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 


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.

One Man, One Guitar and a Song

I love it when there’s one person on stage with an instrument and a microphone. The artist is raw and exposed and vulnerable. After seeing a bunch of these shows, you start to get a feel for a performance that has the ring of truth about it. Recently I saw a really “true” performance. The artist’s name is Rich Podgur. Everything about him screams “authentic”- from his left-handed Guild guitar to his corduroy sport coat.

His songs have working-man imagery and feel. At different times I was reminded of other songwriters whose delivery also feels honest and gritty- like John Prine and Townes Van Zandt and Neil Young. Full disclosure- I’m trying to figure out how get hired as a sideman in his band. I feel like I’m getting a sneak preview of something really great. It reminds me of time when songs had integrity and life.  Good songs make us feel and remember and think- they take on a life of their own.  They have the ability to travel with us and comment and connect with us when we least expect  it.

I’m really looking forward to a recording from this guy.  I want the ability to read and listen to the lyrics and gain some new traveling companions.

How to Play in a Band

Before you start playing be familiar with the hierarchy of good band manners.

First, be in tune. Everybody’s uncomfortable when something sounds sour and is out of tune.

Second, play in rhythm. Groove with the bass. When in doubt, pause and listen for the next down beat. Play as little as possible. I’m not sure of the author of this quote but it’s made a lot of sense through the years “It’s not what you play, it’s what you don’t play”. The less you play, the easier it is to play on the beat.

Third, play the right chords. Do your homework and be prepared. Learn the chord chart before you come to rehearsal.

Fourth, learn the notes of the melody- they’ll come in handy at a bunch of different times and on different levels.

After you start playing follow these rules when possible:

First- Start together and end together. Beginnings and endings frame the song you present on stage. It’s the first and last thing that the audience hears and remembers. If these are tight, other “discrepencies” will be forgiven.

Next, when someone starts singing, play softer so that the singing is featured. Create a sonic support/safety net for them. The vocalist is is the most exposed member of the band- make them sound good. In general, build volume in the chorus.

Lastly songs are cycles of repeating musical ideas. Try to add something different each time you play through a verse or chorus or bridge. Something simple- an extra note, a different voicing, a rhythm motif. Add interest to the performance.

Be kind to your band members. Support them musically. Make sure everyone gets a chance to shine. Playing music can be as challenging as it is rewarding. We are at our most vulnerable when on stage. Make it fun for your bandmates and they just might return the favor.

Blue Moose at Fiddle Hell

Whenever I hear a live show that makes me either want to hang up my instruments forever or go home and practice all night, I know I’ve just heard something really good. Last Friday night I was at this great fiddle event hosted bay Dave Reiner and his family. It’s a three day fiddle learning event called Fiddle Hell. There are classes, performances, workshops and jams galore. I was lucky enough to catch a set by Blue Moose and the Unbuttoned Zippers. Fresh from their CD release party at Club Passim, their performance was tight, surprising and inspiring all at the same time. The band consists of Andy Reiner on fiddle, Mariel Vandersteel on fiddle, Stash Wyslouch on Guitar and Bronwyn Bird on the nyckelharpa (a very unusual type of Swedish fiddle).

Tim & Don & Ed & 3 Banjos

I know, I know. One banjo is bad enough. But three???
On the second Thursday of every month there’s an old time jam at my music school, Minuteman Music Center, in Lexington. (half-hour from Boston). It’s open to anyone who wants to come and I never know who’s going to show.

This month I was overjoyed to have Ed Britt and Don Borchelt walk in. These guys have played a lot of double banjo stuff together. I think that the first time we really played together was sitting under Jon Gersh’s canopy at the Harry Smith Frolic in Greenfield this past summer.

Well, we shared an enjoyable couple hours of music with a small handful of other musicians and at about 10pm everybody packed up and trundled off to their respective homes. Well, almost everybody.
Don and Ed had some more pickin’ left in them, so we played on and I pulled out my handy Zoom H2 recorder. Here are the first couple of tunes.

Chilly Winds and Greasy Coat can both be found on my Banjo Hangout music page. If you go to the site, be sure to find both Ed and Don’s music pages- there’s a ton of artfully executed and joyful music showing clearly what can happen when two old friends carry on a musical conversation.