Fingerpicking the Old-Time Banjo Way

Old-time banjo isn't just clawhammer style. It also includes a wide variety of fingerpicking techniques that were played by old-time musicians before Earl Scruggs developed his bluegrass style in the mid-1940s.

Today, most old-time musicians prefer to use their bare fingers when fingerpicking rather than using the metal fingerpicks and plastic thumbpick that bluegrass players almost always use. Whether you use picks or not, brush up on bluegrass right-hand basics, because you use these same hand positions and basic techniques for playing old-time fingerpicking styles.

Dock Boggs’s banjo style

Southwest Virginia musician and coal miner Dock Boggs (1898–1971) is one of the most revered banjo players in old-time music, with a unique style that reflects the influence of both Southern Anglo-American and African-American blues styles.

His 1927 version of the old English ballad “Pretty Polly” (featuring Polly and the always-nefarious Willie, who seems to be the perpetrator of many of the ill deeds documented in English balladry) is relatively easy to play, once you figure out Dock's unique tuning for this song! Here's a step-by-step guide, starting from standard G tuning:

  1. Lower the 2nd string two frets from B to A.

    To double-check your tuning, fret the 2nd string at the 5th fret. The 2nd and 1st string should now sound the same, and the reading on your electronic tuner should be a D note, the pitch of your open 1st string.

  2. Lower the 5th string one fret from G to F♯.

    To double-check your tuning, fret and pick the 1st string at the 4th fret. The sound of your open 5th string should now be the same as your 1st string at the 4th fret.

Play “Pretty Polly” on your banjo

The remaining three strings are the same as in G tuning. Here's the complete tuning for Dock Boggs’s “Pretty Polly”:

5th string: F♯ (one fret down from G)
4th string: D
3rd string: G
2nd string: A (two frets down from B)
1st string: D

Take a look at the tab to “Pretty Polly” in this tab. The second full measure is Dock's basic right-hand stroke. Try practicing this over and over again until it's flowing before tackling the entire tune.

“Pretty Polly,” using old-time fingerpicking techniques.
“Pretty Polly,” using old-time fingerpicking techniques.

You can hear this tune played on the audio track "Pretty Polly" Using Old-Time Fingerpicking Techniques.

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