After taking a break from recording last week, I'm back to finishing up my album (here). This week's track is one of my favorite originals called "How's Your Courage?" The title refers to the question the priest asked me the day before my wedding - luckily, all was well and the courage department : ). Here's the tune:
"How's Your Courage?" - an original fiddle tune by Jeff Norman (me). Played twice through by me on my Buckeye tuned to aDADE; guitar accompaniment the second time through using a 12-fret Epiphone Masterbilt in standard guitar tuning capoed on the 2nd fret.
Tune and recording Copyright 2017 - Jeff Norman.
A bit more about the tune:
A quick listen should tell you that the tune's a bit crooked - in fact, its kind of hard for me to figure out whether or not the first phrase is a lead-in or the first note is the 1 beat....doesn't really matter all that much I guess. Assuming the first note is the 1 beat, the chords look like this:
Chords for "How's Your Courage?"
D G G D G G
D G G A A Bm F#m
D G G D G G
D G G A A Bm F#m
D G G A A
D D Bm F#m
D G G A A
D D Bm F#m
D G G
The tune could be thought of as AABB with a little extra tag at the end of the 2nd B part (the last line) but I just kind of wrote all the chords out in a row for simplicity.
Tuning for this one is double D (aDADE). As has become the pattern for this adventure, I couldn't resist tinkering with the Buckeye again: while nylgut strings and a fiberskyn head were a fun diversion, I got a hankering to go back to the standard Steel/Renaissance setup. I'm also back to a single tone ring and a no-knot tailpiece. While its been kinda fun to find the edges of the Buckeye's tonal capabilities, I always end up back at this setup and I plan on keeping it that way until a gig I'm playing in a couple weeks.
Hope you enjoyed this one - I'll be back with another installment next week!
Over the past few weeks, I've slowly been recording an album of (mostly) original tunes (more on that here). This weekend I spent my banjo time playing a couple gigs with the pretty shaky string band (www.prettyshakystringband.org) and didn't really have a lot of effort left for recording : ) Therefore, I thought I'd take a week off from the album and take this opportunity to point any readers towards a couple really cool web resources that they may not have come across before.
First off, there are a lot of sites out there that you're likely to have come across before including:
Banjohangout (banjohangout.org) - source for all things banjo
Mike Iverson's site (www.bluesageband.com/Tabs.html) - where I (and many others) learned my first bums-ditty
Slippery Hill (www.slippery-hill.com) - the ultimate searchable database of fiddle tune source recordings
clawhammerbanjo.net (clawhammerbanjo.net) - home of the "brainjo" banjo lessons taught by Josh Turknett
Probably no surprises there - but hopefully you'll find something new if you keep reading.
Note: I don't really know any people who run these sites (though I did see Bob Browder at a couple jams in VA) and I certainly don't have a financial interest in any of these websites - I just kind of dig them and thought I'd share : )
Banjo meets world (https://banjomeetsworld.wordpress.com)
This is a banjo blog (complete with lessons, demos, recordings, etc.) that is, unfortunately, no longer being updated. The blog ran from 2008-2011 and has been left up as an archive - I'm not sure I quite realized it when I was starting this blog, but Banjo Meets World definitely provided some inspiration. In the FAQ section, Cathy Moore (the blog's author) points out that there is plenty of material out there for beginners, and she doesn't add to that pile - the stuff she posted certainly qualifies as "next level" banjo. Really love her eclectic tune choices, her focus on strange rhythms, and her posts about volume concerns with nylgut strings (its all in the bridge!)
"Get up in the cool" podcast (http://www.camerondewhitt.com/getupinthecool/)
As someone obsessed with podcasts, I was thrilled to finally find one that revolved around Old Time Music (and its pretty banjo heavy to boot)! Cameron DeWhitt, who is himself a pretty great banjo player, converses and jams with a variety of Old Time musicians - plenty you've heard of and some you likely haven't. The podcast started in 2016 and, while I've yet to listen to every back episode, I've definitely heard some great ones so far. I started by listening to interviews with people most readers would recognize (Adam Hurt, Brad Kolodner, Bertram Levy) but some of my favorite episodes have been those with people that may be less familiar, including some I saw around Clifftop last year: Brian Slattery, Bach Bui, Ludvig Drevfjall.
As an aside: Late one night at Clifftop, I listened to a jam where Brian Slattery was playing this indescribably squirrely minor tune with a cello, a bass and a guitarist...it must have lasted a half hour. One of my big Clifftop regrets is that I didn't ask for the tune name - kind of thought I'd never hear it again. But, it was one of the jam tunes on the Brian Slattery episode!! Its called "Lonesome Prairie" (do yourself a favor and go find Jon Bekoff's version on Slippery Hill on top of listening to the one that Brian and Cameron do)...and its just as amazing as I remember!
