Jerry writes:

I am a beginning banjo player and have been playing 3 years since my retirement in 2003.  I would be interested in purchasing the tablature for the John Hartford song you played today about what becomes of a riverboat man.

Pete answers:

I think it’s called Where Does An Old Time Riverman Go. You should be able to hunt it down by title on Google.

As for tablature, I don’t make any written record of most of what I do, and it’s not simple for me to produce. Perhaps by searching on Google, you might find a tab for it.

However — I always recommend that a banjo player first learn the melody (by ear), finds it on the banjo, determines the chords (the melody actually dictates the chords), and then learns through trial and error how to play the melody while keep the rolls going. This is what I do on each and every song I play.

Because of the widespread use of tablature, many players seem to think that learning to play a solo break on a song is normally learned from tablature. That’s not true. Most players play breaks based on their own understanding of the melody, using their ability to “interpret” a melody in three-finger Scruggs style. They don’t go from memorized tabs, nor do they “think” in tab. So players are advised to cultivate:

  1. The ability to find a melody on the neck of your instrument, quicker the better.
  2. The ability to place melody notes within rolls, to produce a recognizable melody played Scruggs style.

If you don’t know these processes yet, I suggest jumping in, though the way is not “cookbook”, and much trial and error is involved. That’s how real banjo playing skills are learned.

At my Basic Skills Banjo Camp in Colorado in January, these are some of the main skills we work on. Also, my instructional materials such as the Bluegrass Banjo book and the Beginning Bluegrass Banjo video address those skills.

In any case, Joan and I do the song in D, where a lot of this melody is found on the 3rd and 4th strings. Once I found that, I tried the rolls and chords with it, and kept playing around with it till the melody notes came in the right places! That is my standard procedure, and I recommend it.