Playing Waltzes on Clawhammer banjo
This story may be familiar:
You're at an Old-Time jam and someone (likely a fiddler) calls a waltz. You look around at the banjo players and most of them are rolling their eyes and preparing to wait the next tune one out. When the tune starts, most of the banjo players switch to lightly-payed 2- or 3-finger roll patterns over chords until the next tune comes along.
This type of thing cuts across all skill levels: I've seen some really great clawhammer players back away from playing clawhammer on waltzes in jams (to be fair, this could be a stylistic choice....). This doesn't have to be the case however! I actually think that the clawhammer technique can be adapted to play simultaneous melody and rhythm on waltzes just as effectively as it works for 4/4 tunes. Today, I'll break down the basics of playing waltzes and provide an example tab to get you started. So, lets start at the beginning...
What is a Waltz?
I use the term "Waltz" to describe any tune in triple time (i.e. time signatures where beats are corralled into groups of three). For comparison, most fiddle tunes that I've discussed on this blog, and most that I play, are in quadruple time (i.e. with a 4/4 time signature) and are commonly reffered to as "breakdowns, or "reels." As an aside, I think of "marches" as 4/4 tunes as well, though I beleve its convention to write them in 2/4. Either way, I count the beat of 4/4 tunes as follows "one and two and three and four and" and I indicate this beat above the tab as "1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +" (a little more discussion of the "beat" in my post on Right Hand Stride here).
Waltzes are often written in 3/4 and measures can therefore counted as follows "one and two and three and." Notice that I'm still dividing main beats into two in this case; some waltzes are played in such a way that the main beats are actually best divided into thirds....I'll discuss waltzes like that in a future post. For today, I'll show tabs where the beat for each measure is indicated above the bar as "1 + 2 + 3 +." Some commonly-played waltzes at the jams I go to are "The Blackest Crow," which many people like to sing, "The Ookpik Waltz," which is a Canadian tune with an Inuit-inspired name, and "Josefin's Waltz," which has crept into the Old-Time cannon from the Swedish band "Väsen." Also - Väsen is just fantastic!!
"Clawhammer-izing" the basic Waltz rhythm.
Before diving in to playing waltz melodies, lets start with the rhythm. In 4/4 tunes, I tend to lean pretty heavily on the bum-ditty pattern, which I'll show below for comparison purposes:
Figure 1 - the standard "bum-ditty" pattern in 4/4
In Figure 1, we've got 2 "bum-ditty's" per measure; therefore, each bum-ditty requres 2 beats. So, how do we get "bum-ditty's" into measures with 3 beats? The most common solution to this is to play a single "bum-ditty-ditty" per measure:
Figure 2 - the "bum-ditty-ditty" pattern for playing waltzes.
So right off the bat, you can use the pattern in Figure 2 to "clawhammer" some chords behind a waltz, thereby liberating yourself from fingerpicking altogether! However, I find this particular rhythm a bit heavy handed. Here's another option (the "bum-bum-ditty"):
Figure 3 - the "bum-bum-ditty" pattern for playing waltzes.
Just a little more tasteful in my opinion : ). There is a 3rd option as well...maybe I'll call it "bum-ditty-bum?"
Figure 4 - the "bum-ditty-bum" pattern for playing waltzes.
Figure 4 is my favorite rhythmic option for most waltzes. The "bum" on the 3rd beat really drives the tune forward by emphasizing a lead-in to the next measure. I suppose you could use "bum-bum-bum," "ditty-ditty-ditty," or "ditty-ditty-bum" approaches along with various brush-free (i.e. ghost-note-containing) varations to fill space as well....I'll let you imagine those alternatives. The approaches shown in Figures 2-4 should get the point across. Once again, armed with the proper chords you can back the melody with any of these approaches. In fact, with two "bums" per measure, the approaches shown in Figures 3 and 4 can be easily altered to allow for some nice alternating bass as well.
However, we can use the ideas presented in Figures 2-4 as the basis for playing melody-heavy rhythmic arrangements as well. With a 4/4 tune, I typically take my rythmic idea (e.g. "bum-ditty") and use it to permeate the tune and create an arrangement as follows: I'll play the melody where it occurs, then revert to "bum-ditty" to fill empty beats (I've got a pretty good discussion of this process in a previous post on "Yew Piney Mountain" here). We can do the same thing with any of the ideas presented in Figures 2-4 as well, thereby creating "bum-ditty-ditty," "bum-bum-ditty," and/or "bum-ditty-bum" arrangements of waltzes that give the illusion of constant rhythm behind the melody as well. But how do we get those pesky melody notes? Time to revisit right hand stride!
Right hand stride as it applies to waltzes:
A couple weeks back I wrote a post about "right hand stride" (here) which was ostensibly written in regards to 4/4 tunes. I came up with some rules that govern right hand stride, presented again below. Note that I've changed all references to the "index finger" to say "striking finger" in recognition that many people strike with the middle finger rather than the index (thanks for the feedback Stew!):
Rule 1 for maintaining right hand stride: The striking finger of the right hand moves towards the strings on every beat; the thumb never plays notes on the beat.
Rule 2 for maintaining right hand stride: The striking finger is never used to play notes between beats; these notes should be played with the thumb of the right hand, with a left hand pluck, or by hammer-ons/pull-offs from notes played on preceding beats.
