I've had a couple weeks to noodle since adding a 6th (bass) string to El Hefe, my Pisgah-esque banjo build (posts on that here), and I thought I'd share what I've found so far in a click-baity "5 things you can do" format (....after all, this is the internet...). Without further ado, here are 5 things you can do with a 6th string banjo:
1) Play more fiddle tunes in their "standard" octave.
Before going further, I have to define what I mean by the "standard" octave. As an example: if you ask a fiddler to play "Cripple Creek" in the standard octave, their melody will start on the imaginary "5th fret" of the high E string of the fiddle. Similarly, a banjo player will start this tune on the 5th fret of the high E string of the banjo, but, due to tuning differences between the two instruments, the note on the banjo will sound 1 octave lower than that of the fiddle; as the banjo melody continues, it will continue to be one octave below the fiddle throughout. To me, this is the natural relationship between the two instruments: when banjos play 1 octave below a fiddle's standard melody, they are therefore playing in what I'm calling the "standard" octave; this is where I would find my default melody for a given fiddle tune, with low and high octave variations coming later. The exact range of the standard octave will, of course, vary by key so I'm going to avoid defining it further : )
However, the range of the 5 string banjo doesn't allow every tune to be played in the standard octave without running out of bass notes. I used the Clyde Davenport tune "5 miles from town" as an example of this a couple weeks back (here) but another example is "Dubuque," a fairly common D tune in these parts. To play the full melody in double D tuning, most 5 string players start on the open 3rd string and quickly run way up the neck, never touching the 4th string for the whole tune; I blame this tune for keeping my 10th fret dust free : ) However, with the addition of an extra bass string, my new 6 string allows me to play "Dubuque" right where it belongs:
"Dubuque" played in the banjo's standard octave on a 6 string banjo. I tried to go for that bouncy Dwight Diller feel....not sure I quite nailed it : )
You don't have to play every tune in the standard octave as I'm choosing to define it, but its certainly nice to have the option.
2) Join the fiddle in the low octave:
As mentioned in my low octave posts (here and here), I just love it when the fiddle "goes low" in the middle of a jam. In this situation, the banjo can either stay in the standard octave and sound in unison with the fiddle or try and go low as well. If you choose the latter option however, you're likely to find yourself running out of notes in the low octave for most tunes, though there are some filler options (again, here). But, the 6 string lets me play the low octave for most tunes in its entirety. As an example, here's a bit of "Angeline the Baker" in the low octave:
"Angeline the Baker" in the low octave on a 6 string banjo.
Still getting used to the low string...
The sound is obviously a lot like a cello banjo with one notable difference: cello banjos have "low octave" 5th strings as well. However, El Hefe's 5th string (really 6th string) remains in the standard octave. To me, this provides an interesting bit of contrast that you can't get out of a cello banjo.
3) "Complete the melody" on many standard octave tunes
(Kind of related to point 1 but) there are plenty of melodies that banjo players do play in the standard octave without being able to get every note. For many of these tunes, we've all settled on similar "filler" techniques for the phrases that go out of the range of the 5 string banjo. One example of what I'm talking about comes at the beginning of the the 3 part version of "Cumberland Gap" normally played in D. The fiddle starts the A part with a couple pickup notes that a 5 string banjo can't get in the standard octave....though a 6 string banjo has no problem:
2 versions of the A part of "Cumberland Gap."
Left: what 5 string players typically play in the standard octave; note that the banjo just sits on the open 4th string for the first couple beats since the lead in melody notes normally played by a fiddler are out of range. Right: a version of "Cumberland Gap" that uses the low 5th string of a 6 string banjo to play the melody notes that are missing from the version on the left.
Hear the difference?
4) Treat the 5th string like a 5th string : )
The long 5th string on a 6 string banjo, is typically tuned two octaves below the drone string (5th string on a 5 string, 6th string on a 6th string). The long 5th string is therefore interchangeable with the drone string at a moment's notice for a different sound. Here's a drone-string-heavy version of "Old Joe Clark" that drones on the long 5th string for kind of a cool feel:
The A part of "Old Joe Clark" played on the 6 string banjo, droning on the long 5th string (which is tuned 2 octaves below the 5th string of a 5 string banjo).
I don't normally do a lot of "double thumbing" so this short clip took me embarrassingly-long to get right....and I'm still not thrilled with how it came out (*sigh*). Moving on.
5) Put some random low "filler" notes into a tune.
Many tunes have a lot of melodic space to fill, which gives banjo players room to make some creative choices. There are a lot of space-filling techniques available to banjo players (bum-ditty's, double-thumbs, random hammer-ons/pull-offs) - below I pepper some on-beat bass notes into "Coleman's March" using El Hefe's added bass string:
Two versions of the A part of "Coleman's March" with low notes added in as filler. On the left is a standard octave version; on the right is an admittedly "schmaltzy" high octave version, in which the low notes provide even more contrast.
As you can tell, I'm having fun exploring 6 string territory....anyone else ready to buy one of their own yet? : )