Schoolhouse

Lesson 3: Tag Licks

Posted September 5, 2007

"Shave and a haircut ... two bits."  Plink, plink: there it is: 16-17 on the first string.  Gotta love that lick!  Once I was even considering having two pearl dots inlaid on my Stelling's neck at 16 and 17 right under the first string engraved with "two" and "bits."

Inlay? Bad idea.  But endings and tag licks have become elevated to a high art form among banjo pickers.  Could be a natural exuberance, or maybe a genetic predisposition to get the last word.  It usually begins with a classic Scruggs tag lick, the first one featured in the lesson below.  The four examples in this lesson all begin with the 11-9 half step interval on the 2nd and 1st strings. That just gives us a bit of consistency, but is by no means a requirement.  Later lessons will broaden our perspective. 

I charge you to consider two major challenges in learning and deploying tag licks:

  • First, you get plenty of practice on the phrases of a solo with many of the licks occurring repeatedly.  BUT, you only get one shot at the tag lick, and it is usually quite different from the rest of the solo.  What an embarrassment to tear through a solo flawlessly only to crash the tag lick!  Believe me, I have done that more times than I care to remember.  So your tag licks need special attention to insure reliability at the end of a spirited run.  Tension builds up toward the end and that tension can trip up the tag lick.  Strategy: Begin practice with slow runs, building gradually toward your target tempo, focusing always on relaxed flow.

  • Second, understand that licks which jump to different locations on the neck are essentially EYE exercises.  I used to wonder why some students mastered these moves easily while others had great difficulty.  Then I realized the problem was watching the left hand moves.  Do not look at the fingers; instead learn to jump your eye focus to the fret where you want the finger to land next.  In short: LEAD with the EYE. 

It's FUN to play with tag licks, and I have learned many of them; but I tend to have favorites at a given time.  If I try to hold too many in active memory, the result is likely to be confusion and crashes.  So you might have a favorite of the week or month and a couple of alternates.  That way you always have something fresh, but reliable.  Let's go!
 

Here's where it all begins:  A classic tag lick which tells the audience "That's all, folks!"  This one fits well on most songs.

Please observe the right hand fingering below the staff and the left hand fingers above, otherwise you may have to make difficult adjustments after you have built faulty reflexes.  The arrow after the 7 means slide the first finger up the neck during the rest.  This positions the hand to reach 16-17 with the third finger.  It also adds a nice zip sound.

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Medium

Fast

You will discover that this example uses exactly the same left hand fingering as the one before.  Only the picking pattern is different.  Here we begin with M and I playing a double string.  The 11 is bent slightly to edge the pitch toward a unison with the 1st string 9.  Three consecutive forward rolls from the 5th string bring you to fret 16.

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Now this one takes the ending back down to the open 3rd string G.  Two forward rolls and a TIMI pattern beginning with a slide.  Three position shifts here, from 9 to 5 to 2.  Lead with the eye and you will soon get the quickness needed.

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Medium

Fast

Here we keep the position shifts close.  Two rolls on 11-9, then over to 3rd string for a 9.  Notice that the 4th string 8 is the same pitch as 3rd string 3, the Bb blues note.  Playing it here on the 4th string makes the lick more compact.  Start slow and work it up.

Slow

Medium

Fast

A few points about the audio clips: 

  • Slow is the READING and LEARNING speed.  Pause frequently if needed to check your fingering.  The goal here is to HOLD TEMPO at the slow pace so every move is felt as an easy flow.

  • Medium is the MEMORIZE speed.  Here the goal is to let go of eye contact with the tablature and WATCH the left or right hand.  First you learn it on the page (slow), now you learn it ON the BANJO.  Remember the concept, "Lead with the eye."

  • Fast is the performance speed.  You will likely need to play gradually faster without the audio until ready for this tempo.

  • Finally, INSTALLATION.  Time to tag a tune with what you have practiced.  If you can play it accurately 4 times in a row with the audio, you are ready.  But remember, you only get ONE SHOT at it in the song.  So pick a tune you know well and add a tag lick.

Good Luck Pickin'!

Edward T Wing

Pick'n'Grin, Knoxville, Tennessee