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The importance of learning different versions of a tune.

By Bennett Sullivan on Nov 1, 2016


There's a lot of music out there. And it can be a bit overwhelming if you're learning a musical instrument. What's the next song to learn? What version should I check out? How do I build on that version so I'm not limiting myself? And what's the best way to learn this song?

These are questions that all music student encounter and it's good to revisit your process regularly.

At TuneFox, we stress a combination of learning by ear and exploring variations at a song level as well as a lick level. As musician's who almost never perform with music notation/tab, we need to be able to quickly internalize a melody and improvise variations on it. This level of musicianship may sound far away or even out of reach for you, but I can assure you everyone has the ability to take their playing to this level.

It's a matter of patience and persistence. If you can be disciplined in your training to put the tab away and learn by ear on a daily basis, you'll be surprised and happy with the results.

Exploring variation is key to getting out of your comfort zone and being creative. TuneFox gives you everything you need to learn several amazing arrangements of the same bluegrass tune and even lets you create your own versions with the lick switcher.

While we are talking about learning by ear, it is sometimes helpful to see the differences in the variation, so we've made the tab available for you to check out. Sign up for our mailing list to get a link to download the tab.

The importance of learning different versions of a tune.

Let's take the song "Angeline the Baker." It's a popular old-time/bluegrass song that can be played many different ways, from Scruggs style to single string. It's good to start with something within your comfort zone, so if you feel like the Scruggs style version would be the easiest to grasp the main melody, start there. I recommend you sing along with the song to retain the melody on a deep level, rather than just muscle memory.

Once you feel comfortable playing that from memory, try to work out your own melodic or single string version of the song based on the original melody you learned. This is great for learning the neck as well as training your ear to banjo relationship. You can check out our tab if you'd like, but it's much better if you can do it by ear.

The next step is to combine the versions. Get creative - you can play a Scruggs A section and a single string B, or the first phrase as a single string melody and the second as a Scruggs version. It doesn't really matter what order. The goal is to get comfortable combining styles.

The thing about improvisation and creativity is that you can't force it. If you "try" stuff at jam sessions, it most likely will feel/sound forced. The idea is to practice ear training, playing with the metronome, and song variation enough so that it comes out organically without you thinking about it. We're all wired differently, so there's no definite timeframe for it to happen, but just trust that it will.

By supporting ear training and learning many versions of a song, you're training your mind to hear many melodies for different parts of a song, which will translate into other bluegrass vocabulary and repertoire. Music is literally like a language, and the more you can train yourself to hear and speak it rather than read and speak it, the more you'll become the type of player that can improvise and pick up any song on the fly.

Trust the process, and have fun!



10/02/2017, 18:37 PM

John, the funny thing is Earl himself would encourage you to play it your own way. He never played Foggy Mtn Breakdown the same way twice, and he recorded it several different ways. There is merit to learning to play exactly like he did, but you should also experiment with your own licks and other ways to play it.


11/02/2016, 11:04 AM

Best banjo app I've ever seen and such a great collection of tunes. I love the portability and the ability to combine different styles.


11/02/2016, 10:47 AM

I play oldtime and do it by ear....I like the way it comes out. I am trying to get back into scruggs style which I used to do, and I find I know tunes pretty well. But in Foggy Mtn. Breakdown (FMB) I tend to play wrong notes in certain places. The chords are right but the stuff right after the slide into Em is different than Scruggs. Most BG players tell me that I should try to be exact because people like that better. But I just cant do that. What do you or anybody think about varying Scruggs tab in BG as long as the main melody is correct?


11/01/2016, 20:59 PM

Bennett, Looking forward to the blog. Really appreciate what you are doing with TuneFox. Hope you are considering, some day, to add video so us true beginners can see how you do some of the things you do with your tabs. Keep up the great work.

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