This week I thought I'd write a short biography of my Buckeye banjo - my favorite object on the planet and definitely the one thing I'd save if my house was on fire (after my wife and cat, of course!). This is, after all, a banjo blog, and though I've talked a lot about playing banjos so far, I have yet to talk the actual instruments themselves. My Buckeye (like all Buckeyes) was a custom-made banjo and I had a huge amount of input into the building process; making design decisions on an expensive instrument can definitely be a little stressful so hopefully dissecting my choices here will be informative for somebody reading this!
So - lets start with the builder. Buckeye banjos (www.buckeyebanjos.com) is run by Greg Galbreath, an incredible luthier (and artist!) from Eggleston in Southwest VA. I met Greg while I was in grad school at Virginia Tech and I've always been impressed not only with what a nice guy he is but also what a great player he is. Over the years I got to play a few Buckeyes and definitely wanted one of my own one day. However, I was in grad school and thought that I'd better stay on budget banjos for the time being and I never put myself on the custom list (which would have required forking over a deposit). One day I read that Greg was no longer taking custom orders and I had to accept the possibility that I would never have custom a Buckeye of my own; my only consolation was the thought that perhaps one of Greg's post-custom-list-one-off's (which are likely to be amazing...) would find its way into my hands one day.
Some time in 2015, I was emailing Greg about a banjo setup question (nice to be friends with an expert!) and he let it slip that he had a spare neck sitting around. He was deep into the custom list and had just completed a tastefully-adorned 12" banjo (Buckeye #153). Unfortunately for Greg (but fortunately for me!) the customer had originally asked for a Dobson style heel on the neck (the more rounded-off variety) and Greg therefore had to make a new neck for banjo #153. I quickly said I'd be interested in taking the neck (affixed to a new pot) off his hands and he sent a picture of the banjo (in its original configuration), shown below:
Buckeye #153, with its original neck, which now lives on my banjo (#159).
Pretty stunning tiger maple huh? (pics by Greg Galbreath)
Greg mentioned that the banjo had one slightly unusual feature - the neck-to-pot joint was placed to shift the bridge ~1/2" closer to the tailpiece than would be the norm for a 12" pot. Apparently, the would-be owner was a classic banjo player who chose this feature to give the banjo a little more pop than your standard 12". I will say that until this point, it had never occurred to me to specify bridge position on a custom banjo. For the most part, it seems like many 5 string banjo necks are designed to meet the pot at the 22nd fret regardless of pot size - the bridge is therefore always the same distance away from this joint for a given scale length and ends up falling towards the middle of the pot on a 12" but closer to the tailpiece on an 11". In conjunction with physical pot size (i.e. the size of the air chamber behind the pot), this difference in bridge placement likely contributes to some of the sound differences people associate with 11" and 12" pots.
I almost committed right off the bat, mostly based off of aesthetics (and because I've never played a bad Buckeye) - I tend to like very little inlay and the figuring on the tiger maple neck nearly floored me! However, I calmed myself down and made sure I asked a few more questions first: 1) What is the scale length?; 2) Does it have a truss rod?; 3) What size are the frets?
1) Scale length - The scale length of the neck (the distance between the nut and bridge when its placed in the correct place) was 25". Most resonator banjos and many open back banjos have a scale length of ~26.25 but scale length was a little more variable early on in banjo history. Plenty of modern open back makers have settled somewhere around 25.5" for their standard models (I believe this scale length was often used by Kyle Creed). Though these differences sound slight, a shorter scale (24.5-25.5") give you some advantages: You can "tune up" to A/D with a little less tension on the neck than a standard scale banjo (assuming you use the same gauge strings for both). Also, you have just a little bit less reach between notes, particularly on the low frets, where I spend most of my time; this is particularly appealing to me given my reliance on left hand positions (post about that here). A 25" scale banjo neck sounded perfect to me!
