From John Walkenbach in Banjo Newsletter
Puppy and Other Fine Tunes: Lessons in Intermediate & Advanced
Clawhammer Banjo, By Hunter Robertson, DVD $24.99. Mel Bay 22208DVD.
Review by John Walkenbach
disclaimer: I’m not what you’d call a major consumer of banjo
instruction DVDs. In fact, prior to the DVD I’m reviewing here, I’ve
spent time with exactly one of them: Mike Seeger’s classic Southern
Banjo Styles #1 (which actually had its origins on VHS tape).
That one was entertaining and informative, but was lacking quite a bit
in terms of actual instruction. I’ve seen parts of a few other
instructional DVDs, but they just didn’t suit my “figure
it-out-yourself” personal learning style.
I did some research
and discovered that quite a few clawhammer banjo instructional DVDs are
available for students of all levels. This review focuses on Hunter
Robertson’s first video product, released earlier this year. Robertson
is an excellent player and singer, and has also recorded two CDs. And
as I discovered, he’s also an exceptional instructor.
Puppy and Other Fine Tunes is intended for intermediate and advanced
players. It teaches ten tunes (with varying levels of difficulty), and
also includes some extra features, which I describe later. In addition,
the disc contains a 26-page electronic booklet (in PDF format) that
includes detailed notes for each tune, links to other recordings of the
tunes, and lots of good old banjo-playing advice. Don’t ignore that PDF
If you’re just starting out on banjo, you’ll be better served
by choosing an introductory DVD from somebody like Bob Carlin, Chris
Coole, David Holt, Dan Levenson, or Ken Perlman.
The DVD is
jam-packed with 133 minutes of content, and none of it’s filler. The
video format is widescreen (16:9 aspect ratio), which is ideal for the
split screen technique he uses to show both hands simultaneously. The
audio and video quality of this DVD is excellent. I watched it on my
computer, as well as a large screen TV. The navigation structure of the
DVD is such that you can quickly get to any part with only a few clicks
or button presses. You can view some samples from the DVD on YouTube,
or at Hunter's web site.
Two things make this DVD different from
your typical instructional banjo video: (1) It does not include tabs
for the tunes, and (2) Robertson plays all the tunes on a fretless
An instructional video without tabs? Heresy! Well, not
really. A common discussion topic on the Banjo Hangout deals with
learning from tabs vs. learning by ear. I’ve always been in the latter
camp, and this DVD makes an excellent case for learning by ear --
although being able to watch both of his hands means that it doesn’t
have to be strictly by ear. Using tab sometimes promotes note-by-note
memorization, something that Robertson does not encourage.
author’s advice on using the DVD: “Get the tune solidly in your mind,
use the video for ideas of how to approach the tune, techniques to use
and so on, and then create your own version of it.”
But if you
absolutely must have tab, here’s some good news. If you purchase the
DVD, you’ll be able to download the tabs for the tunes, created by Tony
Spadero (AKA oldwoodchuck at Banjo Hangout). Check the author’s website
(www.hunterrobertson.com) for details. One of the tabs is included
here. Keep in mind that it's just an approximation of what's really
happening in the tune.
Robertson uses an old inexpensive Harmony
Reso-Tone banjo, with the frets filed down to make it a fretless. The
fret lines are clearly visible, though, so the student can always tell
which fret position is being used. In addition, the banjo has black
strings so they show up better in the videos. Initially, I had my
doubts about his use of a fretless banjo, but it works just fine for
the lessons. But those who play a normal fretted banjo won’t be able to
get the “in between” notes without a bit of string bending.
you play the DVD sequentially, you’ll first see a short introduction,
followed by a fast-paced and concise 12-minute overview of just about
every right and left hand technique I’ve ever heard of. You’ll see
explanations and demos of drop thumb, M skips, Galax licks, slides,
push-offs, hammer-ons, pull-offs, alternate string pull-offs, and more.
Noticeably absent is the “cluck,” a technique Robertson doesn’t use
much. It’s a great overview, and I think even veteran players will
benefit from watching this section.
