Last week, I talked about putting a little bit of pizazz (...surely thats not the correct spelling of that word....) into "Cold Frosty Morning" by putting F major chords into the B part where most people play A minor chords; click here to view that post. Putting an F major chord into "Cold Frosty Morning" was not an original idea on my part - rather I heard a guitarist do it when the tune was called at a local jam and just had to figure out how to mimic that on banjo. This week, I'll continue that tale with a bit of reminiscing from Clifftop (if you don't feel like humoring me here, I won't be offended - simply scroll down and skip the next few paragraphs for more banjo-centric content : )
***insert ascending whole-tone scale played on a harp to signal that a flashback is imminent***
As I mentioned in my "back from Clifftop post" (here), people play music nearly 24 hours at Clifftop: from around 9 am till about 5 or 6 am (yes there are a few oddly-quiet hours each morning where most are drinking coffee...or trying to sleep). By Friday night, after nearly a week of camping and jamming, I was just about spent. It was ~11:30 pm and I was wandering around in the dark doing just a little bit of listening before a relatively early night in bed. Passing the "impromptu square-dance shelter" near the vendors, I heard an amazing sound: an incredibly-loud mandolin noodling on fiddle tunes was coming out of the dark. It sounded so cool that my first instinct was to not disturb....but after a few minutes, I decided that I'd have to join in! At this point it should be noted that I've shamefully forgotten this guy's name - I'll just call him "Mando-guy" for the rest of this post.
Playing with Mando-guy was initially a little awkward - despite the fact that we were at Clifftop, I kinda thought he was a bluegrass player so I was trying to pick "crossover tunes" - I think we did "Cherokee Shuffle" (the bluegrass flavored version in A), "Red Haired Boy," and "Whiskey Before Breakfast" and I was trying to trade leads with him in kind of a heavy-handed way. However, I eventually realized that he was not a cookie-cutter mandolin player - when I was playing leads, he favored tremolo-ed harmonies over standard "chops" on chords, and he was definitely not afraid of a little exploration. Furthermore, he started calling old time fiddle tunes, and soon enough, we were starting to sound pretty good!
As an aside, it also turns out Mando-guy was actually playing a mandolin banjo (aka banjo mandolin, banjo-lin, etc) - a classic tubaphone that had somehow never been converted to a 5 string! I have tried playing mandolin banjos several times and simply do not care for the sound as a rule; I always thought that doubled strings just weren't meant to be put on a banjo body, but this thing sounded amazing! This is probably as much the player's fault as the instrument's - Mando-guy has likely found exactly the right pick attack to bring a sweet sound out of his instrument.
Eventually, we came across "Cold Frosty Morning" and I found myself playing a lot of rhythm so I thought "what the heck, I'm going to try the F chord trick I learned the other day." Mando-guy latched onto this very quickly - we started putting dynamics into the tune and the F major walkup section I focused on last week became about 2x as loud as anything else. Then, Mando-guy made a choice that in retrospect should have seemed kinda obvious: he started putting F major chords in the A part as well!
***Insert chromatic scale played on a mandolin banjo to get us back to the present***
In case you scrolled past my reminiscing, the flashback ended with a banjo mandolin player (aka "Mando-guy") I was jamming with introducing an F major chord in the A part of "Cold Frosty Morning" and me thinking "I can't believe I didn't think of that!" But why did I have that reaction?
To answer this question I'll start by pointing out that many simple fiddle tunes have a nice bit of symmetry to them: the A and B parts end on the same phrases. This device helps tie the A and B parts together into one tune, but this can be overkill on occaision - for example, as much as I love "Red Haired boy," the A and B parts only differ by the first phrase meaning that the last 3/4 of the A and B parts are identical (resulting in it a slightly monotonous tune). "Cold Frosty Morning" is a little more tasteful in that only the last 1/4 of the A and B parts are melodically identical. However, there is something a little more subtle going on in the harmony because the last 3/4 of the chords normally applied to the A and B parts are identical. To illustrate what I'm talking about, the "normal" chords (i.e. without an F major substitution) to "Cold Frosty Morning" are indicated below:
In fact, if you get rid of the A major for A minor substitution normally played at the beginning of the B part (once again, discussed in last weeks post on chord substitutions, available by clicking here), the harmonic accompaniment between the A and B parts becomes completely identical (i.e. it would be harmonically-acceptable to simply play the A part chords for both parts).