2) Truss rod - The neck did have a two way adjustable truss rod. Proper neck relief is crucial to proper setup and truss rods give you the ability to adjust neck relief. However, many banjos do not have truss rods (they are simply solid wood) and many simply have a non-adjustable steel or carbon fiber rod inlayed where the truss rod would otherwise be. Interestingly, I have heard that both of these non-adjustable options provide perfect relief (just from string tension pulling the neck) and are quite stable. Furthermore, some people say that the installation of a truss rod actually creates the very problem it was designed to solve through replacing wood in the neck with something inherently flexible (i.e. the adjustable truss rod). All of this being said, I was used to having a truss rod and was therefore glad that the neck had one.
3) Fret size - The banjo had large frets. Many open back builders have moved towards using small "mandolin" frets and actually these are the norm for Greg - he had gone with large frets for this particular neck (perhaps at the request of the customer, or due to considerations associated with nylon strings - I'm not sure). Which size you like is a matter of personal preference. I feel that I have to push down just a bit harder to get a crisp note from mandolin frets, but many people of frets as little "speed bumps" for slides and therefore prefer smaller frets. The fact that the banjo had large frets (which I prefer) despite the fact that Greg doesn't normally use them sealed the deal for me - this neck seemed destined to find its way into my life : )
So, after hearing a little more about the neck, (and after consulting with my wife about our finances : ) I pulled the trigger! Given the fact that the neck was already done, I was in for a fairly short wait - probably the record between ordering and receiving a Buckeye! So...I had to decide on the pot specs. There are several decisions in here - I'll continue the numbering scheme above throughout this post (so I'll start at #4 here). Since Greg is a custom builder, pretty much everything was up to me. However, one thing I didn't really put much thought to was wood choice. Greg said he always matches neck and pot wood (though some builders do not); since the neck was maple, he suggested that the pot should be too. Easy enough - I decided to trust the expert here! Obviously, the pot diameter (12") was already determined by the heel-cut on the neck as well, but I definitely wanted a 12". However, I did have to decide on: 4) the rim depth; 5) the rim thickness; 6) the number of hooks; 7) the head type; and 8) the tone ring. Here we go:
4) Rim depth - I picked 3.5". This is far from a normal decision - most banjos fall in the 2-3" range from the top to the bottom of the pot and many people don't really think about this feature all that much. However, I am a huge fan of a banjo with a growling low end (I like the open 4th string to rattle my chest!) and I'd heard a couple of "deep pot" banjos played by A.D. Norcross on the Light and Hitch album and J.P. Harris on the Flat Iron Stringband album (both must-have recordings if you don't have them already!) that really blew my mind. A deep pot banjo is something most people don't make as a standard model so I decided this was my opportunity to have one!
5) Rim thickness - I went with 3/8". My thoughts on this were as follows: since the outer diameter is set at 12", the thinner the rim, the bigger the air chamber, (and in theory) the more the bass notes ring! You can go too thin from a pot-stability standpoint, but Greg said he'd had a lot of success with this size so once again I deferred to the master. Also, Greg was including an ebony rim cap on the back of the rim to prevent warping so I was sold.
6) The number of hooks - I initially asked for 12 hooks, mostly because I liked the sparse look of a banjo with few hooks. Most people (online) also seemed to think that this was plenty from a head stability standpoint. Greg actually had templates set up for drilling either 18 or 26 hooks on a 12" pot since these were the options available in a notched tension hoop (of course, we'd be using a grooved tension hoop). He asked if I would be okay with 14 hooks since he could use his 26 hook template and skip every other hook - totally fine with me, and this later turned out to be a bit of a life-saver decision....(keep reading). It should be noted that I picked "blued" hardware to match the tuners (and because it just looked amazing on that original banjo!)
7) The head type - I picked a renaissance head. This isn't a "big decision" because heads can easily be changed but I thought I'd elaborate a little bit. There is a lot of renaissance-head animosity out in the world, but I find that (in comparison to other synthetic heads) a renaissance head can really boom out the low notes with the right tension! Skin heads, of course, sound great too but I'm such a setup freak that I've always been a little terrified to commit to a head that can change tension due to humidity etc. Still...I may try one on the Buckeye one day.
8) The tone ring - I picked a rosewood tone ring. This is also fairly atypical decision since the "rolled brass" tone ring seems to be the default choice for many builders and plenty of people drift towards the more-powerful sounds associated with tuba phones and electric/white lady tone rings. Furthermore, the mid-heavy sound of the dobson ring is currently fairly popular as well (heard a bunch of great ones at clifftop!). It turns out that this decision would be rethought at a later date...(once again, keep reading).