The tunes are presented by
tuning, rather than relative difficulty, so it’s up to the student to
determine which tunes to tackle first. I’d suggest Lonesome John and
Candy Girl, which happen to be the first two tunes.
lesson starts with a brief introduction in which Hunter describes the
tuning, part structure, and the source of the tune. Then Robertson
plays the tune at full speed, several times through, usually with
variations. Next, he breaks the tune down and provides some detailed
verbal instruction for tricky parts or phrases – just as a real-life
instructor might do. This is followed by a half speed recording for
those who want to focus on a particular part. Finally, he plays the
tune at a moderate tempo, suitable for play-along practice. All of the
video segments use a split-screen technique that clearly shows both
hands simultaneously. This method of presenting the material works
The DVD has 96 minutes of this type of
instruction, so each tune gets a bit less than ten minutes of coverage.
That’s just enough time, as far as I’m concerned.
The ten tunes use five different tunings:
Sawmill (gDGCD): Lonesome John
Open G: (gDGBD): Candy Girl, Boatin’ Up Sandy, and Cripple Creek
Double C (gCGCD): Unfortunate Puppy and Ducks on the Millpond
Triple C (gCGCC): Raleigh & Spencer and Bonaparte’s Retreat
Open F (fCFCD): Leather Britches and Ft. Smith Breakdown
only nitpick with this DVD is that all of tunes are played one note
lower than the key in which they are normally played. He plays A tunes
in G, D tunes in C, and G tunes in F. His banjo certainly sounds good
tuned a note lower (and Robertson prefers the feel of looser strings),
but some (including me) would prefer that the tunes be in their normal
keys. The relative string pitches are the same, of course, so using a
capo at the second fret will put you at the traditionally-played key
(but you won’t be able to play along with the DVD). On the other hand,
when played as solo banjo arrangements, the pitch doesn’t really matter.
difficulty level of the tunes varies quite a bit. Candy Girl is the
easiest, and Unfortunate Puppy is probably the most challenging. The
best part of each lesson is when Robertson demonstrates and explains
various techniques used in the tune. You see quite a few of the
concepts that are demonstrated in the opening “techniques” segment used
in actual practice.
Robertson’s arrangement for each tune is
based on a particular recording by a classic old-time fiddler – people
like John Salyer, Wilson Douglas, Emmett Lundy, and Tommy Jarrell. He
didn’t include the original source recordings for these tunes, but they
are all available, and the PDF file includes links.
to the “techniques” section and the ten tune lessons, the DVD includes
two extra features: a video of Robertson playing and singing
Raleigh & Spenser, plus an 18-minute overview of old time 2- and
3-finger picking styles (using six additional tunes: Darlin’ Cora, Mole
In the Ground, Roving Gambler, Drunken Hiccups, Danville Girl, and
I can’t stress enough how good the video quality is
on this DVD. Even the slowed-down segments are crisp and blur-free. In
some cases, the slowed down audio suffers a bit (which is to be
expected), but it never gets out of the acceptable range.
DVD sets a new standard for banjo instructional material, and I can’t
imagine any clawhammer player who couldn’t pick up a few things while
I have only one suggestion: Provide a “play all”
option that simply plays the full speed version of all ten tracks
sequentially. It would be entertaining to watch, and, as background
music, help the player become familiar with the tunes. Better yet,
include MP3 files on the DVD so students can use their own slow-down
If you’re the type of player who has grown to depend on
tab when learning a new tune, this DVD (along with some time and
effort) might assist you in breaking free from that constraint.
But, as I mentioned, this product is not a start-from-scratch package
for beginners. The 12-minute introductory video provides a quick
overview of clawhammer techniques, but don’t expect this video to
provide everything a new player must know. But on the other hand, I
think most new players would certainly enjoy seeing a banjo master in
action – especially one who explains what he’s doing.
This DVD is competitively priced – the cost of about two CDs, or about half of what you’d pay for a single private lesson.
