I thought I'd build from last week's post on "new" fiddle tunes (here) by discussing "new" Old Time recordings. A lot of people prefer to listen to "source recordings" of tunes and there's definitely something magical about hearing how these tunes were played before youtube got a hold of them. However, there are some truly amazing players in the world today and modern technology allows us to hear every nuance of every note they make. I get a ton of inspiration from "new" Old Time and its hard to deny that these recordings don't make a splash when they come out; standout tunes on a new album quickly become over-represented in festival jam sessions and you can even hear people adopting the signature twists from a recording into their own playing.
Today I thought I'd point out 10 great albums that spend a lot of time piping through my speakers - this list is by no means exhaustive and things that have been omitted are either missing due to lack of space (stopped myself at 10) or perhaps even due to ignorance on my part - feel free to suggest some others in the comments below! To cull the list a bit I stuck to albums mostly populated by instrumental fiddle tunes that one might play at a jam (though most albums inevitably include a few "singing" tunes/songs). Here they are - listed in roughly chronological order of release date (so I don't appear to play favorites : )
Technically, that ends my top 10 list and I could stop here without too much guilt : ) However, theres one more album out there that I haven't actually gotten to hear yet, but that I'm crazy excited about!! This is the new offering by Molsky's Mountain Drifters:
Hope anyone reading this found at least one new album worth buying : )
As Old Time musicians, we are pulled in 2 directions at once: First, we have a duty to the past; most of the tunes we play have been handed down to us over generations and we should treat them with respect they deserve. However, like all musicians, we also have a desire to express ourselves through our instruments; the simple melodies (and harmonies!) of some tunes lend themselves to transcendent exploration.
I think that I fall pretty squarely in the middle of these two extremes on the "tradition/innovation" spectrum; my goal in playing (and my favorite type of music to listen to) is "innovation that respects the Old Time tradition." I realize this approach isn't for everyone. For example, strict traditionalists would likely not appreciate me altering the melody of "Cold Frosty Morning" just to allow for an interesting chord (here) or dragging "Coleman's March" through all the diatonic modes (here) but I hope that its clear that I'm coming from a starting point of love for this music (also, I would likely never carry some of these experiments to a jam).
Where people fall on the "tradition/innovation" spectrum also likely determines their willingness to accept newly-written fiddle tunes into the Old-Time canon. While extreme traditionalists turn up their noses at "new" tunes, I feel that adding new tunes to the tradition is part of what keeps it alive. Also, past generations of Old Time musicians definitely had no qualms about writing new tunes: after all somebody wrote every tune we play at some point, then passed it around until it morphed into something that ended up on a field recording. While these recordings are incredibly priceless resources, the idea that the advent of recording should coincide with the end of tune writing in Old Time music never really made sense to me...
Many "new" Old Time tunes blend in great at Old Time jams: "Nail that Catfish to a Tree" was written by Steve Rosen of the Volo Bogtrotters, and he even maintains a website about the tune that includes a bunch of resources for playing it. "Road to Malvern" was written by VA fiddler Jim Childress, who included it on his album of original fiddle tunes called Turkey Sag (which is just fantastic!) "Sadie at the Back door" was written by Jere Canote of the Canote Brothers; according to their website, one reviewer said of them "Their songs have all the ring of cock-eyed classics." (to me, this is high praise...)
There are a ton of other "new" Old Time fiddle tunes out there in addition to those I've listed above, but the ones that are likely to last are those that can sit alongside "old" Old Time tunes (e.g. "Soldier's Joy") in a jam without sticking out too much; the writers of these tunes are all great old time musicians who respect the tradition and simply want to add to it - the tunes they've written borrow from Old Time tropes: "Nail that Catfish" is a fairly straightforward tune with a B part that starts boldly on the IV chord just like "Julie Ann Johnson." Similarly "Road to Malvern" is slightly crooked and "Sadie at the Backdoor" is a Mixolydian tune.
In their short lives, these tunes have already burrowed their way into Old Time to the point where you can actually hear plenty of variation in how they're played. For example, I arrived on my version of "Nail that Catfish..." by playing in VA and MI jams - I was surprised to hear the original version on the aforementioned website, which is quite different from how I've heard the tune played! Also, "Road to Malvern" was recorded by Jim Childress in 2004 (though I understand the tunes were "out in the world" beforehand) but the version that appeared on the Light and Hitch album, which I think came out in 2008, already had a few melodic tweaks!
As the title of this post suggests, I've written several fiddle tunes over the years, a couple of which I'll share below. Though I won't go so far as to say that these tunes are anywhere near as good as the "new classics" I've already mentioned, my friends have had fun playing them with me, and I believe that they'd fit in to an average Old Time jam without too much fuss. My ultimate dream would be to have the experience that Steve Rosen, Jim Childress, and Jere Canote have likely had several times: to walk around a festival and hear a tune you wrote being played at a jam in the distance, perhaps being tweaked in a way you'd never thought of : ) I wrote both of these tunes sometime around 2010-2011, while living in southwest VA.
