I'm not embarrassed to say that no how many cool new crooked and/or modal tunes I learn, "Spotted Pony," for all its squared-off Ionian simplicity, will always be one of my favorites. Years after learning it, I spend a good 20% of my day whistling this tune without noticing I'm doing it; some classics get that way for a reason : )
However, people's opinions on simple tunes vary: I've seen plenty of eyes roll when I call this one at a jam. The consensus seems to be that the first 4 notes of the tune (D, E, F#, G, - also the first 4 notes of a major scale) strike many as cheesy/simplistic/heavy handed. If you share this opinion, fear not; I have 27 remedies (actually, many more...) to this problem! Before we go much further, lets make sure we're on the same page - below you'll find a simple "Spotted Pony" tab (I often use this drop-thumb-free version as a first tab for banjo students) and a video of me playing the tune (for Elderly) on a 12" Pisgah Possum:
---------------------------------------------Click Here for a Tab of "Spotted Pony"-----------------------------------------
Me playing "Spotted Pony" on a 12" Pisgah Possum for Elderly Instruments
For full video, click here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=ovjxcOZZFb4
The offending "A part walk-up" actually occurs twice per A part (measures 1-2 and measures 5-6 of the above tab); if you watch the video closely, you'll notice that I actually have several variations on what I play during each "A part walk-up"....and I was kind of holding back a bit in this video, likely because it was the first one I ever did : ) Since the A part is played twice, you actually have 4 chances to alter this phrase every time you play the tune through; this is a super easy way to add some pizazz to what some see as an otherwise-mundane tune. Today I thought I'd share some of these tricks so that you can employ them to fend away the boredom next time you face this tune in a jam!
Examples 1-12, the "standard" walkup and several close variations:
Figure 1 is the standard "bum ditty" version of the A part walk-up to "Spotted Pony" (identical to how its played in the tab above).
Figure 1 - my standard bum-ditty-style A part walk-up in "Spotted Pony"
The normal chords that accompany the A part walk-up are as follows: D maj, A maj, D maj, G maj (one boom-chick each so 2 chords per measure). Notice that I don't quite hold down the right chords in my version: I should hold down the 2nd fret of the 2nd string during the strum on the 4th beat of the 1st measure to properly suggest the A major chord; this is lazy banjo, but it sounds fine and I'm pretty sure most other people play it this way as well : ) I do make the effort to hold down the 2nd fret on the 3rd string to suggest the G major chord during the strum on the 4th beat of the 2nd measure; this is mostly because I do notice when people don't do this, and its also quite easy to do while maintaining the left hand position indicated in the tab.
Variations 2-5 also follow the standard bum ditty pattern shown in Figure 1, but eschew brushes for single notes:
Figure 2 - A part walk-up to "Spotted Pony" with brushes replaced by single notes on the 3rd string; notice that I still hold down the 2nd fret on the 4th beat of the 2nd measure to suggest the G major.
Figure 3 - A part walk-up to "Spotted Pony" with brushes replaced by single notes on the 2nd string.
Figure 4 - A part walk-up to "Spotted Pony" with brushes replaced by single notes on the 2nd string and 5th string pulls replaced by drop thumbs on the 3rd string (once again, check out the 2nd fret at the end of the 2nd measure - I find it easiest to start holding down the chord I use in figure 1 on the 3rd beat of the 2nd measure).
Figure 5 - A part walk-up to "Spotted Pony" with brushes replaced by single string notes on the 4th string (I put this one last because I'll elaborate on this idea a bit below...)
If you look at figure 5, you'd notice that we're essentially playing the walk-up notes twice in a row. We can expand on this idea and simply change where we put 5th string pulls for a few more variations (see figures 6-8).
Figure 6 - A part walk-up to "Spotted Pony" playing each note twice with constant double-thumbing (aka "bump-a-ditty" rhythm)
Figure 7 - A part walk-up to "Spotted Pony" playing each note twice with 5th string pulls in slightly odd places ("bump-a-dit__" rhythm?)
Figure 8 - A part walk-up to "Spotted Pony" playing each note twice with *Gasp* no 5th string pulls!
Though 5th string pulls are a hallmark of clawhammer playing, I actually find myself playing "Figure 8" fairly often in this tune - just kind of smoothes out the walk-up. Notice that you could insert some of the above 5th string pull variation from figures 5-8 into examples 1-4 thereby creating new possibilities!
Figures 9 and 10 rely on "ghost notes" (which I've talked about in a few previous posts like this one). These are a great way to "de-clutter" your playing while keeping the "bum-ditty" motion going.
Figure 9 - A part walk-up to "Spotted Pony" using standard bum-ditty rhythm with strums replaced with "ghost notes."
