Not long after moving to Michigan, I got hired as "background banjo" for a Christmas party and had a month or so to learn a whole slew of Christmas tunes on the banjo. I decided to go about this task by ignoring the original key of the tune (which I would have had to look up anyhow since I don't have perfect pitch) and just putting it in whichever tuning seemed to make the fingering easiest, while making some effort to pepper equal numbers of tunes in each tuning. In the end the gig went quite well - I basically played 4 long medleys (one for each of the following tunings: double D, A major, A modal, Old G) where I alternated Christmas tunes with fiddle tunes as filler.
To my delight I found that most Christmas tunes actually worked quite well as Clawhammer pieces and I was able to come up with instrumental arrangements of about 15 different of them. Skip ahead to late 2016, when Banjohangout decided to bring back their video contests by having a Christmas tune challenge! Of course I wanted to enter....but which tune to play out of my repitoire? I decided in the end to go with "Good King Wenceslas," partially because I thought it would be a bit of an usual choice for the contest, and partially because I remember how much I enjoyed playing it.
Rather than playing by myself, I thought it would be a lot of fun to make a banjo duet with my buddy TJ, with whom I play every week. Typcially we play fiddle tune duets where he sticks to the melody and I vary between playing it with him and playing something else (playing up or down an octave, playing paralell 3rds or 6ths, sticking to the chords, making up some counter-melody, etc). Sometimes my harmonic experimentation sounds great...other times it doesn't...but its always interesting : ) So, I recruited TJ and we made the following video for the contest in that spirit:
Me and TJ playing "Good King Wenceslas" for the Banjohangout Christmas tune contest. TJ is playing a Banjeaurine tuned cFCFG; I'm playing my Buckeye tuned fCFCD. Recorded on an iPad with no external mic; we applied a filter to the video to make it look "old timey" : )
You may have noticed that TJ's banjo sounds higher pitched than a standard banjo though he's not using a capo; in fact the instrument he's playing is best described as a "banjeaurine" rather than a banjo. For those who are unfamiliar, a banjeaurine is basically a 5-string banjo with a shorter neck (typically like a standard neck capo 5) that was originally conceived as a higher register voice in banjo orchestras (which yes, used to be quite popular!). TJ's banjeuarine is quite old, has a slotted headstock, and sounds really cool - it has a 12" pot with a skin head and was constructed in such a way that the bridge sits way down near the tailpiece. TJ tuned it to double C capo 5 ("double F;" cFCFG). Cool pic below:
TJ's super cool slot-head banjeaurine. Note, this instrument is actually for sale (at the day of this posting at least; 12/4/16) in the Banjohangout classifieds here.
To get myself in the same key as TJ (F major), I tuned the Buckeye down from Old G tuning to Old F (fCFCD). I played a few tunes in this tuning at a squaredance I played in October (post about that here). While TJ started his melody on the open 2nd string (F) in his tuning, I started my melody on the open 3rd string (also F) in my tuning; in this way we were both able to play the whole melody of "Good King Wenceslas" in first position (i.e. on frets 0-5) with me one octave lower than him for contrast - this was how we got through the first round of the tune. But, there were 3 rounds to go....what to do next?
For rounds 2 and 3 of "Good King Wenceslas," TJ continued the melody as before, while I decided to "reference" two other Christmas tunes that I had learned for the aforementioned holiday party a couple years earlier as a kind of counter-melody: "Little Drummer Boy" and "Up on a Housetop." I had originally played "Little Drummer Boy" in D (using double D tuning: aDADE) and "Up on the Housetop" in A (using open A tuning: aEAC#E), but each of these shifted to Old G (really Old F) quite easily. However, I had to heavily alter both tunes to get them to harmonize with "Good King Wenceslas" (which is why I used the term "reference" above). I did this by figuring out the chord progression of "Good King Wenceslas" and then shifting phrases of "Little Drummer Boy" and "Up on a Housetop" up or down a few notes of the G major scale to match this chord progression. What you end up hearing in my playing is little recognizable snippets of each tune along with phrases that seem kinda close to the melody...as if someone were searching for the tune in their memory, but not quite getting it right : ). Still, this seemed like a better option that cacophany and these other tunes are bending towards "Good King Wenceslas." Kind of a fun harmony option in my opinion : )
On the last time through the tune (round 4), I played parallel thirds above my original melody; once again, TJ soldiered on with the original melody as before (which is good because 3rds sound kind of bizzare without context). Its easy to find a parallel 3rds line by simply moving 2 notes up the G major scale from the origina melody and following what the melody does from there (e.g. if the main melody jumps 2 notes up the scale, so do I). These ideas are explored a bit in my "27 variations on the walkup in Spotted Pony" post (here).
Anyways, I had a lot of fun recording this and I hope you enjoyed watching it : ) Feel free to sign in to your banjohangout account and rate our video here (the video with the highest rating by Deceber 15th wins). Be sure and watch the other entries too - there's some really impressive playing in there (I especially like some of the jazzy stuff the 3-finger players do)!
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.