If you've spent much time playing with a fiddler, you've probably notice this oft-used trick in fiddle playing: often after 3 or 4 turns through a fiddle tune, they'll jump down to the low strings for a turn or two. To my ears, the bark of the bass notes in this maneuver really kicks a tune into high gear! Today I'm here to give you the tools (and permission!) to steal this move - let's talk "low octave banjo playing."
Before I get into the nitty-gritty, a bit more on motivation for low octave playing: If you've seen my posts on my banjos (here and here), you'll notice they have a couple things in common: both are 3.5" deep 12" pots; these things were designed to pump out bass! However, most tunes don't spend enough time on the 4th string for my taste. So in recent years, I've gravitated towards trying to find familiar melodies on the low strings. This trick is also great for playing with other banjo players - while banjos in unison can clash a bit, two banjos an octave apart really sing! Amazingly, I never really hear other banjo players "go low" on most tunes; so If you find yourself in a jam with other banjos, this territory is likely available for the taking!
Let's get started!
Playing the Low Octave in "Barlow Knife"
For today's post, I've chosen to focus on the 3 part G tune "Barlow Knife." As with just about all of my G tunes, I play this one in Old G tuning (gDGDE) rather than the more commonly-used Open G tuning (gDGBD); reasons behind this decision can be found here. I've included high and low octave recordings of the A part of "Barlow Knife" below. I decided to play them on my new mandolin (here) to spare you from my squeaky fiddling. It should be noted that standard tuning for fiddles and mandolins is identical; you can think of a mandolin as a "fiddle you play with a pick."
Example 1 - the A part of "Barlow Knife" played twice in the high octave on my Bacon Mando.
Example 2 - the A part of "Barlow Knife" played twice in the low octave on my Bacon Mando.
A note on terminology - I'll talk about "high octave" and "low octave" melodies on banjo and mandolin. These terms refer to different octaves of the same melody that can largely be reached below the 5th fret on the respective instruments. While you may be able to find even higher octave melodies by going up the neck on both instruments, this is not something I do much in my playing and I'll ignore it here. For the most part the "high octave" melody on each instrument is the standard range of melody favored by most players; once again, while mandolins/fiddles may jump down to the low octave during a tune for variety, they don't typically start the tune there.
Here's some tab for the high octave A part melody on banjo:
Figure 1 - Tab for the A part of "Barlow Knife" in the high octave on banjo.
To be played in Old G tuning (gDGDE).
A couple notes here. First off, the above tab employs "ghost notes" to remove brushes; there's an explanation of ghost notes about halfway down this post for the unfamiliar. Second, Figure 1 is meant to be played in a single left hand position (click here if you don't know what I'm talking about) which can be described as follows:
Hand Position A (for Figure 1 and Figure 2):
index - 2nd fret
middle - 3rd fret
ring - 4th fret
pinky - 5th fret
So, lets take a listen to Figure 1 played alongside the mandolin:
Example 3 - the A part of "Barlow Knife" played twice in the high octave on my Bacon Mando accompanied by high octave banjo (the Buckeye in Old G tuning following the tab in Figure 1).
If your ears are sharp, you'll notice the following: "high octave" banjo is already an octave below "high octave" mandolin (and fiddle); this just results from the range of these instruments in standard tunings. Therefore, if you stay in the "high octave" on banjo when a fiddler goes low, you actually get a cool unison effect (demonstrated in Example 4 below):
Example 4 - the A part of "Barlow Knife" played twice in the low octave on my Bacon Mando accompanied by high octave banjo (the Buckeye in Old G tuning following the tab in Figure 1).
That unison sound is pretty crazy with the mandolin....it almost sounds like a single instrument with a really complex, and perhaps a bit abrasive, tone; thanks to the bow, the fiddle provides a bit more contrast with the banjo in this case : ) Anways, I'm here to show you that the banjo too can jump down an octave, so lets get to it! Tab for a low octave A part of "Barlow Knife" is shown in Figure 2:
Figure 2 - Tab for the A part of "Barlow Knife" in the low octave on banjo.
To be played in Old G tuning (gDGDE).
You'll notice that I decided to do the whole run on the 4th string, which required a jump in hand position. The "low octave" melody could be played in hand position A, but it requires some slightly crowded drop thumb, and I'd rather jump up the neck. Hand position B, which starts the phrase, is as follows:
Hand Position B (for Figure 2):
index - 4th fret
middle - 5th fret
ring - 6th fret
pinky - 7th fret
When might you use a low octave melody like this? Really....anytime you want to. You could try to jump down simultaneously with a fiddler, or you jump down while they stay high for contrast. Remember that the banjo's "low octave" will actually be two octaves down from the fiddle/mandolin's "high octave" playing, and you'll be a single octave down from their "low octave" playing. I've got recordings of both contrasts below:
Example 5 - the A part of "Barlow Knife" played twice in the high octave on my Bacon Mando accompanied by low octave banjo (the Buckeye in Old G tuning following the tab in Figure 1).
Example 6 - the A part of "Barlow Knife" played twice in the low octave on my Bacon Mando accompanied by low octave banjo (the Buckeye in Old G tuning following the tab in Figure 1).
Pretty cool right??
While I encourage you to figure out some "low octave versions" of your favorite fiddle tunes, it should be noted that 5 string banjos in standard tunings (i.e. the tunings I use: gDGDE, aDADE, aEADE, and aEAC#E) quickly run out of range to play in the low octave for most tunes. With "Barlow Knife" you'll notice that I focus on the A part; barring alternate tunings or 6 string banjos (i.e. 5 string banjos with an extra bass string rather than guitar-banjos) you run out of notes to play low octave B or C parts for this tune. Usually, I simply jump back up to the "high octaves" for these parts. However, I have come up with a few techniques for "filling in the blanks" in low octave arrangements when you run out of notes; I'll talk about those in a future post : )
To finish out - I didn't want to leave you hanging with just the A parts of "Barlow Knife" in Old G so I've included a tab of the whole tune (with both "high octave" and "low octave" A parts written out) below. Enjoy:
One final note on this website: I added an index of blogposts to the bottom of my homepage (link in the sidebar) to make finding old posts just a bit easier. Hope you find it helpful - see you next week!
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.