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Banjo Lessons: “John Hardy”

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All right,
let's learn one of my favorite tunes right
This is a song that I've been playing for
a million years at least and is called
John Hardy.
And this particular arrangement comes from
the Carter Family.
And they may have had the first
arrangement on it that was recorded that
people would hear, and
it's a little bit different than the way
the blue grassers do it.
Earl Scruggs has recorded it with Lester
Flatt and
Doc Watson on a wonderful album called
Strictly Instrumental.
Let me play this for you, and then we'll
dissect it.
Okay, there's a lot to talk about here.
The first thing I wanna discuss with you,
is the concept of playing the syllables.
This is extremely important and if you've
been playing for awhile and
are already playing some tunes that where
you feel like you're playing the melody,
you may wanna rethink that a little bit.
Again I want to talk about playing the
syllables and
when I was well, a number of years ago I
was on Alison Krauss' first album and
she had sent me a practice tape to learn
the songs.
And rather than approximating the melody,
I decided I would try to phrase my playing
the way she phrased her singing.
And really match your vocal as closely as
And I found by doing that, that my roles
change, my whole approach changed and
this is something that later on I had a
chance to talk to John Hartford about it.
If you're not famil, familiar with John
Hartford you should go out, and
buy as much of his music as you can.
He's just an amazing, amazing person and
And I was giving a workshop in West
Virginia and
he stopped by, and I asked him if he'd
bring his fiddle, so
I could tell my students how you would
back up a fiddle tune.
And he also brought his banjo, and instead
of talking about the fiddle,
he talked about the banjo, which was much
cooler and
he started talking about how Earl Scruggs
plays the syllables.
When he plays.
And basically he was talking about the
same thing that I had done
on Alison Krauss' album, and that was to
play the words to the song,
not just approximate the melody, as I've
been saying.
And so he referred to I think it was Ring
of Fire that Earl Scruggs
recorded on an album in 1987.
And how Earl took three verse breaks and
each verse break he would play the words
to that particular verse,
rather than playing the same kind of
melody break each time.
And I listen back to it and he was of
course exactly right.
Cuz, the, the, the phrasing of the banjo
playing changed, as the words changed.
Because you're playing the syllables.
So, I decided I would do this with John
And I'll just give you the concept first.
And sing a little bit.
So what I did is I started.
Singing the song and then tried to match
this version to the way I was doing it,
cuz as I start out, the very second
So I'm just hitting that,
that note, that first part of the second
string once.
Notice I'm using a lot of
quarter notes to bring out the melody,
which is something that Earl does also.
And then here I hit this.
This pinch at the third fret of the second
string playing that along with the first
I hit that twice to get desperate.
And that's just some filler.
So, the first time I go to the C chord.
I just hit Har,
that's just one hit on that second string.
But the second, second time, I hit it
twice cuz.
So carried is two syllables, so
I'm hitting that twice.
killed him, you're hitting that twice
again to get the syllables.
And so on and so forth.
So it's really fun to do this.
You can get a little too exacting, and
that's a judgement call you'll have to
make on your own.
Not that you're at the point probably
where you can just come up with
an arrangement like this at this point
but, I'm just giving this to you now so
you can be aware of it.
And I will be talking shortly about coming
up with your own arrangements to tunes.
let me talk about another thing that's in
this arrangement, and
that's the very ending, which is this.
That's a tag ending lick, and
if you listen to much Bluegrass you've
probably heard that 8,000 times at least.
Cuz it's just sort of the, the go to
And you just hear that so many times.
And there are a number of different ways
of doing that but it's time that you
learned that.
Cuz it just gives you,
gives you another foot up on getting that
authentic scruggsy sound.
So let's just start.
By playing the lick without the left hand
at all, just the right hand.
one thing this lick does, you're going
[SOUND] And then you go backward without
hitting the fifth string again.
Cuz I've found through experience that
a lot of people when they get to the end
of the forward roll, here, fifth,
third, first, they just wanna go to the
fifth string again.
There's some, it's in the DNA for
some reason, the genetic makeup of a banjo
They wanna go to the fifth string after a
forward roll.
But in this case.
You're just pivoting on the first string
and going back to the third string.
So it's a forward backward roll of a sort.
let's just expand a little bit and at the
end of this.
Add the second fret of the fourth string.
Now, let's
add the slide on the third string in the
middle of the forward ro, forward roll.
We'll end with the pull off instead of
just holding the second fret of the fourth
string, we'll pull off two to zero.
when I pull off, I'm at anticipating the
first string.
And that's the lick right there.
You can also do a hammer-on at the end.
Instead of a pull off.
Either way, Earl usually pulls off, but
once in a while he'll hammer-on.
Don Reno would do the same things
sometimes hammer-on.
It's a subtle but
in kind of a fun way to change around the
ending just a little bit.
So, that's the tag ending.
That's extremely important.
The way
you learn John Hardy is by basically
staying on G for the chorus.
