Calloused Ears: Tips on how to play the banjo “by ear”

This is a workshop on developing improvisational playing skills for frailing banjo players. Topics covered include chord progressions, scales and licks. This was typed out in Notepad back between 2003 and 2004.


You hear a lot of banjo players talking about playing by ear nowadays. The popular vision of what’s involved in playing a tune off the cuff or on the fly at a jam session is kind of convoluted. People who don’t know how it really works almost always describe it as something difficult to do.

It really isn’t. I think a big part of the confusion stems from how people approach the idea. Most of the people I know who are totally tab-dependent (I like to call them “tab monkeys”) are fixated on playing lead breaks or instrumental tunes. While playing lead is fun and, to some peoples eyes, a bit cooler than playing rhythm it’s awful hard to make sense out of anything if you are only playing notes- even more so if you are reading tab and thinking of songs in terms of individual finger movements.

We rush things today. In this world of mass media and digital technology we are used to things coming to us at the snap of our fingers. I think that outlook bleeds into folk music sometimes and people start thinking that with the right formula playing at a professional level is as simple as writing a check or hoping naked on one foot in a circle by the light of a full moon in the backwoods of West Virginia.

For me, getting a grip on the skills and concepts involved in making music was and has been a combination of a journey and a growing process. I started out playing everything simply, picked up a lot of tricks and concepts from cool old dudes to get to the point where I could play really complex stuff and nowadays I’m back to playing things simply again. The things that seemed so important twenty years ago don’t mean as much to me now as having a chance to sit on the front porch and sing folk songs with my dad.

Besides, one thing I have learned over the years is that the player who can play lead for a couple of songs really only fits into groups that play those specific songs – and those songs have to be played exactly the same way as the lead player is used to playing them.

A solid rhythm player can make music anywhere with anybody.

Think about that for a second. Making music anywhere with anybody. Is that cool or what?

Rooting yourself in rhythm not only gives you the flexibility to wander from old time music to punk rock at will, it also gives you a foundation for playing really effective lead breaks down the road. It’s kind of like instead of learning one song you wind up learning thousands of songs.

Keep in mind that there isn’t any specific road map to learning the banjo or any other folk instrument. Everybody is going to have to blaze their own trail and find the route that works best for them but the process or trip is a little bit easier if you don’t rush things in the very beginning. Take the time to develop some basic skills.

No, you really won’t wind up sounding just like anybody else- but you will wind up sounding like yourself.

Most of the folks reading this will have spent, hopefully, at least a little bit of time working on some kind of basic picking pattern and chord changes- but there is another set of skills in the area of basic musicianship that usually get overlooked in favor of memorizing banjo sound effects like Foggy Mountain Breakdown.

Over the next few months, starting with the following workshop, I am going to present some of these basic skills starting with this workshop on understanding chord progressions. A lot of this material is covered in greater detail in my book The How and the Tao of Old Time Banjo and The How and the Tao of Folk Guitar, but there will be enough information presented here to get you started. Don’t rush this stuff. Take the time to really get a feel for how chord progressions work (and as you will be reading a little further down it really is a matter of “feel”) before you move on to the next workshop. This isn’t a race- and besides, when you drive too fast you can’t enjoy the scenery. You’ll be speeding through the countryside telling your kids, “That red blur was a barn and the brown blur was a cow.”

Getting Started
I am going to assume that you can play some kind of basic picking pattern in 4/4 and 3/4 time. If not, you may want to check out the free basic frailing workshop available here at or pick up one of our CD ROM workshops. We’ll get into other time signatures like 6/8 down the road (God forbid we don’t go into some Irish fiddle tunes) but for right now we’re going to stick to playing in 4/4 and 3/4 time.

I know, right now some of you are thinking “time signatures?”

When I say that a song is in 4/4 time that four slash four or four over four is a time signature. Up to now we have just taken for granted that 4/4 means four beats to a measure and 3/4 time was three beats to a measure.

We’ll go into this subject in more detail a couple of workshops down the road, or you can pick up some of the material we have available on CD ROM.

