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 Playing Advice: Clawhammer and Old-Time Styles

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ChuckJo - Posted - 10/04/2012:  18:38:46

This is a version of Cumberland Gap inspired by Stephen Slottow, a truly great old-time banjoist whom I met in Cleveland, Ohio, circa 1980.    Steve first illustrated the tune by playing it as different traditional players might have approached it (Tommy Jarrell, Kyle Creed, Frank Proffitt) and then showed how elements of each source's playing could be incorporated to in his own version.  Then he patiently taught me the tune (I had to be taught patiently or else I wouldn't learn anything).  His playing was bold, rhythmic, intricate, and inventive.  I thought I learned what Steve had played, but when I went back years later to my recordings of Steve, I discovered that I had drifted far from his example.

In preparation for this video, I have begun to explore the YouTube archive of Cumberland Gap.  It turns out that there is a great diverse treasure of versions from well-known and obscure artists  from the past and present as diverse as Lonnie Donegan (I know its not banjo, but WOW), Glen Campbell (is he playing Scruggs style mixed with frailing?), the aforementioned Tommy Jarrell playing fretless, Dwight Diller, Cheick Hamala Diabate with James Leva, Richie Stearns, Adam Hurt, Bruce Molsky, Cathy Fink, our own Clifton Hicks and Donald Zepp, Aunt Bertha Robinson, Lee Sexton, Frank Fairfield, and Hanna Traynham playing with Ole Rossel in Denmark...

Besides the beauty of the melody, what strikes me is how each player seems to have personalized the tune (I don't think this is just a rationalization for my own license with the tune, but it might be).  I am playing a Sagmoen banjo tuned g#C#F#BE (ends up being in the Key of E.  Tune down a step, and you get f#BEAD, the key of D)

According to Wikipedia:  ( ; )

Cumberland Gap (el. 1,600 ft (490 m)) is a pass through the Cumberland Mountains region of the Appalachian Mountains, also known as the Cumberland Water Gap, at the junction of the U.S. states of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia. Famous in American history for its role as one key passageway through the lower central Appalachians, it was an important part of the Wilderness Road and is now part of the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. Long used by Native Americans, the Cumberland Gap was brought to the attention of settlers in 1750 by Dr. Thomas Walker, a Virginia physician and explorer. The path was widened by a team of loggers led by Daniel Boone, making it accessible to pioneers who used it to journey into the western frontiers of Kentucky and Tennessee.

Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers Through Cumberland Gap by George Caleb Bingham

VIDEO: Chuck Levy Plays Cumberland Gap 10.4.12
(click to view)

staronjeff - Posted - 10/04/2012:  18:41:44

sweet i love this tune

i just recorded this today. i still have a little practice on it



Edited by - staronjeff on 10/04/2012 18:44:22

VIDEO: Tumbling Gap
(click to view)


vrteach - Posted - 10/04/2012:  19:16:33

Cumberland Gap is pretty much a perfect song. I look forward to being around a fast connection so I can browse through your example videos.

My musical friend used Cumberland Gap as the introduction in a historical performance piece he wrote, and I've attached a video from that. We are in G, and I'm in plain old open G tuning.

Edited by - vrteach on 10/04/2012 19:29:10

VIDEO: New Salem Harmony Cumberland Gap-Sandy River Belle
(click to view)


Montanarick - Posted - 10/04/2012:  19:18:33

The array of examples are fantastic....thanks

Snowbird - Posted - 10/04/2012:  19:37:43

Sadly I can not listen to Cumberland Gap without immediately thinking of the Mason Williams poem...
Them Banjo Pickers

Them Banjo Pickers, mighty funny ways,
Same damn song, three or four days
Them Banjo Pickers, all they know,
Cumberland Gap, and Do-Si-Do,
Them Banjo Pickers, talkin' 'bout strings,
Banjo pegs, other such things!
Them Banjo Pickers, poker-faced mugs,
Never do smile, just play scruggs!
Them Banjo Pickers sure are nice,
Play each song, At least twice,
Them Banjo Pickers never git sick
Pickin' them banjo's Pick, pick, pick!

ScottK - Posted - 10/04/2012:  20:11:04

Wow!  Great post and beautiful picking, Chuck!

Here's another video to add to the pile that you shared.  Jason and Pharis Romero playing Cumberland Gap at the 2011 Portland Old Time Music Gathering:


RG - Posted - 10/04/2012:  20:25:32

One of my all time favorite tunes...lot's of great videos posted, one of my all time favorites is George Landers on the "High Atmosphere" album...

