5 Years of Banjo Tablature

I’ve recently realized that I’ve just completed five consecutive years of writing at least one banjo tab per week. I’ve published 200 of them in four books and am about to put out Book #5. It prompted me to wonder just why I was doing it and am seemingly unable to stop. There are just so many great tunes… At first they were tunes I knew from having learned them at festivals, jams, camps and so on. For a while i was really listening to recordings of banjo players -both commercial recordings and my own hand-held collections. Somewhere along the line I started only listening to fiddlers. I realized that was because it seemed to be the purest form of the melody. Mostly I’ve been listening to source recordings because for this giant repertoire of tunes the older recordings somehow revealed the real idiosyncrasies of what makes each tune or rendition unique. For a brief period I was writing tabs that had almost every note that the fiddle was playing. Big mistake- fun but big mistake. One long time student threatened to quit because the tabs were too difficult to play and even if you learned them they just had no groove. I’ve since shifted my approach to that of trying to imagine what I would play if I could climb into Mr. Peabody’s Time Machine and sit down with Ed Haley, John Salyer, Emmett Lundy, Luther Strong, Edden Hammons and on and on. So I’m now trying still to understand these tunes better (a process which I’m sure is unending). I’ve found a relational database that I can put on my phone that can aggregate some of the info that swirls around the creation and promulgation of these wonderful melodies. I’ve found that so many tunes are icebergs of information- just the tip peeks out of the water with the name of the tune. Below the waterline lurks a mountain of information consisting of facts, rumors, tall tales, historical references, alternate titles, family history, urban legends, travelogues and the like. The next thing I’m looking at is how the mountain geography and the direction of the rivers help determine how a tune (or parts of a tune) travels.

Ida Red with Jamie Ferguson

One of the great things about playing old-time music is developing musical relationship with people from all over the country.  I think I first met Jamie in Pennsylvania at the Lake Genero Fiddling’ Bear festival.  Had an absolutely great late-night jam with her and a few other folks.  We played together at Clifftop in West Virginia a few years later as well.  This week she was traveling in the area and stopped by the school.  She’s a very talented fiddler- very musical and easy to follow.  We had never played this tune together before today.  The tune is Ida Red and was inspired by the fiddling of Ed Haley. Here’s some great info from the excellent musician Craig Edwards: “Started as an African American cargo loading song on the Ohio/Misssissippi Rivers. See Mary Wheeler’s “Steamboatin’ Days”, one of the great underutilized collections of American music. Long out of print, but you can find copies on Amazon for practically nothing. You’ll find a lot of old time and blues lyrics in their original forms- very cool material.”

How I Learn a New Tune

Melody is king.  If there’s a tune I want to learn on the banjo, I start by listening to multiple recordings of fiddlers.  I find at least ten recordings and listen to a couple of minutes worth of each- almost like scanning an article.  This takes about half an hour.  At the end of this time I hope to have a good idea of the shape of the tune, the key and the chord structure. I then take out my banjo and try to play along with my favorite recordings.  After woodshedding for a while, I then try to write tablature of the tune.

Finding Recordings

There are tons of great online resources.  I usually start with Larry Warren’s excellent site Slippery Hill. Within that site I start with  the equally awesome collection assembled by Walt Koken and Claire Milliner. Use the Find feature of your browser and search a word in the title of the tune.  Another great source is the Digital Library of Appalachia. Here’s an exhaustive page of links from David Lynch’s site Old-Time Music.

Shape of the Tune

I then load the tune into Capo, a program that slows the tune down without changing the pitch and let’s you set multiple loop points for listening to specific phrases. Other good programs are The Amazing Slow Downer and Song Surgeon.  Choose a phrase.  I think phrases seem to predominantly fall into four beat segments.  Four quarter-note taps of your foot will generally give you a good starting point.  Try to sing this phrase to yourself and notice the starting note and the ending note.  Once you’ve sung the starting note, what happens at the next pitch? Does it rise in pitch? Does it fall? Does it stay the same? Is it a hill that climbs upward?  What does it turn to head back downhill?  This process  takes repetition and lots of practice.  Like anything, the more you do it the easier it gets.

What Key Is It?

Old-time music recordings are often in one of four keys.  A major, G major, D major and C major.  There’s also a fairly common modal key that sounds like A major but is somehow darker.  Try to find and sing the note at the beginning or at the end of a tune.  Once you’ve sung this note, does the music feel “at rest”?  Do you feel that it could be the final note and that your ear is satisfied?  Musical phrases are often defined by tension and resolution.  The note that feels the most resolved is generally the same as the name of the key.  Once identified and I can sing this note, I then try to find it on my banjo.  Another good way is to sing into your chromatic tuner if it has a built in microphone and see the name of the note you’re singing.

Chords, Chords, Chords

In general when two notes happen in succession it is considered melody.  When two notes happen at the same time it is considered harmony.  When three notes happen at the same time it is often called a chord or a triad.  Each key has a handful of chords associated with it and these three-note chords are assembled from notes from the seven-note scale of the key.  In the key of G major I look for the chords G, C and D.  In the key of A major common chords are A, D and E.  In the key of D major the chords are D, G and A.  In C major the chords are C, F and G.  Other chords occasionally make appearances but the above chord sets are a good starting place when trying to understand how a tune works.  When listening to a repeating loop of a section of the tune I try chords from the key until they sound right.

