear the melody of the song.

As a current example, jd crowes version of old home place; I know how the song goes but when I play it sounds nothing like it should. I suppose it is all in the timing and speed, just not able to get it together. It doesn’t sound like I am torturing a cat, just “t’aint what it’s supposed to be”.



Jan 7, 2020 - 6:04:53 AM



2668 posts since 11/29/2007

IMO, you need to find someone who can listen objectively to your playing and see exactly what is going on. It is very hard to know exactly what is going on with your playing by just reading your description of what you think it is or is not. I do know that many folks tend to be more critical of their playing than is necessary as they are not as bad as they think that they are. In the first paragraph you mention backup but in the second it sounds more like you are addressing shortcomings in your lead playing. Just know that in backup there are not as many melody notes played as the vocal in the song you mention carries the melody. You would want to get the melody down though for your banjo break in a jam. Hopefully others will chime in as well. If you could post a video of your playing here to the Hangout it would really help as well.
Good luck and hang in there.


Jan 7, 2020 - 6:14:19 AM

28 posts since 1/17/2019

Thank you. To clarify, picking the lead so the melody comes out is my current challenge.

Thought I might see if there are any silver bullets out there as a cure but may end up seeking out my former instructor for a couple of lessons to figure this out.

Jan 7, 2020 - 6:20:35 AM
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3349 posts since 3/28/2008

I just worked on that solo with one of my students last month. For one thing, while it suggests the melody, it doesn't totally nail it. Crowe often deviates from the exact melody note, in favor of some cool-sounding lick. (FWIW, Earl did the same thing often--notably in "Roll In My Sweet Baby's Arms".)

Jan 7, 2020 - 6:25:58 AM
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Players Union Member

Eric A


446 posts since 10/15/2019

I would suggest maybe go back a step, slow down, and set aside the busier rolls and licks and just boil that melody back down to just those relatively few notes you would sing or even hum yourself. I'm a hummer, myself. Pick those basic notes out with mostly just the thumb.  Then put those melody notes into some very basic patterns like pinches and square rolls, still mostly on the thumb where you can.   If you now can still hear that melody that you were humming, you are on the right track and then and only then start to fancy it back up again.

That's my "two bits". Good Luck!

Edited by - Eric A on 01/07/2020 06:36:33

Jan 7, 2020 - 6:34:27 AM
Players Union Member



374 posts since 8/3/2004

You might try recording yourself playing the song and then listen to the playback. Try varying your attack, using some of the suggestions in previous posts, and recording the different attempts until you arrive at what you are seeking. When I was learning back before instructional materials were available (internet and tab books, other than Pete Seeger’s manual), I found this tactic very helpful in achieving the proper timing of melody and rhythm notes.

Jan 7, 2020 - 6:36:35 AM
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148 posts since 12/13/2004

No doubt you’ve listened to JD play his version of “Old Home Place” many times.  Now listen to it again…I mean really listen to it…and learn the lyrics.  Probably the best way to play a song the way it’s meant to be heard -and meant to sound- is to learn the lyrics as they are sung, if it has them.  What words or phrases did you emphasize when you were singing it?  Those are the notes that need emphasis when picked.  Alternatively or in conjunction, you can ferret out a song by just picking the single melody notes while leaving all the fill and ornamentation notes out.  Again, it really helps to know the lyrics to do this.  Without those “key” notes you have no melody.  Now ask yourself how does JD emphasize those notes to make the melody stand out?  Usually they are picked louder, but not always.  Sometimes they’re a few milliseconds early or late.  Sometimes they’re full on syncopated or stand alone as quarter or half notes. Sometimes they’re “decorated” with a flashy ornament like a slide, pull-off, hammer-on…see what I’m saying?  Make those notes stand out tastefully.  While you might know the songs notes and have it all up to speed at this point, I would urge you to slow way down and try using some of the things I mentioned above.  It won’t be long before you have the song sounding correctly!

Jan 7, 2020 - 7:01:53 AM

1606 posts since 2/10/2013

The original poster sounds like he is describing my situation. But I don't try to duplicate great banjoists, I just "steal" some of their material. Even if I played a tune the way they do, my playing would never be mistaken for theirs. As one FHO member mentioned, really good banjo players are always changing the way they play a tune. I usually try to add some changes to a "classic" tune. Changes will catch the attention of people who have heard a tune played many times. In fact, the change will be welcomed by some. I have know some good banjo players, and they were usually delighted to hear clever variations, even by relative newcomers.

"Old Home Place" isn't a difficult tune. I used to hear it played quite a bit. One of the first tunes I learned. Red Martin up in southwestern Michigan taught me how to play it.

I do play along with "BIAB" rhythm tracks and that makes playing more fun.

Jan 7, 2020 - 7:09:50 AM

429 posts since 2/6/2018

This is a common struggle learning Scruggs style. Noam does a good job outlining different styles:
Melodic banjo leans heavily on the melody to mirror the fiddle, which I'm sure you know (Bill Keith, Bobby Thompson, etc.). Since you are a tab player, have you looked at Tony Ellis' work? Super easy, fun to play, and clings to the melody.
And yes, as the others note, be patient. As you pick up speed, the melody tends to come out more.