I did make a couple of edits to the neck as well: I had Greg remove the plate that extended over the neck mostly from a practicality stand point (mostly because I've seen a couple of those extensions "bent up" away from the head - seems like a bit of a hazard). Also, I had him extend the existing scoop up 2 frets (to the 15th fret). This is a bit of a higher scoop than normal but I really like the ease it gives in hitting the "cluck harmonic" at the 19th fret with my middle/ring fingers, which always felt a little cramped on banjos scooped to the 17th fret. Also, my left hand rarely makes its way above the 9th fret or so.
So, we were off to the races! Greg was really cool about showing me progress pics like this one while the build was progressing....needless to say I was beyond excited!
Buckeye #159 in progress - look at that friggin pot....(pic by Greg Galbreath)
Buckeye #159 Phase 1: (14 hooks and rosewood tone ring)
When I got my banjo, it had 14 hooks and a rosewood tone ring. Needless to say it was jaw-droppingly gorgeous! When he posted pics on his website, Greg got email offers to buy it immediately. I believe this is the reason he added the "the following banjos are with their new owners..." statement on his "latest banjos" page. Here's how it looked:
Buckeye #159 phase 1 - 14 brackets/hooks, rosewood towering (pics by Greg Galbreath)
It was incredibly light, with a really sweet sound! Amazingly, though there was plenty of bass, the combination of bridge placement and pot size/depth resulted in a wonderfully balanced banjo. However, I suspected that a head tension adjustment could give it a bit more cut in a jam, so I got out the trusty drum dial and found that the tension was at ~84 (probably since the head was still stretching). I have found that most banjos really "open up" at the 88-92 range, so I got to cranking. At this point, one of the hooks near the tailpiece slipped right off the grooved tension hoop and took a chunk of it with it! I chalk this incident up to a clash between my aesthetic preference for a low number of hooks and my sonic preference for a tight head (in other words, this was definitely not the builder's fault).
I talked with Greg about what to do. At a minimum we'd have to replace the tension hoop (which once again, was now missing a big chunk of the "groove" where one of the hooks sits), but I was scared that the same would happen again. In the end, we thought that the best decision would be to increase the number of hooks (sound and functionality always outweigh aesthetics in my mind). Luckily it was easy enough to add in the "missing hooks" back in from Greg's 26 hook template and I figured I'd go ahead and get the associated notched tension hoop as well. So the banjo spent a bit more time in Greg's workshop before I got to play it again.
Buckeye #159 Phase 2: (26 hooks and a rosewood tone ring)
Buckeye #159 phase 3: (26 hooks and a brass tone hoop)
In the end we settled on a brass tone hoop; essentially a flat brass rod with a rounded top bent around the rim and set into the outside edge (i.e. not the standard rolled brass round rod that is a round ring which sits on top of the wooden rim). I had played several banjos with this configuration, and thought that the sound was like a more-powerful wood ring banjo; there wasn't a lot of additional coloring added (as would be the case for many other tone rings). Furthermore, the fact that the tone hoop hugs the outside diameter of the rim makes the vibrating surface of the head as large as possible (...bass!).
I don't have any additional pics because the change is beneath the surface (i.e. under the head) and doesn't make a big aesthetic difference, but I will say that the banjo sounds just great in its current, and final, configuration! I played it all through Clifftop to widespread praise (people say its "bubbly" sounding), and I'm just thrilled with the result. Its kept its core unique tonal character, but definitely has a bit more "bite" with the added tone ring (and a bit more growl in the bass notes!). Buckeye #159 is unique in so many ways and I'm definitely looking forward to spending the rest of my days with it. Furthermore, Greg was a lot of fun to work with and extremely patient through the hook and tone ring additions - I got to know him better through this process and I really can't imagine anyone not liking the guy!
Of course - I've always said it pays to have at least 1 banjo per tuning to place around the house and maybe a fretless to boot! Even with the Buckeye in my stable, I've still got my eyes on a couple of the banjos on the wall at Elderly....
