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 Playing Advice: Clawhammer and Old-Time Styles
 ARCHIVED TOPIC: TOTW 3/29/13 Sugar Hill

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blockader - Posted - 03/29/2013:  07:58:47

I chose this tune because it is one of my favorites and it hadn’t yet been Tuna’d! Y’all are all likely familiar with it, as Sugar Hill has got to be one of the most ubiquitous tunes in the old time canon. And for good reason, as it is a rollickin’ good time with great rhythm, melody, and even words to holler out!

It’s in the key of D with 16 measures to each part. Most fiddlers play it out of ADAE (though GDAE works alright as well) and most banjohammerers play it out of aDADE.

The subject of the song is disputed. I’ve heard folks say it’s about a Hill renowned for liquor makin/drinkin and others say it’s a Hill dedicated to more Fleshly pursuits, but these hardly seem mutually exclusive to me! In fact, in the Upland South we have a tradition of gathering in certain areas for partying and hell raising etc; locales where people could blow off steam without offending or injuring the more conforming members of the region. Here in Franklin County it used to be an area called Gum Log, and in Haralson County where I’m from originally there were two such places, a gorge near Tallapoosa called Devil’s Kitchen and also a long ridge named Dugdown Mountain. So, in my opinion, “Sugar Hill” reflects that facet of Appalachian society, and its these places that come to mind when I play the tune.

I have also read in some liner notes that the tune refers to a Hill particularly suited to maple trees for syrup making. Brad Leftwich writes that “Kevin Donleavy notes that a hill near Lambsburg, VA, known by locals as Sugar Hill, concealed a number of moonshine stills and had the reputation for being a rough and dangerous area,” but this tune was hardly limited to Virginia/North Carolina border so it seems unlikely to me that it refers to a single specific place. Sugar Hill isn’t exactly an uncommon place name, there are at least two in Georgia alone. Like many common tunes, I think it meant different things to different folks.

For me, the definitive version is from Tommy Jarrell:

But the Freight Hoppers sure do beat the hell out of it too:

Heres an excellent traditional roundpeaky rendering on a fretless banjo:

Sugar Hill is not really a tune that lends itself to solo banjo dynamite(someone please prove me wrong), but I really love where he takes the tune further into that video.

There are more than a few BHO music files, though fewer than I woulda thought, but I will let y’all post them up your own selves. I have a few favorites I will add in later if they get neglected.

Here is video of myself playing Sugar Hill on my new Jason Mogi A-scale half fretless and also on the fiddle for good measure. (edit: i just noticed i left out a repeat of the high part in the banjo video- oops! i did it in a hurry during naptime and never checked it all the way through.)


Edited by - blockader on 03/29/2013 09:00:04

VIDEO: Sugar Hill
(click to view)

VIDEO: Sugar Hill
(click to view)

vrteach - Posted - 03/29/2013:  10:23:58

Fine TOTW choice! I do a version which I think I derived from an LP by Fleming Brown. When I was in High School my mother was director of the public library, and when the media department got a Folk-Legacy Records catalog, she asked me to make recommendations. I was heavy into dulcimers at the time, plus doing constant playings of a bunch of Folkways albums. Anyway, the Fleming Brown LP was one of my recommendations so I got to listen to the Library's copy. Brown was an important figure of the Chicago folk music community of the 1950s and 60s.

A few years later I took up the banjo, and worked out a version in G. And that's how I play it still. I have no idea what key Brown was playing in, but I bet that when I did it on the dulcimer I was tuned up to G-Ionian, or near to that.

Edited by - vrteach on 03/29/2013 10:27:40

Sugar Hill (in G)


mbuk06 - Posted - 03/29/2013:  10:58:38

Great choice for TOTW. And one of my favorite tunes to play.


Sugar Hill


Don Borchelt - Posted - 03/29/2013:  11:02:25

A great choice for Tune of the Week.  Some fine picking, guys.  Blockader, a man who plays a semi-fretless banjo is nearer to the angels, really fine picking.  Some really nice variations, sneaking around up there amongst the wires in fretted territory.   Very fine picking by Eric, too, and a nice job of singing.  I like to hear that hungry, knock-down brush stroke, grabs you right around the middle and shakes you.  I really liked Mike's version from across the pond, too, when I first heard it, and I still do.  Great job.

Ed Britt and I recorded this in my living room back in January, 2009.  I had just worked this up after listening to a fine version by West Virginia fiddler Jack Krack.  Ed is playing clawhammer stytle on his Ome, in double C tuning, capoed on the 2nd fret, I'm three-finger picking on my semi-fretless Vega Tubaphone, in open D tuning.

