The Complete Tune Playing Toolkit for 5-String Banjo

Mel Bay Publications’ latest banjo instruction manual is one that any serious three finger player could benefit from adding to their collection.

The title is quite a mouthful, The Complete Tune Playing Toolkit for 5-String Banjo – A Comprehensive Guide to Mastering Traditional Melodies by Jamie Francis. And comprehensive it is. The book’s 120 pages are chock full of exercises to open your mind and hands to new fingerings and positions, along with 25 traditional fiddle tunes arranged for banjo. Audio files of all the examples and tunes are available online with a link provided on the cover page.

Approximately the first half of the book is given over to an explanation and demonstration of modes and pentatonic scales, presented through a wide variety of drills. Someone considering this package should note that while open strings are used, the greatest bulk of the material is geared toward a melodic or single string approach. Though in truth, the real aim of going through these exercises is to train your ear to recognize these different scale types, and your fingers to play them comfortably.

After a text section with charts describing the basic concept of modes, Francis takes the reader through a very thorough set of workouts using each scale pattern in ascending/descending pairs, threes, and fours. Even for players well familiar with the theory behind all of this, these drills will put your left hand into some positions you’d never find in Earl’s Breakdown, and offer strengthening opportunities for even the most advanced banjoist.

The list of scale types is quite thorough, 51 different examples in all. The only critique I would offer is the fact that all of these exercises are shown in the key of G, the obvious one if one is to be shown, but the reader is left to configure the same sorts of figures and scales in other keys. That would make for an unwieldily volume were they all to be included, so the reason for stopping at G makes sense. Just understand that a full understanding of the many permutations of G scales and modes is only a first step.

More experienced players may spend most of their time in the tune section, which is arranged by old time tunes, jigs, reels, hornpipes, and polkas. Bluegrass banjo pickers should recognize most of the old time numbers included, and will be challenged by the tunes from the British Isles.

A complete list of tunes follows:

  • Betty Likens 
  • Shove the Pig’s Foot 
  • Coal Harbour Bend 
  • Kitchen Girl 
  • Yellin’ in the Shoats 
  • Over the Waterfall 
  • Forked Deer 
  • The Boatman 
  • June Apple 
  • Cherokee Shuffle 
  • Red Haired Boy 
  • Squirrel Hunters 
  • The Milkmaid 
  • Anne Lacey’s 
  • The Hut in the Bog 
  • Cooley’s 
  • Gravel Walks 
  • Glenlivet 
  • Virginia Reel 
  • Sweeney’s Buttermilk 
  • Pigeon on the Gate 
  • Willie Coleman’s 
  • Morrison’s 
  • McIntyre’s Fancy 
  • The Black Rogue 
  • The Rolling Waves 
  • Dinny Delaney’s 
  • Mac’s Fancy 
  • Pull the Knife and Stick It Again 
  • Paddy Fahy’s 
  • Off to California (Hornpipe) 
  • Boys of Bluehill (Hornpipe) 
  • Sonny Riordan’s (Polka) 
  • The Peeler’s Polka (Polka) 
  • Humours of Whiskey (Slip jig) 
  • Na Ceannabháin Bhána (Slip jig)
  • Island of Woods (Air) 

Francis is a UK banjo player and graduate of the Brighton Institute of Modern Music, where he was the recipient of a 1st Class BA Honors Degree in Music Performance. He is a member of Sam Kelley and the Lost Boys and The Jellyman’s Daughter. You can learn more about his music online.

The Complete Tune Playing Toolkit for 5-String Banjo is available from Mel Bay online in either a print or ebook version. The print edition is offered for $22.99 and the ebook for $17.99. Access to the audio files is included with each.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.