To conclude - a quick recap from Montreal:
On Wednesday night, I went to a great Irish session at "Fiddler's Green" pub - I was solely a spectator since I don't really know the ITM repertoire all that well, but I had a great time listening! This is a weekly event and I highly recommend it. Unfortunately, I didn't get to hear any Quebecois fiddling since the local Quebecois jam takes summers off.
However, on Thursday I brought my banjo to a bar called "Grumpy's" for the weekly Old time/Bluegrass jam. I got there at 9:30 and didn't leave until after last call (nearly 3 am). It was phenomenal - the jam has a microphone in the center and is thereby amplified throughout the bar; amazingly, the patrons were really in to it! The level of musicianship was quite high - tunes were played fast, the rhythm was dead on, and some obscure titles came out. There was a also lot of singing and definitely some Bluegrass crossover as aforementioned but driving fiddle tunes weren't scarce either (you can cover a lot of territory in 5-6 hours!). I wouldn't really characterize this jam as beginner-oriented, but if find yourself at Grumpy's on a Thursday night and you've got some chops, jump into the fray and you'll have a blast! Whether or not you play, I highly recommend this as a stop on a trip to Montreal; probably the highlight of my visit!
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!
When faced with a new tune in a jam circle, a guitarist (or more rhythm-focused banjo player) will often ask "what are the chords?" I've always found this to be an interesting question, because it implies that there is one "right" answer; (as you'll see below) I think a better question would be "what chords do you play for this tune?"
However, you can't blame old time musicians for thinking in the "one set of chords per tune" framework: if you walk around Clifftop and listen to the same tune from jam to jam, most people have settled on the same set of chords. I think this is because our ears are trained to "expect" the same a sequence of I IV and V chords - these chords "feel right," which is comfortable, but they can also be viewed as "unsurprising." I personally love it when the rhythm section hits a chord (or sequence of chords) I don't expect in a jam - an interesting set of chords can really elevate your average fiddle tune.
Now obviously, I am not blazing new ground from a musical standpoint: jazz guys have a whole set of theory on how to properly swap out chords (...most of which I don't understand...) and you can find plenty of chord substations going on in Irish Music and Texas fiddling (among other fiddle traditions). Since old time music mostly sticks to basic triads (chords composed of 3 notes: a root note, a major or minor 3rd, and a 5th), the chord substitutions I'm suggesting are simply those that substitute one triad for another (for example, a B minor chord instead of a D major), rather than those incorporating "Fancy" suspended chords, or "jazzy-sounding" chords with 7ths, 9ths, 11th, etc......
Since Old Time music is fairly major-chord heavy, I'll frequently try swapping out the major chord of the key we're in (i.e. D major, A major, G major) for its relative minor (i.e. B minor, F# minor, E minor, respectively) at some point in a tune if I'm the only rhythm instrument around (for example, in a banjo-fiddle duet). I've been playing with a cellist recently who is also a fan of this trick; its really fun when I notice she's going that direction, and I love it when we land on a minor chord substitution together : ). As an example of what I'm talking about, here's a really fun set of chords for the B part of spotted pony:
Chords for "Spotted Pony" (B part only):
D D G G
D D A A
Bm Bm G G
D D A D
Most people play D majors where the B minors are (above), but the B minors really pop! As a tip, when I'm playing harmony, I play B minor in double D tuning (aDADE) by fretting the 4th fret on the 4th string, the 2nd fret on the 3rd string, leaving the 2nd string open, and avoiding strumming the 1st string.
