To mark the halfway point of my out-of-order 10 track album (more on that here), I decided to record the one non-original tune on my list, what I'm calling "Hobart's Breakdown." A bit of explanation: this tune is essentially the Hobart Smith tune "Banging Breakdown," which is so named because Hobart bangs on the banjo head during the tune. While the "banging" sounds great when Hobart does it, I always felt silly trying to emulate this part of the tune and took it out of my version long ago. However, calling a tune "banging breakdown" without the eponymous "banging" seems silly as well, hence the name change. I give you "Hobart's Breakdown:"
"Hobart's Breakdown," which is what I call Hobart Smith's "Banging Breakdown" with the "banging" removed. Played in aDAC#E on my Buckeye freshly restrung with light gauge nylgut strings and fitted with a fiberskyn head. Played AABB; Solo banjo first time through followed by a second time with guitar accompaniment (Epiphone Masterbilt 12 fret) - both instruments played by me (Jeff Norman).
I thought this tune would be fun to record this for a couple of reasons. First off, while you'll definitely hear Hobart Smith's "Last Chance" and sometimes "Pateroller" out in the wild, I never hear this tune outside of the two recordings of Hobart playing it (and a few youtube videos, including the one I shot for Elderly, below).
Me Playing "Hobart's Breakdown" on a Deering Goodtime Americana for Elderly Instruments.
Full video available here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=Veb70cJ-eo4
Secondly, in addition to removing the "banging," I've made a few other tweaks to the tune as well: Most notably, I've moved it up from C tuning to D tuning (I just don't have that many C tunes in my life) and I've squared it off a bit by playing a fairly constant AABB pattern (Hobart gets a bit loosey-goosey with the number of repeats). Finally, I've added what I think are some pretty cool chords:
Banging Breakdown Chords (both A and B parts):
Bm G D A
Bm G D A
Bm G D A
D A D
I used to play this with a guitarist for Duo gigs back in VA...which were a ton of fun (as usual I wish he was around to record the guitar parts - my guitar playing is imprecise and I don't let chords ring enough). If you look closely above, you'll notice the tune is just a bit crooked in that the last line is "missing a chord." This type of crookedness makes you feel like you're rushing to the next part - brings a bit of excitement to the tune!
Banjo stuff for Hobart's Breakdown
Maybe you've noticed that I'm getting a bit restless with the Buckeye's setup - during this recording process, I've gone from 2 tone rings to 1, switched tailpieces, and switched string gauges. This time I made a huge jump: from steel strings to nylgut; I also switched from a renaissance head to a fiberskyn.
The impetus for the drastic setup change was as follows: this past week I played banjo outdoors at lunch with a fiddler and brought my goofy little fretless along for the ride (sound file of that banjo at the bottom of this post). Amazingly, that thing was actually loud enough to hold its own in a duo (though a lone guitar would surely have overtaken it) and I played it the whole session with that banjo alone. Rather than its "fretlessness," what I really found myself digging was the ease of play of the nylgut strings and the plunkiness of the fiberskyn head. For funsies I spent a chunk of my weekend converting the Buckeye to a similar setup. I actually had all of the requisite parts in house: I've got loads of extra strings for the fretless, a spare fiberskyn head, and the Buckeye even came with an extra nut with slots wide enough for nylgut strings (random, I know). I'm not sure how long I'll keep it this way, but I've got a weekly duo engagement while the weather stays nice and theres plenty of couch plunking to be had in between - kinda nice to play a banjo that wont wear out your fingers (or nails...). While the volume leaves a bit to be desired, I've got Hefe for jams.
The tuning for "Hobart's Breakdown" is a bit unusual from my perspective: aDAC#E. The bluegrass guys use this for a variety of D tunes, (without a capo its often referred to as just "C tuning") and Pete Seeger relied on it heavily in his book as well. I play the Fred Cockerham tune "Roustabout" in this tuning; in "Roustabout" its useful for providing an open A chord if one avoids the 4th string, while giving a low D that comes in handy in the B part. From what I've read, Hobart played "Banging Breakdown" in C using gCGBE (rather than gCGBD) but I don't spend a lot of time on the 1st string so my tuning works just fine.
See you next week for another installment...
About this blog
I have lots of ideas about banjo playing and music in general - this blog allows me to get them all out of my head and see what you think.