Traveling to Clifftop!
I've stopped somewhere in Ohio to find some wifi along the road to Clifftop (getting there later tonight) and I thought I'd take a sec to post something about the instruments I've decided to bring and why. Here's what's currently in the back of my car:
The Buckeye (here) - Great banjo for solo playing, singing along to, or smaller jams/duos
El Hefe (here) - For bigger jams. Also, I've added back the 6th string (here), which allows me to play more of a "supporting role" when Im not the only banjo in a jam.
Bacon Mandolin (here) - I met some really great mando players last year and I'm hoping to get some pointers!
Baritone Ukulele (here) - for early morning/unobtrusive picking
I left my guitar at home for a few reasons: first off, its a bit big and I've already got 4 other instruments with me. Secondly, if you have a guitar, people make you play it! I'd typically rather play banjo so why even present the option? : ) Perhaps not the most "jam friendly" decision I've made.
For some reason, my music tastes on the trip down have veered far from Old Time. So far, I've listened to Modest Mouse, Belle and Sebastian, the Killers, Jeff Buckley, and Creeper Lagoon. Oh and the Fugees! Kinda on a journey down memory lane....but I think I'll have it out of my system by the time I hit the festival : )
I'll be back next week with some good Clifftop stories! If you're going to the festival, come find me and say hi!
While I'm still in the throes of moving houses (ugh...for some reason I thought doing this a little bit at a time would be less stressful), I feel a bit negligent for skipping the blog last week; I'm therefore making time for it this weekend. For today's post I'm tackling "the cluck," a sometimes-maligned percussive maneuver favored by many so-called "modern" clawhammer players (myself included). Let's get started!
What is the cluck and how do you do it?
Most readers of this blog likely know what I'm talking about already, but for good measure: the cluck is a percussive sound accomplished by the right hand (for a right-handed player that is...). The sound is something like a "chimey" click, like you're snapping along to the beat with a little bit of resonance (sound examples to follow).
As for how to do it - well, to be honest, while I can pull a cluck out of just about any banjo (in fact, I'm usually fighting to dial back my clucks), I have a hard time explaining how to do it when people ask. What I can tell you is that, while I play melody notes with my index finger, I cluck with my ring and middle fingers (kind of simultaneously). I have very short fingernails on those two fingers so its mostly skin hitting the strings, which may or may not be important. The motion moves across the strings faster than a brush and actually involves a little kind of twist/flick of my wrist. I also hit mostly the top 2 or 3 strings rather than all 5. If that's not enough info for you to get a cluck out of your own banjo, there are some really great tutorials on youtube (in particular one "rocket science banjo" video featuring Tony Spadaro) that can likely be of more assistance.
Things that affect the sound of the cluck
First off, setup matters. As readers may know, I'm pretty finicky about head tension (here) and banjos with properly tightened heads certainly have louder clucks than those with looser heads. The Buckeye (here) has a pretty wild cluck at a head tension of 90ish and above - in fact the clucks kind of dwarf the melody notes at that setting, which is one reason that I really like to keep the head dialed back to 88 or 89.
The other thing that really affects the intensity of the cluck is where you do it. The type of cluck that rings across an open field/parking lot/etc. for most banjos lives around the 19th fret. In fact, I got the buckeye scooped to the 15th fret just so I'd have plenty of room to hit this location with all of my might. There is a natural harmonic at the 19th fret that likely propels clucks forward at this locale. If you're having trouble clucking, you might try moving your efforts to the 19th fret sweet spot.
However, you don't have to be there to cluck - you can cluck over the head and further up the neck. Below, I've included a picture of the Buckeye and some corresponding sound files - I've marked out 4 places on the neck and recorded myself clucking (just a basic bum-ditty with brushes switched out for clucks) at all 4 of them.
Figure 1 - A picture of the Buckeye taken in the apartment I just moved out of (nostalgia!). I've marked 4 places on the neck/over the head that correspond to where I cluck in the sound files below. Note that these locations indicate where the cluck happens - my melody notes (i.e. the "bums" in the bums-ditty below) are played a fret (or imaginary fret) or two up the neck with my index finger.
Examples 1 and 2 - Over the neck clucking. Example 1 (left, above) is clucking at the 12th fret, while Example 2 (right, above) is clucking at the 19th fret. The 19th fret is my go-to spot.
Examples 3 and 4 - Over the head clucking. Example 3 (left, above) is clucking just over the head. In fact, I'm trying to play with my index finger at the head-to-pot joint and cluck just below that so I may have aimed the arrow a little low in Figure 1. Example 4 (right, above) is clucking about halfway between the head-to-pot joint and the bridge.
As you can tell, all of these clucks sound just a bit different. In general, theres a bit of a rounder/more-bassy/darker sound as you move up the neck, and a sharper/more-trebley/brighter sound as you mover towards the bridge. This is the same pattern that melody notes follow when played over the neck or towards the bridge and likely also has something to do with the harmonics/overtones that one finds at these locations. The clucks in Examples 2 and 3 sound pretty good to my ear but those in Examples 1 and 4 are not that usable (Example 1 is a bit weak, and Example 4 I find a bit annoying).
