Wednesday, December 17, 2008
So this looks the wrap-up post for the Clawhammer! series—I’ll try to hit on points that were neglected in the previous posts (last week’s being here). Again, this isn’t supposed to be some definitive text on clawhammer banjo, & again I’m no more than a duffer on the 5-string banjo myself. These are just observations & notes from someone who likes the style & has tried his hand at in the midst of other occupations, musical & otherwise.
The first question is: do I need a certain kind of banjo to play clawhammer/frailing style? The very quick answer to this is: no, you just need a decent 5-string banjo (the four string tenors & plectrums aren’t designed for this style). Some folks swear that you have to use an open-back banjo for this style of playing, & that banjos with resonators are for bluegrass. Period. In the for what’s it’s worth department, I use the open-back Windsor you see in the picture above, but I’m also aware that some pretty doggone hot clawhammer banjo players have used resonator style banjos. These would include Uncle Dave Macon, Wade Ward, & Grandpa Jones. So my thought is pick a banjo you like to play & whose sound you like.
As a side note, I should mention that Richard Hefner has lessons & tab for clawhammer uke as well as clawhammer banjo on his E-Z Folk site. Because ukes typically are tuned in “re-entrant” tuning (fancy way of saying the string closest to your nose is one of the higher pitched strings, not the lowest pitched), it makes a pretty fun clawhammer machine. Hefner’s clawhammer uke tabs are quite cool—& remember, there is such a thing as a banjo uke.
In last week’s post I mentioned tunings, & I should point out that the banjo in old-time music is played in a variety of these. Because the 5th string isn’t fretted except in relatively advanced styles, you’re typically limited to playing in a couple of keys if you’re going to use the 5th string (which is generally crucial to the clawhammer or frailing sound). Since old-time music is ruled by the fiddle these keys tend to be D & A, with an occasional G or C thrown in, & also because a lot of this music is instrumental you can practically always depend on the same songs always being played in the same keys—with instrumentals you don’t have to account for the vocal range of a singer; so “Old Joe Clark” & “June Apple” are in A, “Needle Case” & “Mississippi Sawyer” are in D, etc. etc.
But here’s a funny wrinkle on this: the banjo is most commonly tuned in ways that would facilitate you playing in the keys of G or C, so various sorts of capos get used a lot in the old time scene to get the banjo up to the A or D pitch. Some folks do tune their banjos up a whole step—I believe Grandpa Jones did this—but that has a couple of disadvantages (besides the huge advantage of not dealing with capos): first, some songs are fiddled in G & C, so you have to re-tune, ‘cause you can’t capo down; second, not all banjos—especially vintage banjos—were designed with this higher tension tuning in mind & it can put a strain on various parts; third, you will break more strings.
So a capo becomes a crucial banjo accessory, & banjo capos are an interesting subject—at least to banjo players. The issue is that the four “fretted” strings aren’t aligned spatially with the 5th drone string. Thus, you need to capo the 5th string separately—no one capo can account for all five strings. There are a number of options. Pete Seeger recommended HO gauge railroad spikes, which are pretty cool & reasonably popular—actually driven into the neck in a position (positioning is “key”—as it were—if you want to play in same) so that the string can be slipped under the spike at appropriate intervals. There are also some more elaborate devices that are attached directly to the instrument. I personally use “Earl’s Suspender Capo,” which is handy because it comes off & on, & really stays out of the way while you’re playing (no, I’m not getting any kickbacks from Earl, but he seems like a nice fellow).
I should also mention the “Sawmill tuning,” or what Pete Seeger called “mountain minor.” I love this haunting sound—so does Eberle. Technically, you’re playing in what’s called the “Dorian Mode,” which is a type of minor scale (note on the Wikipedia article—it’s cited for lack of references, but its description of the modern Dorian scale is unquestionably accurate). There are a number of tunings available to old-time banjoists, but open G, double C, & Sawmill (G Dorian) are the most common. Double C is currently very common in the old-time music scene.
Finally, the frailing/clawhammer repertoire: do you have to play fiddle tunes if you want to play the banjo in this way? The quick answer is “no, you can play all sorts of music in this style.” Cathy Moore’s Banjo Meets World blog showcases Ms Moore playing Eastern European music very effectively in this style—including music in unusual time signatures; Patrick Costello’s How & Tao of Old-Time Banjo discusses frailing with tunes outside the standard old-time repertoire; Mike Iverson’s tab page includes tab for “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”—a fun arrangement (I’ve tried it); Iverson also notes that he uses clawhammer style for vocal back-up, which is less common in the old-time scene strictly speaking. I like to play the blues on any instrument, including the 5-string banjo, & including in clawhammer style, tho sometimes I fingerpick blues on the 5-string—you can get some interesting patterns with the drone G string. Tim Jumper’s The Banjo Player’s Songbook has a wide selection of tunes, mostly arranged in clawhammer style, from sea chanteys to Tin Pan Alley. So for you adventurous sorts out there: whatever works for you & the folks you like to make music with, go for it.
Of course, fiddle tunes are fun, & if you have a hankering to get into the old-time scene, that’s what you’ll want to play, & the more power to you. The main thing is to have fun—remember, you’re “playing” an instrument. For most of us, that will eventually lead to playing with other folks, which helps develop even more musical skills (like steady playing & listening), & these will come in handy even if you play solo a lot of the time. The most important thing: if you’re interested in playing the banjo (in whatever style), give yourself a break & check it out.