Sunday, July 28, 2013

Fiddle Tunes in their Natural Key: #2

Fiddle Bop

In my previous blog I talked briefly about Red Haired Boy in the Key of A. Today I will discuss an original fiddle tune that I wrote for the banjo. This tune is called Fiddle Bop, and it is written in the key of E.

Unlike Red Haired Boy that I played strictly using the single-string style, Fiddle Bop employs pattern playing a la Earl Scruggs and only a small amount of single-string technique. The chorus is also filled with arpeggio patterns that I feel mimic the sound of a fiddle in a similar fashion that the fluid scale passages do in Red Haired Boy.

The Major Scale

First things first; for those of you with little to no background in music theory, a major scale is a major scale no matter what the key is. When a scale is played in a closed single-string style on the banjo, the pattern or scale becomes movable without changing the pattern. Thus the pattern for one major scale is the same pattern in any other key. We'll take a look at this shortly, but first let's build upon our G and A scales from last time and add the E major scale.

As you can see the E major scale adds an additional sharp when compared to the A major scale; not to worry though as you will see below that the major scale pattern is the same for all keys regardless of the number of sharps or flats in the key. Meaning: it is no harder to play than any other major scale.

Single-String Major Scale Pattern

Let's start with the familiar banjo key of G. The tab on the left is for the G major scale, and the image on the right represents the pattern that the fingers make while ascending the scale from the first note to the last note of the G major scale.

G Major Scale

Now take a look at the banjo tab for the E major scale and its corresponding pattern. Note that the two patterns are identical. By learning one scale pattern in the single-string style we learn them all by default for all keys! This of course is true as long as you start your pattern on the 4th string in the open G tuning.

E Major Scale

Just to clarify, the red dot on the lowest string on the left is the root of the scale and starts the pattern.

Scales are the foundation of most music. I say most music because there are indeed works of atonal music. Atonal music basically lacks a central tone or key, or perhaps has a key but doesn't convey a sense of musical direction found in typical music.

For the vast majority of fiddle tunes and other music the bottom line is that scales are important; whether they are major, minor, or any number of other scales. Learn them!


Probably the largest element of Fiddle Bop is the use of arpeggios to convey the melody. An arpeggio is simply a chord that is played as a sequence of notes. The image below is the first bar of the Fiddle Bop chorus. The two chords employed are the A major and B major chords. Over these two chords I am playing a Scruggs-style pattern of eighth notes that at least in my mind gives me a fiddle-like melody.

Banjo players will recognize these chords as a standard bar chord. The first bar chord here is the A major chord and then the B major chord follows in the last half of the measure. Playing chords in this manner is an arpeggio.


This song should not present too many obstacles for the average banjo player, and your fiddle playing friends should also enjoy it. Perhaps one of the biggest obstacles of Fiddle Bop is that it is written and played in the key of E. As I stated last time set your capo down and give it a try.

The banjo tab to Fiddle Bop can be found in the Download and Links section, and you can hear the tune by viewing the video as well. If you have any questions, feel free to give me a shout.

Keep on picking!

Downloads and Links

  1. Fiddle Bop Banjo Tablature (PDF)
  2. Fiddle Bop YouTube Video

Monday, July 22, 2013

Fiddle Tunes in their Natural Key: #1

Red Haired Boy

Playing fiddle tunes in their natural key can be challenging and could require advanced techniques that encompass everything from Scruggs techniques, Keith techniques, and single-string techniques. 

Utilizing all of these techniques in one song may also require elevated levels of concentration and much practice.

Red Haired Boy is a very nice fiddle tune and is naturally or normally played in the key of A by fiddle players. Although the bluegrass banjo is tuned to open G, the key of A with this song should not present too many obstacles. As you can see in the figure below, the key of A has three sharps; two more than our favorite key of G.

This isn't a large change in itself, but as you can see, the major triad (1, 3, 5) of the G scale is represented by the open strings of the banjo. Unfortunately this is not the case for the key of A. In this case I present to you a single-string version of Red Haired Boy that stays fairly true to the melody.

Feel free to download the tab for Red Haired Boy from the Download and Links section below. You can also view the accompanying video on my YouTube channel to follow along.

Next week I'll present to you an original fiddle tune that I wrote in the key of E for the banjo. Keep on picking!

Downloads and Links

Sunday, July 7, 2013


I recorded this song back in 2000 shortly after writing it after some prompting by master musician and singer Roger Bellow.

The song was written as thanks for a couple of bottles of Rioja wine that my aunt sent from Spain. Sadly it was placed on the shelf shortly thereafter, and I only recently found the original tracks.

I'm playing the electric banjo and bass and Roger covered everything else to include the guitar, mandolin, and fiddle parts.

Special thanks to Jamie Joyner for mastering the audio recording.

Downloads and Links

  1. Rioja on YouTube Video

Saturday, July 6, 2013

V- I Transition for Bluegrass Banjo

There is nothing like a hard driving bluegrass banjo song. Hopefully something interesting is played during the break and then it is finished off with a Scruggs-styled phrase that takes us from D to G.

The problem that I have is that I tend to play the same old thing every time. This is especially true at jam sessions, and sometimes I just want to jazz it up a little. To get there I need to develop a phrase that is sonically pleasing and then practice it until it becomes second nature, so let's get started.

Design Goals

I have three simple goals for my new phrase.
  1. It has to be fairly easy to play. This will allow me to play the new phrase without thinking about it too much when I'm put on the spot.
  2. It needs to have at least a moderate amount of wow factor. I want the people whom I normally play with to notice that I pulled something new out of the bag.
  3. Putting the wow factor slightly aside, I don't want to rock the boat too much. For me this means not going too far off the reservation in terms of chord substitutions for standard bluegrass music.

Downloads and Links

  1. Salty Dog Blues Banjo Tablature (PDF)
  2. Salty Dog Blues YouTube Video

The Transitions

The banjo tab contains two V – I transitions. The first is a Scruggs-styled phrase that appears in bars 5 – 8. This is version one of the song. It is a more-or-less standard sounding transition and when properly accented it sounds pretty darn good.

The second transition appears in measures 13 – 16. This is version two and is identical to version one with exception of the transition bars.

As you can see I took an arpeggiated approach with the new transition with the phrase played over the D bars and then a simple melodic approach with the phrase in the G bars.

The D chord starts the transition, and the following chord substitutions played against the D chord only contain the notes of the G major scale. The anchor notes through these two bars are F# and G in bar 13, and A in bar 14. I linger on this formation to build a little anticipation prior to hitting the bar 15 with the transition to the tonic (G). I am essentially crawling my way up to the G bar where I'll start the downward transition on a B in measure 15 to cap off the song.

At this point the G lick is a more-or-less standard melodic phrase and happens to flow fairly well into the last note.


So did I meet the design goals? To my ears, and I know that this is purely subjective, the new transition doesn't create a tremendous amount of musical tension and sounds pleasing, so I believe this covers my second and third goals, but is it easy to play?

Honestly I think this is something that you will have to decide for yourself. Please give it a try and feel free to tweak it as you see fit. Hopefully you can add this to your bag of tricks, and don't forget to check out the tab and the video.

Happy picking!