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 



I first played this tune with Canadian fiddler Glenn Patterson.  It was two in the morning and we were at Black Creek Fiddlers Reunion in Altamont New York.  I think I’d been playing for a dozen hours in the key of G.  I think the tune source was Kentucky fiddler Buddy Thomas.  Glenn said he learned it from a recording by Roger Cooper.

Every once in a while in the whirlwind of late night festival jams, a particular jam stands out.  For me this one was really memorable and still remains a favorite.  Glenn played a bunch of tunes that I didn’t really know but somehow they all seemed to work for me.  Over the next two hours we played about twenty-five tunes- I recorded most of them on my phone.  Some fiddlers present melodies in a way that just make sense to me.  I’ve been working on this one for a while and have quite a ways to go before I can play it smoothly.

Bell’s March

A great tune that I learned from the ‘Banjo Gathering” CD. The banjo is tuned “sawmill” or gDGCD. Tom Sauber played it on the recording and wriote in the liner notes that he learned it from “the son of a father who learned it in the Civil War.” The modal tuning and the march-like timing really gives this tune a great feel- I can imagine being battle weary and walking with a rifle in may hand when I hear this played. Here’s the tablature.

Cumberland Gap

A great tune with a lot of different versions. This one has 3 parts and is played out of double D tuning. I don’t remember where I learned it but a good 2 part version can be found on Bob Carlin and Bruce Molsky’s album “Take Me As I Am”. A really nice fretless rendition of the 2 parter can be found on Riley Baugus’ album “Life of Riley”. The banjo is tuned aDADE.

Shaving A Dead Man or Protect the Innocent

A cool tune that I learned from the playing of David Holt and John Herrmann. The banjo is tuned to  f#BEBE.  I’m playing this on a fretless banjo.  A good recording of John Herrmann playing this can be found on the excellent CD entitled “Banjo Gathering”.  John plays it together with the Leadbelly tune “Old Man Can Your Dog Catch a Rabbit” and instead of “Shaving a Dead Man” he calls it “Protect the Innocent”.

Angeline the Baker

I love this tune.  I think it is one of the first tunes that I learned to play on the banjo about 30 years ago.  I’ve played it probably a thousand times and I still find beauty in it.  The “B” part sounds like water flowing over rocks somewhere in the woods on the side of a mountain.  This tune is played out of the Double D tuning – aDADE.  The banjo used is an open-backed copy of a Vega style banjo with a tubaphone tone ring. The typically longer sustain of a tubaphone I think really serves this tune well.

Forked Deer

Here is a favorite tune, Forked Deer, played relatively slowly and simply.  One thing that makes this tune fun to play is the “A” part is in the key of D and the “B” part is in the key of A.  When playing this tune with other musicians the A part really drives you to the B part and then the B part drives you back to the A part.  Tunes that do that I find really fun to play.  One full time through the tune and your want to play it again with more abandon and after 5 or 6 times through the tune you really start to hit the “old-time music groove.  Some people call it the original American trance music.