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 Playing Advice: Clawhammer and Old-Time Styles
 ARCHIVED TOPIC: TOTW 6/7/13 - Old Billy Hell

Please note this is an archived topic, so it is locked and unable to be replied to. You may, however, start a new topic and refer to this topic with a link:

J-Walk - Posted - 06/07/2013:  09:19:47

Old Billy Hell

I first became acquainted with this catchy (and slightly crooked) tune from Clare Milliner and Walt Koken's recording on their "Just Tunes" CD. Not much detail in the liner notes -- just that the source is Kentucky fiddler Estill Bingham. If, for some reason, you don't have this album, here's a short excerpt.

(Estill Bingham photo hot-linked  from Don Borchelt's site, in a blatant case of bandwidth theft)


Here's a link to two recording of Estill Bingam playing Old Billy Hell, both made by Bruce Green in 1989 (the year before Estill Bingham died):

Besides the original recordings and the Milliner/Koken track, the only other recordings I've run across are:


Videos of people playing the tune:


So what key is this tune in? Take your pick.

The Estill Bingam recordings are in the key of approximately D. 

But, in the book, Old Time Kentucky Fiddle Tunes, Jeff Todd Titon has the tune notated in G (see below). Titon cites a field recording of Estill Bingam made by Bob Butler (which I haven't found). So, it's possible that Estill Bingam played it in either D or G, depending on his mood.

For the record, Margolin & Zan play it in D, as does Michael Sawyer. Sheesham and Lotus play it in F – but their version features a harmonica lead and gourd banjo, so that could explain the unusual key. The other recordings and videos I mentioned above are in G.

Playing it in G works out much better for banjo, I think, because the B part is played high rather than low. And playing that part high is what I like best about the tune.

In the Milliner/Koken recording, the chords might go something like this (played AABB -- or AAB per the notation above):

A Part:
G/// G/// C/ D/ G///

B Part:
G/// G/// G/// G/ D/ G


For those who like tab:

  • Banjo tab by Yigal Zan is available here. It's arranged for Double D tuning, and the notation (also in D) is part of the file.

  • And if you play mountain dulcimer, Butch Ross has some tab for you (also in D)

Who/What is Billy Hell?

It's sometimes interesting to know the origins of a tune's name. I found this, which isn't very helpful:

"Raise hell" means to protest or reprimand someone angrily. To "raise Old Billy Hell" is to raise hell of the intensity of the devil (Old Billy).

Perhaps it's from this 1901 Creek Indian poem (which is about a fiddle): Fus Harjo and Old Billy Hell.

We'll probably never know. In any case, it's a tune worth knowing.

Post yours

Give it a try and post your interpretation. And then, spread it around in your jams.

I play this tune in G, using standard tuning. But I started working it out on a low-tuned banjo in Double G tuning (dGDGA). In this tuning, I play the A part high and the B part low (in Yigal's tab, the A part is played low). I posted a recording. As you can hear, it's still pretty rough.

Bonus Estill Bingam stuff!

No extra charge.

Old Billy Hell


Beachbum Scott - Posted - 06/07/2013:  09:32:21


A tune I can both learn on banjo and to flatpick thanks for the tab and notation.

Don Borchelt - Posted - 06/07/2013:  09:59:00

J-Walk wrote: "Estill Bingham photo hot-linked  from Don Borchelt's site, in a blatant case of bandwidth theft..."

Well, I stole it out of Jeff Titon's Old Time Kentucky Fiddle Tunes.

SCclawman - Posted - 06/07/2013:  11:40:47


Originally posted by J-Walk


Post yours

Give it a try and post your interpretation. And then, spread it around in your jams.

I play this tune in G, using standard tuning. But I started working it out on a low-tuned banjo in Double G tuning (dGDGA). In this tuning, I play the A part high and the B part low (in Yigal's tab, the A part is played low). I posted a recording. As you can hear, it's still pretty rough.


 John, that recording is far from rough. I love the way it sounds. Great playing.

I give you an A++ on this write up. Almost seems like you used to be in charge of the TOTW or something!

I'd never heard of the tune before, but it's really cool. I need to learn more G tunes. I keep telling myself that, and then I go and learn another D tune.

Thanks for sharing with us!

ScottK - Posted - 06/07/2013:  14:23:01

Great choice, J-Walk!  I really like your version!

