Clawhammer, Frailing, Bum-Titty, Drop Thumb, Double Thumb etc.
I see all kinds of recommendations and dogma concerning these and other aspects of banjo playing and instruction. Index finger/middle finger, neck up/neck down, held on the lap/leg, thumb cocked/straight, bump-ditty/bump-a-ditty… There are a lot of theories about playing and teaching and they’re as useful as they help someone play. Watch what people are DOING as well as saying. Examine things for yourself. Find someone good and learn from them. Even if what they’re doing doesn’t fit the canonical definition of clawhammer – The Council Of The Elders of Old-Time having formally prohibited any upstrokes in the performance of the clawhammer maneuver in 1976. Buell Kazee was known to catch strings on the upswing with the back of his thumb and Ralph Stanley and Matokie Slaughter the same with the index.
There are videos out with footage of some of the great players: Buell Kazee, Roscoe Holcomb, Dock Boggs, Tommy Jarrell and others. Great for learning.
Is there anything inherently bad about tablature? No, it can be very useful. You’ll get more out of it if you have a recording of the version of the tune you have in tab. Tab is a good way of noting the main points of a tune for a shorthand version of it (and standard notation the same) – you have a sketch or outline that needs filling in afterwards. Working things out by ear can be very beneficial though – you’ll likely find that there are different ways of getting a line, each with its own character and advantages and disadvantages. Listen to the variations a player puts into a tune. Try working out different versions of the same tune from different players and see how the melody varies. You’ll probably come up with some variations of your own while you’re at it. Take what you like from all that, add your personality, and make it you own.
Practice until you have the tune down cold. Once you own the thing you can do whatever you want with it. Drill it and ingrain it! “Muscle memory” is part of it, but remember, you made that muscle memory and you can change it.
Banjos, Buying a Banjo
To hear some, you would think you need at least a 4 figure price tag on a banjo before it’ll do you any good. And an openback, if you please (assuming it’s a clawhammer advocate talking). Well, a beginning banjo needs to play decently (action not too high, frets not too worn, nut at a decent height etc.) and it needs to sound good enough to the person playing (and to their wife or husband, they have to put up with your learning on it!) that they’ll keep going. A hundred bucks for a used Kay or Harmony might do it (though probably best to have someone who knows something about instruments check it out. Sometimes a little set-up will do wonders, sometimes they’re fine as is. Sometimes they’ll be a frustrating waste of time). Or, maybe a little more for a lower-end Deering or whatever (and watch out too for new instruments in shops that don’t deal much with banjos. I’ve seen some potentially decent instruments in shops that were unplayable, heads too slack, bridges in the wrong place…). Not that there’s anything wrong with having an expensive, quality instrument – they can be a real joy – my point is simpy that they’re not a necessity. Does it have to be an openback for clawhammer? Nope. Two words, Wade Ward.
Tunes and “Basic” Tunes
Take versions of Old Joe Clark from Hobart Smith, Wade Ward, Marcus Martin and Luther Strong. There’s an underlying structure that can be recognized as a basic Old Joe Clark, but that’s not the tune. It’s what an individual does that makes it the tune and a work of art. A human being is made up of a skeleton, flesh, élan vital and so on. Skeletons can be found in classrooms, and have their place there, but you don’t mistake them for human beings. Any tune worth its salt is a cohesive melody, not a series of chord changes and not a series of riffs or licks. Avoid clichés. Keep an ear out for what makes a tune sound great to YOU and do THAT. Physics has explanations for why various notes work with others to sound harmonious, but if a bunch of random frequencies get played in the woods and there’s no one there to hear them (and even less to create them), is it music?
