This Blog has been all over the place as of late (well...maybe it always has) - however, rather than stubbornly sticking to some pre-determined plan (i.e. messing with "La Rotta" as promised here), it seems appropriate to use this blog to chronicle what's actually going on in my "banjo-life" from week to week. In that spirit, I'll be talking about the tune "Maggie Meade" this week - the biggest reason for this is that a local fiddler and I were filmed playing it on our lunch break (and its also one of my favorite tunes at the moment!):
"Maggie Meade" played by myself (on my Buckeye) and Molly McBride (on fiddle).
Great tune right??
While the Michigan weather allows it, Molly and I get together on our lunch break once a week and play some tunes. This is mostly for our own amusement but on occasion we get an audience - this week, Molly had a co-worker film us as a promo video for her upcoming concert at the 10 pound fiddle (details on that event here). I was flattered that she'd want me in her promo video, and I thought we sounded pretty great!
The tune we played here is called "Maggie Meade" - its a G minor tune from Kentucky fiddler J.P. Farley...and I just freakin love it! As with all of my G tunes, I play "Maggie Meade" in Old G tuning (gDGDE - more on that tuning here). If you read the post in that link, you'll see that the fact that Old G works for minor tunes is one of the "pros" I listed for this tuning. However, this "pro" was a bit theoretical when I wrote that original post - "Maggie Meade" is the first G minor tune I've ever come across! I definitely loved the tune the second I heard it and wanted to learn it at any cost - its especially nice to not have to retune for just one song so Old G was quite the blessing.
I decided that I'd write up a tab of "Maggie Meade" for anyone who'd like to add it to their repertoire:
A quick word on that tab: I had to jump around octaves a bit to make the thing playable in the banjo's range. Rather than falling in the "natural octave" for a banjo (which is, in my opinion, one octave below where the fiddle plays - more on that here), I mostly play in unison with the fiddle since this tune veers fairly low in the fiddle's range. However, there's a stretch in the A part (measures 4 and 5) where the fiddle jumps up, but my banjo stays low - to stay in unison with the fiddle, I'd have to jump way up the neck here....and I just don't wanna : )
Hope that anyone reading found that useful! To finish up, I'll point out that Molly and I actually did a second minor tune as well. Here's a video of us playing "Sally in the Garden" in D minor:
Molly and I playing "Sally in the Garden"....in a garden (well, quad)
other than a few subtle variations and a low harmony in the B part, I pretty much stick to Mike Iverson's tab of this tune (I talked a bit about his site here). Good luck with "Maggie Meade" - see you next week!
PS - if anyone has other favorite G minor old time tunes, please mention them in the comments section - I'd love to learn them!
This week I had planned to build on last week's post (here) and mess with the Medieval tune I learned from a fiddler at Clifftop, which I now know to be called "La Rotta" thanks to a helpful voice in the comments section (thanks Geoff!!). However, I'm playing in a wedding in a couple of weeks and I've got to work up an arrangement of a quite different tune requested by the bride. I therefore thought I'd take this week to share the process of playing another decidedly-non-old-time tune on clawhammer banjo.
Playing in weddings
Some people think that banjo is not a wedding friendly instrument - however, this will actually be the third wedding in which I've played banjo and they've all gone quite well! In my first wedding banjo appearance, I actually followed the bride down the aisle while playing "You are my sunshine," which was a particularly-special song to the bride's family. During the second wedding I played alongside a fiddle and guitar; we played a bunch of fiddle tunes while people were getting seated then played some pretty waltzes and slow tunes during various entrances. During the recessional in that wedding we also ripped through "Peace Behind the Bridge" which was a lot of fun (and likely a bit unexpected in tone for the audience : ).
During the upcoming wedding, I'll be playing during the ceremony and the cocktail hour that follows. For the cocktail hour, a fiddler and I will run through some fiddle tunes as background entertainment. While the tune choice for some parts of the ceremony is still a bit up in the air, the bride is sure that she'd like me to play a snippet of a particular song while she walks up the aisle. The song is called "Atlantic" and it's an instrumental song by "Sleeping At Last" featuring piano, drums, various strings, and even a banjo in one part (which may have been one reason the bride chose it for me) - I really dig it! To learn the song, I was sent a link to a youtube video, which I've embedded below:
Note - I typically shy away from putting youtube videos in these posts (other than those from Elderly or ones I made) but I think it's appropriate here; if the original artist or anyone else with claim to this music has a problem with this, please use the "contact" tab to let me know and I will immediately remove this video.
"Atlantic" by Sleeping At Last. Link to full video here.
