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)!
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.