ChuckJo - Posted - 10/05/2012:  03:54:27

Here's a Hobart Smith recording, and Richie Stearns with Rosie Newton

VIDEO: Richie & Rosie, Cumberland Gap
(click to view)

VIDEO: Hobart Smith - Cumberland Gap
(click to view)

mbuk06 - Posted - 10/05/2012:  04:22:14

Great tune and one I've always loved listening to.  I like most all TOTW posts but this one is gonna actually make me learn to play the tune too. A lot of the old guys seem to have a specific 'Cumberland Gap' tuning. Is this always the case or can it be played in a more familiar G or A and still sound as good?

mbuk06 - Posted - 10/05/2012:  07:41:33

I just saw the topic on Cumberland Gap tuning started by Steve J. Looks like I need to look over there...

blockader - Posted - 10/05/2012:  08:43:00

Originally posted by mbuk06

Great tune and one I've always loved listening to.  I like most all TOTW posts but this one is gonna actually make me learn to play the tune too. A lot of the old guys seem to have a specific 'Cumberland Gap' tuning. Is this always the case or can it be played in a more familiar G or A and still sound as good?

Around here the fiddlers seem to mostly play it in D, like tommy jarrell, though sometimes with the sweet extra part. So thats how i know it and i play it out of double D. I took alot from zepps great rendition. I hope to find some time to record this weekend.

Evan C - Posted - 10/05/2012:  12:23:34

One of my favorite tunes as well. I play it out of Cumberland Gap Tuning, which, if you haven't tried it, is worth playing around with for this song. The chordings out of that tuning afford the song a unique and mesmerizing sound--a welcomed thing for those of us who mostly play out of open-g and double-c.

I am quite fond of Adam Hurt's recording. Here's a version based on Adam's that's pretty--sometimes the open spaces are as important as the notes played:

Edited by - Evan C on 10/05/2012 12:25:10

jduke - Posted - 10/05/2012:  14:54:07

Great tune! 

Although not the first time I heard the song, the Iron Mountain String Band's version (from back in the days of vinyl LPs) was the one that really caught my attention.  I first played it in G, then Sawmill and now the tuning I know as Cumberland Gap tuning f-DGCD.

Good selection, thanks.


ZEPP - Posted - 10/05/2012:  16:18:44

Cool stuff, people! 

I have videoed this three-part version a couple of times.  I usually play it in 2D (where all the fiddlers I know play it), but for a reason I really don't remember, I played the same version in G, too.

I also play the tune in fCFCD, but I don't think I've ever recorded it there...





JanetB - Posted - 10/05/2012:  20:43:59

Until you posted this most comprehensive coverage of Cumberland Gap, Chuck, I didn't realize that I didn't really know this song.  After listening to several of the offerings here I came up with this one.  It's my first time using Cumberland Gap tuning, and as Evan C says, it's been a rewarding sound. 

Cumberland Gap


ChuckJo - Posted - 10/05/2012:  21:37:38

Hi Janet,

Your version is lovely as usual.  It has an "extra" phrase to my ear.


ChuckJo - Posted - 10/05/2012:  21:48:59

I think when Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham played Cumberland Gap in the key of D, the fiddle was tuned ADAD, and the banjo was tuned f#BEAD

blanham - Posted - 10/06/2012:  05:11:06

Nice topic, and nice soothing playing on your video, Chuck.  I can tell the cardinals are okay with it!

Another great version comes from fiddler Marion Reece.  Here's the link to the source recording:

Clare Milliner and Walt Koken included their fine recording of it on the "Just Tunes" CD.

I came up with something like this on the banjo, in gEADE tuning.  I learned from Walt Koken, at Stephen Foster OT Music Weekend, that he plays it in good old regular G tuning.

Cumberland Gap (from Marion Reece)


pg60 - Posted - 10/06/2012:  05:51:13

Very nice playing Chuck, you make it look so easy. Also enjoy the way that you set the context with the wide variety of other versions. The Daniel Boone painting is pretty cool too!

Mtngoat - Posted - 10/06/2012:  09:44:06

Here's another version I like: tommy-bledsoecumberland-gap

janolov - Posted - 10/06/2012:  09:59:45

The first OT version I heard was by Hattie Stoneman on a Folkways record I bought about 40 years ago. I remember it very well because I have expected someting similar to the Bluegrass version by Scruggs but Hattie's version was quite different.

Don Borchelt - Posted - 10/06/2012:  11:21:43

All really great performances posted here.  A good choice for TOTW, I can't think of another tune with so many different yet closely related versions.

I worked out this old time Cumberland Gap in the key of G attached below from a recording of fiddle and banjo master Bosco Takaki (bagunhe), who learned it from an old recording of West Virginia fiddler Arnold Williamson. Bosco has an ear for great tunes. The banjo is in standard G tuning; I am playing three finger style, this time without picks.