Nice tune right? But how the heck do you banjo-ize something like this? Well, I'll show you what I 've come up with so far, then I'll talk through how I got there. Without further ado, here's my version of "Atlantic" for solo banjo:
"Atlantic" played on my Buckeye tuned to double C (gCGCD).
The banjo-ification of "Atlantic"
First off, I had to pick a tuning and I ended up setting on double C (gCGCD). Normally, I put C tunes (which this is) in open C (gCGCE) but I realized that my other most wedding friendly tunes (e.g. "Coleman's March") are D tunes, which I would play in double D (aDADE). Since I'd rather not re-tune during the ceremony, figuring out the tune in double C (and playing in double D if necessary to accommodate playing other tunes with a fiddler) is a safe bet. I think it actually works a bit better in double C, rather than open C, anyhow
Next I had to think about which parts to play. Theres clearly a lot going on in this song and I'm just one instrument - I had to make some choices of what to cut and what to keep. I decided to 1) start with a sketch of the chords that start the tune, 2) go into the piano riff that seems to be the main crux of the thing, 3) make my way to the banjo part (i.e. the part that is played on a banjo in the Sleeping At Last recording), 4) hit the piano riff again, and finish. I'll go through these choices below:
1) Sketch out the opening chords
"Atlantic" starts with a 2 chord sequence that I really like - at it's heart I think its an A minor followed by the same chord with the root note moved to a B (don't feel like getting together a formal classification of what that chord would be...). I just pulled 2 notes from each chord (E and A followed by E and B) and cycled between them a couple times. I decided to go at double speed of what Sleeping at Last did to match the other parts (before doing this the transition to the second part sounded a bit sloppy to me).
2) Go into the piano riff
This riff is likely what you'd hum if someone asked you to hum "Atlantic" so I wanted to nail this part. Theres a phrase backed by an F major chord which is repeated 4x, followed by a similar phrase backed by a C major chord that is repeated 2x. I cycle through this a couple of times, first without much harmony, and increasing the harmony over time (eventually strumming a chord at the beginning of every repeat of the phrases).
3) Make my way to the banjo part
The part of "Atlantic" that Sleeping At Last plays on banjo is pretty simple: just a few opening phrases and then the banjo player hangs on a high C for a while (and backs it with a C major chord). I was able to reproduce this last part pretty easily by holding down the 10th fret of the 1st string and putting some variations into my right hand choices. I may move my chords to 2 and 4 beats to match what Sleeping At Last is doing (right now I've got the chords on the 1 beat to match the other phrases).
4) Hit the piano riff again and finish
When Sleeping At Last returns to the piano riff later in "Atlantic" they change things up a bit - specifically, they add in a G major backing chord on occasion. Unfortunately, I couldn't get this move very smooth while maintaining the piano riff (even though I really like the sound). My solution was to repeat what I did for part 1 and then end on strumming a G major - I kinda like how this worked out : ).
As of now this thing is likely too long for a stroll down the aisle - I have sent a recording to the bride so hopefully she'll have some input on what to keep and what to remove. We may end up using this tune to cover all of the entrances (Bridesmaids, parents, etc.) as well, in which case it may be just right. We shall see!
Either way, I'm always honored to be asked to play in a wedding and I'm pretty happy with what I've got worked out here - hope you liked it too! Next week I've got some family visiting, so I may or may not have time for my "La Rotta" plans - stay tuned!
Also - hope everyone tomorrow's eclipse!
So, Clifftop was probably even crazier/amazing than last year but I was so exhausted when I got back last Sunday that I didn't even have a brief "back in town" post in me (also...seems kinda silly to only write a couple sentences anyhow). So for the first time in a year, I missed a week on the weekly banjo blog - my apologies to the readers but I'm back this week with a new tune/tab.
a brief overview of my Clifftop trip this year:
I camped in roughly the same place, surrounded by roughly the same people (mostly from Boston) as last year...which was just super cool. Great to have gotten a "crew" together and we had a blast jamming as in previous years. However, there were some new faces in the neighborhood as well, several Canadians, a Georgian, a soon-to-be New Yorker, and a guy from Utah set up camp right next to me. I learned a bunch of great new tunes from that group ("Molly's tune" from Snake Chapman and "Walk along John to Kansas" stick in my mind the most) and got to pass along a few as well (they really latched on to the Henry Reed tune "Texas/Newcastle" which I talked a lot about here).
Greg Galbreath, who built my banjo (here) gave a "Masterclass in Banjo Building" (in conjunction with Craig Evans who made the banjo builder series) which was really really great. Greg talked about some of his motivations behind building and showed pictures of how his work has changed over the years - dammit his stuff - especially his inlay - just gets more impressive by the day! It was just a real treat and a great reminder of just how special my own banjo is.
