Tag Archives: Banjo Newsletter

Piano inspired blues comping (published in Banjo Newsletter)

Boogie Banjo – backup and comping (PDF tab transcription)

In adapting blues and boogie woogie piano music to the banjo, there’s no shortage of inspiration for melodic lead lines, but the elements of the style that I find most useful are the fresh ideas for backup playing and comping. Since the style is generally pretty swinging and syncopated, these ideas might not be best suited for straight ahead driving bluegrass, but they fit wonderfully in tunes like “Foggy Mountain Special” or “Salty Dog.” As with anything else, with some moderation and discretion you might find a place for them throw in in more straight ahead settings as a way of injecting some variety.

Example 1 shows the common blues shuffle pattern that is ubiquitous on guitar in blues, rock, and soul. It’s a simple pattern with the root note on bottom and the fifth and sixth degree shuffling back and forth above. It’s an easy position to move all around the neck, so feel free to take this out for a spin if you’ve never messed around with it before. A similar pattern to this one that’s very common to blues piano is an inversion that places the root note on top, and shuffles between the third and fourth degree below that. Example 2 shows this out of an “F”shape on the top three strings, while Example 3 shows the identical notes played out of a “D” shape on the lower three strings (note all examples are in the key of G). I find the latter to be a really useful shape to work with, as the lower strings produce a fuller sound that’s great for accompaniment and really stands out in a string band setting. I finger this by barring across the 8th fret with my index finger and alternating between the middle and ring for those notes on the fourth string. It’s good to get equally comfortable with both positions, as switching between them will allow you navigate I-IV-V progressions with very minimal movement as you’ll see in the later exercise.

When learning any new music, the best thing you can do to capture the feel is to listen to the great players of that style, so I’d suggest checking out some of the legends of boogie woogie like Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis, and Pete Johnson, as well as New Orleans blues players like James Booker and Dr. John. You’ll quickly notice that they rarely just play those swung eighth notes all the way through, but instead will find pockets of space to leave that really give the music a swagger. Example 4 shows one such common rhythmic approach that also adds a hammer-on from the minor third which gives it a bluesier tonality.

Example 5 shows another pattern that starts to incorporate a bit more melodic movement based out of a G7 with the dominant seventh (F) on the bottom of the chord. It’s essentially a repeating pattern that shuffles back and forth between a double stop on the higher strings (using that minor third again) and a bass note on the low string. I find it really helpful to picture the way a pianist would rock back and forth between their thumb and fingers as they would play this.

Finally, Example 6 shows how all these ideas might be combined into a 12 bar blues form. It starts with that “D” shape on the lower strings (from Ex.2), then switches to the IV chord (a C7 in this case) using that pattern from Ex.5 – you’ll notice right away what an economical movement this is. As we get to the V chord (D7), it starts with that same melodic pattern but then keeps ascending chromatically until you end up back at the root position on the 12th fret. It wraps up with a bluesy triplet line, and then a descending chordal line in which we hit a G triad on the lower strings on the12th fret, and the third and fifth degrees descend while the root stays the same; that motif then repeats but starting from a lower inversion of the root chord. It basically outlines G – Gdim – Am7, but in this context I just think of it as blues line that all occurs over the G chord. More on that next time…!

“Hey Now Baby” in Banjo Newsletter


Proud to have another of my columns published in the February 2018 issue of Banjo Newsletter. Another Fess tune, but this time I tackled both the bass and rhythm/lead parts at the same time. Don’t try this at home kids. Actually… do try it, and hit me up if you’d like the transcription.



Professor Longhair’s “Big Chief” arranged for banjo

I’m very excited to share my arrangement of the Professor Longhair classic “Big Chief.” This is the very first piano tune that I arranged for banjo and set me down the path of adapting blues and boogie for the 5 string. This can also be found in the March 2016 issue of The Banjo Newsletter.

Big Chief Transcription and Lesson

Boogie – Woogie Banjo published in the Banjo Newsletter

I’m very excited to have had my first column published in the August 2015 issue of Banjo Newsletter. You can see a transcript of it below, including my boogie exercises and transcription of the iconic Professor Longhair song, “Tipatina.” See the Youtube video below for a demo of everything mentioned therein, and the full transcriptions at the bottom (click on the images to view them larger). Happy picking!

(as published in the 2015 issue of Banjo Newsletter)

I’ve always loved the blues and jazz music that has come out of New Orleans. As in bluegrass, the great instrumentalists have a seemingly endless vocabulary of musical ideas to play over predominantly simple I-IV-V chord progressions (with some variations thrown in, of course). The piano playing in particular always stood out to me for it’s ability to seamlessly weave between chordal and melodic playing, much like a banjo does in bluegrass music. And so while I delved into Scruggs and melodic style banjo, I always kept those ideas in mind. But as I continued to seek out new influences and inspiration on the instrument and discovered the likes of Pat Cloud and Ryan Cavanaugh playing bebop horn lines and Bela Fleck arranging cello suites, I realized the extent to which you could draw on other instruments to inform your playing and I began to work on adapting that piano music more literally to the banjo.

By working through pieces by some of the greats in New Orleans and especially boogie woogie piano music – Professor Longhair, Dr. John, Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, I developed a foundation of licks and rhythmic patterns that could be used in a wide variety of settings. The quick triplets, or “trills” as they’re often referred to on piano, that are so predominant in New Orleans and boogie-woogie piano particularly reminded me of the type of triplet passages that are so conducive to three finger technique. Much of the common chordal movement from those styles sits really nicely on the banjo too as we’ll see. Not only are they ideal to play over blues and boogies, but they’re great for injecting some variety in to more bluegrass and traditional styles as well.

Keep in mind that I’ve focused primarily on the right hand of these piano parts, although there are plenty of great passages to be learned by checking out the left hand as well. It’s incredibly humbling to realize that for all the work that went into arranging these parts, I was really only covering half the ground of the great players! But that’s the beauty of playing in an ensemble, and it’s been a great thrill to bring these ideas to my band Roosevelt Dime and have the bass or guitar pick up those left hand bass parts.

Example 1 shows a very typical boogie piano lick featuring double stops and a triplet pattern that fit nicely out of a basic barred position that works all over the fretboard, and can be used over any of the I-IV-V chords of a blues. In this case it’s based around a bar chord on the 10th fret in the key of F, and I’ve included four different ways to play that triplet passage- the first one shows how it would most commonly be played on the piano and is the trickiest, as it involves starting the roll with your thumb on the second string and then playing a backwards roll; the second uses a forward roll; the third a backwards roll; and the fourth is a slight variation in the arpeggio itself where the triplet is achieved with a hammer-on and pull-off as opposed to each note being picked. Example 2 shows how to turn that lick into a simple 12-bar boogie by simply moving it up or down the neck for each of the I-IV-V chords (in this case we used the forward roll version of the triplet).

Next, we can look at Example 3, which shows an arrangement of the Professor Longhair song “Tipatina.” It features some nice double stops on the 1st and 2nd strings against a pedal tone on the fourth string that I play by keeping my pinky on the first string, hammering from my middle to ring finger on the second string, and then bringing my middle finger down to the fourth string. You’ll also notice slight variations of previously discussed lick played over the IV chord (measure 3) and I chord (measure 5). The resolution to the I chord going from measure 6 to measure 7 is a great commonly played lick; I like to bar with my index finger across the sixth fret, and use my pinky on the 8th fret and then hammer on to the 7th fret with my middle finger.

Boogie Licks 1 & 2