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.