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.

Essential Old Time Music Recordings

I’ve often been asked what are good recordings to listen to. One reply that I often give as an absolute “must own, listen and learn” is the first Fuzzy Mountain String Band album.

This great album was recorded in two living rooms live to a a two track tape recorder and was one of the first albums released by the Rounder label in 1972 (ROUN0010).

There are so many things that I love about this album. The spirit in which it was made, the choice of tunes, the instrumentation, the totally shoestring manner in which it was recorded, the album packaging, and on and on. If you’d like to learn more about the musicians that made this and the various bands that were spawned by what was originally a gathering of friends getting together at local homes to play and enjoy old time music then visit the site of the original Red Clay Ramblers.

There are twenty cuts largely taken from the Henry Reed repertoire. These tunes were collected by the great fiddler Alan Jabbour. These tunes show up regularly at every jam that I’ve ever attended. If anyone wants a good place to start in building their own list of tunes that they can feel comfortable playing on, there could hardly be a better place to start.

Rounder combined thirty-three cuts from their first two albums on a CD release in 1995 (ROUN11571).

Some of my favorites from this venerably vinyl disc are Old Mother Flanagan, Magpie, Protect the Innocent, Frosty Morning, West Fork Girls, Bonaparte Crossing the Rhine, Santa Anna’s Retreat, Quince Dillon’s High D Tune. If you’d like to listen to me playing some of these tunes with my friends, I’ve posted a bunch of MP3’s on my Banjo Hangout music page.

This is a video of me playing one of my favorite Henry Reed tunes that I learned from the Fuzzy Mountain String Band album.

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.

Interview by Kathy Sands-Boehmer

Quick Q and A with Tim Rowell (Jubilee Mule)
by Kathy S-B · 2 September 2009

Who would ever think that a vibrant band of old time musicians had a very real presence in the town of Marblehead, Massachusetts? Having witnessed these guys in action, I can vouch for the fact that if it were not for the ocean breeze wafting through the windows or the sound of nearby Abbot Hall’s tolling chimes, you’d think you were smack dab in the middle of Appalachia. Jubilee Mule plays regularly at the Cantab in Cambridge and has developed quite a loyal following. You can read all about Jubilee Mule and see some terrific videos at their website.

What’s your definition of “old time” music?

Old Time music to me is American music from the Civil War up until the mid 1930’s. The stuff that I’ve been really interested in for about the last 35 years or so has been primarily from the southern Appalachian mountains and surrounding areas. It’s music that is strongly connected to a time when people wrote or played music as easily as often as we flip on a TV. The songs were written about whatever was happening at that moment — a crow landing on the fence at harvest time, the exploits of a traveling railroad man, the chickens in the henhouse, unrequited love and on and on.

As an award-winning banjo player, I have to ask — what is it about the banjo that rocks your world?

I’m not 100% sure. I can’t explain the hold that it has on me. I love a lot of different instruments and am always trying to learn how to play new ones — but when I sit down to play or practice I almost always pick up the banjo — much to the chagrin of my extremely patient wife. I find that the clawhammer style in particular has a groove and a drive that I really love and that lends itself to a bunch of different styles of music.

Tell us about your mentor, Steve Mote. What is it about his music that has inspired you?

Most old time musicians are closet ethnomusicologists. They love to learn about the tunes that they play and love. They try to preserve the heritage of this unique American art. Until I met Steve, my biggest influence was Pete Seeger and the way that he used music as a tool to bring people together. Pete said to me once that he was really a guitar player with a banjo in his hands and I think that his playing style totally reflects that. His banjo has a long neck with three extra frets so that it matched his vocal range and long limbs and could easily play in more keys with the same relative tuning. The style was really unique to Pete. Steve exposed me to the clawhammer playing style. He learned his tunes directly from the families of musicians in the Ozark mountains who handed the tunes and the playing style down from generation to generation. The first time I heard him play I felt like a was a witness to something primordial — like salmon swimming upstream or a river cutting its way through limestone.

How did Jubilee Mule become a playing entity?

I was driving through Marblehead during the summer with my windows down and I heard this great music coming out of this small art gallery and it was JP (John Price) playing the mandolin with someone. The groove was undeniable and I had to find out who was playing. I stopped the car in traffic and accosted him with my phone number and he called and we’ve been playing together ever since. There have been a bunch of different musicians who have joined us on various stages in the past eight or nine years, but the core of the band has remained with me and JP.

Do you continue to explore new musical frontiers with your own music and with the band?

Yes, absolutely. Right now the band is a really interesting mix of different musical points of view. JP has been playing guitar in a really interesting way that incorporates Irish sensibilities with dynamic rhythms and innovative tunings. His son, Ren, has contributing great rhythmic drive with a variety of hand percussion and occasionally bass. Tim Baldanzi is a really talented mandolin player and singer who’s playing I’ve enjoyed since first hearing him at play at the Monday night old time jam at Sandy’s Music in Cambridge. Tim and I first bonded while playing tunes in modal tuning or what we affectionately call “spooky tunes.”
Our newest member, Etienne Cremieux, has just entered Berklee and brings a whole world of hard driving and intricate bluegrass chops to the table. This musical soup has included everything from Civil War marching songs to Frank Zappa. I really look forward every time to sitting down and pulling out the instruments with these guys because I’m never really sure what’s going to happen but it has almost always been an adventure.

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.

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.