Electronic Tuners and Tuning
Tuning when you’re starting out can be a nightmare. I got an electronic tuner after years of playing and was very happy to have it. Especially when you’re playing with a band, they’re a godsend. However, unless you get a fancy one that you can change the temperament on, it’ll put you in even temperament (temperaments are a study in themselves, according to Merriam-Webster’s dictionnary: “the slight modification of acoustically pure intervals in tuning a musical instrument; especially : modification that produces a set of 12 equally spaced tones to the octave”). Even temperament isn’t what old fiddlers and fretless banjo players (and singers, flute players, pipers etc.) tuned to and played in. This is not the most important part of playing, so don’t get hung up on it, but a fine point that makes a difference. If you’re playing by yourself or just with a fiddler, and especially if you’ve got a fretless, ditch the tuner. Listen to lots of old recordings and use your ear. I usually start by tuning the 3rd string to whatever pitch (by ear to match a recording, or a fiddler, or to a tuner if I want the banjo at standard pitch), then tune the 4th string to it. Then I tune the 2nd to the 4th by playing the two of them open, then the 1st to the 4th or 3rd, again open. Then the 5th to the open 1st or 3rd. Then I check them against each other (the 5th to the 3rd, the 1st to the 3rd and so on). On a fretted banjo I find a compromise between the open and fretted strings, for example in gDGBD, check the open 2nd against the 3rd open and at the fourth fret. In gCGCD, check the open 1st against the open 3rd, then check the 1st fretted at the second fret against the open 3rd – adjust to taste.
Speed is a subject that seems to come up often when talking about banjo (and fiddle) playing. Along with a muted tone, a slow tempo is one of the characteristics of a lot of modern banjo playing I hear. Personally, I think it’s a question of taste – and I like my music fast. Most of the time – sometimes slow is all right. I’ve heard it said that as this music was primarily dance music that it wouldn’t have been played fast. Some of it was dance music and some not, and there are fast and slow dances. I recall once playing ‘The Red Haired Boy’ with Casey Abair for some cloggers – I had to drop out to catch my breath but the dancers thought it was just right. Of course, if you’re not playing for dancers it’s a moot point. Most of the older players that I listen to did a lot of uptempo stuff: Hobart Smith, William Stepp, Eck Robertson, Elmo Newcomer, L.O. Weeks, Luther Strong, Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham are some examples.
Music is full of strange and arbitrary “rules”. I don’t know who invented a common one today: “thou shalt not speed up whilst playing”. One of the most natural things to do when you’re excited is to speed up. Musicians do it all the time, sometimes deliberately, sometimes not. From some of the stories I’ve read about recording in the early days of rock’n’roll, I wonder if the guy that came up with this piece of nonsense wasn’t some neurotic producer, worried that the teeny-bopper record buyers would get confused by the group speeding up on the chorus and lose track of their bopping… It is true of course that you could discombobulate dancers with a sudden shift – but if a bunch of musicians can speed up together smoothly, why shouldn’t dancers be able to speed up along with them?
Some definitions from the world of classical music – which doesn’t always intersect with that of traditional music but which are interesting (both from Oxford Dictionaries):
Rubato: (also tempo rubato) the temporary disregarding of strict tempo to allow an expressive quickening or slackening, usually without altering the overall pace. From Italian, literally ‘robbed’.
Accelerando: (especially as a direction) with a gradual increase of speed. From Italian, ‘accelerating’.
Of course, none of this means that you shouldn’t be able to keep a steady beat when needed or wanted.
So yes, to be a complete player, you should be able to play at a steady pace. You should also be able to disregard them and speed up when the spirit moves you. I can think of a good few recordings that are a lot better for a little oomph!
Old-time or Old-timey
If Hobart Smith said “old-timey”, that’s good enough for me: “Now, I call my style of banjer pickin’ the old-timey rappin’ style. I learned it from my daddy.”
Clawhammer Instructional Books
Some of the banjo instruction books that I’ve had and would recommend:
– John Burke’s Book of Old Time Fiddle Tune for Banjo (out of print and going for too much money but worth getting ahold of if you can).
– Art Rosenbaum’s Old Time Mountain Banjo (also out of print! Also expensive, also worth getting…)
– Art Rosenbaum’s Art of the Mountain Banjo – hallelujah, it is in print and has an excellent album that accompanies it.
– Brad Leftwich’s Round Peak Style Clawhammer Banjo. Great for, yes, Round Peak style banjo – comes with a CD.
– Pete Seeger’s How To Play The 5-string Banjo – covers a wide spectrum of possibilities on the banjo.
– Ken Perlman’s Clawhammer Style Banjo – gets into all kinds of fancy stuff.
All of these books have, in addition to the tabs, a wealth of information about players and tunes, and the background data that binds it all together. There are a lot of books and videos by good players that I haven’t seen so can’t comment on but which in all likelihood are good, things by Mike Seeger or Dan Levenson for example.