If you can play a bump dit-ty for 4/4 time and a bump ditty-ditty for 3/4 time you’ve got the picking hand down enough to start messing with this stuff.

At this point I should add that this stuff isn’t frailing-specific. I just happen to really like frailing banjo. A boom-shuck and boom shuck-shuck on the guitar or some find of 4/4 and 3/4 finger picking patterns for bluegrass and other styles of banjo will work just fine. Music is music. A G note on the mandolin is the same as a G note on the banjo- they just sound a little different because the instruments have different voices

Building Chord Progressions
I think the first step to really being able to use chord progressions is learning how they are built. If I just say, “In the key of C you usually can count on the song using the C, F and G chords” if doesn’t give you the whole picture. As soon as you play a song like Freight Train in C and run into the E chord you’ll be thinking, “where the hell did that come from?”

So what “makes” a chord progression?

It’s built on scales.

Now, don’t freak out and run away here. I know that some goomer at a bluegrass festival might have convinced you that music theory is either hard or not applicable to the banjo but neither of those old wives tales is true.

Oh yeah, if you bring up that, “there aint no notes on a banjo,” quote I’ll spank you like a circus monkey.

Where were we? That’s right, scales.

A scale is just a sequence of notes. The formal term is something more along the lines of “the key of E is a major mode with a root of E,” but we won’t be getting into modes for a while so thinking of it as a sequence of notes makes things easier for now.

In Western music we are only working with twelve notes. The twelve notes are named after the letters A through G with a note or half-step between each pair of letters except between B and C and E and F:

A | B  C | D | E  F  | G |

Your half step is either a sharp (#) or a flat (b.)

The half step between A and B can be called either A# or Bb.

A# means that the A note is raised one half step higher. Bb is the B note lowered one half step. A# and Bb are the same note and the other half steps follow the same pattern.

So with all twelve notes laid out you have the chromatic scale:

A  A#/Bb  B  C  C#/Db  D  D#/Eb  E  F  F#/Gb  G  G#/Ab

Once you understand the idea of half steps you can just write out your chromatic scale like this to save space and make it a tad clearer. The ” | ” symbol will be used to represent a half step.

A | B  C |  D  |  E  F  | G | 

To hear this on your banjo play the third string at the second fret (an A note) and play that string on each fret all the way through twelve frets for each note of the chromatic scale.

To figure out the notes of the C scale we need to lay out the string of notes starting with our root note. In this case the root note is C so we start with the C note. Because we are only working with the letters A through G the notes after the G note is going to be A. It might help to think of the notes as being laid out in a loop or circle.

C | D | E F | G | A | B C

Now if you notice we started on C and ended on C. That second C is called the octave. It is the same note as the root but higher in pitch. What we have here now is a chromatic scale starting on C and ending on C. Root, whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, whole step, half step.

C is the root. 1. a whole step from C is D. 2. a whole step from D is E. 3. a half step from E is F 4. a whole step from F is G 5. a whole step from G is A 6. a whole step from A is B 7. a half step from B is C

So your C scale is C D E F G A B C

Now, try writing out some scales on your own.

Once you have a scale laid out- and it might be a good idea to sit down and work out A couple of scales here for keys you will be using a lot on the banjo like A,D and G andd keeping them handy to use in the next step- go ahead and number each note:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
C D E F G A B C 

The notes numbered 1, 4 and 5 (C, F and G) will be your major chords for the key of C.

Go back and look at all the songs in the key of G that know (that is, if you are already playing a couple of songs.) You will notice that almost all of them use some combination of G, C and D. Some songs will only have two of the chords but most of the time you will see all three.

The note numbered 6 is going to be your relative minor. In this case Am.

Every root chord has a relative minor chord. We’ll go into this in more detail later on, but every key has a unique number of sharps and flats. The key of C has no sharps or flats and the key of G has one sharp (F#.) The same rule applies to minor keys. Any minor key that has the same number of sharps and flats as a major key is the relative minor of that major key.