The three part setting of Cumberland Gap in the key of D is the one you hear the most often at jam sessions these days.  I have sometimes heard it mildy derided as the "festival version," but I don't think the fact that it may have evolved from years of playing by many hands, rather than springing melodically intact from an old 78,  makes it any less authentic.  Music is meant to be alive.  I finally sat down and worked this up a few years ago from a recording of the fine fiddling of Hilarie Burhans of Athens, Ohio.   I am in open D tuning, again without picks.

- Don Borchelt


Edited by - Don Borchelt on 10/06/2012 11:24:10

VIDEO: Cumberland Gap (Key of G)
(click to view)

VIDEO: Cumberland Gap (Key of D)
(click to view)

mbuk06 - Posted - 10/06/2012:  13:19:01


Originally posted by blockader


Originally posted by mbuk06

Great tune and one I've always loved listening to.  I like most all TOTW posts but this one is gonna actually make me learn to play the tune too. A lot of the old guys seem to have a specific 'Cumberland Gap' tuning. Is this always the case or can it be played in a more familiar G or A and still sound as good?


Around here the fiddlers seem to mostly play it in D, like tommy jarrell, though sometimes with the sweet extra part. So thats how i know it and i play it out of double D. I took alot from zepps great rendition. I hope to find some time to record this weekend.

Thanks for your advice. I jam with a fiddle player so I see how it makes sense to learn a version in a tuning that fiddle players mostly use.  I just found a tab in D with the extra part. It'll take me a while to get it memorised and smooth but already I'm having fun with this tune.

aeroweenie - Posted - 10/06/2012:  13:54:06

Great song Chuckjo, thanks for providing so many versions!   I think it was the third song I learned, Scruggs style, in 1974.  Of course that was played out of G tuning.  I much prefer the version in D.  Here is my take on it, double C tuning (didn't tune up to D here), learned from the Old Time Jam website (GREAT website!).  Is the D version most common in O/T music?

Cumberland Gap


blanham - Posted - 10/06/2012:  14:14:37

Last year (2011) I studied Wade Ward's playing of Cumberland Gap (and other tunes), by digitally slowing it down, and transcribing each note.  I found the tuning to be aDGCF.  I made this recording today, attempting to illustrate the Wade Ward style.

Hope y'all enjoy!




Cumberland Gap (from Wade Ward)


majikgator - Posted - 10/06/2012:  18:37:21

Nice Chuck! i had always thought of the tune as Frank Proffitt played it and yours of course is quite different really sounds less simplistic, very musical.

Don Borchelt - Posted - 10/07/2012:  15:51:11

The last night of the Clifftop festival, Don Couchie and I sat down to pick some tunes with Ralph Roberts, an old time fiddler from southeastern West Virginia whose camp is very near ours on Geezer Hill.  Ralph knows a lot of rare old tunes, but he plays the chestnuts with equal enthusiasm; this is his version of Cumberland Gap.   Couchie is playing rhythm guitar, and I am following along with some three finger style old time banjo.


- Don Borchelt

Ralph Roberts

Cumberland Gap from Clifftop 2012


CLAWTINTHEACT - Posted - 10/07/2012:  16:54:39

All these are great. Thanks everyone.

pcollings - Posted - 10/08/2012:  12:50:05

This is excellent. I love the context, and the multiple links to some excellent versions.

QQQQQ - Posted - 10/11/2012:  01:55:20

What is the story of the tune Tumblin' Gap?
Some versions of Cumberland Gap sound a lot like it.
My untrained ear goes back and forth between the two of them.

Check the beautiful playing of Tumblin' Gap by Tom Collins, called FretlessFury on the Jukebox.

Mr5string - Posted - 10/11/2012:  03:51:50

This is a great old tune. Lots of great versions covering different styles. My favorite is Dwight Diller's version. WoW. The rhythm and drive. The playing almost sings the song.


BrendanD - Posted - 10/11/2012:  05:26:26

"Tumblin' Gap" is really just Cumberland Gap. Tommy Jarrell sang it as "Tumblin' Gap", but I don't know if that was just his own mishearing of the words or if he learned it that way; I would guess the latter, since I'm sure he knew of the geographical Cumberland Gap, being not that distant from it. Tommy did indeed play it in f#BEAD tuning, and he could make it roll so that the words almost came out of the banjo. I remember marveling at how he just ignored the frets on my banjo and I could hear all the "in-between" notes as his left hand rolled up the low string. I still don't know how he did that!

72rcgrad - Posted - 10/12/2012:  07:26:15

Here's a great version of banjo master, Butch Robins, playing Cumberland Gap!


Edited by - 72rcgrad on 10/12/2012 07:35:41

Cumberland Gap

Butch Robins

Frailerpark - Posted - 10/14/2012:  09:04:23

Love love love this tune in all it's flavours.  Thanks for all these versions; some favourites of mine already here but here's a couple more that certainly make me happy.. :)

Edited by - Frailerpark on 10/14/2012 09:24:30

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