For this week's blog I thought I'd talk about a right hand rhythmic technique that I've been doing for a while: its something I'm calling "The Big Brush" (...for lack of a better name). I don't remember consciously learning or applying this technique, it just kind of showed up in my playing more and more over the years.
What is the Big Brush
The Big Brush is likely easiest to define by comparison to the bum ditty rhythm:
Figure 1 - 4 measures of standard bum ditty on open strings (I've assumed that you're in double D tuning so that the 4th string is your "root note").
In regards to the pasta sauce that spilled on beat 1: I thought about rewriting the tab before scanning...but I just found it funnier to leave it on there : )
Many players (myself included) initially learned to play clawhammer by fitting simple melodies around the bum ditty rhythm; I'm guessing Figure 1 did not blow your mind : ). For good measure let's hear it:
Example 1 - Me playing the bum ditty rhythm (Figure 1) in double D tuning on my Buckeye.
Ignoring the 5th string pulls, the bum ditty essentially mimics the "boom chick" of a guitarist, with a root note played on the 1st and 3rd beats of a measure, and brushes played on the 2nd and 4th beats. The "Big Brush" that I've been referring to essentially slows down this pattern without slowing down your right hand. Check out Figure 2:
Figure 2 - "The Big Brush;" once again, this tab is meant to be played in double D tuning.
Here's audio of the above example:
Example 2 - Me playing "the Big Brush" (Figure 2) on my Buckeye.
As you can see/hear above, the Big Brush involves playing root notes on the 1st beat of each measure and doing brushes on the 3rd beat of each measure; beats 2 and 4 are left empty through the magic of "ghost notes" (more on ghost notes about halfway down the page here). I call this move "the Big Brush" because I usually put a lot of emphasis on the brushes here (much more emphasis than I put on brushes during standard "bum ditty" playing).
Once again, the object here is to cut the rhythmic feel of a tune in half while keeping your right hand moving as if you were playing standard "bum ditty banjo." The pattern of the thumb string pulls serves to maintain a connection to the tune's normal speed.
How/when do you use Big Brushes?
I find Big Brushes especially useful for slow tunes and as a back up to singing; I'll spare you my singing (you're welcome) and give you an example of how Big Brushes work in my go-to slow tune, "Coleman's March." Figure 3 is a simplified melody for the A part of "Coleman's March" without any filler (bum-ditty, Big Brush, or otherwise):
Figure 3 - The A part of "Coleman's March" without any filler.
Here's some audio:
Example 3 - A filler-free version of the A part of "Coleman's March" (Figure 3)
Looking at Figure 3, measures 1, 2, 4, and 8, are mostly empty (I thought about putting a bunch of rests in as filler....but I didn't). As clawhammer players, we'd like to keep our right hands moving and fill in these blanks with rhythm. Just for fun, here's an "extreme double thumbing" example of how to fill in these blanks (reminiscent of my "Yew Piney Mountain" post here):
Figure 4 - The A part of "Coleman's March" with constant ghost note/double thumbing as rhythmic filler. Melody part (from Figure 3) highlighted.
Example 4 - The A part of "Coleman's March" with constant ghost note/double thumbing as rhythmic filler (Figure 4) played on the Buckeye.
That was a bit of an aside; if I were going to do this again, I'd probably put thumb pulls in every possible hole in the melody to give the illusion of constant double thumbing. Anyways, I was supposed to be talking about the bum-ditty/Big Brush distinction, so let's get back on track by checking out Coleman's March with standard "bum ditty" filler:
Figure 5 - The A part of "Coleman's March" with "bum ditties" as rhythmic filler. Melody part (from Figure 3) is again highlighted.
Example 5 - The A part of "Coleman's March" with "bum ditties" as rhythmic filler (Figure 5) played on the Buckeye.
Example 5 sounds okay, but I feel like "bum ditties" stick out a bit against the melody; they just feel a bit formulaic, and perhaps excessively cluttery. Big Brushes to the rescue:
Figure 6 - The A part of "Coleman's March" with Big Brushes as filler.
Example 6 - The A part of "Coleman's March" with Big Brushes as filler (Figure 6) played on the Buckeye.
As I said, Big Brushes kind of naturally sneaked into my playing over the years, but I really do like the sound they provide on tunes like "Coleman's March." As usual, I can't claim to have invented this technique; its entirely possible I picked it up subconsciously from someone else's playing...still, I've definitely incorporated it into my playing style and it would take a lot of work to get it out now.
A final word on where to use Big Brushes: as shown in Figure 3, you need about a full empty measure per Big Brush, which can limit the applicability of this technique. However, I often find room for Big Brushes at the end of phrases (this is true in "Angeline the Baker" for example). Maybe you can find space for Big Brushes in your playing as well : )