That's the way The Carter Family did it,
and I like that an awful lot because it
gives you a chance to do that choke
on the slide.
I like it also cuz I've been playing the
other John Hardy for so
many years it's nice to get a different
approach to it.
But the way, undoubtably every other
person that you'll run in to in
the bluegrass world will approach it is by
playing a D chord on the chorus.
And it'll sound something like this.
I'll play the whole John Hardy the way
we've learned the A part and
then I'll throw in an alternate B part.
So with this new D chord.
It's an extended D.
It's like one, two, three, four, five,
Six measures of D, and then you go back to
Let me play the,
the B part of this chorus section with the
D chord one more time.
When we talked about the D chord earlier,
I mentioned that-
Excuse me.
That sometimes you'll have an appro
just an abbreviated D chord and the way
I'm approaching it here,
rather than playing the entire D chord,
I'm just playing one note out of it.
I just have the index on the second fret
of the third string.
And I'm using quarter notes there and
then two eighth notes.
then I come down to the fourth fret of the
fourth string.
And even on your full D chord you want
your ring finger there, I find,
I find that my hand is more comfortable if
I use the pinkie.
Then I slide with the middle finger.
go back with the index on the second fret
of the third string.
And this time I bring the ring to the
fourth fret of the fourth string.
You may change this around depending on
what's comfortable for you.
And then I go back to this,
just the one note D chord.
And do two forward rolls.
One reason as
this one note thing works is cuz you have
a D note here on the first string,
so at least you have those two notes.
Even though the fifth string is a G note.
With the full band playing a D, it just
sounds like D.
And the four quarter notes.
And, and.
The ubiquitous tag ending.
put together one more time, we'll do the
whole thing.
I'm gonna do
the full royal treatment on John Hardy and
do all sorts of different things to it.
Let's talk about the backup for John Hardy
right now.
The easiest thing you can do is just use
your f position.
Chords starting on c,
since the tune starts on c.
It's not a bad idea, with any tune that
you're learning.
And I'm not gonna have backup for every
single tune in our lessons here.
But any time you learn a tune, figure out
what the chords are,
don't just play the tune.
Because as we were talking about with the
D chord, sometimes you'll just be holding
one note of the chord and it may not occur
to you that that's a D chord, but.
Really check out the chords and maybe just
do simple back up through it.
A number of times, just so
you get the sense of what the chords are.
So for John Hardy, we start on c.
As I mentioned earlier
when I'm doing this I'll lift off my
ring fingers.
Actually what's going on.
I'm sorry, lifting off the whole hand, the
ring and the pinkie here.
So in a sense,
I'm lifting off the fingers in both hands.
Back to g.
To c.
Back to g.
And once again to c.
Back to g.
To d, more d.
Little more d.
Back to g.
Now, if you
don't want to play the d way up here, you
can also play it down here.
I do this sometimes for the d chord.
I'll play the first three strings of the D
leave the open four string because you get
the nice low D note there.
It really locks.
In it's Dness.
So I'll let that fourth string ring out.
While I damp.
The D
chord in the first three strings of the
I'll do it a little more up to tempo with
this other D chord.
Now if you wanna do a rolling back up,
you can do something like this.
Now this is an infinite playground.
You can do so many different things for
This is just one suggested way to go to
give you a sense of what you can do.
And it's the sort of thing that you don't
wanna get too crazy with it.
You don't wanna get fancy.
You're just trying to stay out of the way
of the.
Instrument or person that you're backing
You could be backing up the singer or the
fiddle in a situation like this.
So what I'm doing.
Start on the C,
quarter note with two forward rolls just.
And that's a nice thing to do with
your middle finger going from the second
fret of the third, well starting on
the fourth string second fret, coming over
to the third string second fret.
And back to the fourth string.
I've got the two alternating thumb rolls
Here's one.
Here's two.
And you could stay down on the second fret
at the end of that measure,
on the first string.
Or lift off.
As you're getting back to G and
anticipating a little bit.
The same C.
Some slides.
Here's the tag ending lick.
Now for the chorus,
I'm just doing a lot of D.
I have the D chord with the open fourth
Then I end with this little lick,
which is a lick that Earl does sometimes.
Very punchy.
Now one thing about this chorus.
just doing stacked forward backward rolls.
Here's one.
Starting on the fourth string.
And then I go to the fifth string.
So both forward
rolls are exactly the same, except for the
first one I start on the fourth string.
The second one I start on the fifth
Which is a more interesting sound than
just starting with the fourth
string each time.
Doing four of those would get a little,
little long.
So by alternating with the fourth, fifth,
fourth, fifth.
It's a lot more interesting that way so
what you would be doing with open strings
would be.
backward rolls starting on the third
string in this case.
Then do it again
starting on the fifth string.
Even though we're not doing this yet,
I'll give you a an up the neck idea of a
way this technique is used.
It's just by changing one note,
you get a lot of mileage out of the
forward backward roll.
So give that a shot for the back up to
John Hardy.