Rule 2a) if the note on an "and" beat is on a lower string than the preceding note (or if the preceding beat contains a brush, cluck, or ghost note) this note should be played with the thumb of the right hand, or by plucking the string with the left hand.
Rule 2b) if the note on an "and" beat is at a higher fret of the same string of the preceding note, this note should be played with a hammer on.
Rule 2c) if the note on an "and" beat is at a lower fret of the same string of the preceding note, this note should be played with a pull off.
Rule 2d) if the note on an "and" beat is on a higher string than the preceding note, this note should be played by plucking the string with the left hand.
If you look back at Figures 2-4 above, you'll notice that all of these rhythmic approaches actually follow the rules governing Right Hand Stride as outlined above: "bum's" and brushes are played on beat with the striking finger, and 5th string pulls with the thumb cover the notes on "and" beats. Your hand is always moving towards the strings (and, in fact, hitting them) on beats 1, 2, and 3; the approach only differs from 4/4 tunes in that there are three beats instead of four. It turns out that the rules that govern right hand stride work just as well for waltzes as they do for reels/breakdowns. To play fluid-sounding clawhammer in waltz time, one must simply keep track of which notes occur on beats, and which notes occur between beats and follow the rules posted above. Example below.
Putting it all together:
In a seasonally-appropriate move, I decided to use "The First Noel" as my example tune in this post. Christmas tunes are so deeply-ingrained that we are often not concious of their time signatures, but many are actually in waltz time, "The First Noel" included. I have no idea what the traditional key signature of this tune is, but it fell pretty well in D tuning (aDADE) so thats where it ended up in my hands : ). I wrote a tab, which you'll find a bit further down the page, around the "bum-ditty-bum" rhythm outlined in Figure 3 (this actually works quite well for the melody as well, which seems to occupy the 1st and 3rd beat of each measure).
Before looking at the whole tab, lets check out the opening phrase of the Chorus (aka B part if you treat "The First Noel" as an AAB fiddle tune) and figure out how to deal with the melody via the rules of Right Hand Stride. To orient you, if the lyrics of the chorus go as follows (with the text edited to show where notes occur), we're playing the underlined part. Note that the first 2 notes (i.e. No-o-) are actually the lead in from the A part so they're not shown below.
Born is the Ki-ing
Here's the tab for that line without markup to deal with right hand concerns.
FIgure 5 - The first line of the B part of "The First Noel" for Clawhammer Banjo without markup to deal with right hand concerns. To be played in aDADE.
So, lets go through Figure 5 step by step to figure out how to play each note by rules 1 and 2. Once again, I'll use the "+" terminology to discuss notes that occur between beats (i.e. notes on the "and" beats).
Measure 1, Beat 1: Striking Finger (Rule 1)
Measure 1, Beat 1+: empty (just rest my thumb on the 5th string for this beat)
Measure 1, Beat 2: Brush with Striking Finger (Rule 1)
Measure 1, Beat 2+: thumb (Rule 2a)
Measure 1, Beat 3: Striking Finger (Rule 1)
Measure 1, Beat 3+: Hammer on (Rule 2b)
Measure 2, Beat 1: Striking Finger (Rule 1)
Measure 2, Beat 1+: empty (just rest my thumb on the 5th string for this beat)
Measure 2, Beat 2: Brush with Striking Finger (Rule 1)
Measure 2, Beat 2+: thumb (Rule 2a)
Measure 2, Beat 3: Striking Finger (Rule 1)
Measure 2, Beat 3+: Drop Thumb (Rule 2a)
So we end up with the following arrangement:
FIgure 6 - The first line of the B part of "The First Noel" for Clawhammer Banjo with a hammer-on and drop-thumb added in to allow for playing "in stride." To be played in aDADE.
Not too bad huh? Here's the whole tab:
...and a Soundfile:
The First Noel - played by Jeff Norman on Buckeye #159 in aDADE.
Post about this banjohere
The above tab is pretty simple and doesn't require you to break stride once! Also, it sounds best slow, and you're likely already familiar with the melody, so hopefully its a good intro to Clawhammer Waltzes for those who have yet to try them : ) Of course, one thing I have noticed about waltzes is that many require a fair amount of "breaking the rules" when it comes to left hand stride; I'll be revisiting stride-breaking in waltzes in a future post!
Just a reminder: The banjohangout Christmas tune contest voting is live as we speak - feel free to vote for my video by clicking here (last weeks blogpost about my entry, here). Next weekend I'm off to New Hampshire to ride out the holidays and reunite with some friends from Clifftop (....super excited!!!....) - but check in if you get a chance because I'll post again every Sunday as always : )
1/22/2017 10:12:52 pm
Your Noel arrangement is absolutely beautiful, Jeff!
1/23/2017 04:53:15 pm
Thanks so much Janet! I'd love to hear your take on the tune at some point as well - judging by your recording catalog on BHO, I bet I'd love it : )
8/6/2018 08:52:30 am
I can manage waltzes technically, but i usually find the short plucky notes of clawhammer banjo a bit offensive to the sensitive character of many waltzes. Although I have definitely heard waltzes being played beautifully on clawhammer banjo, even in combination with other instruments. I'd love to find out their secret. What you're doing here is beautiful, but I'm still not sure it would combine well with a fiddle. I think for now I'll just stand back during a waltz and enjoy hearing it being played. Definitely without rolling my eyes, though!
Leave a Reply.