- Don Borchelt

             Fred with Tubaphone


Edited by - Don Borchelt on 03/29/2013 11:04:05

Sugar Hill with Ed Britt


J-Walk - Posted - 03/29/2013:  16:29:46

Good PoTW post for a great tune, that (for some reason) rarely comes up in our jams.  That J. Mogi sounds great, blockader. 

Kitt - Posted - 03/29/2013:  19:13:22

Just as a point of interest, Ray Chatfield, the banjo player on the Sugar Hill video and several others with Tommy Jarrell, has a BHangout page. He has left it danged near blank but nonetheless... If you're ever lurking around here, Ray: nice banjoin' on those Jarrell vids!

oldwolf - Posted - 03/29/2013:  19:36:15

Now that's the stuff! Why can't I find anybody interested in my neck of the south woods?
Gene Warner

blockader - Posted - 03/29/2013:  19:59:17

Really great takes so far! Don, you are one of the people who made me want a half fretless! J-walk, Jason Mogi is wonderful, as are his banjos. Kitt, Ray Chatfield's playing in that series of videos is some of my favorite banjo work, period. I haven't found much else from him, he did play on at least one record from County, but i haven't got them yet. Oldwolf, wheres your neck? Theres old time about everywhere, but it can take some hunting. 

Heres a cool take on the tune from Rudy:

Edited by - blockader on 03/29/2013 20:00:52

oldwolf - Posted - 03/29/2013:  21:32:59

"blockader" I'm down in San Antonio, Texas. We have a handful of bluegrassers, some country, and lots of heavy metal and rap.
Gene Warner

mbuk06 - Posted - 03/30/2013:  02:10:49


Originally posted by blockader


Ray Chatfield's playing in that series of videos is some of my favorite banjo work, period. I haven't found much else from him, he did play on at least one record from County, but i haven't got them yet.

Ray Chatfield's playing does it for me too. I'd love to know if he can be found on any other recordings (maybe even uncredited?)...but puttin' it down like that. And here is that fantastic session clip from 1983 with Ray and Tommy Jarrell playing 'Sugar Hill':

blockader - Posted - 03/30/2013:  07:07:32

Heres the record ray chatfield is on from County:'

Its 19 tracks, and some of them are a bit different for the area. I was gonna ask for it for my birthday in october, but you are convincing me to move up the time frame!


mbuk06 - Posted - 03/30/2013:  09:00:20


Originally posted by blockader


Heres the record ray chatfield is on from County:'

Its 19 tracks, and some of them are a bit different for the area. I was gonna ask for it for my birthday in october, but you are convincing me to move up the time frame!


Thanks for the County link to the Ray Chatfield cd. I just noticed that you'd already posted Tommy Jarrell's version of 'Sugar Hill'...doh! Well, I guess music that good deserves two links in the same thread making twice the opportunity to listen in!

camcumberland - Posted - 03/30/2013:  09:33:03

Great TOTW blockader, I'm always inspired by your playing. Here's my attempt.

VIDEO: Sugar Hill
(click to view)


aeroweenie - Posted - 03/30/2013:  10:59:15

Great pick Blockader, I like your banjo and fiddle renditions of the tune.  This has become one of my favorite tunes since learning it about 6 months ago from the Brad Leftwich book.  Lots of really good versions posted so far, so I thought I'd post something a little different.  This version is played on a fretless minstrel style banjo I recently built.  The banjo is tuned dGDGA so I think it puts the tune in the key of G.

Sugar Hill


mojo_monk - Posted - 03/31/2013:  03:48:45

Good one. Can't believe it hasn't been done yet!!!

Great links and write up, Justin - and I gotta say your fiddling is getting mighty fine. Keep it up!

I arranged this one in gCGCE for my Thumb Lead Banjer site a few years back.

HERE's the write-up (ignore the 'CLICK HERE FOR TAB' link at the top. It's busted.)

HERE's a tab in .pdf format

HERE's an accompanying .mp3





blockader - Posted - 03/31/2013:  04:55:39

Very cool, folks. More great versions!

Sean, i've been wanting to try my hand at that, but my big ol' clawhammer fingernails seem to get in the way. Got any advice on that front? 

bhniko - Posted - 04/04/2013:  08:41:48

Sugar sweet picking. A perky happy lilt which was so enjoyed.
Two cardinals hopping around in my tree, outside my screened door, seemed to enjoy it as much as I did.

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