Since we talked about swapping the A minors for F majors in the B part last week, logic dictates that this should work for the A part as well right? Mando-guy gave it a shot, with less-than-stellar results (at first). Though I understand Mando-guy's logic here, the F major substitution that worked so well in the B part doesnt actually work all that well in the A part. To figure out why, lets look at the melodic phrase that begin's the 3rd line of the A part:
Beginning of the 3rd line of the A part of "Cold Frosty Morning" as its normally played on banjo;
this phrase does NOT sound particularly good with an F major chord behind it.
One problem with backing the above phrase with an F major occurs on beat 4: Here I normally do an open "A minor-ish" (actually root, 4th, 5th) strum, which would definitely clash with an F major chord. However, this is not actually part of the melody and we could easily replace it with a "ghost stroke" or F major chord, both of which were discussed last week. But this is not the main cause of the dissonant sound I hear when playing an F major chord behind this phrase; rather, it is the melody note on beat 1 (open 4th string, E natural) that really sticks out and ruins the F major substitution in my opinion. This is because E natural is only a half-step from F natural (the root of the F major chord). While my ears often crave the half-step dissonance of a minor third in front of a major chord in blues music (the so-called blue-note) and beyond, I really don't care for the sound of a chord harmonized with a note a half step below its root, especially in the context of old time music.
So what do we do here? My desire for harmonic symmetry makes me want to find room for an F major in the A part if I'm going to put one in the B part, but the F major chord clashes with the A part melody. The way I see it there are 3 options:
1) abandon the F major chord in the B part (....but it sounds so cool!)
2) let the symmetry of the A and B parts diverge (....don't know if I can handle that in the long term)
3) (*gasp*) change the melody to fit the F major chord in the A part
As you may have guessed, I went with option 3. I really wanted the F major chord in the A part and putting it in there wasn't actually that hard. I simply changed the offending E natural (open 4th string) to an F natural (1st fret 4th string) to get rid of the dissonant half step clash that offended my ear. Here's the resulting tab of that section:
Beginning of the 3rd line of the A part of "Cold Frosty Morning" with the melody altered to accommodate an F major chord. Also, notice the F major strum on the 4th beat.
So (brief return to Clifftop), after a couple of rounds of Mando-guy stressing an F-major chord in the A part of "Cold Frosty Morning" I came upon this solution (though I'm not sure I ever executed it flawlessly in the moment since you'll see that requires a bit of a hand position switch when you check out the tab below). Though some people may see my "melody edit" as blasphemy, I absolutely love this version of "Cold Frosty Morning" and I'll spread the F major substitution gospel by posting this tab for anyone who wants to try it:
Click Here for a tab of "Cold Frosty Morning" that accommodates F major substitutions in the A and B parts.
A couple of comments on the above tab:
1) Hand position is once again critical (see my post on Left Hand Postiions by clicking here if you're confused as to what I'm talking about). I normally play the entire A part of this tune with my fingers covering frets 2-5 (index through pinky), but obviously this doesn't allow me to effectively hit the F natural note on the 1st fret of the 4th string, so I have to switch positions in the middle of the A part (totally worth it in my opinion).
2) I spiced up the B part walk up that I dissected to death last week (once again, click here to view that post) by putting in Hammer ons to the fretted notes - not a big difference in effort but its a bit more appealing to listen to in my opinion.
3) (In case it wasn't clear) this tab is meant to go with a revised set of "Cold Frosty Morning" chords, with F majors substituted in (as follows):
Unfortunately, I didn't have time to make a video of me playing through this tab before leaving town (I'm spending a week in Montreal!) so I'll have to upload that in a later post. As for my trip, I did bring my banjo with me: I hope to attend a couple of jams this week and with any luck I can hear some awesome Quebecois fiddling!
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.