Figure 10 - A part walk-up to "Spotted Pony" with constant double thumbing and "ghost notes."
Figure 10 is an approach that I don't hear too much (Mark Johnson of "clawgrass" fame does some of this) but I've starting bringing into my own playing recently. The two uninterrupted "upbeat" 5th string pulls in a row work as an interesting, and kinda funky, way to fill space in a tune - I've actually put together a version of "Yew Piney Mountain" that takes this idea even further....I think this will be the subject of a future blog post so I'll leave it there for now : )
Figures 11 and 12 are based around a "Galax" lick, which is basically a slow brush that ends on a 5th string pull on a down beat. Its easiest to play these by holding down the "chord shapes" used in figure 1 with your left hand.
Figure 11 - A part walkup to "Spotted Pony" with a 2-string galax lick. The 4th and 3rd string notes are played as eighth notes on the on-beat and the up-beat.
Figure 12 - A part walkup to "Spotted Pony" with a 3-string galax lick. The 4th, 3rd, and 2nd string notes should be phrased as a triplet.
Galax licks are nifty.
Examples 13-14; playing the walk-up in higher octaves
The walkup lick can also be played in higher octaves. I've written these out using the "ghost note" approach similar to what is shown in Figure 9. However, you can combine these "high octave approaches" with brushes and/or thumb pull variations shown in Figures 1-10 to make a whole mess of variations on these ideas as well : )
Figure 13 - High octave A part walkup for "Spotted Pony" with "ghost notes." This will actually put you in the same octave as the standard fiddle part.
Figure 14 - Even higher octave A part walk-up for "Spotted Pony" with "ghost notes." This is a bit of a goofy move that I only throw in once in a blue moon to make other players in a jam giggle : ) My Buckeye is actually scooped after fret 15 so this high G is actually the highest note on my banjo.
Examples 15-18; harmonizing the walkup
These variations employ 3rds (2 notes up the scale above the melody) and 6ths (5 notes up the scale above the melody) harmonies for the A part walkup to "Spotted Pony." Once again, I used the "bum-ditty ghost note" versions similar to what is shown in Figure 9, but you can take some inspiration from Figures 1-10 for variations on this theme. As harmonies, these work best when played alongside at least one other instrument thats holding down the melody (they also turn heads in a jam : ).
Figure 15 - 3rds harmony for the A part walkup of "Spotted Pony."
Figure 16 - High octave 3rds harmony for the A part walkup of "Spotted Pony" (just an octave up from what we played in figure 15)
Figure 17 - 6ths harmony for the A part walkup of "Spotted Pony."
Figure 18 - High octave 6ths harmony for the A part walkup of "Spotted Pony" (just an octave up from what we played in figure 17)
Before moving on, its kinda neat to think about how these harmony notes augment the chords accompanying them:
The 3rds walkup uses the following notes: F#, G, A, B. All of these notes are part of the simple triad chords that back them except for the G, which is actually adds a flattened 7th to the A major triad that co-occurs in the harmony; while the goal of playing these notes was initially just to harmonize the walkup, I ended up adding some inadvertent flavor to the backing chords.
The 6ths walkup gets even a bit more crazy; the notes are as follows: B, C#, D, E. While the C# and D both occur in the A major and D major chords that back these notes, the B and E both provide a jazzy sounding 6th harmony to the G major and D major chords that back these notes. I tried this harmony out while playing with a friend this morning - I like it but I could see it being a little "far out" for the traditionalists : )
Examples 19-20; the chromatic walk-down
I'll say this first: I definitely lifted this trick from one of Donald Zepp's youtube videos (I think he was playing a 13" Romero). The second I heard it, I just had to figure it out for myself! Since then I've been peppering it in at jams and I almost always get asked about it afterwards. The chromatic walk down is pretty simple - simply start at D and, as the name implies, go down by 1/2 steps from there. The notes are therefore: D, C#, C, B. I've got the low octave (Figure 19) and high octave (Figure 20) versions of the chromatic walk-down tabbed out below. As with examples 11-18, I just put in the "bum-ditty with ghost notes" variation of the chromatic walk-down examples and you can add in strums, drop thumbs, 5th string pulls etc in line with examples 1-10 for a lot more variation! Once again, these probably sound best alongside another instrument carrying the melody.
Figure 19 - the chromatic walk-down for the A part of "Spotted Pony."
Figure 20 - the high octave chromatic walk-down for the A part of "Spotted Pony."