There’s an awful lot of instructional stuff online, some of it horrendous and some of it very good (this definitely includes Youtube).
Banjo Tunings (more banjo tunings than you can shake a stick at. Very useful if you’re looking for what tuning a particular player used for a tune): http://www.zeppmusic.com/banjo/aktuning.htm
Background information on tunes – Andrew Kuntz’s Fiddler’s Companion:
Whew! There’s a lot of good recordings of old-time music to listen to. Here are some players and albums worth looking up (I’m too lazy to go looking for links for them all).
Banjo: County Sales Clawhammer Volumes 1, 2 and 3. Hobart Smith (Blue Ridge Legacy, Folk-Legacy album and In Sacred Trust), Wade Ward, Frank Proffitt, Buell Kazee, Roscoe Holcomb, Fred Cockerham, Clarence Tross, John Snipes, Virgil Anderson, Dan Gellert, Nathan Frazier, Dink Roberts, Art Rosenbaum, Doc Boggs.
Fiddle: Edden Hammons, Luther Strong, John Salyer, Elmo Newcomer, William Stepp, Tommy Jarrell, Hiram Stamper, Marcus Martin, Uncle Bunt Stephens, Clyde Davenport, Bruce Greene, Frank Patterson, Fiddlin’ Powers.
Singing and other: Texas Gladden, the Beech Mountain albums from Folk-Legacy, the two CDs from the Warners – Her Bright Smile Haunts Me Still & Nothing Seems Better to Me, I.D. Stamper, Kilby Snow, online collections from the Lomaxs and John Quincy Wolf, Alfred Karnes.
Fretted to Partially Fretless Banjo
A while back I wanted a fretless banjo, but on the cheap. So I got something for about a hundred bucks off of Ebay and read up on what others have done (my main source of information being Don Borchelt – see his write-up). Here’s how I defretted it up to the 7th fret and installed a sheet of copper to make it partially fretless.
- Took the cheap banjo and heated the frets with a soldering iron (frets 1-7, could also only do it up to fret 5 like Don but I thought it would be good to have it continuously fretless until the 7th as that’s my usual range on the banjo) and worked them out with a pair of front-cutting nippers. The heating helps the frets come out with less damage to the fretboard.
- Sanded the defretted part of the fretboard flat (not that much was needed).
- Got a piece of copper (you could also use brass or formica or whatever) the same thickness as the height of the frets (if it’s lower you’ll have trouble, higher would work I guess but you’d have to raise the nut. If they’re the same height then the nut can probably stay the same). Traced the shape of the neck onto it and cut it out roughly. Fit it to the neck, checking it as I worked. Filed and sanded the 8th fret end to a knife edge so that the 8th fret was still usable. Flattened it by burnishing on a flat surface with a heavy smooth piece of metal (get it very flat). Went over its back surface lightly with sandpaper to give some tooth.
- Degreased the copper and the fretboard (watching the finish on the neck).
- Glued it onto the fingerboard. I used a spray contact cement made for cabinet work – you have to be careful when you place the copper because there’s no second chance. Epoxy would be good too. I taped the neck to avoid mess before spraying it.
- Checked the edges and burnished it down.
- Filled the fret-slot edges with wood putty mixed with acrylic paint to match the neck’s finish.
- After a year or so some buzzing bugged me enough that I worked over the entire thing (copper and frets) with sandpaper stuck to a spirit level with double-sided tape, working up from 320 grit or so to 600. I had burnished the copper pretty flat before gluing it but there were some surprising high and low points.
Voila – partially fretless banjo! You can see the result in some of the videos, above. I liked it so much it’s become my main banjo. Good luck.
Another banjo I filed all the frets off: I took the neck off and then the nut and 5th string screw. Then with a big file, probably 1 1/2″ by 12″ (I glue gunned a chuck of wood to one side as a handle) hogged the frets off! I was a little worried about it digging into the fretboard, but working all up and down the neck, and keeping the file pretty level, once I got down to the wood it kind of glided over it (being careful of course). I kept going until most of the burrs from the fretwire were gone – they kind of mushroom over leaving little flanges on either side. Then I used 2-sided tape to attach sandpaper to a spirit level, the only long flat thing I had. Not sure what grit I started with, probably 280 or 320. And worked up to 600. Then steelwool and a little lemon oil. I must have had to lower the nut some, I don’t recall now.