If all instructional videos were this good, it might turn me into a DVD consumer after all. - John Walkenbach
From Gadaya at Cornbread, Molasses & Sassafras Tea
wanted to review this excellent new instructional dvd by Hunter
Robertson that teaches 10 banjo arrangements of fiddle tunes in the
clawhammer style. There are not so many instructional dvds on the
market that focus on old-time banjo styles (the greatest being the 3
Dvds “Southern Banjo Styles” by Mike Seeger) and this one is rather
aimed at advanced players so rejoice, all of you banjo frailers! Hunter
is a great banjo player who already recorded two discs (the last one i
reviewed on this blog here) and he did a fantastic job on this lesson
by choosing well-known and not so well-known fiddle tunes and came out
with intricate and enjoyable arrangements that will challenge most
players. The tunes are by legends of old-time fiddling like John Morgan
Salyer, Tommy Jarrell, Emmett Lundy, William Stepp, Uncle Bunt
Stephens, Hobart Smith… There are at least four different banjo tunings
used and a full array of clawhammer techniques are displayed and
explained. This is about the content of the lesson but the form is also
really well made, with camera angles and slow motions allowing the
viewer to see both hands at work and not missing a lick. It’s worth
mentioning that Hunter uses a rather simple Harmony banjo that was turn
to a fretless (but you still see the frets marks) to teach the lesson
and proves that one doesn’t have to possess a fancy instrument to play
great old-time mountain music. As a bonus, Hunter explain a bit about
two and three-finger old-time picking styles, and you can see a clip of
him playing and singing (Hunter has a powerful and raucus voice that
reminds me a bit of australian rock singer Nick Cave) the great song
“Raleigh and Spencer”. For me, the cherry on top of this great lesson
is the pdf booklet that goes in lenght to cite the sources of the
tunes, the tunings, the discography and many other details that are
really invaluable informations for the player and listener. Well done,
As I said above, all of the arrangements on these dvd
were inspired by old field recordings and 78rpm records of great
fiddlers and most of these are available for free online thanks to the
Digital Library of Appalachia (on the pdf booklet, you just have to
click on the link to be directed to the exact page). Nevertheless, I
compiled myself the 10 original fiddle tunes to help me learn them with
Hunter’s banjo versions and you can download them as well for the same
purpose and for your listening pleasure (just be warned that the
recording quality on some of them is very bad…).
To get the tunes that Gadaya has put together, go to his site: Cornbread, Molasses & Sassafras Tea
|From Bluegrass Unlimited:|
UNFORTUNATE PUPPY AND OTHER FINE TUNES: LESSONS IN INTERMEDIATE & ADVANCED CLAWHAMMER BANJO
Mel Bay 22208DVD.
this well-done instructional video, Hunter Robertson lays out the
groundwork for learning old-time banjo—not just clawhammer style, but
also two- and three-finger styles. The main thrust of this DVD is to
present right- and left-hand techniques, tunings grounded in the
fundamentals that build an informed style.
Robertson gives a
brief description of each tune, then plays the tune. Next, he breaks
the tune down with a verbal description of what he is doing. Then the
tune is played slowed so that you can easily follow the right- and
left-hand finger positions. Finally, it’s played at a medium tempo for
you to practice along. Split-screens showing the two hands are used
throughout. There are visual guides to help you keep on track. He
teaches ten tunes played in the clawhammer-style in this fashion.
is a wonderful section on right-hand techniques where Robertson takes a
good amount of time to explain the techniques and demonstrate them,
following the same procedure he uses for the ten clawhammer tunes. The
tunes are credited to his source and he attempts to catch the essence
of that performance. He does not lavishly copy the source, but he does
successfully present a rendition that is honest and accurate. The
complexity of the tunes will take an intermediate to advanced ability
to pull off. If you have mastered the right-hand techniques addressed
in that section, it will make it much easier to tackle the tunes.
is an in-depth section that covers several factors for mastering these
styles. Robertson discusses thumb lead versus index lead in the
two-finger style and does a nice job of demonstrating the old time
three-finger approach. He demonstrates the piece “in the style” of a
source and not necessarily a note-for-note representation of anyone’s
style. The split screen reveals how both hands interact. He also slows
these pieces down, as well. He does a nice job of breaking down Dock
Boggs’ “Danville Girl” and “Sugar Baby” to demonstrate the essence of
Dock’s style. The other extra is a performance of “Raleigh &
Spencer” that can also be viewed on YouTube. Robertson’s guttural
vocals and forceful banjo playing make for an impressive performance.