The key of Am has no sharps or flats. Therefore it is the relative minor of C. It is good to know your relative minor chords (the 6 chord in the number system) because you can swap them around in some situations. If you are playing a song and cannot remember how to make an Am chord you can just play a C chord. It is different but it is close enough that you may get away with it.

The note numbered 2 is going to be both a minor chord and a major chord. In this case Am and A.

Number 3 is where it gets kind of neat because in folk music this is often referred to as an “off chord.” In the key of C your off chord is E (remember in the introduction when I mentioned Freight Train?.)

Your 6 chord can be played as a major chord as well. But it is kind of funky. You will really only use the major 6 once in a great while. In some songs like “Little Maggie” you might run into what some players call a mountain seven. That is when you flat the 7 chord. That is why “Little Maggie” goes from G to F rather than G to F#. We talked about this in the last New Time banjo workshop.

The slang term for numbering a scale like this is “The Nashville number System.” It didn’t come from Nashville (you don’t really think the people who brought us gems like “Achy-Breaky Heart” were responsible for something like a musicial concept, did you?) but they got the credit for it. Don’t as me why, it’s as much of a mystery as why there isn’t a half step between B and C.

Now take the other scales you worked out earlier and come up with the 1-4-5 progressions for each.

Now take a really simple song like Boil Them Cabbage Down (the tab is for frailing banjo so if you play another style or instrument you’ll have to come up with something else. If you need help drop me a note.)

Boil Them cabbage Down

    C             F             C             G

    C             F             C     G       C

Now they way the song is tabbed out here you are playing a chord progression that runs: C / F / C / G / C / F / C G / C

If we compare that chord progression to our scale and the number system:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

It’s easy to see that we are working with the 1, 4 and 5 chords.

Now how would you play Boil Them cabbage Down in the key of G? How would you play the song in D, A or even E?

What I want you to work on until the next New Time Banjo workshop is just taking simple songs and listening to what the chord progressions sound like in other keys.

I recommended picking up a good songbook like Rise Up Singing or The Folksingers Wordbook and messing around with songs you like. If you don’t have a songbook there are a lot of places on the web to find folk song lyrics.

You also want to start listening to as much music as you can get your hands on. Web radio is a great free resource with sites like and Sugar In The Gourd providing you with a ton of great music.

When you listen, don’t listen to the notes. Listen to the rhythm (it’ll help you get ready for the next workshop) and most of all listen for the chord changes.

I’m not kidding. If you pay attention you’ll be able to hear where the song changes chords. If you get bold and adventurous start strumming along with the music and see if you can work out the chord progression on your own.

Until next time, have fun.

And never step in anything soft.

Part Two: Interesting Backup
By now you know how to figure out a basic chord progression in a major key. Hopefully you have spent a little bit of time just singing and playing a simple rhythm on your banjo in the past few weeks because now we’re going to expand on that basic rhythm and start building up our hands and our ears by learning to play some interesting backup.

Playing backup “stuff” is one of those topics that seems to be overlooked by a lot of old time banjo players and it’s kind of a shame because its not only an almost essential skill to have if you want to jam and interact with other musicians, it also is a great way to get used to the structure of songs.

The trend today is to learn individual tunes and just have everybody bang out the melody and that’s kind of a limiting way to jam.

Good backup gives you time to pick up the melody and it also gives you some pretty cool results when you are playing and singing.

It also has a neat way to expanding your repertoire without trying to remember a whole lot of individual notes. If you can play even the simplest backup technique and sing people will think you are the greatest thing since frozen orange juice because our ears have a weird way of “completing” what we hear. While you might just hear yourself singing along with a bum dit-ty strum people will think you are doing sixteen different things at once.

Is it traditional?

It is, but a lot of players (usually tab monkeys) will tell you otherwise.

Banjo players have been playing and singing for a long time. Some really amazing players like Buell kazee ( did some really neat stuff working with ideas that at least followed the same lines as what’s presented here.

