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Banjo Lessons: Intermediate Hammer-Ons

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I know for
many of us the Foggy Mountain Break Down
was one of the first banjo tunes we may
have heard.
And it may have been that very tune that
inspired us to play the banjo.
And what is it about that song that's so
Well, certainly one of the first hooks in
the tune is.
That Foggy Mountain Break Down roll.
That sound of the two to three, hammer on,
on the second string.
So I want to focus in on that hammer on.
Cuz it's such an integral part of Scruggs'
style, and let's just start by hammering
on the single hammer on by itself.
For the moment I'm just using the index
finger and the right.
I'm sorry in the right hand.
just try that a couple of times just going
two to three index to middle.
And hit down fairly hard, so you're
hearing that second note pretty well.
Now let's add in the first
string after that.
You have a couple ways you can do this.
One is just to have it a simultaneous
hammer on.
Hammer on as you're
hitting the first string.
What I
usually do more often is to anticipate.
The first string.
So it's two 16th notes to the eighth note.
Has more of an edge.
I like that sound a little, a little bit
Even though I write it in tablature as two
eighth notes because it gets a little
confusing to have all these 16th notes in
So which ever way you want to do it.
I've heard Earl kind of go back and forth.
Sometimes he'll do it simultaneously.
Sometimes he anticipates it.
So let's add a forward roll to that.
That's one thing that's done a lot.
sometimes what Earl will do is he'll hit
the first string.
And then,
delay the hammer-on by one quarter note.
That's a very
common way of approaching it.
Okay, now we're ready to do the Foggy
Mountain Break Down roll.
This is a hugely important roll because
what Earl does is he'll take this roll and
he'll just move it all around the neck.
All over the finger board.
Just for the same right hand roll.
And the basic roll is this.
Get the index
finger on the second string, and then.
Bring the thumb over to the second string.
And then hit the first string and do a
forward roll.
Now, that may seem a little bit odd,
to have that thumb coming over to the
second string even though we did it.
In Boiling Cabbage Down, and that's why I
wanted to introduce that concept right at
the beginning, just so you're getting used
to that but I'd been playing for seven
years before I realized that.
Before someone said, hey you know when
Earl plays Foggy Mountain Breakdown,
he brings the thumb across for the second
hammer on.
Index thumb.
I was just using the index twice in a row.
So index, then thumb on the same string,
second string.
So it's a quarter note, thumb on the
second, first, forward roll.
sometimes on the original Funky Mountain
Breakdown recording, Earl.
Did it that way at a quarter note.
Even though you got a couple of 16th
notes here.
And then you would hammer on again with
the thumb coming across to
the second string.
Now I
asked Earl recently why he brought that
thumb across, and he said it felt right,
because as I mentioned earlier, sometimes
when you're going back and forth between
the index and middle, it's a little bit
awkward, especially at high speeds.
So if you're doing this kind of a version
of the Foggy Mountain breakdown lick.
Where you have all the eighth notes.
Hit the first string after
the first hammer on.
And then again after the second hammer on.
If you're just using the index and
middle both times.
You have some of that issue of going back
and forth between the index and middle.
So I think that's what Earl was talking
about when he said that it felt right,
felt better.
By bringing the thumb across
you short circuit that problem.
The other thing he said which really was
interesting was, he said that you get
a different tone on the second hammer on
By using your thumb because rather than
using the same finger, and having the same
distance to the bridge, the thumb,
at least on his hand, and mine also comes
out ahead of the index a little bit.
And the farther away from the bridge you
get is you, now you get a mellower sound.
And now this is very subtle but
the difference between that.
And that.
You're getting a slightly mellower sound
from the thumb.
And plus the fact that you have a metal
finger pick for
the hammer on and a plastic thumb pick for
the second.
So you've got metal and plastic and the
distance from the bridge.
And Earl in all of genius can hear that
little subtle difference.
And he appreciates that and
that's why he did did that.
Bringing over the thumb over the second
So, another thing that he'll do sometimes.
Rather than just staying.
You know, primarily on
the second string with the hammer ons,
he'll move them over to the third string.
Just to move them over one string instead
of doing this.
He'll go over and go.
you'll sometimes double them up like that,
the hammer on lick.
On the second string and then on the
So he gets a lot of mileage or about that.
Now we're not gonna get into this right
now but
he also does this choke at the 10th fret,
and bends the note.
Which he also uses in
Foggy Mountain Breakdown and
then he also does the Foggy Mountain
Breakdown lick up there, so.
I wanna play a tune for
you right now called white house blues,
which is kind of a grim song about
the assassination, assassination of
President McKinley.
it's a good use, makes a good use of the
hammer on lick.
The Funky Mountain Breakdown lick and
just some other related hammer-on licks on
the second string.
So let me play this for you, white House
Actually that ending is.
Now again,
here I'm trying to play the syllables,
because the first verse is.
So, we have this lick here.
First string quarter note,
with a hammer on it.
And then a little melody.
then, the Foggy Mountain Breakdown lick.
Move it over a string.
This time with a pull off.
And then a couple of hammer ons on an
alternating thumb C chord.
To the open first string.
Hammer on lick again.
And here's the, Foggy Mountain Break Down
licked on the third string.
With a pull off.
Forward rolls, hammer, pull off.
That's how
your ending lick here is a variation.
Instead of always doing.
Earl will sometimes go.
Very similar but, a little different.