Sing the Phrases

In many fiddle tunes the melodic ideas are organized into four-beat phrases that I like to think of as questions and answers.  These ideas or phrases show up multiple times in the tune.  I start by trying to sing one phrase.  Once I can sing it then I try to find those same notes on the banjo.  I look for two groups of eight or so notes that make up a single phrase.  At this point I also start to write tablature of the tune.  This helps me to understand the tune.  Phrase by phrase I follow this process and then play the notes on the banjo while listening to the looped phrase from the fiddle recording.  When finished I play the tune against several different recordings and make adjustments as needed.

Make the Tune Your Own

At the end of this several hour-long (sometimes days-long) process I hope to have a personalized, customized arrangement somehow rooted in the performance of several fiddlers that have come from earlier times.  A friend of mine the excellent fiddler Andy Reiner wisely said something to the effect that a piece of sheet music (or single arrangement) is not something to be held frozen in time as if behind a piece of glass in a museum.  Tunes are living entities that grow and change with time.

The process of listening to a series of source-recordings and then developing an understanding of the melody that you can then share with others I think is a time-honored and important process.  I think of it as a small adventure.  Enjoy the trip!

Tim Rowell           BostonBanjoTeacher.com


Bed Bug Blues CD Review

written by Linda Werbner

Hi-Tone Ramblers new CD
Hi-Tone Ramblers new CD

As Llewelyn Davis wryly mused about folk music, it’s never old and it’s never new. But the Hi-Tone Ramblers, a Boston-based string band, manage to make the 14 chestnuts on their stellar sophomore offering, Bed Bug Blues, sound alternately fresh and modern without losing that old-time charm. The minute the warm, honeyed notes of Little Sam come joyfully hurtling out of the speakers, you know you have found one of those desert island discs.

In addition to its pristine production, memorable arrangements, soaring harmonies, and top-rate picking by this quintet, what makes this such a winning recording is its protean array of styles from every corner of the old, weird America.

There are irresistible toe-tapping reels like Half Irish with breathtakingly bright fiddle work by Cathy Mason, a healthy dollop of country gospel (Sinner You’d Better Get Ready, The Soul of Man Never Dies), a dash of Cajun (Jolie Blonde), and a riot of Kentucky fiddle tunes (Hog-Eyed Man, Can You Dance A Tobacco Hill?). A spine-tingling Roundpeak tune (Chilly Winds) rounds things out. Some standout cuts include Chased Old Satan with Tim Fitzpatrick’s winning vocals which are witty and playful without being hammy and Bethany Weiman’s cello brings a full and rich undercurrent to every tune in this collection.

Even the packaging is perfect. Just try to resist the winsome and enchanting cover art—a transporting painting by Kim ParkhurstBed Bug Blues Cover of a moonlit hootenanny of fairies dancing with woodland creatures. Bed Bug Blues is one hootenanny you won’t want to miss!


I learned this tune after hearing and playing it a bunch down at Clifftop. Every year it seems as if a tune that was never on my radar pops up.  I go somewhere and it seems as if everyone is playing and what’s more, the say they’ve always known it.

A few years back on the Saturday before the “official” start of Clifftop it was raining and I ducked under the awning of Andy and Toni Williams.  We got to playing and this tune came up and Andy was ripping it on the fiddle and Toni was playing bass.  I made them play it twice.  The next day I stumbled into the camp of Marynell and Gene Young from Texas and then they started playing it, and yes, I made them play it twice.

A year or so later I awoke with it playing in my head so I finally did a little research, listened to a bunch of recordings then tabbed out a version myself.  This comes from Missouri fiddler Pete McMahan. He learned it from his uncle (the Sheriff) who learned it from an itinerant fiddler at a railroad station. Here’s a great link to the story:

Thank you Amy for playing guitar and thank you Chad for recording us at your excellent studio Juniper Sound.

Tallulah Gorge

Composed by Amy Colburn.    …”I wrote this tune a couple winters ago after a hike through Tallulah Gorge in northern Georgia. Tallulah falls used to be called the Niagra of the South, until 1912 when the Georgia Railway and Power Company built a dam there. The gorge is the setting for several legends and many epic adventures. What is left is a deep gorge that gave me a real sense of being a guest of nature. The namesake of the gorge, Tallulah, was a Cherokee maiden, the daughter of Chief Grey Eagle. She fell in love with a white hunter. Her father ordered the stranger thrown off the cliff, now called Lover’s Leap, and into the gorge. Much to the chief’s dismay, Tallulah leaped in after him.

In the evening, after the hike, I didn’t sit down to write a tune. I sat down to learn Sally in the Garden. Though I like the tune, I was having trouble and so I let it go and just started to play whatever came out of my banjo in that same tuning. What the banjo and I came out with was this tune. The low A part of the tune represents the deep shadows that the tall cliffs cast over the canyon most of the day. The high B part represents the rushing cold whitewater that winds through the gorge. I play the tune in double C tuning, which puts it in C minor. I like the low bass of C as opposed to capoed up to D. Guitar players seem to prefer C as well.”

