Tab: Little Birdie, as recorded by The Stanley Brothers

I went to the Oxford Bluegrass and Old Time/Appalachian music jam last Thursday, and had a really cool time. There just a really nice bunch of guys, who welcomed my mate Tom and Me with open arms. Most of what I they played I was not too familiar with, but then I am new to this game. However I was able to play along easily and take the odd solo. I also got asked to play and sing a song, and choose Down Beside The Ohio, the Obray Ramsey way, and it went down really well. Anyway, I should get to the point, that being, how to play Little Birdie.

I was put onto this song by a Mandolin player at the Bluegrass jam, and agreed to learn it for next time. I quickly scoured the Internet for a tab or a YouTube video, but was unable to find a version similar to the Stanley Brothers version.

Advice: How to work out songs by yourself

I've come across a lot of people who play Banjo really well but can't transcribe songs for them selves. Many have tried and failed, usually when they started playing, and since then have been convinced they don't have "the ear" for it. Thing is that 99% of them are wrong! If you can play a song from start to finish and know you haven't played a wrong note, or can tell if your Banjo is out of tune, then you have a good enough ear to work out simple to intermediate songs and beyond.

However I will agree that it doesn't come naturally to us all, and like our playing, it can take time to develop. It certainly took me several years of occasionally trying and to varying degrees failing before I was able to transcribe songs myself, and to help you speed up this process I am going to share some advice.

Banjo tuition: Dick Smith, London's No.1 point of call

This is first in a series of articles where I hope to point you in the direction of that illusive group of people who teach Banjo in the UK. And I am setting the standard high with my first addition - Dick Smith.

I first saw Dick play Bluegrass Banjo about 18 months ago, during his stint in the Coal Porters, and was really blown away by his speed and technique. At the time it hadn’t occurred to me that anything happened above the 5th fret of a Banjo without the intervention of a capo, but that night Dick demonstrated a variety of sounds and rhthems, with his hands flying around the fretboard like a hillbilly Van Halen! I have since been in touch with Dick and told him about my blog and asked him if I could write an article on him and add him to my up coming list of Banjo tutors in the UK, and here we are.

Bluegrass: Resources for beginners to intermediate players

Learning to play Guitar is easy here in the UK, there are 1000s of books, websites people willing to teach or show you some cool new trick. Now as the internet reaches maturity we can easily find many resources for Banjo including books, youtube videos, message boards and several good tab sites, which were impossible to find 10 years ago. Frustratingly, Banjo teachers are few and far between, and as part of this project I intend to create a list of as many I can find (any Banjo teachers reading this article, who lives in the UK and wants to be listed please comment on this post or send me a email). I have sadly not been able to find a local teacher in Oxfordshire, where I live, so my journey started on youtube, where there are loads of Bluegrass lesson, varying in quality. Many of the lessons are basic, and you tend to have to go to another website and pay for intermediate or advanced lessons, but they are good to get you started. There are also many youtube videos where people just demonstrate that they can play a certain tune, but they offer no explanation as to how, other than what you can see.

Clawhammer: Patrick Costello is cool

When I brought my first Banjo I hadn't actually given any thought about what style I wanted to play. I knew about Bluegrass, but I was looking for something different, so looked around the internet for inspiration. The first style that I came across that really appealed to me was Clawhammer (sometimes known as Frailing), a rhythmic and at times repetitive style of playing popular long before Bluegrass. Many of the tunes I came across used modal tunings like (GDGCD), which give the Banjo a much darker sound, the archetypal example of this would be The Coo Coo Bird by Clarence "Tom" Ashley. Over the next few weeks I watched loads of lessons and examples on youtube, and I have to admit I was really struggling with the style until I came across a guy called Patrick Costello, who has posted loads of free content online for several years now.

Tab: Down Beside The Ohio, as recorded by Obray Ramsey

I came across Obray Ramsey's music a few months ago when friend sent me a link to Allen's archive of early and old country music, where you can download several of his albums. The albums were recorded in the late 50s and early 60s, and are a fantastic example of real old-time banjo picking and singing.

So with a new found love for Obray's music I set about learning "Down Beside The Ohio" from the album "Obray Ramsey Sings Folksongs From The Gateways To The Great Smokies", one of my favorite Obray songs. The first thing to confused me was what tuning he was using, it sounded like G, but lower, and then I realized the recordings (taken directly from old scratchy vinyl) were about half a tone flat. I'm unsure if Obray is tuned flat or the records were played a little too slow), but I tuned my Banjo to F# and I was in business.

Bluegrass: It's all in the wrist

If I could travel back in time and change one thing about how I set about learning to play Bluegrass Banjo it would be to pay more attention to what I was doing with my picking hand. However I just delved in, focusing on learning the notes with little regard to technique. Sadly, unless you stumble on the right way to hold your wrist by accident you are unlikely to ever achieve the speed and quality of playing you are trying to emulate. This was certainly the case for me, and this was not helped by the amount of tabs out there, which enabled me to bypass any fundamental Banjo theory, which I might have learn't from a book or a teacher. Saying that, many of the books I have read seem to cover the matter in brief, right at the beginning on those pages we always skip past. I personally feel most students need regular advice about technique, which would do more to communicate the vital importance of hand position.

Advice: Buying your first Banjo in the UK

A couple of years ago some friends of mine decided to put a Folk/Bluegrass band together, I has happy to join in, my intention being to play slide on my Dobro and develop my abilities in that area, however my friends had different ideas for me. Long story short, you've guessed it, they suggested I should buy a Banjo, and me not needing much of an excuse to buy a stringed instrument set about finding one to learn on. My first port of call was, where I typed in 'Banjo' and got nearly 4,000 results! Knowing a little bit about how search engines work I then typed 'Banjo -strings", to exclude unwanted items from my search, but still I had around 3,800 results, and then there were other questions, what is the difference between a Tenor Banjo, or an Open Back, a Resonator..? I needed to do some research. So back I went to Google I went, and typed 'wiki banjo', and read the wiki page on Banjos, which told me I needed a 5 string resonator Banjo to play Bluegrass, the style I wanted to learn to play.

Communication from another planet

There was a time when communication from another planet was more likely than a global network of computers giving us all access to websites and blogs dedicated to the humble Banjo. And yet here we are with 1000s of enthusiasts sharing their talent on youtube, 1000s of downloadable or streamable songs on sites such as, and a new generation of artists using Banjo to add colour to their music, proving that in the 21st century Banjos are still cool.

So why am I writing this blog? There're loads of banjo sites already! That's right of course, and part of my motive is needing a portfolio piece for my CV and wanting to write a blog about something other than web design (my profession), but also because I feel there are holes that need filling in the world wide web's Banjo listings, and hopefully I can fill these gaps, starting with my 1st article about buying a decent Banjo in the UK, which was something I could really have done with reading a year or so ago! I will write this article very soon (just as soon as I've finished tweaking the CSS to make this blog look pretty). I also want to share with you my experienced learning how to play banjo, tips, mistakes I have made, things I have got right, tabs that I have transcribed that don't yet exist on the web, my list of who's who's, must listens as well as all the cool stuff I have found on the web.

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About Me

I have been playing guitar for over 20 years, at first playing in indie bands, followed by a long stint playing rockabilly on the streets of Oxford, a short excursion into dance music, followed by looking at early blues styles. Now after a few years of listening to Dylan, Guthrie, and early Americana I find myself in possession of a banjo, and I'm addicted! Currently I play Banjo and Guitar in an Oxford based group called Swindlestock, you can hear our music our myspace page.

Listen to my favorite Banjo songs on