Jan 7, 2020 - 7:17:34 AM
Players Union Member

Neil Allen


851 posts since 6/15/2014

Getting the melody to sound clearly in Scruggs style is very difficult and even when you are successful, it usually sounds quite sparse and some of the notes don't fall exactly where you might expect them to. John Boulding has three videos on this subject that might be helpful.

Two-finger thumb lead might be a much easier style for your type of playing because the melody notes are naturally emphasized by the thumb while the decorative notes are added by the thumb and index, whereas in Scruggs they are divided between the thumb and two fingers, meaning it takes considerable skill to make them stand out.

Jan 7, 2020 - 7:47:31 AM

2049 posts since 5/2/2012

This is a common lament (I know it is for me), and comes up on a regular basis here on the HO. I played 2ftl for quite awhile when I started with the banjo and the melody is much easier hear when you play, due to the way the music is arranged. And, as has been said, if you play melodic style, the melody is much easier to hear, even when you are just beginning to learn the tune. Mark suggested Tony Ellis tunes. They are my favorite tunes to play, one of the reasons being that the melody line is relatively easy to hear when you play. When playing BG arrangements I have resigned myself to knowing that it will take many, many repititions of a tune before it starts sounding anything like the recordings. It takes that many times to get the nuances of timing and dynamics close to being where they should be. If you haven't looked at Davis' book Splitting the Licks, that might be a source of inspiration. She has 5 different arrangements of many different tunes: one with just the melody notes, one with just forwards rolls, one with different rolls, one with licks thrown in, and the last one with embellishments like PO, HO, slides, chokes. If you look at the progressive arrangements, you will where the melody notes are, sometimes spot on, sometimes a split second before or after, sometimes maybe even missing. As you play, the listener's brain will "magically" pull this altogether into a recognizable tune. Plus the books has lots of useful info on lead-ins, endings, tons of licks, etc.  And while I have not used John Hatfield's books, he bolds/highlights the melody notes in his arrangements so you know where they are. Kind of like Rick McKeon does in his arrangements, like this one Home Sweet Home  Rick used to have several really nice arrangements on his site, but unfortunately had to take them off.  

Jan 7, 2020 - 10:36:36 AM
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14608 posts since 12/2/2005

Some good thoughts so far. Perhaps I can add a few more.

First: let's start with basic right hand moves. It takes TIME to develop the ability to roll through the notes we want with the correct timing. That requires the development of some fairly fine motor skills in your picking hand.

But once you've done that, there's still more to go. Let's define terms: melody notes and filler notes. The melody notes are the notes that the singer would sing, or the soloist would play if he/she were being faithful to the melody notes. Oversimplifying a bit, Scruggs style essentially involves playing the melody notes and filling the spaces between them with our rolls.

Melody notes generally want to be brought out in front of the filler notes. Essentially, that means that you're putting more emphasis on the melody notes than the filler notes - essentially, putting a bit more power behind the filler notes and less behind the fills. That's an even FINER motor skill, in that we have to do this on the fly, and it can easily take three years or longer to be able to do this. Can't say without hearing you play, but from you description you shouldn't necessarily feel bad about this apparent lack of progress; developing the ability to produce dynamics - louder and softer notes - on the banjo takes time. It's not unusual for developing players to generate essentially the same sound pressure per string strike, and that's not necessarily a bad thing, in that it helps us develop fundamentals of timing. Can you generate different amounts of sound pressure by varying the intensity of your string strikes? Play around with that concept for a bit, if you haven't already.

So how to adapt? First, do you know what the melody notes actually ARE? As others have suggested, the kick to Old Home Place is brilliant but it's really not a break in which the song's melody notes are right out front. Most of 'em are in there, but there are so many other things going on that it's easy to NOT hear them.

Consider, instead, a different song: Fireball Mail. It was actually written as a vocal number, and there are some good YouTube videos of the Lonesome River Band covering it - with vocals. Listen to that a bunch. Then listen to Earl's recording of it. You'll hear that the melody notes in Earl's instrumental version of the song are right out front. In fact, he stomps on them (with some trademark Scruggs licks and fills thrown in for good measure).

I find it REALLY helpful to listen to the songs I'm learning until my ears want to bleed. I learn new tunes most effectively if I immerse myself in them prior to starting to play them. I'm listening for melody, timing, tempo, rhythm and chord structure. If I know what the melody notes actually ARE, they're a lot easier to bring forward.

Jan 7, 2020 - 11:12:08 AM
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10664 posts since 2/12/2011

Try making the melody notes a bit louder than the others.

Jan 7, 2020 - 12:59:33 PM
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71277 posts since 5/9/2007

Can you first hum or sing the melody?