Cheese and Krackers
This is a 2 part Crooked D tune and is probably the most popular tune I've written amongst my friends and former bandmates. Its named after two people I know who used to hang out together all the time, and who's last names sounded kinda like the words "Cheese" and "Crackers"....only the second person's last name started with a "K," hence the funny spelling : ) Also, I just like Cheese and Crackers (mostly Cheese).
The recording below is me on banjo with two VA folks on fiddle and guitar. It was recorded before the wedding ceremony of two other VA old time musicians as part of the tune list they'd requested (crazy, crazy, crazy flattered to have this one included in someone's wedding!!). I am playing my buddy's spunover 12" Brooks Masten banjo with a thick skin head - its still one of the best sounding banjos I've ever played, and its hpyer-plunky tone is especially great for small group playing.
"Cheese and Krackers" played with a couple of friends at the wedding of another couple of friends.
(thats me on a Brooks Masten banjo)
This is a 2 part modal tune (in that it's played in A modal tuning, though its actually solidly in A minor/aeolian). Like many Old Time Tunes, the A and B parts only differ by the opening phrase. I asked my buddy for a tune name and he reached for the Greek Myth of Sisyphus pushing his stone up the hill as a tongue-in-cheek metaphor for the repetitiveness of Old Time music in general. In fact, the precursor name for the Happy Hollow String Band (the band I played with in VA) was actually the Sisyphus Hill String Band, but "Happy Hollow" prompted less explanation was just a little easier to say in the end : )
This tune made it into an Elderly video - I was playing on an OME Northstar....just a great sounding banjo!
Me playing my original tune "Sisyphus Hill" on an OME Northstar.
Link to full video: www.youtube.com/watch?v=052xPB-Dm5Q
I even got an email once where someone was asking for the source of this tune after watching this video, which kinda made my day : ) Hope you enjoyed those tunes - I've definitely got a few more originals up my sleeve and I may try to get some tabs up for all of them in the future!
This week I thought I'd discuss what I consider to be the most important piece of banjo setup: proper head tension. There are a lot of people out there who have likely never adjusted their banjo's head tension but I take the opposite approach: I typically check my head tension every couple of weeks (yes, synthetic heads do fluctuate on occasion) and consider head tension maintenance to be a non-optional piece of overall banjo maintenance. Later in this post, I'll post sound files of the Buckeye at different head tensions to demonstrate how important it is for proper sound, but first lets discuss the basics:
How do you check and adjust head tension?
One oft-quoted approach to checking head tension is as follows: "if the banjo sounds good, the head tension is correct." Obviously this is true; however this approach is not all that useful for diagnostic purposes: For instance, what if the banjo doesn't sound good on day? Is the head tension the issue or is there another reason? If the head tension is the issue, does the head need to be tightened or loosened? I prefer to use a more-objective method of measuring head tension when the banjo does sound good, then I know if/how the head tension should be adjusted when the banjo doesn't sound good. Some commonly used objective methods to measure head tension are as follows:
1) Tap tuning the head - Basically you mute the strings, tap the head, and listen for a note. I'll admit that I'm terrible at hearing the note here - I can usually convince myself that the head is ringing at several different notes. I read a recent post on banjo hangout where someone was claiming that the note we're looking for is actually a low frequency note that is outside the hearing range of many people (caveat, I have done absolutely no research into the truthfulness of this claim). I can tell you that this particular approach doesn't work well for me - however I will revisit tap tuning (with some audio!) later in this post. If you can hear the note, most people say a banjo head should be tuned to G# using the "tap tuning" approach.
2) The ruler/straightedge method - This method measures bridge displacement as a proxy for banjo head tension. The logic of this approach is as follows: the pressure of the strings will push the bridge downward into the banjo head; this displacement will be greater on a looser head than it is on a tighter head; there is a "goldilocks level" of bridge displacement indicative of the head tension at which the banjo sounds best. There are details of this method on banjo hangout, but the procedure is basically as follows: get a straightedge (I think they specify a 10" straightedge) and lay it across the head next to one foot of the bridge. Most people recommend that you should be able to slide a quarter under the straightedge next to the bridge. This seems to be the recommendation for an 11" banjo and I have no idea what the "ideal tension" for a 12" banjo would be using this method (less then a quarter? more?). Also, its a little problematic to me that string tension and tailpiece tension could affect bridge displacement as well; still this is a very quick and easy measurement and maybe I'll look into something similar in the future.