When to cluck
As I learned in a recent post on banjo hangout (here), when to use the cluck (if ever!) is a contentious issue amongst banjo players! However, as with most things banjo, this is obviously a matter of opinion and theres really no wrong answer about when to cluck.
My position on the matter can be summed up as follows: I freaking love clucks. The percussive side of the banjo is one of the things that attracted me to it in the first place and up-the-neck clucky playing is really one of my favorite banjo styles to listen to. I've also gotten to a place in my playing where my clucks are fairly non-optional - I don't really do a lot of index-finger brushing these days so I either put clucks or ghost notes where my brushes would normally go - I could likely work on breaking myself of this habit...but I don't wanna. I control the intensity of my clucks by dialing back my right hand force and/or moving around where I strike (as shown in figure 1 and the sound files above). That being said, clucks don't always play a huge role in my playing. For example, my version of "Yew Piney Mountain" (which I've talked about here) includes only a few (what I deem to be tasteful) clucks:
Example 5 - "Yew Piney Mountain" played on the Buckeye with just a few clucks : )
The anti-cluck crowd seems to think that clucks are either 1) over-used by many players or 2) non-authentic. In the over-use camp, some players tend to cluck on every available off-beat (i.e.the 2nd and 4th of every measure). This constant off-beat clucking is a lot like mandolin chopping in bluegrass, which I guess is the complaint people have about it. I don't actually have too much of a problem with this (in fact playing with a chop-heavy mandolin player is actually kind of fun) but I suppose I can understand the desire to keep old time weird : ). Some players would rather not emphasize the off-beat at all, and I guess these voices would be anti bum-ditty as well. As for the authenticity, I quibble with this a bit: while clucking may not be a mainstay of every clawhammer source recording, you can definitely find clucking in Fred Cockerham's playing...he probably got it from somewhere. Perhaps it is more prevalent these days and thats the issue? Maybe its something about putting Fred Cockerham technique into Hobart Smith tunes (for example)?
Overall, I think there's room in Old Time for a lot of different banjo styles - so I say put clucks wherever you like. However, you may want to learn how to keep them under control in case you get the stink eye for being over-clucky in a jam : )
As always, thanks for reading! Next week I'm off to Clifftop (!!) - hopefully I'll have time for a quick post first....
Taking a week off for moving
Moving is terrible...
This weekend was all packing boxes, transporting boxes, unpacking boxes, repeat. No banjo playing whatsoever and definitely not enough time to write a proper blogpost. Sorry to all reading - hope to be back next week!
Also, definitely looking forward to Clifftop in a few weeks - hit me up using the contact tab if you're going and would like to get together and jam!
Track 2 - Sisyphus' Hill
After another couple weeks off, I've finally gotten back to recording my "album" (here). This week's tune is one of the first fiddle tunes I ever wrote and its called "Sisyphus' Hill." Interestingly I've slipped this one into an Elderly video alongside some standards (as mentioned before, here) - that clip is below:
Me playing "Sisyphus' Hill" on an Ome Northstar; filmed for my side-gig as a banjo tester for Elderly instruments (still love every Ome I've ever played!). Link for full video: youtu.be/052xPB-Dm5Q
The way I played the tune above is the way I used to play it with my band back in VA...but I decided to give it a few tweaks before recording this time. The biggest change is that I ended both the A and B parts on a C# (both parts originally ended on an A). The song is mostly in A minor, but this change forces both parts to end on an A major chord. Here's the Audio file of my "album" recording:
"Sisyphus' Hill" - an original fiddle tune by Jeff Norman (me). Played twice through by me on my Buckeye tuned to aEADE; guitar accompaniment the 2nd time through using a 12-fret Epiphone Masterbilt in standard tuning without a capo. Tune and recording Copyright 2017 - Jeff Norman.
I think I like the changes but I'm wondering if the major chord is too gimmicky...opinions welcome in the comments!
A bit on the name: my buddy Chris named this tune in reference to the Greek myth of Sisyphus, who had to push a rock up a hill only to have it roll down again every day for eternity. Chris thought this was a good metaphor for fiddle tunes which (when played right!) seem to go on forever : ) We even named our band the "Sisyphus Hill Stringband" for a while but the reference was lost on a lot of people ("Is that hill around here somewhere?"). Best not to have a band name you have to explain so much - eventually we changed to "Happy Hollow Stringband" instead.
As for banjo stuff: Buckeye banjo, no recent alterations (it could use some new strings!), tuned to A modal (aEADE). Amazingly, I've only got 1 more tune to finish up the album...maybe I can actually push through to the end next week!
Recently, in an effort to escape real life, I've been listening to the "Get Up in the Cool" podcast (www.camerondewhitt.com/getupinthecool/), in which the host, Cameron DeWhitt, interviews (and plays duets with) Old Time Musicians, many of whom I've seen around at festivals (though most of whom I've never spoken with myself). As I mentioned in a previous post (here), one of my favorite episodes that I've heard so far features Brian Slattery (www.bfslattery.com/bfsCMS/), a man of many talents (check out his website...) one of which is that he's a fantastic musician. You can listen to this episode by clicking here. Disclaimer - I don't know Cameron DeWhitt personally, nor do I have any kind of stake in this podcast...I just really really like it.
