In honor of Halloween, I thought I'd talk a bit more about GHOST notes...spooky right?? (as always, I'm hilarious). Anyways, I've explained ghost notes before (for example, here...about halfway down the post) - I use them to remove strums from my playing, while keeping my hand moving in the "bum-ditty" motion. To play a ghost note, strike past the strings without hitting them; "bum-ditty" instantly turns into "bum-___ty," giving you a little more space in your tunes...nifty trick!
At some point in my banjo experimentation, I had the following thought: a lot of people play with constant (or near constant) double thumbing (i.e. they put a 5th string pull on every up-beat, creating a "bump-a-ditty" pattern); what would constant ghost-noting and double thumbing sound like together? The basic pattern of what I'm talking about would look something like this:
Figure 1 - Constant ghost-noting and double-thumbing. As you can tell, I got a new batch of yellow legal pads....not sure how I feel about them yet.
Playing Figure 1 poses the following conundrum, however: though you're "playing" ghost notes on the down-beats (i.e. whole numbers) and playing 5th string pulls on the up-beats (i.e. "and" beats marked by a "+" above), its a little hard for the listener to tell the difference between up-beats and down-beats without context. That is, the listener's brain could easily assume that the 5th string pulls are the down-beats when hearing Figure 1 played out loud; this could create some confusion when putting this idea into a tune (...which is, after all, the eventual goal). While messing with listener expectations about the beat may be fun in an experimental music context, I like to be a little more heavy-handed about defining the beat in Old-Time. Therefore, I'll amend this idea by putting a strong note on the down-beat at the beginning of each measure like so:
Figure 2 - Nearly constant ghost-noting and double-thumbing.
Just as clawhammer players often fit fiddle tunes to "bum-ditty" or "bump-a-ditty" patterns, we could use the "bump-a-___ty,___-a-___-ty" pattern above to permeate a fiddle tune as well. To show what I'm talking about I'll borrow a few examples from my "27 ways to play spotted pony" post (here). Lets start with a Bum-ditty approach:
Figure 3 (aka Figure 1 from the "Spotted Pony" post) - Standard bum-ditty approach to playing the A-part walkup in "Spotted Pony."
Figure 3 shows how clawhammer banjo players typically play the first 2 measures (a.k.a. the A-part walkup) of "Spotted Pony." The most basic form of the melody for the A-part walkup consists of just the notes that occur on beats 1 and 3 of each measure; basically you can think of it as the first 4 notes of a D major scale played as half-notes. As clawhammer players, we would rarely play just those notes however; we can't help but use the magic of clawhammer to back the melody by "filling in the blanks" around the melody notes and creating some rhythmic drive. As indicated above, Figure 1 fills in those blanks using the typical "bum-ditty" approach, with the melody notes occurring on the "bum's" of the "bum-ditty" pattern.
Even though the melody to "Spotted Pony" does not continue to be this sparse throughout the tune, you can use the "bum-ditty" approach to fill in the blanks of the notier parts of the melody as well, thereby creating a "bum-ditty" arrangement for the whole tune. To write a tab of this type of arrangement, you would first write in all the melody notes, using your index/middle finger to play notes on the down-beats, and hammer-on's, pull-off's, or drop-thumb's to play notes on the up-beats. Once the melody is finished, there will still be a lot of space in the tune and you can use Figure 1 as a guideline of how to "fill in the blanks;" if you have a "2" or "4" beat empty, put in a strum in your tab using whatever chord is occurring at the moment; similarly, if you have a "2+" or "4+" beat (i.e. the up-beats that follow the 2nd and 4th beats) empty, put a 5th string pull in your tab. Note: this is a really good exercise for anyone thats never made their own clawhammer arrangement of a tune.
Some people find the constant "bum-ditty" approach outlined above kind of boring, but I'll admit that I've gotten a lot of mileage out of it and it was my default mode for making clawhammer arrangements of fiddle tunes for a long time. If you go through the above exercise of making a "bum-ditty" arrangement of an entire tune, you'll see that in the notier parts of a melody you likely play no strums or 5th string pulls; as the melody calms down a bit, 5th string pulls come back in at regular intervals; regular strums only make it back in at the most melodically-sparse moments. If we stick with a single rhythmic idea like the "bum-ditty" through an entire tune, the listener hears the "bum-ditty" as constant throughout, despite these changes in how much rhythm we are playing. Done just right, we can create the illusion that a second banjo is actually playing the bum-ditty rhythm in the background of our melodic playing - the idea of playing simultaneous melody and rhythm is what I found so exciting about clawhammer banjo in the first place!
Lets look at the "bump-a-ditty" approach (aka "constant double thumbing") next:
Figure 4 (aka Figure 6 from the "Spotted Pony" post) - Constant double-thumbing "bump-a-ditty" approach to playing the A-part walkup in "Spotted Pony."
As advertised, there is a 5th string pull on every up-beat in Figure 4. I never really got into this style for my own playing, but I heard a lot of it at Clifftop this year, and I'll admit that constant 5th string pulls can really drive a jam forward! In the case of Figure 4, rather than adding in strums, I simply repeated melody notes on the 2nd and 4th beats of each measure.....but strums could work as well. Making a tab for a whole tune using the "bump-a-ditty" approach is fairly straightforward since there are no down-beats or up-beats devoid of notes! Start by writing out your melody notes as we did with the "bum-ditty" approach, then fill any empty down-beats with either notes or strums, and fill any empty up-beats with 5th string pulls. Once again, if done well, you can create the illusion that a 2nd banjo player is constantly playing the type of rhythm outlined in Figure 4, while you play the melody!