This is Bob Browder's site about banjo building in which he relates a lot of the wisdom he learned by apprenticing for Mac Traynham (who also taught Greg Galbreath how to build banjos and is therefore my banjo's grandad). The page is both thorough and beginner friendly - really a great resource for any level player or builder (as is the companion book you can buy at the site). If you've got a woodworking bug, or if you just want to understand your own banjo a bit better, this is a great place to start.
Well thats about it - obviously this list is not exhaustive (can any list of 3 things be exhaustive?). If you've got other suggestions for interesting sites people ought to check out - feel free to leave them in the comments. Next week I hope to get back "into the studio" (HA! - its a couple of chairs in my living room, upon one of which rests a microphone).
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...
For the latest installment of my album of original fiddle tunes (more on that here), I've chosen to record Track 9, which was originally unnamed, but which now has been crowned "In a Jiffy" (explanation of the name in a bit). Here you go:
"In a Jiffy" - an original fiddle tune by Jeff Norman (me). Played twice through by me on my Buckeye tuned to aDADE; guitar accompaniment the second time through using a 12-fret Epiphone Masterbilt in standard guitar tuning sans capo. Tune and recording Copyright 2017 - Jeff Norman
About the Tune:
"In a Jiffy" has a standard AABB structure, and is played in double D tuning (aDADE). The A part starts in Mixolydian (reference post on modes here) meaning that I hit C naturals pretty hard in the melody. If you listen through to the second repeat, you'll hear some C major chords on the guitar as well. Here are the A part chords for reference:
A part (x2)
D D G G
C C A A
D D G G
C C A D D
A quick aside about my guitar playing in the A part: While A major chords are indicated above, yoll actualyl hear A sus 2 chords rather than A majors...this is less an artistic choice and more a "I really need to practice guitar more often" choice. To explain: A major chords are fretted as 002220 in open position on guitar in standard tuning...apparently covering all three 2nd frets is just too much for my dumb banjo fingers to handle this morning. Furthermore, my attempts to "cheat" with an index finger barre were also disastrous. Using an A sus 2 chord, which is fretted as 002200 was the only way for me to get a relatively clean guitar sound. Listening carefully, I think it actually clashes a bit and takes away the old time vibe. I'm just now realizing that I could have tried an A7 chord (002020) which may have sounded a bit more "old timey" and also requires only 2 fingers to fret....live and learn.
As you can see by the chords (and hear in the recording) the A part is also crooked in that its got a couple "extra" (but not superfluous!) beats. I'll admit, I just wanted a chance to plunk my open D 4th string...I play the A part of "Snake Chapman's tune" like this and its kinda my favorite part of the tune.
The B part was actually the first part of the tune I wrote and it mostly came out of a brain teaser for myself. (Not sure why this idea popped into my head, but) I wanted to try writing a tune where I used every note in first position on my 3rd string (i.e. the open string, and frets 1-5); importantly, I wanted the melody to sound "coherent" as well. This exercise made it so that I had to put a B-flat major chord in the B part....certainly another hurtle for my old time guitar skills : ). Here are the B part chords for good measure (the lower case b indicates a flat...not sure how to get the actual flat symbol on here):
A part (x2)
C C A A
D D Bm Bm
Bb Bb Bb Bb
D D D D
On the 2nd D in the last line, I wrap my thumb around the guitar's neck to fret the 2nd fret on the 6th string...bit of a gimmicky bluegrass trick perhaps, but I think it sounds pretty nice : ).
The only other thing worth noting about the recording is that I changed to medium gauge strings for the Buckeye. I normally use a custom set of 9.5, 11, 15, 22w, 10 that is about the bare minimum in tension for the 25" scale length to be playable but I thought I'd beef it up to a martin medium set (10, 12, 16, 23w, 10) on a whim this weekend - I love the sound but my delicate left hand fingers (and right hand fingernail) may not be able to take them for long : ). You can hear my struggles to fret them properly in the 2nd B part the first time through - I definitely flub a note just before the guitar comes in...but these recordings have been "warts and all" rough drafts at this point so I just kept it.
About the tune name
"In a Jiffy" is kind of a roundabout pun. I wanted a name that included "mix" to hint at the mixolydian-ness of the tune (yeah...lame, I know). Being that the tune was written since I've moved to Michigan, I thought it'd be funny (read "even lamer") to substitute "Jiffy" in for "mix" as Jiffy-brand mixes are a Michigan product. I've actually seen the factory from afar on a random trip to Chelsea Michigan. "In a Jiffy" sounded like a good enough name for a fiddle tune, so there you go.
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.