Lesson 13: Folsom Prison

Posted February 10, 2011

Last year's passing of the great Johnny Cash and the wonderful biographical movie of his life causes me to reflect on the music he has left with us.  I did not know Johnny personally, tho he did pause in the hallway of a TV studio in Nashville to speak to me once.  He was cordial and seemed to appreciate a fan's compliments.  His early hit song, "Folsom Prison", embodies totally for me the classic description of country music: "Just three chords and the truth." 

Folsom Prison was never part of the bluegrass tradition, and Johnny did not have a banjo on the recording, but I love the song and my audiences do too.  Listen now.  I will share my banjo interpretation of Folsom Prison. 

Audio:  Edward Wing picks and sings "Folsom Prison"

Ready to get down to work on the solo?  It's a long pattern, 24 measures, so I have broken it into the intro and five 4-measure phrases.  Again I stress the two primary learning strategies:  (1) Chop it into little pieces. (2) Slow it way down.  If any of these exercise phrases have licks which cause you trouble, break them into sub-exercises.  I have recorded each exercise slow, medium and fast.   Your goal should be to play each exercise 4 times in a row while watching your hands, not the tablature. 

Do your work on the exercises, and the solo will be fun without frustration.  Enjoy!

Intro and Fill Lick

Who could ever forget the great guitar lick which defined the Johnny Cash style?  Here's the banjo interpretation of that lick.  Second finger hops from the D chord to the bluesy 3 lick leading into the G chord.  This phrase serves as introduction, ending, and is also between the first and second verses.

Audio:    Slow    Medium    Fast

Exercise 1:  Melody Phrase

"I hear that train a-comin', rollin' 'round the bend..."  Use the IMTM pattern where the 1 to 3 occurs on the 2nd string, because this preserves the basic forward roll pattern.  On the last measure, index follows the thumb on 5th string.

Audio:    Slow    Medium    Fast

Exercise 2:  Melody Phrase

"I ain't seen the sunshine since I don't know when..."  In the first measure, I use finger 1 on both 1st and 2nd frets because it sets up the hand position for the hammer lick.

Audio:    Slow    Medium    Fast

Exercise 3:  C Phrase

Here the solo diverges slightly from the melody, but you can still hear "I'm stuck in Folsom Prison, and time keeps dragging on."  Again, the little bluesy 3 at the end of the line. 

Audio:    Slow    Medium    Fast

Exercise 4:  D Phrase

Holding onto the D chord for two measures.  The second measure closes with a forward roll to the 5th string which puts the index finger up next to pick the 4th string beginning the 3rd measure.  Watch out for that one.

Audio:    Slow    Medium    Fast

Exercise 5:  G Phrase

Here's a nice bunch of fill in stuff on G ending with a run down to the open D string.  First three times in the audio it repeats back to 3rd string, but when I end, I take it on down to the open 4th.

Audio:    Slow    Medium    Fast

Well, that covers the exercises.  Once again, I stress:  Play each exercise from memory.  Remember, it's not how long you practice, it's how many times in a row you play it without error.  Plus one point for each correct exercise... but MINUS a point for every mistake.  If you miss half of the time, your score stays zero!  Not just a game, friends, but a neurological law of nature.  I call it "Wing's Law."  Take time on the slow audio and make the game work FOR you instead of against.  Got it?  OK, on to the solo.

Folsom Prison Solo

The slow version is 92 beats per minute.  The performance tempo is 92bpm in cut time, exactly twice as fast.  That's a big jump, not practical for a single step.  That is why the exercises are in three tempos.  The audio begins with the intro, plays the solo twice, and ends with the intro again. 

Audio:    Slow    Performance

I hope you too will honor the memory of Johnny Cash by learning and sharing this great song with your banjo. 

Good Luck Pickin'!

Edward T Wing

Pick'n'Grin, Knoxville, Tennessee