Try a Flatpicking Workout Inspired by a Banjo Classic – Acoustic Guitar

From the January/February 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By Alan Barnosky

Earl Scruggs single-handedly popularized the sound of the banjo as we know it. Scruggs amazed listeners when he first performed at the Grand Ole Opry in 1945, and to this day his playing is studied and emulated by many. One of Scruggs’ most influential recordings is his 1961 Foggy Mountain Banjo, an instrumental album. This brief 25-minute collection, with “Home Sweet Home” as the second track, is an acoustic masterpiece. The song selections are perfect, the sound quality has that classic ’60s warmth, and you can hear every nuance of Scruggs’ playing in microscopic detail. With few instructional banjo resources available at the time of the record’s release, it became the means for aspiring players to learn the banjoist’s approach.

At its core, the Scruggs style consists of a variety of fingerpicking patterns (or rolls, in banjo lingo) that are combined to produce a constant string of 16th notes while highlighting key melody notes. There are a handful of rolls Scruggs used, and one of them, called the backward roll, is featured prominently in “Home Sweet Home.” Many banjo arrangements don’t transfer that well to guitar because of the banjo’s tuning and the use of rolls. However, there are some surprising instances where we can learn a little bit more about the guitar through studying Scruggs’ banjo, and “Home Sweet Home” is a great example.

My steel-string guitar arrangement approximates Scruggs’ version with a mix of open strings, the liberal use of a high G (string 1, fret 3) note to mimic the banjo’s open-G, and crosspicking to simulate the banjo rolls. Crosspicking means playing three or more strings in succession, and this technique can be done forward (for instance, across the G, B, and high E strings) or backward (across the high E, B, and G strings). Since Scruggs would mix various rolls together to highlight the melody, this arrangement similarly incorporates backward and forward crosspicking, as well as lines that are not crosspicked at all.

If you are new to crosspicking, I recommend checking out “Crosspicking 101,” a lesson with Molly Tuttle that originally appeared in AG’s April 2017 issue. As you begin to get more familiar with the technique, work through this version of “Home Sweet Home” and identify where the forward and backward crosspicking sections are. I prefer strict alternate picking throughout this arrangement, even for the crosspicking sections, and the pick direction markings in the notation illustrate how that works. Alternate picking can feel unintuitive in some spots (like in bar 11), but over time will become natural and help create a rhythmic pulse that drives the tune. 

As for the fretting hand, much of this arrangement uses familiar triad chord shapes, but some spots have tricker shapes (like the stretch in bar 10) or unusual fingerings (as in the end of bar 3). See my fingering suggestions in the notation to help get through these spots.

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There are other guitar arrangements of “Home Sweet Home” out there, and I recommend checking those out to see how a single tune can be interpreted in a multitude of ways. Remember, though, that this version closely aligns with Scruggs’, works up and down the neck, and incorporates both forward and backward crosspicking. The result is a challenging and fun version of the tune that also serves as an excellent picking exercise.

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