3) The torque wrench method - This method measures the tension on each hook as a gauge for head tension using a tool called a torque wrench. The logic here is that tighter hooks mean a tighter head and looser hooks mean a looser head. This may be true on average but it doesn't allow for friction differences between hooks (maybe one nut just fits a little better than another?). Also, it seems like the ideal amount of tension you're going for should depend on how many hooks you have so I'm not sure what to do with recommended values for the torque wrench method on my 26-hook buckeye.
4) The Drum Dial - This is my preferred method for checking head tension. The drum dial is a piece of equipment that, as the name suggests, is commonly used by drummers; since a banjo is basically a drum with a neck on it, the drum dial works great for our purposes as well. If you lift up the drum dial you can see that there is a little piece of metal sticking out the bottom; this piece of metal is connected to a spring and if you push it in with your finger the number on the dial changes. Basically, the drum dial measures resistance against this little piece of metal sticking out the bottom. If you put the drum dial on a banjo (or drum) head, it will display a number greater than 0 which is positively correlated with head tension (the higher the number, the more tension in the head). To me this is advantageous because you're directly measuring head tension rather than a proxy for head tension. Most discussions recommend drum dial tensions between 90 and 92.
More on the drum dial:
(Note that there are plenty of videos about using the drum dial as well, many of which are likely more informative...but here I go).
To use the drum dial, first it must be "zeroed" by placing it on a hard surface and making sure it measures zero (really, this is a measuring of "100" - the dial goes all the way around the circle to get back to zero). When I say a hard surface, I mean a really hard surface: metal is best though I have hard tile coasters I normally use. My coffee table is a little too soft (it will measure more than zero even when the dial says zero sitting on my coaster); my coffee table is not the highest quality wood however : ). If the hard surface doesn't measure zero, turn the dial on the front of the drum dial until it does (you're basically adjusting the whole scale of the drum dial to set the new 0/100 value is by doing this).
Next you're ready to place the drum dial on your banjo head (about 1" from the edge - there is a gauge that comes with the Drum dial for this) and see what it says; this process should be done with the strings on the banjo. My drum dial is a bit old and often has to be wiggled a little bit to settle on the correct number. Measure the tension at 6 to 8 points around the head; hooks can be tightened or loosened to achieve the correct tension in a given region - ideally head tension will be even everywhere you measure. A quick tip for overall hook tightening (e.g. changing head tension from 89 to 90): some people will say that hooks should be adjusted in a star pattern or something similar - The buckeye has 26 hooks and I'd likely screw that up...I simply go hook by hook in order to adjust tension, usually not turning each hook more than 1/4 turn, and I've talked to several builders who use the same approach.
But what drum dial reading is best for a 12" banjo? As mentioned above, most people on Banjo Hangout say the best sound is somewhere between 90 and 92 (as an aside, they say this correlates to a head tuned to G#); however most of these people are playing 11" resonator banjos. I had a 11" white lady banjo that sounded phenomenal at 89 but really "choked up" and lost bass notes at values of 90 or more.
Would we expect a 12" pot to need a looser or tighter head than an 11" pot? It seems like a banjo head should work like a banjo string: just as a thicker string needs more tension to make the same note as a thinner string, a bigger banjo head should actually require more tension to make the same "resonance frequency" as a smaller head. However, that approach assumes that a 12" pot should have the same resonance frequency as an 11" inch pot - perhaps the larger chamber of a 12" pot really "opens up" at a lower resonance frequency? I bought a 12" banjo for increased bass response over an 11" banjo; perhaps I should adjust the head tension towards more bass than I would want for an 11"?
So many questions.....the only way to answer them is to go into the lab!
Testing different head tensions on the Buckeye
To figure out the "perfect" head tension for my 12" banjo (post about my Buckeye available by clicking here), I cranked the head to even tensions of 84, 86, 88, 90, and 92 as measured by my drum dial (once again, with the strings on). This is a pretty wide range of tensions so I'm pretty sure the right answer is in that range somewhere : ) I tuned the banjo to double D (aDADE), mostly because this is the tuning that I spend most of my time in, and played through both a 2 octave D major scale and an "AB" version of "Spotted Pony" at each tension. Also, I am a big proponent of head stuffing to kill overtones (yes, this is blasphemy to some!) so all of the audio files below are played with a small folded over rag stuffed between the dowel stick and head at the top of the pot (where the neck meets the pot). Finally, the banjo has a no knot tailpiece and renaissance head (just FYI).
How do I know which tension is right? What I'm looking for is a good balance of "booming bass" and "cut" (mid-range tones that would allow the banjo to be heard in a group). I used a cluck-heavy version of spotted pony because I also wanted to see how head tension affects cluck. On to the results!