Snake River Reel

I first heard this tune after being in an old-time music desert for about twenty years.  I’d lived in Los Angeles for thirteen years where the only place that even sold banjos was McCabes guitar shop. Cut to 1995 Western Massachusetts- I visited  the Fretted Instrument Workshop in Amherst.  They had about twenty spectacular banjos on the wall.  I played them all.  Lyn Hardy was very patient- she even pulled down a guitar and played a few tunes with me.  Before I left she directed me to a wall racked filled with old-time music on cassette tapes- I think I said “Sell my clothes I’m going to heaven!”

I bought two cassettes- one by Mac Benford I think called “First Half Century” and the other by the Ill-Mo Boys called “Fine As Frogs Hair”.  Mac’s tape has the best rendition of Hangman’s Reel I’ve ever heard.  The Ill-Mo boys recording has a ton of great songs.

I listened to these two cassettes till they wore out.  I was so caught up in the Frogs Hair that it was about six months before I realized that there was no banjo on the recording.  One of my favorite tunes Snake River Reel by Peter Lippincott….

Silver Belle

contributed by Amy Colburn

Silver Bell, also called Silver Belle, was composed in 1910 by Percy Wenrich, and was published with words by Edward Madden. Wenrich was from Joplin, Missouri but went to music school in Chicago and then on to New York. His biggest hit was probably “Put on Your Old Grey Bonnet” in 1909, though he composed many tunes and scored stage productions as well. You can read more about Percy and see the cover of the sheet music for this tune, featuring a beautiful Native American maiden and her suitor, in the article found here:
Here is the chorus:
“Your voice is ringing,
My Silver Bell.
Under its spell,
I’ve come to tell
You of the love I am bringing,
O’er hill and dell.
Happy we’ll dwell,
My Silver Bell.”
I first became acquainted with this tune by hearing Chip Arnold play the Will Keys two- finger index-lead version of the tune in double D tuning. I learned the three finger version in this video from Pete Peterson of the Orpheus Supertones. I like both versions very much. Bluegrass people also play this tune, and change keys somewhere along the line. I’m playing this one in the key of D with the banjo tuned in Drop D (aDAC#E).
Many thanks to Tim Rowell for his supportive guitar playing!

Stumptailed Dolly

Certain sights, sounds and smells trigger memories.  When I play this tune, I remember clearly when and where I played it for the first time: The Lake Genero Old Time Musicians’ Gathering in Pennsylvania.  Cathy Mason invited me to sit and play tunes with her and Jim Stanko and Paul Sidlick.  Listening to Paul’s gorgeous and tasteful banjo playing I felt hesitant to try and add anything to the mix.  He was gracious and inviting.  It might well have been the highlight of that weekend for me.

I like Kentucky fiddler John Morgan Salyer’s home recording of this tune from the early 1940’s.  Most people play this square both sides. On Salyer’s recording he adds an extra beat in measure 7 of the B part. Recordings of Salyer are available from Berea College.

How and Why the Banjo


Ome headstock

author: Amy Colburn

As far as I know, the first time I saw a banjo was on the television show Hee Haw. I visually remember Grandpa Jones and Roy Clark, but I have no memory of the tunes they played. At home, we used to listen to bluegrass on the radio during family dinner at noon on Sundays. I’m pretty sure that was so we didn’t have to talk to each other, but I liked the music and I didn’t want to talk anyway. Other than that, we had a record player, and an album that I used to play frequently called “Music of the Ozarks”. It was put out by National Geographic Society in 1972 (LP 703). There was some banjo playing on it, by a fellow named Walter Gosser, but mostly I remember Jimmy Driftwood’s singing.

The first time I played a banjo was in Chatham County, North Carolina. I had rented a small house on a dirt road to nowhere from an old farmer who always showed up riding his tractor. I was working  for another farmer getting up hay and doing farm chores. The banjo belonged to my friend Lyman, who also played a Guild 12-string guitar. Though he is talented, he couldn’t play both at once. His brother, my dear friend Loryn, played the fiddle or sometimes the mandolin. I wanted very much to play music with them. The guitar made no sense to me, and this particular guitar ‘drove like a truck’. I liked the sound of the banjo, and so I became acquainted with a longneck Vega. We tuned it in D, a lower version of standard G tuning, to blend easily with the Drop D tuning on the 12-string. I still play longneck banjo tuned this way. Loryn showed me a few tunes on the banjo. He didn’t normally play it, but he was one of those rare people who can play any stringed instrument. He taught me the only tunes I knew for many years: Worried Man, Banks of the Ohio, and later Soldiers Joy and Fishers Hornpipe. I remember sitting on the porch trying to play these crazy things called hammer-ons and pull-offs that were required in the version of Soldiers Joy that he taught me. I found it hard to believe that anyone could do that consistently. Sometimes I missed the string entirely. I’ve learned a bit since then, but continue to be amazed by the many layers of complexity and the subtleties that can be explored while playing the banjo.