Learning Fiddle Tunes

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As I’ve written in the How To Learn blog, learning and practicing fiddle tunes is a great way to improve your technique, plus, they are really fun to play. A lot of fiddle tunes are similar in structure and melody so once you learn one, it gets easier to learn others. You’ll start to recognize similar patterns and chord structures. Everybody plays fiddle tunes a little differently. They can be really simple or full of flourishes and fills. You want to find a version that seems manageable. That is usually the one that’s close to the “old-time” version where you get the skeleton of the tune or basic melody. If you listen to a few different versions, you’ll begin to understand what’s important and what is added color. Don’t get overwhelmed when you hear a ripping version with lots of notes. Just cut out the notes you can’t handle. As long as you keep the basic framework of the tune, that’s fine.

I mostly learn fiddle tunes by ear. Or, I’ll use a chart along with a recording so I can hear the correct timing. The Amazing Slow Downer app is an essential tool for me when it comes to learning fiddle tunes or licks from recordings. Youtube is also a really great resource. Any tune you want to find, you will most likely be able to find somewhere on the internet.

About The Capo

Fiddle tunes are generally played using a lot of open strings so that means you will often be using a capo on usually on the second fret. So a G shape chord becomes an A. The C shape chord becomes a D, etc. If you play with a capo, learn what key you’re REALLY in. Don’t say things like, “I’m in C capoed on 2.” The bass player, fiddler, mandolinist, may not know what you’re talking about. Just say, “I’m in D” and everybody will be on the same page.

Here are a few links below to help you get stared learning fiddle tunes.

Old Joe Clark

This is a great place to start. Old Joe Clark is a popular jam tune. It’s in A but it’s got this great old-time, modal quality to it which makes it really fun to jam on.

Here’s a pretty good lesson on how to play back up 

Note for Note. This will give you the basic melody of the song.  

Here’s the definitive version by Doc and Merle  Watson. It does not get much better then this . Players will often combine similar fiddle tunes. In this case they start with Bill Cheatum and go into Old Joe Clark. Listen how they harmonize toward the end. That is super cool.  

Cripple Creek

Here’s a nice, simple version of Cripple Creek. Another classic jam tune.  

Whiskey Before Breakfast

This is a very good lesson on flat picking technique and timing . It’s a note by not run through.  ( He also includes the Lyrics in the comments section which you don’t often hear. The lyrics to Whiskey are really fun )

Whiskey Lesson Note for Note 

Here’s Bryan Sutton playing a very pretty version of Whiskey. This is the kind of video I would convert into an MP3 and import into the Amazing Slow Downer  to learn. ( or pay the dough and sign up for his Academy Of Bluegrass course )

Bryan Sutton on Academy of Bluegrass 

Red Haird Boy

Nice Clean Version 

This funny Banjo Ben dude gives a pretty good analysis of how to approach “attack”. He demonstrates  adding what I call “color”. 

Here’s the definitive lesson. This is the great Tony Rice. 

Billy In the Low Ground

Here’s Tony Rice teaching Billy in The Low Ground. This is a great tune.I love how he finishes this and says, “that was a rather crude version”.   

Soldiers Joy

Here’s that Whacky Banjo Ben again. He’s actually a pretty good teacher. He offers tabs if go to his site. 

This is a pretty notey version but it’s shot really well to show the fingering and he plays it fast then slow.  

Here is a really pretty version by the great David Grier

Angeline the Baker

Here’s a note for note, more beginner version 

Here’s a very cool but technical version from Scott Nygaard

Another very technical and masterful version by David Grier


Guitar Resources

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I once attended a song writing workshop with Darrell Scott and he said something that I found really interesting. He grew up playing in a working, family band. From a very young age he was playing back up guitar on stage every weekend and later, more nights every week. He said that becoming a strong, backup player would later become his most valuable asset as a song writer.

Knowing how to hold the rhythm and support singers is just as important, if not more important, then being able to rip out hot leads. My advice is to spend time on becoming a competent backup player first.

Here are a few helpful places to go to pick up tips for learning good strumming and flat picking technique. I’ll keep adding to this list as I discover new resources and if you find anything you think would be helpful to share, be sure and pass it along to me.


Bryan Sutton  G Run 

Here’s Bryan Sutton’s Academy of Bluegrass course. 

Work On Your Guitar Rhythm

Classic Rhythm Guitar Boom Chicka pattern

Peghead course focusing on flat picking.  Great place to learn technique and tunes 

Basic Flat Pick patterns. This is a nice no-nonsense lesson showing a few basic, very handy patterns.  


About Music Camps

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In the last decade, music camps have sprung up all over the place. From Balkan to Bluegrass, whatever style or instrument you want to pursue, chances are good there’s a camp dedicated to learning it. A lot of music festivals host music camps the week before the festival. Camps can be a blast and a great learning experience. Here are four reasons why I think music camps are worth the time and money.