For this workshop I am going to focus on the keys of G and C just to keep thins reasonable. While we are going to cover a lot of ground here this is really just the tip of the iceberg. This workshop is only intended to get you thinking and messing with stuff on your own. Take the ideas presented here and start finding the best way to back up the music you want to play.

In our last workshop we ended up playing a simple version of Boil Them cabbage Down in C and I asked you to mess around with the Nashville number system to figure out the chord progression in other keys.

For the key of C we had:

Boil Them cabbage Down in C

    C             F             C             G

    C             F             C     G      C

And for the key of G (where the 1-4-5 chord progression would be G C D) we could get something like:

Boil Them cabbage Down in G

    G             C             G            D7

    G             c            G     D7       G

As I said before, if all you ever learn you can go on to sing thousands of songs. But since we’re here let’s take a quick look at things we can do to “dress up” the tune.

Instead of figuring out the melody line note-by-note the easiest way to make your playing more interesting is to start messing around with the rhythm and the chord forms and picking up a few licks.

The easiest way to back up a tune is to frail a sort of alternating bass pattern by playing the fourth and third strings alternately as the “bump in the bump dit-ty strum.

For G you would get something like this:

Example One: Simple G Backup Pattern


Not to make this even more interesting we can cut the “bump” in half for on or both of the strums in each measure.

When I say cutting a note in half I mean just that. Hammer-on’s, pull-off’s and similar techniques are nothing more than a way to break a single note apart. In this case we are breaking the first quarter note in each measure into two eighth notes. The neat thing about this pattern is that you get a cool kind of country guitar sound.

Example Two: “Country” G Backup Pattern


For a C chord you could play the same pattern, or mess with the idea and get something like:

Example Three: C Backup Pattern


There are an almost infinite number of ways you can mix in some pull-off’s, hammer-on’s, slides and bends into a simple backup pattern.

What makes this so cool is that you don’t really have to worry that much about playing the specific melody of a song. If you can frail a chord progression and keep the rhythm smooth while you sing a song people will be impressed. If you add in some licks people will think you’re doing something amazing.

See, even if you can do a whole bunch of melodic stuff it’s really only going to work in the context of a banjo break or solo. The trick to backing up your voice or another instrument is to play simply so that the banjo sound effects don’t fight the voice or the instrument playing lead.

Let’s look at another couple of licks before we move on.

Example Four: Third String Slide (G chord)


Once you get comfortable with this lick try it on the fourth string/

Example Five: Third String Bend (G chord)


I use this lick a lot. The timing can be tricky at fist, but it works so well for adding a little bit of an emphasis to a word or phrase in the lyrics of a tune.

Example Six: “Phantom” Hammer-on (G chord)


Like the last lick we talked about this lick in the “Frailing Around Foggy Mountain” workshop. Like the third string bend lick I use this at some point with almost everything I play in 4/4 time. It’s just a neat effect.

Example Seven: G Tag (G chord)


This is one of those really flexible licks. I do something different with it every time I use it, but this will at least give you something to work with. Try sliding into the first note.

Example Seven: C Chord Run (C chord)


The only thing that might trip you up with this one is using your pinky. We don’t use our little fingers much and as a result they tend to be kind of weak. Make this lick part of your daily practice routine for a while and build up your hand strength a bit.

Now licks are a lot of fun to mess around with- but you don’t want to rely on anybody else to come up with them for you. Part of finding yur own voice on the banjo is going to revolve around just messing chords and playing with sounds.

A good way to get started on this is to take a basic song you already know and start experimenting with ways to spice things up.

If we go back to Boil Them Cabbage Down there are a lot of things you can do to change the way the song is presented without losing the songs identity.

For example, we could play Boil Them Cabbage Down in C, but instead of just using the fist string for the “bump” we could try the second string. We could even take things further and add in a hammer-on.

Here is the first few measures of Boil Them Cabbage Down in C trying that idea:

Example Eight: Boil Them Cabbage Down In C

   C                F               C               G

Try working the rest of the tune out on your own.