I loved hearing Brian talk about how he associates certain tunes with certain people - in fact he says that he only learns tunes directly from other people (rather than recordings or sheet music). While I do sometimes supplement my tune learning with sheet music or recordings, I definitely attach tunes to people in the same way. In fact I probably wouldn't learn many new tunes if it weren't for hearing them played for the first time by someone around me. Lately my main new tune source is a local fiddler. Some of the gems she's shown me over the past year or so of weekly jamming include "Rock Andy" (from Snake Chapman), "Five Miles from Town" (from Clyde Davenport), and "Maggie Meade" (from J.P. Fraley). These tunes may come from different sources, but I'll always associate them with her. Really, if you exclude the tunes I learned in my early days of picking random tabs off the internet, pretty much all of my tunes came to me from somebody I've played with over the years - kind of gives them an additional level of meaning.
In the spirit of the Brian Slattery "Get up in the Cool" episode (again, here; the episode is appropriately titled "I learned this tune from..." hence the title of this blog post) I decided to learn a pretty sweet tune called "Lone Prairie" from Brian Slattery's playing. Before I go too much further, here's my recording:
Me playing "Lone Prairie" (or maybe it's "Alone Prairie?"...or perhaps "Lonesome Prairie?") on a nylgut-strung 1880's Buckbee banjo tuned to aEADE.
About the tune
As I've recounted before (here), I first heard Brian Slattery play this tune at Clifftop last year. I was wandering around listening to jams late one night and I found Brian playing fiddle alongside a cellist, a guitarist, and a bass player - the tune was totally mesmerizing and I stayed to listen until they were done (which may have been another 15 minutes or more) trying to hum along and save the tune for later. This was one of the occasions where I really regretted my choice to live my life sans smart phone (with which I could have easily recorded this jam). The tune faded out of my head far too quickly and I figured that I was never going to hear it again. However, months later I got to 34:23 on the aforementioned podcast and there it was!
In the podcast, I believe that Cameron DeWhitt refers to this tune as "Alone Prairie," a title I couldn't find much info about when I looked online. Brian says he associates this tune with the fiddler Jon Bekoff; he's only got one tune with "prairie" in the title on Slippery Hill (www.slippery-hill.com) which is titled "Lonesome Prairie" (and is definitely the correct tune). Whatever is the actual name, what Brian and Jon play is a squirrely/crooked D minor tune with 2 parts. At least I think its crooked...theres definitely some sort of strange phrasing in the A part; Slippery Hill also has a tune called "Lone Prairie" from Wade Ward which is a 1 part A modal tune, though it sounds an awful lot like the A part to "Alone/Lonesome Prairie." Perhaps this was the ultimate source of a tune that took a few turns through the folk process?
About the recording
First, the banjo: I've got my new-to-me/old-to-the-planet Buckbee (more on that banjo here) fixed up an playable; it mostly just needed new strings and a bit of a head tightening. I also swapped out the bridge and tailpiece...its the perfect couch plunker! If I get around to getting a less-substantial bridge (i.e. 2 feet and no ebony top) it'll probably be loud enough to play in a small group too - but for now I'm digging its mellow tone and I bet my wife's thankful to have a muted banjo in my hands : ). As usual, I recorded in Garageband with my Yeti microphone - no effects etc. (just wanted to get an honest picture of the banjos sound).
I made a rather bold decision to move the tune to a different key (Gasp!). To explain: when I play the tune in D minor (using aDADE tuning) I spend a lot of time on the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd string; I don't touch the 4th string at all. Like "Dubuque" you would need a 6 string/low bass banjo to play this tune in the "standard octave" (see my post on that here)...unfortunately, out of restlessness I've put El Hefe back in its 5 string configuration for the time being. Using Wade Ward's version as precedent, I tried it out in A modal (aEADE) and it works really great there. For now I'm content to leave the tune in A minor and slip a capo in my case (again, Gasp!) for the unlikely occasion that I ever come across this tune in the wild. It actually sounds kinda cool up high (I'd be capoing at the 5th fret to get to D minor).
Finally some self-criticism: I screw up a bit around 1:40 (note: the cool chord at 1:44 is intentional)...I just didn't have the patience to re-record today so I'm choosing to find it charming. Also, My tone leaves a bit to be desired as I broke my banjo nail (final Gasp!) this week and had to shave it down pretty close as a result. Maybe not quite long enough to get a great strike on those fat nylgut strings without skimming the finger pad; *sigh* the banjo sounded a bit more plunky a few days back.
Thats about it for now - next week I may talk about playing G minor tunes, or jigs, or clucking, or I'll add another track to the album. Havent yet decided : ) Also, I just realized I missed a significant anniversary last week: I've been doing this blog for just over 1 year at this point - thanks to everyone who's been following along! To all of my domestic readers: have a happy 4th of July! (and to any Canadians in the mix - happy 150th!)