Putting an F major chord into "Cold Frosty Morning"
The other night, I was playing at a local jam and "Cold Frosty Morning" came up. Of course this is a tune I've played a trillion times, and I thought I'd heard every interesting variation of it that I would ever hear - but the guitarist put a chord substation in the B part that totally changed the tune for me! Here's me playing a basic version "Cold Frosty Morning," if you're not familiar with the tune:
Me playing "Cold Frosty Morning" on a Bob Carlin BC-350 for Elderly Instruments
Link to full video here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=7CPOkQXDATU
Before I get too much further, I should point out that many people already use an interesting chord substitution at the beginning of the B part of "Cold Frosty Morning." Though the tune is in A dorian (a mostly-minor mode; click here for my post on modes in old time music for more info) many players will start the B part on an A major chord. This works because the first phrase in the B part includes only the following notes: E (open 1st string), A (1st string, 5th fret), B (1st string 7th fret); these notes are neutral in terms of major and minor tonality since they do not include C natural, (the 3rd of an A minor chord), or C#, (the 3rd of an A major chord). Therefore, either chord will work and choosing the A major chord is quite a nice twist! Of course, so much of this is a game of expectations: I've come to expect the A major chord, and now my ears perk up when I hear an A minor chord at the beginning of the B part : )
But this major/minor swapping was not what I heard the other night; rather, the guitarist at our jam really hammered on an F major chord, where an A minor chord is normally played, in the middle of the B part of "Cold Frosty Morning!" Here's a comparison of the two different chord progressions for the B part (with the aforementioned A major included for fun):
"Normal" B part chords for "Cold Frosty Morning"
A A A A
G G G G
Am Am Am Am
Am G Am Am
"Unusual" B part chords for "Cold Frosty Morning"
A A A A
G G G G
F F F F
F G Am Am
For the rest of this blog post, I want to pick this decision apart a bit, then I'll throw in some audio examples and talk about how to "suggest" this chord in your banjo playing.
First, lets look at whats going on during the 3rd line of chords in the B part (where the chords diverge, above). Melodically, this part is dominated by a fairly simple walk-up, which I've tabbed out below:
Walk-up from the 3rd line of the B part of "Cold Frosty Morning"
Notice that I've taken all of the chords out of this arrangement by inserting "ghost notes." I've found ghost notes to be a great way to de-clutter my playing, while keeping my right-hand rhythm going: to play a ghost note, I essentially strike past the 1st string (you can pretend there is another string there, or even lightly tap the head, if it helps) then let my thumb hook the 5th string in the same movement as I normally would if I had strummed a chord. Interestingly, ghost notes were something I started doing on my own when I didn't feel like fretting a chord, though I always thought it was "cheating" and when I would write tabs for people, I would put chords put back in. Then I took a workshop with Adam Hurt at Midwest Banjo Camp in which he formally explained this technique...and I got past my "cheating guilt" and haven't looked back since! Adam cited Mac Benford (of the HIghwoods Stringband) as a prolific user of ghost notes well.
Here's what this simple walk up ("ghost notes" and all) sounds like:
Walk-up from the B part of "Cold Frosty Morning" (Banjo only, no chords, 4 repeats)
As I've said there are two choices of chords that the rhythm section of the old time band may choose to put behind this phrase. The first (shown in the 3rd line of the "Normal" chords above) is an A minor. Here's what that sounds like (starting on the second repeat):
Walk-up from the B part of "Cold Frosty Morning" (Banjo with Guitar playing A minor - 4 repeats with guitar starting on the 2nd repeat)
The A minor chord "sounds right" here, but why? Notice that the notes of the walk-up (written in the tab above) are A, C, D, and E. The notes of an A minor triad are A, C, and E. When I hear the unaccompanied banjo the first time through, my brain knows exactly what is coming next: the A defines the root of a chord, and then we hit the other notes of the A minor triad accordingly (the D, a 4th above the A, is the only thing adding a little flavor to the chord). So lets hear the same thing with an F major chord behind it instead:
Walk-up from the B part of "Cold Frosty Morning" (Banjo with Guitar playing F major - 4 repeats with guitar starting on the 2nd repeat)
The F major chord was definitely not what my brain was expecting after that first round of unaccompanied banjo! The F major chord completely recontextualizes the walk-up; though my brain heard "root, minor 3rd, 4th, 5th" of an A minor chord in the unaccompanied banjo playing, the F major chord comes in and says "Wrong! That first note was a major 3rd! Then comes a 5th, a major 6th and a major 7th." I find this much more interesting than the A minor chord. Also, somehow putting a major chord behind that phrase makes it a little more hopeful in tone without being saccharine.