Head tension 1 - Drum Dial reading of 84
2 octave D major scale (left) and "Spotted Pony" (right) played on the Buckeye
with a head tension of 84 as measured by the Drum Dial
Comments: The open 4th string sounded crazy boomy at this head tension, which I loved...but it was really hard to bring out the cluck and the high notes sounded "warbly" rather than clear. Definitely sure this is too low of a tension value...
Head tension 2 - Drum Dial reading of 86:
2 octave D major scale (left) and "Spotted Pony" (right) played on the Buckeye
with a head tension of 86 as measured by the Drum Dial
Comments: This was a big improvement over the last tension (especially in terms of the "warbly" high notes) but it still sounds like a banjo that could use head tightening, mostly due to lack of "cut." Still like the low end though : )
Head tension 3 - Drum Dial reading of 88:
2 octave D major scale (left) and "Spotted Pony" (right) played on the Buckeye
with a head tension of 88 as measured by the Drum Dial
Comments: I feel like I'm getting close to ideal here! Still some bass afoot, but the "cutting mids" are coming in and its getting easier to put the "cluck" into spotted pony.
Head tension 4 - Drum Dial reading of 90:
2 octave D major scale (left) and "Spotted Pony" (right) played on the Buckeye
with a head tension of 90 as measured by the Drum Dial
Comments: This sounds pretty good, but in my opinion the high notes are a little out of control...also the cluck is a little obnoxious (definitely much louder than the other notes). I may have overshot at this point.
Head tension 5 - Drum Dial reading of 92:
2 octave D major scale (left) and "Spotted Pony" (right) played on the Buckeye
with a head tension of 92 as measured by the Drum Dial
Comments: Yeah this sounds terrible - super nasal and the notes are "choked" (i.e., the notes have a severe loss of sustain). I thought it was worth testing this tension because my 11" banjo sounded so good at 89 and I felt that this was a necessary data point for testing the aforementioned "maybe bigger pots need higher tension" hypothesis. I'll admit I was a little terrified to tune the banjo head up to 92 but actually it was no big deal (as in, the head didn't actually bust or seem like it was close to doing so). However, I'm pretty sure I'm going the wrong direction by tightening this much and don't need to test any higher values : )
A Quick Return to "Tap Tuning"
While I had the banjo head dialed in to these different tensions, I thought I'd go ahead and tap the head at each one to see what this sounded like - perhaps I could even improve my tap tuning skills. I tapped the head with my fingernail halfway between the bridge and the edge while I muted the strings. The banjo was "unstuffed" (rag removed from beneath the head) for the tap tuning trials. I combined all of this into one audio file below. I can definitely hear that the "note" (or collection of notes) gets higher each time, but I'm still not confident enough to figure out which note each one is supposed to be : )
Head taps at a variety of head tensions as read by the drum dial. 8 taps each (in 2 groups of 4) at increasing head tensions: starting at a drum dial reading of 84, then 86, 88, 90, and ending on 92.
The best head tension for my banjo seems to be somewhere in the 88-90 range; obviously this may differ banjo to banjo but its interesting that the "ideal" value for my 12" banjo is roughly similar to what worked for my 11" banjo. I may try 89 for a while - its kind of hard to know which tension provides enough cut until you find yourself in a jam so I'll have to report back later on how the Buckeye handles in a group at 89. I wasn't sure how well the recordings would capture all of this and perhaps they dot measure up with my comments I've written on each tension to your ears. However, I think that the Yeti mic did a pretty good job overall (especially compare the 84 recordings with the 92 recordings with some decent headphones - pretty stark differences!)
One final caveat: I used the same bridge (21/32" buckeye bridge) for this whole process. As the head tightened, the bridge raised and so did the action. Therefore, there was a higher string angle at higher tensions, which gives higher downward pressure on the bridge. Typically, increasing downward pressure on the bridge increases the mids and decreases the lows....essentially the fact that the string angle increased as head tension increased likely exacerbated the effects of head tension in the recordings. In an ideal world I would have changed bridges to incrementally lower height (but somehow same weight?) bridges with each change in head tension - however, I'll likely use this bridge on the banjo at 89 so perhaps this was the perfect test for my purposes : )
Before I go, a quick rundown on the first gig of "Rock Andy," my new old time duo with a local fiddler (we will likely do some trio gigs with an added cellist in the future as well!): we played at a local food co-op yesterday and just killed it as background music : ) I think we're my favorite band now (I may have to get a "Rock Andy" T shirt) - unfortunately I didn't record anything to post here...I'll have to be a little more diligent with that in the future. Stay tuned!