Finally, on to the "bump-a-__ty-___-a-___ty" approach from Figure 2. Here's this approach applied to the A-part walkup for "Spotted Pony:"
Figure 5 (aka Figure 10 from the "Spotted Pony" post) - Constant ghost noting and double-thumbing on the A-part walkup in "Spotted Pony"
As you can see, even with the sparse melody from the A-part walkup in "Spotted Pony," we had to add a melody note in the center of the "bump-a-___ty-___-a-___ty" pattern outlined in Figure 2....essentially turning it in to a "bump-a-___ty-bump-a-___ty" pattern. While we could easily follow the same procedure for structuring fiddle tunes around this pattern as we did for the "bum-ditty" and "bump-a-ditty" patterns above, all of the space created by the ghost notes is quickly eaten up by melody in most old time tunes; the 5th string pulls that remain don't easily allow this pattern to be differentiated from the "bump-a-ditty" pattern outlined in Figure 4.
In other words, as much as I love this pattern, it really only works in tunes with a lot of melodic space...we just need the perfect tune...
Using the "bump-a-___ty-___-a-___ty" pattern effectively in "Yew Piney Mountain"
"Yew Piney Mountain" is my go-to example of a weird West Virginia fiddle tune (believe me, I'm using "weird" as high praise in this case). Every fiddler's version is just a bit different and can run the gamut from square (or mostly square) to extremely crooked. Of all the haunting versions I've heard, my hands down favorite, is Chance McCoy's.version on his album "Debut" (check out my post about this and other great "New Old Time" albums here). This mesmerizing version is played on solo 5-string fiddle (equipped with a low C string) and its replete with pauses that keep the listener on their toes; honestly its kind of hard to even hum properly!
I always thought that a well-executed, similarly-breathy, solo clawhammer version of this piece could win me the banjo contest at Clifftop...but I was a little too nervous to pull it out of my sleeve on stage this year and settled for a safer version of the Henry Reed tune "Shoes and Stockings" instead (sadly, this didn't get me in the finals : ). In my current arrangement of "Yew Piney Mountain" (sudio and tab below) I use the "bump-a-___ty-___-a-___ty" pattern to preserve the feel of space in the tune without actually having to stop the movement of my right hand entirely. As in Chance McCoy's version, bursts of melody kind of jump out of the surrounding quiet (....or at least, thats the goal : ), though once again, my "quiet" is filled with 5th string pulls. To bring the contrast home, I play the 5th string pulls lighter than the melody notes and try to give the impression that they are constant throughout the tune.
My highly-crooked version of "Yew Piney Mountain" for solo banjo as inspired by Chance McCoy's solo fiddle version; played on my Buckeye (see here) pre-tone ring addition.
As promised, I've written up a tab as well:
Writing up a tab for this was an interesting process - I came up with the banjo arrangement without pen and paper and I had a hard time picking out things that my hand already knew how to do. For instance, I had difficulty counting how many 5th string pulls occurred in each pause, though my right hand could do it subconsciously; playing music is more feeling than thinking sometimes : ) I also "learned" the structure of this tune by making a tab...and its quite crooked in the sense that there are uneven numbers of measures and a few half-length measures interspersed. In the Milliner-Koken book of American Fiddle Tunes (which is both an incredible resource and the physically-largest but I own), Claire Milliner and Walt Koken decided against adding measures in to their transcriptions of the playing of traditional fiddlers.....and I now understand why!
A couple more notes on the above tab: obviously its not an exhaustive account of the audio file above. The tab is the most basic version of what I play, but I do have a lot of variations (including one A part variation where I fret the 5th string!) in the audio file - just kind of a lot of effort to write them all out, and the tab is good jumping-off point : ) Secondly, you'll notice that the "bump-a-___ty-___-a-___ty" pattern is often extended to "bump-a-___ty-___-a-___ty___-a-___ty" between melodic phrases, or even "bump-a-___ty-___-a-___ty___-a-___ty___-a-___ty" in the case of the "potatoes" before the tune. As aforementioned, I like to provide some "down-beat context notes" in this pattern, but I don't mind extending the periods between context notes in this tune.
As always, I hope these ideas help you with your own playing...but please don't steal my arrangement until after I've gotten the nerve to try it out on the Clifftop stage : ) While I'm a little dubious about having invented something truly unique here, I'll admit I've never heard anyone play as many as 6 uninterrupted up-beat 5th string pulls in a row (as happens several times in the tab above). I should mention that some classic round peak players roll Galax licks into 2 or 3 down-beat 5th string pulls and Mark Johnson (The Clawgrass guy, who I got to meet at Midwest banjo camp a few years back) frequently employs a Galax lick that ends in a down-beat 5th string pull followed by 2 up-beat 5th string pulls, which, I'll admit, gave me the starting point for continuous up-beat 5th string pulls as a way to fill space...
In the spirit of the season, I'll end with a picture of my Jack-o-Lantern this year:
Banjo Jack-o-Lantern (Banj-o-Lantern??) - Happy Halloween!
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.