As with the 3rds and 6ths harmonies above, its fun to think about how the notes we're playing here augment the chords, with the added dimension that one note of the walk-down (the C natural) is actually not in the key of the tune (D major). In fact, the other notes in the walk-down work quite well: the D, C#, and B notes from the chromatic walk-down are all actually notes from the D major, A major, and G major triads that back these notes while they are being played; the C natural adds a flattened 7th to the D major chord that backs it, turning it into a dominant 7th chord. The C natural gives a bit of a "ragtime sound" to the tune and its definitely the note that sticks out in the chromatic walk-down. The fact that the C natural is not consistent with the key of the tune is irrelevant; as I discussed in my post on harmonizing cluck old hen (here), if a harmony sounds good, it is good!
Examples 21-24; Harmonizing yourself in the walk-up
As I mentioned in examples 15-20, there are some great ways to harmonize the A part walk-up to "Spotted Pony," but they sound best when played alongside the main walk-up melody. However, with some creativity, you can actually harmonize yourself in a couple of different ways. Once again, these are "bum-ditty, ghost note" figures to show you which notes to pick but you can alter them by varying 5th string pulls etc.
Figure 21 - The A part walk-up and the chromatic walk-down played at the same time! Think of this as a combination of Figure 9 and Figure 19.
Figure 21 sounds super fancy but its actually pretty easy if you stick to a single left hand position (post on left hand positions available here):
Index finger - 2nd Fret
Middle finger - 3rd fret
Ring finger - 4th fret
Pinky finger - 5th fret
Figure 22 - the A part walk-up and 6ths harmony played at the same time. Think of this as Figure 9 plus Figure 17 (though I've had to move some notes from the 2nd string to the 3rd string).
Figure 23 - The high octave A part walk-up and high octave 3rds played at the same time. Think of this as Figure 13 combined with Figure 16.
Figures 22 and 23 require left hand position shifts. I find it easiest to start in the position I suggested for Figure 21 above, then shift to the following hand position at the beginning of the 2nd measure:
Index finger - 4nd Fret
Middle finger - 5rd fret
Ring finger - 6th fret
Pinky finger - 7th fret
One more thing to note with figures 21-23: since you've got notes on 2 adjacent strings, all of these "harmonize yourself" phrases could easily be done using the 2-note "Galax-lick" approach shown in Figure 11...
Examples 24-27; grab bag of other random walk-ups I like
No real organizing principle here - here are just a few other random things I like to do with this walk-up : ) Enjoy!
Figure 24 - high and low octave walk-up double thumbing. The notes are the 4th string are meant to be played as drop-thumbs; usually I indicate this by writing brackets around these notes on my tabs but I forgot...and really don't want to go back to the scanner : )
Left hand position tip for figure 24: you could use the hand position I outlined for Figure 21 and bar across all the strings but this is a little bit hard on the fingers. I often play this using my index finger on the 4th string and my middle finger on the 2nd string - I just slide up for each fret I need to hit.
Figure 25 - High octave walk-up with a drop-thumb-infused roll pattern - notice that I hold down the 2nd fret of the 3rd string to suggest the G major chord (similar to what I do in Figure 1).
Figure 26 - the "Drop-thum slap" walk-up.
Figure 26 is also a head turner at a jam (though I'd advise using it sparingly out of tastefulness)! I basically play the first 2 notes of Figure 24, but really dig my thumb under the 4th string, pull it away from the fretboard, and let it slap back down hard. Kathy Fink does a lot of this in her playing and I just love it! Here I let the note ring out by not playing anything on the following on- or up-beats; I then take a short break from bum-ditty for these beats and use the time to get my hand back to the strings for the 3rd beat of the first measure!
Figure 27 - The "fret the 5th string" walk-up
Figure 27 looks a lot like Figure 6, except for the last 3 notes, which involve fretting the 5th string! This is a bit of a controversial move for some and one that I don't really do often but I thought I'd throw it in to point out the following: while we assume that the 5th string is always a welcome note in our playing, it actually clashes a bit with the G major triad (making a "2nd" interval) that is played for the second half of the 2nd measure. As banjo players, we don't actually have to stand for this! We can (and many, such as Ken Perlman often do) fret the 5th string to address this issue. Fretting the 5th string at the 7th fret (kind of like it's 2nd fret...) actually changes this note to a B, the major 3rd of a G major triad - problem (if you saw it as one...) solved! I find that the same left hand positions I suggested for Figures 22 and 23 work well for this phrase too.
Well, this turned to a bit of an epic blogpost so I'll sign off for now. Before I go I'll just point out one more time that you can combine a lot of these ideas together and easily come up with nearly 100 different ways to play the A part walk-up to "Spotted Pony" - see if you can avoid repeating a walk-up phrase next time this comes up in a jam!
Tomorrow night, I play my first Michigan square-dance (I've played few in VA, but never in America's high five!). Looking forward to giving a summary of the gig next week!