uses black-coated strings on his banjo so the viewer has no problem
seeing which strings he is hitting. The accompanying .PDF provides a
good deal of information on these tunes. There is a list of a lot of
resources that can currently be found on the Internet. This DVD stands
among the best out there for learning more about the old-time banjo
styles. RCB (Mel Bay Publications, Inc., #4 Industrial Dr., Pacific, MO
From No Fences/Bluegrass Bühne:
banjo player with the rough voice, who at this time is living in
Geneva, submits an educational DVD which has been released by a leading
US music publisher. Ten known old-time titles like “Cripple Creak” and
“Bonaparte’s Retreat” he wants to teach us here, with the explicit
purpose that we to not imitate everything slavishly, but develop our
own ideas. With that, he plays a fretless banjo.
contrast to the dialog based AcuTab DVDs, Robertson conducts frontal
lessons. Basically, the screen is divided for the left and the right
hand, in close-up. As an introduction, Roberson shows the various
striking techniques, then the pieces are introduced in normal speed,
then technical detail is explained, and finally the pieces are played
again in half and medium speed. One should actually bring along some
knowledge of the clawhammer style, the entrance level seems high.
clawhammer style may seem clumsy and primitive, here it becomes clear
how subtle and elaborate it can be and how every musician has his
peculiarities. Except in “Raleigh & Spencer”, Robertson does not
sing (he anyhow rather snarls), not even where there is a text.
Finally, the demonstrates 2- and the 3-finger picking and plays
“Raleigh & Spencer” again fully.
As an add-on, the
DVD has a 26-page booklet in PDF format for printing, with all the
needed explanations and advices. Working one’s way through these music
lessons will cost some considerable effort, but in the end one surely
will have learned something. – Eberhard Finke
From Trad Magazine:
BRAVO (Trad Mag's award of distinction)
We knew that Hunter Robertson was an excellent banjo player, his last
CD If You Want to Go to Sleep, Go to Bed (Trad Mag n° 129) proved it to
us, if needed. Now, with this DVD, we also know that he's an excellent
This new DVD isn't a beginner's
clawhammer banjo method but is more dedicated to those who already have
a good grounding in the style. The idea behind these lessons is
excellent, that is, learning to play well known (at least to
aficionados) versions of fiddle tunes on the banjo, such as "Cripple
Creek", "Bonaparte's Retreat", "Ducks on the Millpond"… ten fiddle
tunes in all.
The first chapter is a review of
all the clawhammer banjo player's "tools" such as hammer-ons,
pull-offs, alternate string pull-offs, slides and other techniques used
in the style.
For each piece, Hunter plays a
version at normal speed, then he explains the difficulties of the piece
and then plays it again at a slower pace so that you can train by
playing it along with him.
As a bonus, Hunter gives a quick look at two and three-finger picking styles.
This is an excellent DVD and should immensely please those who are
interested in the style, who'll find not only beautiful versions of
fiddle tunes but also ideas for arranging pieces of their own choice. –
From Tony Spadaro at Rocket Science Banjo:
isn't often that one is present to witness a real revolution, but I
feel I have seen the future of Banjo Instruction with Hunter
Robertson's new video “The Unfortunate Puppy & Other Fine Tunes:
Lessons in Intermediate & Advanced Clawhammer Banjo”. The work
Hunter and his associate, videographer Jonathan Vanballenberghe of Open
Lens Productions openlensproductions.com/ have done with this video
will quickly bring the standard for DVD lessons up from that of purely
supplemental material to a vastly improved method of teaching stringed
and fretted instruments. I'm not joking. This video has as much to
teach banjo teachers as has for banjo students, and it will influence
All fretted and stringed instrument teaching DVDs for decades to come.
banjo videos, consist of a medium shot of the player/teacher with a
downright dinky close-up of either the left or right hand inserted into
the blank space off to his left side. Both hands come out quite small,
and the actual playing is really too fast to be caught on normal (30
frames a second) video. Hunter and Vanballenberghe have dumped that
format and created a new way that shows both hands large and clear. The
view appears to be what you would see sitting in the usual student's
position across from a teacher with a banjo. However, instead of
wasting screen space the picture has been sectioned, leaving out the
dull, unchanging landscape between the frailing and the fretting. Why
Didn't I think of That?