In last week's post (which you can see here), I talked about the classic fiddle tune "Cluck Old Hen" as an example of an Old Time tune that uses the Minor Pentatonic Scale. As an aside, though I don't play this tune all that much, "Cluck Old Hen" was called at a local jam this week and we spent a longer time than normal grooving on it with surprisingly cool results; I think the universe was reminding me that simple tunes like "Cluck Old Hen" shouldn't be overlooked in a jam! This week I'll talk about a few different approaches to harmonizing minor pentatonic tunes, using "Cluck Old Hen" again as an example.
As a minor pentatonic tune, the melody of "Cluck Old Hen" can't really be pinned down into a certain diatonic mode (post on modes available by clicking here); since there are only five notes in the pentatonic scale, the melody doesn't give enough information to pick a certain seven note scale (i.e. a diatonic mode) and therefore classify it in a certain mode. Last week (again, here), I mentioned how we can eliminate modes from consideration for "Cluck Old Hen" (particularly, the Ionian, Lydian, Mixolydian, and Locrian modes) thereby narrowing down our choices to Dorian, Phrygian, or Aeolian modes.
But all of my attempts to impose a mode on "Cluck Old Hen" beg a fairly simple question: Why? After all, isn't this discussion of the mode of "Cluck Old Hen" purely academic? The tune doesn't really need the extra notes that we have to guess at to put it in a certain mode....why are we trying to pick these extra notes in the first place? If you stick to a melody-only version of "Cluck Old Hen," a recording of which I also posted last week (sigh), this reasoning is absolutely correct. However, the question of "which mode to classify Cluck Old Hen in" becomes increasingly relevant when you (or a guitarist) try to impose chords on a minor pentatonic tune; you have to make some choices depending on how much harmony you'd like to play, as I'll explain below.
The rest of this discussion will refer pretty heavily to the following table, so I'll go ahead and put it up. As a scientist, I can't help but numbering my Tables, so we'll call it Table 1.
Table 1. Notes included in one octave (from A to A) of Chromatic, A minor Pentatonic, A Dorian, A Phrygian, and A Aeolian scales. Dashes represent missing notes. Notes highlighted in red are those that are included in a given mode but not in the A minor Pentatonic Scale. The Chromatic Scale is simply shown to highlight which notes are available for the other scales.
So, in our quest to put a harmony to "Cluck Old Hen" we'll start with the assumption that we'd like to stick to a single scale/mode for the whole tune (be it a Pentatonic scale or one of the modes), and we'll therefore derive all harmony notes from one scale at a time. Using that approach, lets start with the simplest option, creating harmony using notes of the A Minor Pentatonic Scale (i.e., we are constructing a harmony part using only notes that appear in the melody).
Harmonizing "Cluck Old Hen" with the A Minor Pentatonic scale.
Whenever I'm trying to find a harmony, the first thing I do is pick out the notes that the bass player "should" play. This is a bit of a "know it when you hear it" exercise for me so I can't really explain this part. However, even at this stage, there is no "right answer" for which bass notes to pick, but I'm trying to avoid suggesting "interesting chords" at the moment (like putting F major chords into "Cold Frosty Morning" as I discuss in my posts on chord substitutions available here and here). The bass notes I settled on are all plucked (Ha!) from the A minor Pentatonic scale below:
"Cluck Old Hen" - Harmony 1 ("bass notes" only, from the A Minor Pentatonic scale)
A part (x2)
A G A D
A G E A
B part (x2)
A C A G
A G E A
A few things to note about the "bass notes" above:
1) Rhythm-wise these are the "booms" for "boom-chick" style Old Time guitar playing (that is, you only do one Boom-chick per note above), and this would also serve as a great guide for a bass player.
2) While the convention is to use root note names as short-hand for major triads (that is, you could indicate an A major chord by simply writing "A" on a chord sheet) the letters above, once again, are meant to represent single notes. For the rest of this post however, I will be following the aforementioned convention when I outline harmony parts.
I've included a recording of me playing the "bass notes" only harmony on piano to my previous "Cluck Old Hen" banjo recording below. Why did I pick piano? Mostly because as I continue this post, I'll build chords from the root notes, and its easy to find simple, non-inverted triads on the piano. A pre-apology for what you're about to hear: my piano playing here is purely for example purposes so its a bit heavy-handed (I just bang on a note/chord at the beginning of each phrase)...also when I say piano, I really mean keyboard, in particular one that doesn't actually have a line out (!) - I had to put a mic next to the speaker and I definitely got a lot of "key-pushing" noise. Finally, my timing leaves a little bit to be desired - lets consider my little lags "artistic choices" for now : ) Now that I've sold the upcoming audio experience, lets have a listen...
"Cluck Old Hen" played on banjo with Harmony 1 ("bass notes" only,
using notes from the A Minor Petantonic Scale) played on piano.