If the second string works why not try the fourth string?

Example nine: Boil Them Cabbage Down In C

    C               F               C               G

If just adding a hammer-on works, why not try adding a lick? The “FMB Lick” might sound interesting.

Example Ten: Boil Them Cabbage Down in G with the “FMB Lick”

     G                C             G                 D

(Note that I’m using the D chord here instead of the D7. If the D chord gives you any trouble feel free to use the D7 instead)

Or we could try the third string slide.

Example Eleven: Boil Them Cabbage Down in G with the third string slide

    G                 C               G                 D

Or we could put the two licks together . . .

Example Twelve: Boil Them Cabbage Down in G with two licks

    G                 C               G                 D

The really amazing thing here is that in spite of everything we’re doing the song is still coming across as Boil Them Cabbage Down. In other words, you can do an awful lot to a song without losing the melody.

You also want to be aware that less usually is more. Don’t start going ape with this stuff. Use these ideas for seasonings rather than the main course.

Spend some time playing some simple folk songs and start messing with things to see how you can spice you your back up playing. It’ll do wonders for your lead playing later on.

Now for most of this workshop I have been sticking to G and C and I’m sure that some of you are getting ready to write me asking, “what about D or A?”

Well, a lot of what you already know can be easily applied to the D and A chord forms- and if that seems to difficult at first you can always use a capo.

The easiest way to understand how a capo works is to go back and take a look at the chromatic scale.

A  A#/Bb  B  C  C#/Db  D  D#/Eb  E  F  F#/Gb  G  G#/Ab

Now your banjo is tuned to open G, so let’s lay out the chromatic scale starting with G:

G  G#/Ab A  A#/Bb  B  C  C#/Db  D  D#/Eb  E  F  F#/Gb  G

The fretboard (on your banjo or any other fretted instrument) is laid out in half steps just like the chromatic scale. That means if the banjo is tunes to open G and you lay your finger across all four strings at the first fret you get a G# or Ab chord.

To get an idea about just how cool this is try running this little sippet of a G scale:


Now lay your finger across the first fret and play the same thing we just played:


And that piece of scale goes from G to G#/Ab. If we play the same thing pver again but with our finger across the second fret:


It becomes an A scale.

Everything on the fretboard can be moved up or down to play in another key. By putting a capo on the second fret everything you know in G is all of the sudden in the key of A.

Chords are no different. When we capo at the second fret the songs we know in the key of C wind up being in D. Why? Take a look at the chromatic scale starting on C:

C C#/Db D D#/Eb E F F#/Gb G G#/Ab A A#/Bb B C
So get your capo out and start messing around with Boil Them Cabbage Down in G and C. See if you figure out how to play it in E or F.

We are also going to look at playing “up the neck.” Here are two examples of the first two measures of Boil Them Cabbage Down in G to mess with:

In this example we are playing around with the fact that your D chord moved down to the ninth fret becomes a G chord (look at the chromatic scale again) and that you can blend the “high” G with the “open” G:


If you don’t want to use the C at the fifth fret you can always jump all the way back up to your basic C chord. In the next example we are playing the whole chord as a hammer-on to make it interesting, and to give us a moment of breathing room to make that long run down the fretboard:


Next month we are going to dig a lot deeper into movable chord positions and start looking at finding scales on the fretboard.

One thing I would suggest when it comes to picking up new ideas for your backup playing is to listen to, and hang out with, as may guitar players as you can find. Guitar players as diverse as Riley Pluckett and Robert Johnson hade a lot of cool ideas that can be reshaped to fit into the frailing banjo framework. Listen to Jhonny Cash and Hank Williams. Lonnie Johnson and Mississippi John Hurt. Then listen to some mandolin players like Bill Monroe. Good backup is everywhere because it adds so much to the music without overwhelming anything.

And don’t forget to sing. Banjo solos get boring.

Until then play and sing a whole bunch of songs. Don’t play any faster than you can sing. Teach a kid to play the banjo- and never step in anything soft!

-Patrick 1/19/04