While this innovation alone would be a
major improvement to most videos, it is only after extended viewing
that I realized each of the hands had been filmed to be seen at the
best angle for catching the details of the playing. It is easy to see
exactly what happens at the fingers and frets level of the left hand
and to catch exactly which string is being plucked by the right.
this alone would be revolutionary there is another big improvement in
the presentation. The video was probably filmed with the camera running
at double speed (60 frames per second) so that when it is slowed down
to 30 there is remarkably little of that low speed video mush in the
picture. You can see the hands working side by side in smooth slo-mo.
Every detail is right smack in your face. You can't miss a thing.
of the tunes is presented in four ways – at full speed, complete with
variations, followed by a section at half speed using the slo-mo
technique described above. Then Hunter goes over the tune in detail
showing each melodic figure complete with spoken playing notes
explaining the various techniques as Hunter demos them. Finally there
is a simple medium speed version designed so the student can play along
with the teacher just as in a face to face lesson.
go from very easy (Candy Girl) to moderately difficult (The Unfortunate
Puppy). Learning each tune will also add new techniques to your playing
repertory. In “Lonesome John” there are several Alternate String
Hammer-Ons (ASHOs), the less known brother to the world famous
Alternate String Pull-Off (ASPO), While in “Boatin' Up Sandy” you will
find M Skips, Double ASPOs, syncopated M Skips, and the undeservedly
rare “Down Slide”. “Ducks On The Millpond” is a refreshingly different
version from Emmett Lundy with a lesson on grace notes to boot. For
those who (like me) love Triple C (or Triple D) tuning there is W. M.
Stepp's superlative version of “Bonaparte's Retreat” and for the
straight “G” tuning set, you'll find an exceptional version of “Cripple
Creek” from the playing of Hobart Smith. While you could play this with
your local jam group, it that has a voice and ambiance all its own. In
fact the techniques used in these ten tunes will bring sparkle to all
your current and future tunes repertoire. Every new technique you learn
becomes another tool in your kit, and another voice in your musical
choir. Hunter recommends listening to the original versions of these
tunes, and all are available on the internet
Along with the 10
tune videos there is also a “Techniques Video” jam packed full of
extremely useful stuff and well worth the price of the entire DVD.
There is also an all too brief demonstration of Up Picked styles. The
DVD cannot have much space left over. I suspect most players will
return to all the lessons from time to time in order to gain new
insights from them.
While Hunter describes this video as being
for Intermediate to Advanced students I am going to respectfully
disagree. I don't think you have to be “advanced” much beyond beginning
player to get more than your money's worth from The Unfortunate Puppy.
Anyone with the basic strokes down comfortably, who can play the common
clawhammer rhythms and follow clearly presented examples should be able
to use these videos to one degree or another, and will know more about
clawhammer in general than most other Beginners or Intermediate or
Advanced players. Furthermore you will be learning from a master player
and a master instructor – these aren't always one and the same person.
The banjo world is extremely lucky to have Hunter Robertson. He is a
great banjo player and The Unfortunate Puppy, sets the Gold Standard
for teaching videos.
Let me insert a bit of shameless self promotion here:
of the techniques described in the Unfortunate Puppy are also found in
Chapter 4 of Rocket Science Banjo. Double Pull-Offs, Down Slides, The M
Skip, etc are all covered in my book, making it a good companion for
Hunter's video. There is even an example of Hunter’s syncopated M Skip
and the “Rushed Thumb Stroke – which I described in Ken Perlman's 1981
book “Clawhammer Style Banjo”, and which will eventually be covered in
RSB too. There are even versions of a couple tunes on the video tabbed
out in the book.
RSB is free to all, so grab up a copy at:
And in conclusion:
think Hunter's technique video alone is worth the price of the DVD.
Everyone has to make their own decision as to when they are ready for
this material but I would recommend it to my students on the early side
rather than wait. I think that most people will get their money's
worth, and that over time it will prove more than just useful to anyone
willing to put some time into learning the material. Nothing “teaches”
you the banjo – you gotta do all the work – even the banjo doesn't
really do anything for you.
That said, this is the best
instructional video I've ever seen. It is well worth your money and
more importantly, it is well worth your time.