So, as you may have noticed, the "harmony" here is kinda of boring and utilitarian. For the most part I picked it out by stealing the "main" melody note of a phrase with the exception of the first note, which I conservatively picked as A (the root of the tune) rather than the E the phrase starts on. In fact, there is so much unison going on here between the banjo and piano that its hard to even call this "harmony" in places; were this played on a bass it would at least be a little more interesting being a few octaves lower than the banjo. As it stands, however, it could use a little spicing up.
We can use "Harmony 1" above to establish the root notes for building chords however. So lets try to assemble some standard triads using the minor pentatonic scale. Interestingly, if you compare Table 1 and Harmony 1 above, we use every note from the minor pentatonic as a root note at some point in the tune. We therefore need to build chords using A, C, D, E, and G as root notes. So lets start by building a triad off of A. Standard triad chords contain a root note, either a minor third (1.5 steps above the root) or a major 3rd (2 steps above the root), and a perfect 5th (3.5 steps above the root). This turns out to work pretty well: C is available as a minor 3rd, and E is available as a perfect 5th; in other words, the minor pentatonic scale gives us all the notes available for an A minor chord. But you'll see that we can't actually do this for every chord we need to make....time for another table!
Table 2. Making chords from "bass notes" given in Harmony 1, using only
notes from the Minor Pentatonic Scale.
As shown in Table 2, while you can make A minor and C major chords from the A Minor Pentatonic scale, you can't make full triads for chords rooted on D, E, or G with the notes available. If you want to stick to the A Minor Pentatonic scale for your harmonies, you could always rely on intervals (i.e. 2 note harmonies rather than 3 note triads), but this ends up sounding more "Gregorian Chant" than Old Time. But....if we pick one of the above modes for "Cluck Old Hen," we can fill in the missing notes, and get some sort of triad (more on that in a bit) for every chord we need to make. Here we go!
Harmonizing "Cluck Old Hen" with the Dorian, Phrygian, and Aeolian Modes.
So, lets take the same approach outlined above starting with A Dorian Mode (and using the root notes given in "Harmony 1"). Amazingly, by adding just 2 notes to the A Minor Pentatonic scale, we can make a triad from every note we need.
Figure 3. Making chords from "bass notes" given in Harmony 1, using only notes from the A Dorian scale. Once again, notes in red are those not found in the A Minor Pentatonic Scale
Using the chords in Figure 3, we can now write out a Dorian-flavored harmony for "Cluck Old Hen" and you can use the same tactic for Phrygian and Aeolian modes as well (I won't go through all the derivations here since you likely get the point ). We now have 3 harmony options for this tune, each one using notes from a single mode, as outlined below:
If you look closely at Harmonies 2, 3, and 4, you'll notice a couple of things:
1) The Aeolian and Dorian harmonies only differ by one chord: there is D minor chord in the Dorian harmony (#2), while there is a D major chord in Aeolian harmony (#4). Since a D-rooted chord only occurs once in the A part and not at all in the B part, the two harmonies are otherwise identical (though I personally like the D major chord in harmony 2 for a bit of "modal flavor").
2) The Phrygian harmony (#3) has an E diminished chord (written as E dim). This is because there is not a perfect 5th above the E root in Phrygian mode so we have to include a chord that incorporates a flattened 5th (3 whole steps from the root instead of the 3.5 steps that make a perfect 5th) instead. This interval is known as a "tritone" and was thought to have demonic connotations in previous eras. Coincidentally, this chord also includes a minor 3rd, adding to the "general spookiness" of a diminished chord. If you try to make triads for every note of given diatonic mode, you will find that a diminished chord actually occur somewhere in every mode (this shouldn't be too surprising since all of the diatonic modes are actually permutations of one-another. In this case, our bass note selections just happened to hit the diminished chord for Phrygian mode in our "Cluck Old Hen" harmony, but not in the other modes we tried.
So enough talk - lets hear this stuff!
"Cluck Old Hen" played on banjo with Harmony 2 (using notes from the A Dorian Scale) on piano.
"Cluck Old Hen" played on banjo with Harmony 3 (using notes from the A Phrygian Scale) on piano.
"Cluck Old Hen" played on banjo with Harmony 4 (using notes from the A Aeolian Scale) on piano.
As you may expect, the Dorian and Aeolian chords sound similar, but also familiar, while the Phrygian Chords sound a little strange (almost like someone was stumbling for the right chords but not finding them.....though once again, they are "correct" as it pertains to Phrygian mode). If you want to pick a set of chords to back "Cluck Old Hen" with from those above, your best bets are likely Harmonies #2 and #4. Phrygian mode (which provided the notes for Harmony #3) was kind of fun to play around with, but it may not be the most appropriate choice for an Old Time session.
