Fingerstyle Banjo Song of the Week: “East Tennessee Blues”

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This week’s tune, written by fiddler Charlie Bowman and recorded in 1926 by his group The Hillbillies, was introduced to me by my friend and former Sedentary Rambler bandmate, Jim Sims. Back when we performed it, I’d play the fingerstyle version you hear above.

Listening, you may wonder: what style of fingerpicking is this?

I’m using 3 fingers, so “3 finger style” would be appropriate. Is it “Scruggs” or “bluegrass” banjo? Old time 3 finger? It does include a lot of the notes that the fiddler plays, so perhaps “melodic” 3 finger?

Who knows? Who cares!

It doesn’t fit neatly into any rigid stylistic classification system, which is precisely the point. 

This arrangement was created by starting with the sound, or the end result I wanted to achieve, and then working backwards to figure out how to use the techniques of fingerpicked banjo to get there.

If you listen to recordings of fingerpicking banjoists in the pre-Scruggs era, you’ll find that this was clearly their approach, one that resulted in a rich and delightful variety of sounds. Sounds that would defy any attempt to capture inside of a single stylistic box.

Sounds that I hope I can encourage other fingerpicking banjoists to rekindle.

This is another example of how these boundaries that exist in our imagination (i.e. banjo “styles”) can impose unnecessary limits if they make their way into the learning process, and another great illustration of why it’s so important not to conflate the two, not to confuse technique – the motor and cognitive skills needed for banjo playing – with the style in which a particular tune is played (a reflection of a consistent way in which the techniques are assembled to achieve a particular aesthetic).

Start with the sound, the end in mind, then work out the details. And let others worry about how to label it!

(RELATED: If you want to learn more about the hazards of confusing style and technique, click here to read “Banjo Essentials: How To Pick the Banjo in any Style at


And here is the clawhammer version for East Tennessee Blues, which incidentally also doesn’t fit neatly into any stylistic category (click here if you’d like to view the tab for it, too).

East Tennessee Blues – clawhammer banjo version

East Tennessee Blues

gCGBD tuning, 3 finger banjo (Brainjo level 3)

east tennessee blues 3 finger banjo tab part 1

east tennessee blues 3 finger banjo tab part 2


Notes on the Tab

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