I played my version of "Yew Piney Mountain" (here) in the contest. I definitely got a bit of stage fright when mic-ed up, but still managed to get through it pretty well overall. I got a lot of compliments from those in the audience but no love from the judges - still pretty happy with how it went! The level of playing in the contests was super high! The amount of talent, on the fiddle stage especially, that didn't make the finals was astounding (e.g. Brittany Haas just killed it up there and didn't make the top 5).
Weather-wise, there was some rain, but overall it wasn't quite as humid as last year, which was a relief. We did get a full moon on a clear night as well, which brings me to the tune I tabbed/recorded for this week. The night of the full moon, after watching the band finals, I hiked out to a cliff face with one of my new Canadian buddies Cam, who is an astoundingly good fiddler in multiple styles. We brought our instruments and plopped down on the precipice to play out into the valley: he taught me a Medieval tune with 4 parts that was just crazy cool. A couple days later, after getting home, I think I've managed to remember the first 2 parts, which sound a lot like a fiddle tune in their own right - I have no idea what the tune is called so I've decided to call it "Cam's Medieval Tune" until I find out. In summary, what follows is a likely-garbled version of an excerpt of a fiddle tune that I've renamed - talk about the "folk process" at work : ). Hope you enjoy anyhow.
Cam's Medieval Tune
The tune is in D dorian (post on modes here) and again has been shortened to 2 parts with an AABB structure. Its not crooked though it does have some rhythmic oddities that force you to do a lot of "stride breaking" while you play - more on that later. Without further ado, "Cam's Medieval Tune:"
"Cam's Medieval Tune" (misspelled above) played on my Buckeye in double D (aDADE).
So - I have to undercut this recording a bit before we go further. First off, I chipped my nail at the very end of clifftop and after shaving it back down my tone is not at is best - to my ear it sounds a lot brighter and weaker than normal. This problem gets worse on the high strings. However, my nails grow fairly quickly so I expect to be fully recovered in a week or so : ) Secondly, I recorded the A and B parts separately (I kept screwing up the B part) and the transition is not exactly seamless - theres some strange noise between the two parts and the AC in my house definitely cut on when I was recording the B part...*sigh*...didn't really notice all of that 'til I'd already put the microphone up. Finally, hearing it again, I definitely lagged a bit in the B part. Overall, I guess the real purpose is to get the tune across and I think I've at least accomplished that here. If this is your first time hearing my playing, please scroll back through the archive to hear something a bit more listenable : )
I wrote out a tab for this tune for those interested in playing it as well:
Though you'll likely never come across this one in a jam, you can think of it in the "etude" category - that is, its a great exercise for learning technique. In this case, the technique is "stride breaking," which I discussed in a few previous posts (here and here). The stride breaking happens in the first and 3rd lines of the A and B parts. Most of it is of the "use your striking finger on 'and' beats" variety. However, there are a couple odd things worth exploring further:
First, look at the 2nd measure of the A part. The "4 +" beat includes an striking-finger stroke on the open 3rd string - no big deal except that the note repeats on the "1" beat of the 3rd measure. This forces you to do 2 strikes in quick succession (basically 2 quick 8th notes with your striking finger), which is something I've definitely never recommended before. This isn't the smoothest of moves - in fact, too many notes like this and it probably wouldn't seem like you're really playing clawhammer anymore. However, one move like this doesn't sound too choppy and theres not really another way to get this note. If the song went too fast, I'd likely just drop the first note and play the following descending phrase in stride (I'd likely also consider filling in the end of the 2nd measure with a bum-ditty or something).
Second, look at the 5th measure of the B part. The "4 +" beat of this measure includes an striking finger stroke on the 2nd string, followed by another on the 1st string. We've seen this move before, and unlike the 2 notes on the same string as discussed above, we can accomplish these notes in one move (as seen in figure 8 here). The difference is that the move starts on an "and beat" this time - double stride breaking!
Finally, I just thought I'd point out the chords in this tune. First off, though its a dorian tune (which indicates that a D minor chord would be the tonic chord), I decided to end both the A and B parts on an D major chord. Theres really nothing going on in these measures so I thought it would be kinda fun to play with the tonality. Also, I choose C majors for the 4th measure in the A and B parts. While this would be an obvious choice due to where the melody goes in the B part, an A major would be the "vanilla" choice for the A part. However, the C major works with the melody in the A part and has a bit more flavor so I went with it for symmetry.
Anyways, hope you enjoyed reading this and playing the tune. In the next few weeks I may re-record "Cam's Medieval Tune" and mess around with harmonizing it as well. To anyone reading, if you happen to know the name of this tune, (or rather the tune its based on) please let me know!