However, there is another approach to harmonizing this (and really any) tune:
Harmonizing "Cluck Old Hen" without sticking to a certain scale
What if you forget the whole "got to stick to a single mode for the whole song" approach - is there another way to pick out some standard triads? One approach would be to mix and match chords from all three options above, but thats not quite what I'm getting at. Instead, you could take the "if it sounds good, do it" approach: basically pick any chord you like that matches the melody while its ringing and don't worry about what overall mode you're intending to suggest. In other words, forget the idea that triads have to suggest that a single mode permeates the whole tune; chords don't have to be consistent, they just have to sound good in the moment. Let me put up another commonly used harmony for "Cluck Old Hen" to demonstrate what I'm talking about:
"Cluck Old Hen" - Harmony 5 (major chords only, no single mode responsible...)
A part (x2)
A G A D
A G E A
B part (x2)
A C A G
A G E A
Here's how it sounds:
"Cluck Old Hen" played on banjo with Harmony 5 (using all Major chords) on piano.
If you'll notice, the above chords use the same root notes we've been using but they pick standard major triads (major 3rd, perfect 5th) to go with every root note! Old Time guitarists do seem to love major chords. However, on the surface this seems like a choice that shouldn't work. Let's look at the "math" here by making one more table:
Table 4. Making Chords however we want : ) No modes required!
The green notes in Table 4 are those that don't occur in either the A minor Pentatonic scale or any of the 3 modes that share its notes (i.e. the Dorian, Phrygian, or Aeolian scales outlined in Table 1). In fact, these notes should clash with several notes in the A Minor Pentatonic scale: the C# should clash with the C natural found in the A minor Pentatonic scale, and the G# should similarly clash with the scale's G natural! In a related conundrum, we use a C# in the A major chord, then jump to a chord based around a C natural? What key/mode is this song supposed to be in anyhow? The answer is: it doesn't matter. The A major chord works just fine for the melody notes that its harmonizing (for example, a C natural never occurs in the melody while an A major chord is played), and the C major chord works great for the melody notes that its harmonizing. The fact that the two chords don't share a mode/key is irrelevant - it just sounds good!
I should point out that other forms of music (like the blues) actually embrace the so-called "clashing notes" I pointed out above. A blues guitarist would not hesitate to play a C natural over an A major chord - these notes are actually known as "blue notes" and they are key to the blues sound. Overall, there just are no hard rules in harmony: whatever sounds good is good, and experimentation with dissonance is to be encouraged!
Guess that will do it for this week. This coming weekend marks my first gig with my new Old Time duo (maybe trio?) "Rock Andy" - we're playing at a local food co-op this coming Saturday - time to yet to be determined...I'll give a run down on the gig next week!
A couple weeks back, a fellow Michigan clawhammer banjo player named Stew emailed about my post on diatonic modes in old time music (which you can view here) and that email provided the impetus for the post you see below - thanks Stew! Before getting into that exchange, I'd like to mention a bit about Stew's playing:
I met Stew through banjo hangout and have been fortunate enough to play with him several times in person over the past couple years. As anyone who's watched me play may notice, I concentrate a lot on my left hand in my banjo playing (for example, check out my post on left hand positions here). However, my right hand work is a little more utilitarian and definitely low-risk. Stew's right hand, on the other hand (...groan...), is a heck of a thing to watch! He seems to organize his playing around drop-thumb-infused clawhammer roll patterns and he does a great job of emphasizing chords while still bringing in the bones of the melody. Its a lot of fun for me to play with him because we seem to occupy completely different space in a jam context and I'm always impressed with what he does!
But I digress - (among other things) Stew asked a seemingly straightforward question in that email: What mode is "Cluck Old Hen" in? "Cluck Old Hen" is a tune that everyone learns pretty early on in playing old time and I'll admit its a tune I don't play all that much anymore. To give him an answer, I first refreshed my memory by writing out a very simple tab of the tune:
Click Here for a Tab of "Cluck Old Hen"
If you look at that tab, you'll quickly notice how sparse it is: I play a fairly-simplified melody and for this discussion I've removed chords through the magic of "ghost notes" (if you're unfamiliar with ghost notes, I talk about them a bit in my post on chord substitutions, which you can see by clicking here); here's an audio file of me playing the above tab on the Buckeye:
"Cluck Old Hen" played on my Buckeye (following the tab posted above)
Note - I just put a higher bridge on the Buckeye....and the bass notes currently boom with authority : ) As you can hear, there's really not much to "Cluck Old Hen," but its actually the simplicity of the tune that makes it difficult to pin down in a certain mode. To understand why, lets contrast it with "Coleman's March."
