Banjo Bill in Washington writes:

Just reread your latest column [Jan. 2008, Breaking Out of the Intermediate Rut].  Great info.  Gary did a perfect job describing me as well as himself. Your answers are superb.  A secondary question arose for me:

Think of: “Boil dem Cabbage down”-Now I don’t know how to describe the melody of this tune well.  When I dissected this tune the first time, I realized it is repetitive (understatement)-playing in either G or A lead me to using the Foggy mtn brkdwn roll to accent the B notes, but it still is not melody perfect!  I am not sure you can play this melody perfect.  I am not sure you would want to do such.  At any rate, this repetitive melody note is one area where I have difficulty fitting it into a roll.


Be aware that Scruggs style is pretty forgiving when it comes to perfectly rendering a melody right in there along with the rolls. It’s an ideal to get it just right, and many pros can do that, but when you’re getting started, go with an approximation. If the note is being held, hit it an extra time or two as part of the rolls.

The other problem (major) I have is actually figuring out the melody.  I can hear the melody in my head, but as soon as I hit any note on the banjo, I get lost almost immediately.  Any help with the initial melody discovery would be immensely appreciated.

Sing the song along with the chords, and start hunting the main melody notes. Most of them will be found as members of the chords you are playing (1st, 2nd, 3rd or 4th string open when a G chord is going; and when a D is going, one of the notes found when the D is fingered). When you get lost, go back to singing along with the chords, to get reconnected. It’s trial and error, so be patient. The more you work on it, the faster it becomes to get the notes.

In my Bluegrass Songbook, the melodies are presented in a form of tablature that covers the banjo’s 2nd, 3rd and 4th strings. You can select a song from the book, and try to figure it out yourself — but if it doesn’t come easily, you can peek at some of the notes and then go back to figuring it out yourself. That will give you an easier way of getting into this skill. In time you’ll see, a lot of the same notes keep getting used!

Best of luck,