Jan 7, 2020 - 1:08:22 PM
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5570 posts since 3/6/2006

Articulation. This is a hard thing to master, but without it Scruggs style is just a jumble of notes. You can do it with volume control or you can do it with timing, but either way you need to develop total independence in your fingers and thumb. So even when playing fast rolls, you can emphasize one note out of the many, even at speed.

Jan 7, 2020 - 1:24:17 PM
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28 posts since 1/17/2019

Thanks to all! I have a few things to ponder, to focus, to learn and to practice. Nobody said it was going to easy when I picked up a banjo, then again if it was easy everyone would be playing!

Jan 8, 2020 - 7:52:45 AM

71277 posts since 5/9/2007

It might not always be easy,but I find it to be a lot of fun for the most part.

Jan 8, 2020 - 1:40:35 PM
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1228 posts since 4/21/2003

Skip (and others) nailed many important points. Here's some related thoughts.

1. At this stage of your journey (you know roll patterns, standard licks using slides, pull-offs, hammer-ons) one thing that you should be doing is making up your own simple down-the-neck breaks in Scrugg's style to simple songs whose melody you know better than your address and phone number (Will the Circle..., My Home's Across..., etc). If you can't hum it don't start this process, but instead listen to a recording until you got the melody cold. (now is also the time to match the chord changes to the words). Then try playing the song while singing the words in your head, using licks and rolls, and picking the syllables of the important words in the lyric with extra emphasis. Don't even think about peaking at a tab. Do this the old fashioned way.  You'll know instantly when it sounds 'right' from a Scruggs perspective.  Then you are ready to tackle those great breaks our heroes have recorded.

2. If you can't make up plausible Scruggs 'breaks' to simple songs whose melody you can hum flawlessly, then learning a pro player's break from tab might be premature. Assuming you can do #1 above, then before you tackle JD's opening break to Old Home Place you must have the audio of the break firmly in your brain, so you can 'hear' (notice) what notes he's emphasizing, which notes aren't 'vocal melody notes (most of them!), etc. A basic principle of motor learning is that you need to know what's correct in order to know what needs correcting. That internal sound model is your goal, so if you don't have it, don't start.

Edited by - kjcole on 01/08/2020 13:44:08

Jan 8, 2020 - 1:41:36 PM

3308 posts since 7/12/2006

Ralph stanley played the melody as good as anyone. he tried to get it as close to the way the singer sings it while maintaining a driving roll. a good listening to his style might help you

Edited by - stanleytone on 01/08/2020 13:42:40

Jan 8, 2020 - 4:50:38 PM

98 posts since 9/1/2018

What Ralph Stanley song would be best to start with?

Jan 8, 2020 - 5:58:46 PM

Banjo Lefty


1798 posts since 6/19/2014

If you are using tab, which is not a bad thing necessarily, take a yellow highlighter and dab the melody notes in the tab. Then, when you practice, try to put a little extra emphasis on those notes. They may not all fall exactly where they would if you sing the melody, but that's because of the 3 over 4 rhythm of Scruggs-style picking. They should, however, fall on or just before the beat, so they'll be relatively easy to emphasize.

Jan 8, 2020 - 7:04:56 PM

71277 posts since 5/9/2007

I like Alan Munde's semse of melody along with Butch Robins.
They seamlessly flow between Scruggs and melodic.

It sounds so right when they are tastefully combined,imo.

Edited by - steve davis on 01/08/2020 19:07:31

Jan 9, 2020 - 1:23:53 AM



3190 posts since 2/7/2008

Do you play The Old Homeplace with a swing rhythm? It doesn't sound quite right unless you do.

Jan 9, 2020 - 4:31:58 AM

3345 posts since 12/6/2009

What helps me learning melody's on banjo is learning how to sing along with your picking along. Sometimes it comes natural when you are singing the chorus or the stanza and go into your break you find your picking out what you just sang or close. It's also a good way to learn how to play by ear. try it. Try a simple song with a forward roll. And like Ira says a lot of banjo picking isn't so much melody note for note its more the impression that puts the song over. No one did it Better than Earl Scruggs. also note for note sometimes (most times ) makes the song boring.

Jan 9, 2020 - 5:59:35 AM

28 posts since 1/17/2019

Emphasizing the melody notes (if I can figure which ones they are) and adding more of a swing rhythm along with words might be a good approach. I am using the old home place pdf from banjo bens site..not a whole lot different than what moooo uploaded to bho. I must have a mind block on this particular song.

It is encouraging to get such good thoughts from members. Thanks to all.

Jan 9, 2020 - 11:40:34 AM

901 posts since 1/25/2017

Try playing only the melody without any rolls or filler. If you cannot play the melody by itself, how could you possibly hope to find it on a chart?

In the key of G start with G-A-B-B-A (It's been ten long years) or if you don't yet know the notes on the fingerboard yet, on the G (3rd) string play 0-2-4-4-2. You can substitute an open 2nd string for the 4's.

Keep playing with it until you have it. All birth is painful.

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