However, this is a banjo blog and I've spent a bunch of time talking about interesting things a guitar player can do behind the melody - how do you incorporate this idea into a banjo version of "Cold Frosty Morning?" First, we'll have to bring some chords back into the sparse arrangement I've given above. Rather than putting strums back in for ghost notes, I think its a little more tasteful to strum chords on the one beat: for example, to get the A minor back into the arrangement, simply replace the open 3rd string on the first beat with an open strum (...yes this is not technically a true minor chord since there is no minor 3rd in there, but my brain hears it that way in context...). Probably no need to tab it out, but here's what it sounds like:
Walk-up from the B part of "Cold Frosty Morning" (Banjo only with an A minor chord on the first beat)
So what if you want to put the F major chord in there? Same as above, but simply hold down the first fret on the 4th string to suggest the appropriate chord:
Walk-up from the 3rd line of the B part of "Cold Frosty Morning" with an F major chord included
Notice that I don't strum the 1st string to avoid dissonance. If you'd like a fuller chord, you could hold down the 1st fret of the 1st string as well, but I feel like its not worth the effort : ) Lets hear the above example:
Walk-up from the B part of "Cold Frosty Morning" (Banjo only with an F major chord on the first beat)
I like to hold down the first fret to let the chord ring a bit!
My advice on when to use chord substitutions like these: if you've got a guitarist, follow whatever they are doing or the two of you will clash. If you're the only rhythm instrument in the jam (or in a Banjo-fiddle duo) do whatever you feel! Also, its nice to use these alternate chords sparingly (maybe even stick to "normal chords" and just hit the F major once really hard during a tune to make it stand out)!
Next week, I'll put up a whole tab and audio example for this version of "Cold Frosty Morning" (and throw in another surprise in the A part)!
Yesterday I returned from my first week at Clifftop and it was utterly amazing! I was fortunate enough to have a fellow MI banjo player to camp with, and though we didn't have any definite plans we ended up being adopted by a group of amazing old-time players (and great people!) from Boston and their associated crew. My head is still spinning so its hard to organize my thoughts about the week in any coherent order so I'll just list some bullet points that may help future first-timers below:
Yes, it did rain several times - ...really, really hard. This is one thing I've always heard about Clifftop and it proved true. It was also fairly humid most days when it wasn't raining. However, it was pretty fun to ride out the rain in a good jam : )
Food is not hard to come by - My buddy and I were pretty concerned about going hungry but there are several vendors and even a farmer's market stand. Also, plenty of camps have big "food nights" - my new buddy Bruce generously bought everyone in our vicinity pizza one night and the nearby Texas camp was scheduled for "Frito Pie" night on Saturday (though unfortunately I left a day early and didn't get any...)
People play all night - Yup, bring your earplugs - I wore them to bed every night and I'm not sure how I would have slept otherwise. It seems like the most inappropriate time to play a banjo would be ~8 am when the last of the night owls have finally fallen asleep. The frequency/loudness of jams may vary with camp geography; we were in the moderately-mellow section (go down the hill and take a right at the basketball courts). It seems like the swampy area at the bottom of the hill (past our camp) gets pretty wild, while the area near the water tower (I was told its' called "geezer hill") is probably a little more tame.
People can be a little funny about claiming campsites - The area we were in (described above) was fine to camp in without stepping on anyone's toes but some sections have the same visitors from year to year; while there's no real mechanism for formally claiming space, its probably best to ask the neighbors before setting up.
Cell service/wifi do exist....but they're not perfect - Clifftop is remote. I had cell service but it was spotty at times. Also, there is free wifi in the main cabin but its not very reliable - I ended up driving into McDonald's (45 min!) one day when I had to book plane tickets for an upcoming trip.
There are plenty of ways to spend your money at Clifftop - Food, coffee, crafts, and an amazing CD/music tent, and plenty of instruments....seems like banjolele's were quite abundant!
Also, my buddy and I got interviewed by Noah Adams from NPR for a story about Clifftop. Apparently he was going to record ~4 hours of footage for a 4 minute story and our comments were unfortunately cut out : ) However, our twin-banjo rendition of "Spotted pony" survived - it starts at around 1:45 below (I think we sounded pretty good!):
Next week, I'd like to talk chord substitutions a bit - they're one of my favorite "tricks" when I'm the only chordal instrument in a jam, and they came up a lot at clifftop!