1. You get to fully immerse yourself in music

Many years ago, after I started playing banjo, I went to The American Banjo camp. I was really nervous about going. I hadn’t played much with other people. Most of my playing was done late at night, with nobody around (my family had banished the banjo from the house by that point). I wasn’t even sure if I could call myself “a real banjo player”. The camp  fixed that in a hurry. I got a lot of great instruction and positive feedback that boosted my confidence level significantly. When I was catching my flight home, I happen to go through security with the legendary Eddie Adcock, who had been teaching at the camp. It was so cool to be hoofing it through the airport, joking with Eddie and both of us packing our banjos. I came home finally feeling like real a banjo player.

2. You get to hang out with real musicians.

To me, people who have spent their whole lives dedicated to learning a craft are wizards. They have magic abilities. They can do things that are impossible for us average mortals to do. To be in close proximity to that magic I find amazing. When you attend a music camp you get to be up close an personal with real masters. You can watch what they do, ask them questions and you get to see what they are like when they are not on-stage; a glimpse of the person who lives behind the wizardry. This really fascinates me. To hear their stories and to learn what it’s like to be a working musician. You also experience how they relate to each other. One of the coolest things for me about the Targhee Music Camp was seeing how much love there was between the musicians. Most of them had worked together for decades. The brilliant, young  fiddle player, Brittany Hass described it to me this way. “I literally grew up with a lot of these people. We are like family and this camp is our reunion”. To be part of that family reunion was pretty special.

Having lunch with Sierra Hull

3. You get to meet your heroes.

I signed up for the Targhee Music Camp for three reasons: Darol Anger, Brittney Hass and Danny Barns. Just to spend a week hanging out with my heroes and meeting the likes of Darrell Scott and Sierra Hull was worth the price of admission. Sierra Hull sang harmony with me on the song Another Night. It never sounded so good, before or since.

4. You get to hear “the secret music”.

One of the amazing instructor jams in the Targhee Bar

I left before the festival started but did not care one bit. I felt like the music I heard at the camp was as good, if not better than what I would have heard at the show. Every night the instructors played together in this little bar. They did solo performances or, they  would assemble different configuration and play whatever they wanted to play in that moment. It was spontaneous, exciting and at times, very moving, ( Glen Cambell past away that week of the camp so they played a wrenchingly beautiful version of Gentle On My Mind). Danny Barns calls this “the secret music”. The stuff that happens between musicians when they are off stage. He says it’s his favorite part of going to festivals:

” The “secret music.” this is really my favorite part. see, there’s all this stuff that artists jam and play around on when no audience is there. it’s a really cool repertoire. that’s the funnest bit for me, the jamming.”


Here are links to some cool camps you might want to check out.


Rocky Grass Academy – End of July

For the week before the RockyGrass festival begins, immerse yourself as an active participant in the world of bluegrass. From small classes with world-class professional musicians, to sessions on group jamming, vocal coaching, songwriting, one-on-one instruction, and a variety of electives including practice techniques, writing instrumentals, accompaniment, improvisation, and music history. Evenings feature band scrambles, BBQs, and plenty of jamming for novice through advanced ability levels. Many Academy students return year after year, creating long-term relationships with fellow musicians from all over the world.


Targhee Music Camp – Mid August

Imagine an afternoon in the Tetons. A head full of new tunes, rubbing elbows with your musical heroes, a community of new friends, outstanding views and great food. Free time to jam, rehearse or hike. Sounds like the prescription for sanity in this crazy world. Sounds like the syllabus for the annual Targhee Music Camp!


Happens in November near Petaluma CA


This camp is for people who like traditional American music: largely bluegrass and oldtime, also often including swing, Celtic, Cajun, and country. All ages are welcome, and core classes are offered in instrume


Spend an inspiring, challenging, and thrilling week with others who share your passion for bluegrass and old-time music! Each August we’re proud to host NimbleFingers Bluegrass and Old-Time Music Workshop in Sorrento, BC—about 5 hours from Vancouver and 7 hours by car from Calgary. Now in our 26th year, we provide a fun, friendly and non-competitive environment for everyone from beginners to advanced players, with ample opportunity for group learning, electives, organized jam sessions, and tons of other spontaneous activities.


This is Joe Craven’s camp that happens end of July in the Sierras. It’s really popular. Fun for families and fills up fast.

RiverTunes ~ Roots Music & Creativity Camp ~ honors traditions and celebrates innovations in Acoustic Roots Music and Creative Living through individual growth and community spirit. Whether you aspire to perform, want to jam with friends, or simply and comfortably share songs with a loved one, our mission and passion is to help you do it!



Lark Camp is legendary. It happens in Mendocino in Late July. It’s a wildly eclectic mix of music and dance workshops.

Imagine idyllic days & nights in the magical redwood forest filled with all the music, dance, and good times you could possibly stand, and that’s kind of close to what Lark Camp World Music & Dance Celebration is like. You are free to take as many or as few of the workshops offered as you like; jam sessions 24 hours a day, big dances every evening. Plenty of good food, new friends, and musical stimulation. Truly a unique total immersion into the joys of nature, music, song and dance. Many workshops for the professional as well as the beginner! An adult and family event.



Spend a long weekend away from everyday life’s toil and cares with nothing to do but learn about the 5-string banjo or fiddle or guitar or . . . from world-famous teachers! ABC features four levels of instruction in bluegrass banjo and four levels of instruction in old-time banjo, as well as a full-time guitar track and a full-time fiddle track!