Lesson 5: Arrangement, "Mary Had A Little Lamb"

Posted September 30, 2007

Question:  Tell me how you create a bluegrass banjo solo from a basic melody?

Answer:  Yes!  You have asked THE CENTRAL QUESTION in how to play the banjo.  Most of my lessons will be partial answers to that very question. 

We want to express a melody in terms of rolls and licks of the bluegrass style.  Every solo you learn is an example of the process.  Every lick you master becomes a part of your vocabulary.  Every player you meet is likely to show you something new.

So, we'll start with a simple nursery rhyme melody, "Mary Had a Little Lamb."  First, you will just pick the melody notes.  Play along and sing along until you are at ease with it.  Then we will learn two phrases from the solo to master some tricks of technique.  Finally, at the bottom of the page, play the solo.


Basic Melody: Mary Had A Little Lamb.  Great tune for my young students: only ONE fretted note!  Pick this tune and sing along until you have a comfortable flow.

Play the Melody


Exercise 1, G Phrase.   The slide to 4 reinforces the open 2nd string.  Reach with third finger to 4th string 7, giving us the same note as 3rd string 2 but also able to play open 3rd string right after it.

Play Along

Exercise 2, D7 to G Phrase.  I like to use the open D string in the roll to establish the tonality of the D7 chord.  The ending measure on G is a fill lick, an ornament not related to the melody.

Play Along


Solo:  Mary Had a Little Lamb

Audio Links:        Learning speed            Performance speed

A note to instructors:   My PowerPoint course, The Banjo Experience, models the solo creation process in a way that leads students naturally from picking single note melody lines into bluegrass solos.  Unit One is basic melody.  Unit Two fills in open spaces with forward rolls.  Unit Three expresses melody with double thumb roll (TITM).  Units Four and Five lift playing to a professional solo level.  Contact me for a free sample.


Good Luck Pickin'!

Edward T Wing

Pick'n'Grin, Knoxville, Tennessee