A little while back I posted an exercise where I played "Coleman's March" in all seven diatonic modes, with some hilarious results (you can see that post by clicking here....make sure and check out the "Locrian" version for a laugh). In that exercise, I transposed "Coleman's March" from Ionian mode to other modes by simply shifting notes of the Ionian scale to match notes of the new scale; for example: the Mixolydian scale is the same as the Ionian scale except that the 7th note of the Mixolydian scale is flattened by a half step in relation to the 7th note of the Ionian scale. Therefore, I made a Mixolydian version of "Coleman's March" by flattening the melody note by a half step when it hits the 7th note of the scale. "Coleman's March" is amenable to this type of exercise because the melody actually hits every note of the scale at some point during the tune.
As you may have guessed by listening to the file above, "Cluck Old Hen" is far less cooperative. In fact, if you look closely at the "Cluck Old Hen" tab above, you see that it only hits the following notes (listed from lowest pitch to highest pitch - note that the tab is in A modal tuning aEADE):
4th string, 3rd fret - G natural
3rd string, open - A natural
3rd string, 3rd fret - C natural
2nd string, open - D natural
1st string, open - E natural
1st string, 3rd fret - G natural
1st string, 5th fret (and open 5th string) - A natural
If you take out the repeats above, the tune only contains the following notes: A, C, D, E, G. The root note of the tune (from a "you know it when you hear it" standpoint) is A, so let's try to build a 7 note scale from these notes:
Note 1 - A (root note)
Note 2 - ??
Note 3 - C (minor 3rd above the root)
Note 4 - D (perfect 4th above the root)
Note 5 - E (perfect 5th above the root)
Note 6 - ??
Note 7 - G (flattened 7th)
Despite the missing notes (in red above), we do have enough information here to eliminate some modes: There is a perfect 5th so Locrian is out, and there is a minor 3rd so all of the "majorish" modes (i.e. Ionian, Lydian, Mixolydian) are out too (note: Ionian would also not work due to the flattened 7th and Lydian would be out due to the perfect 4th). That leaves the three remaining "minorish" modes to work with: Dorian, Phrygian, and Aeolian (your garden-variety minor scale). However, these modes share all of the notes in "Cluck Old Hen" (above) and only differ in the notes that are missing from the melody! A-Phrygian mode would have a B-flat as its second note, while A-Aeolian and A-Dorian would have a B natural; similarly, A-Dorian would have an F# as its 6th note, while A-Phrygian and A-Aeolian would have an F natural. As far as the listener (or the improvisor!) is concerned, any of these three modes could be imposed on "Cluck Old Hen."
If you've read the title of this post, you're probably already guessing what is coming next. There is a scale that best describes "Cluck Old Hen" but it can't be found in the collection of diatonic modes. This scale is known as the Minor Pentatonic Scale and as the name implies, it has 5 notes (Pentatonic) rather than the normal 7, and has a minor 3rd. An A-Minor Pentatonic Scale contains only the notes we use in "Cluck Old Hen:" A, C, D, E, G. Here's a two "octave" (...do we call it a hexatave here?) A Minor Pentatonic scale played on the brand new Octave Mandolin I picked up in Montreal a couple weeks back (What's the French word for "souvenir?"...I'm hilarious):
2 Octave A Minor Pentatonic Scale Played on an Octave Mandolin
As you can probably tell, its been a while since I used a pick : ) This scale is perhaps best known to western ears for its occurrence in Blues Music; many "Bluesy-sounding" old time tunes are best classified as minor pentatonic tunes (in addition to "Cluck Old Hen," "Pretty Polly" comes to mind...). If you heard a fiddle and banjo playing a "just the melody" version of "Cluck Old Hen" you'd be hearing notes from the A Minor Pentatonic scale and nothing else. I think that these sparse arrangements are really beautiful and this lack of chordal accompaniment leaves a lot of room for the imagination to take over! I wanted to give you a taste of what I'm talking about without subjecting you to my fiddling, so Here's a Banjo + Octave Mandolin rendition (trying to justify my purchase...):
Banjo + Octave Mandolin duet on "Cluck Old Hen"
However, Guitars are the norm in the modern old time ensemble and the major and minor triads used to back minor pentatonic tunes like "Cluck Old Hen" inevitably flush out the scale by adding the missing 2nd and 6th notes back in (...but which notes do guitarists choose?). Next week, I'll talk about the harmonic possibilities for backing minor pentatonic tunes using "Cluck Old Hen" as an example.
Once again, thanks to Stew for inspiring this post (and giving me something to shoot for in my playing!). I've started getting a bit of feedback about this blog as more and more people view it in recent weeks and I love hearing reactions to the stuff I write here - its even just nice to know that someone is reading : ) If you're reading this, please feel free to comment on any of these posts or drop me a line through the "Contact" tab above - and thanks for stopping by!
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.