Tools of the Trade

by Jill Robbins


All you really need to make some music is your instrument (and some motivation), right?!  This is true, but we’re gonna talk about some helpful tools that may make playing, practicing and learning a little bit easier.


Do you ever find yourself at a jam trying to remember the chord changes to a crooked fiddle tune? This app can help. It’s a bit pricey for an app ($12.99) but packs a lot of punch. It may be used on a phone, ipad, android or mac. Through the app, you import playlists and songs into your library. Once a song is in the library, when you access the song, it gives you the chord chart. You can easily transpose the key with a couple of clicks.

The song can be played (backing track style), and you have the option of playing the track in many different styles (bluegrass, pop, glam funk, disco, jazz, latin, etc). The tempo can be set from 40-360 beats per min, and you can control how many times the song will be played back to back.  This isn’t just for bluegrass- you can import jazz, blues, pop and rock songs also.

Personally, this app has been my cheat sheet at jams for those tunes with 1000 chord changes, and is also a great practice resource. It’s much more fun than playing along with a metronome!


Tunefox is an app/website for banjo, guitar, mandolin and bass players. All instruments are included in a subscription, which is $14.99/month. On the app are many songs and exercises, with tablature written out.

The banjo songs often include a Scruggs version, melodic version, back- up, and/or single- string version. The guitar and mandolin songs each have beginner, intermediate and advanced versions. The bass tunes have both solo and backup versions. Within the song, you can switch the licks around, play the tune with a full band or stripped down backing track, loop measures, change the key in the playback track, and you can hide some notes to help with ear training.

I have only been playing for a couple of years and still have a ton of songs to learn; I have found this app very helpful in learning new tunes, and to practice tunes I already know.

While we’re talking about practice and backing tracks, this is a website is fantastic:

Free Bluegrass Backing Tracks-

It’s so valuable, yet it’s free to use!


When I first started playing banjo, I wanted to learn as much as possible as quickly as possible. I joined Tony Trishka’s Banjo School on and devoured the lessons. Artistworks is a membership based online music school. There are over 30 different music schools available, from French horn to flatpicking guitar to bluegrass banjo to drums and most instruments in between.

The teacher for each school has developed and recorded hundreds of lessons, organized from beginner to advanced. Watch the lessons at your own pace. When you are ready, you video yourself playing the song/exercise taught in the lesson, and submit it to your teacher. Within a week or two, you have a video response from the teacher.

There are also forums where you can ask the teacher questions, or connect with other members of that school. How cool that my first banjo teacher was Tony Trishka!  I give the lessons and video exchange concept a thumbs up, and really loved the fact that I could go back and watch videos over and over again for any concepts that needed to be refreshed.


I think everyone who has access to the Internet knows how much valuable content can be found on YouTube, but I thought it was worth mentioning. It is such a treat to be able to watch videos of the masters old and young playing. It’s hard to beat those old Flatt and Scruggs videos! There are some pretty good teaching videos out there, too.

Speaking of teaching videos, I’d like to give a shout out to The Murphy Method.

Here you will find instructional DVDs/digital downloads for guitar, bass, mandolin, banjo, dobro, fiddle, jamming and singing.  The Murphy Method uses no tablature; everything is taught by ear. I own several of their DVDs and have found that learning with The Murphy Method really sticks.

The Hangouts






The hangout websites are fabulous resources. There are forums, videos, user-submitted tabs, and classified sections. They are a great place to ask questions, buy or sell instruments or search for a new song to learn. Some of the sites also hold regular giveaways.

There are SOOO many websites, apps, instructional videos, podcasts out there that can help you improve or get through a jam session. I’ve mentioned only a few. What are your favorite tech tools for the bluegrass world?