This tune made it on to my fiddle to-learn list after I followed the Canote Brothers playing it in a jam at ABC last year, but I haven't tackled it yet.  I'll bump it up in the list and see if I can have it ready in time for Centralia.


Hilarie Burhans - Posted - 06/07/2013:  16:31:34

Ok, first tune in my resolution to learn the TOTW every week... Yay! good tune pick.  Here's my attempt:

ScottK - Posted - 06/07/2013:  17:14:00

Nice picking, Hilarie!

As an aside, turns out that video of Estill Bingham playing Old Granny Blair that J-Walk linked was posted by my local fiddle buddy Clint Gorthy.  I'm going to have to ask where that came from next time I see him.  That's a tune I learned on fiddle from a recording my son Erik made at a workshop Dirk Powell gave at Sammy Lind's house here in Portland a few years ago.


dbrooks - Posted - 06/07/2013:  18:01:55

Wonderful version, Hilarie. I had just started tabbing the tune in G, but your version in D really sings. Here's an active link to your video to make it easier for others to enjoy.


J-Walk - Posted - 06/07/2013:  19:00:29

Thanks for learning this tune, Hilarie. That made my day! It sounds like you've been playing it for years. 

Hilarie Burhans - Posted - 06/07/2013:  19:43:40

Aw, shucks... Let's just see if I can stick to my resolution!!

RWJones1970 - Posted - 06/08/2013:  06:37:32

Fantastic write up and version of the tune J-Walk. Curious to know what banjo you used to record this tune on? Sounds great.

J-Walk - Posted - 06/08/2013:  07:40:54

Thanks. The banjo was my 13" J Mogi (fretted), strung with a custom set of Nylguts from John Bowlin.

Don Borchelt - Posted - 06/08/2013:  08:20:47

Great tune choice.  I love all the versions posted, John, Mike, Bob B, YZ, and of course Hillary, all fine picking.  I took John's advice and learned it in standard G, but after watching Hillary play it in D, I'm having second thoughts.  Anyway, here's my G version.

- Don Borchelt

VIDEO: Old Billy Hell
(click to view)


Gadaya - Posted - 06/08/2013:  12:38:46

Another great tune for TOTW! And some fine playing by everyone... I really liked your version Don.Your up-the-neck playing always amaze me. I play this already on the fiddle but might give it a try on the 5-string as well.

Brooklynbanjoboy - Posted - 06/08/2013:  16:27:09

Once again, a great tune, a fine write up, and another playing challenge.

Don just told me for every tune he learns, he forgets two.

For every tune I PLAY, I forget two.

Here's my crack at the tune:

Have a happy Sunday,



JanetB - Posted - 06/08/2013:  17:46:07

You did a heckuva good presentation, J-Walk, and played it so nicely.  I'm glad to learn another Estill Bingham tune and also found it on the Slippery Elm website and in the Milliner-Koken American Fiddle Tune book.   Something about this tune made me go faster.             

Old Billy Hell


J-Walk - Posted - 06/08/2013:  18:29:16

Yowsers, Janet.

That's amazing. Perfect example of taking a simple tune and making it your own, You nailed it.

Keep 'em comin' folks. Don't let these pros intimidate you. Recordings by newer players are always welcome. It's a fun learning thing. It's not a contest.

Edited by - J-Walk on 06/08/2013 18:30:42

RWJones1970 - Posted - 06/08/2013:  18:42:22

"it's a fun learning thing. It's not a contest." Good encouragement and well put J.

Brooklynbanjoboy - Posted - 06/09/2013:  02:32:30

Hey, Janet.  I agree with JWalk.  You grabbed this tune and turned it around.  Nicely done.



JanetB - Posted - 06/09/2013:  06:47:50

Thanks, gentlemen, you're most encouraging.  Sometimes when I play a tune 100 times to try and get an MP3, something good happens!  approve

I just bought the book The Devil's Box, Masters of Southern Fiddling by Charles Wolfe.  Though I doubt if Estill Bingham isn't mentioned, the book title reminds me of the 1901 poem "Fus, Harjo, and Billy Hell" linked above in J-Walk's introduction.

I really liked your slow, melodic pace, John, and also Hilarie's soothing notes on the B part.  Lew got it down, too.  Don's version helped me learn it.

The description of Tune of the Week as a fun, learning place suits it perfectly.  The more pickers who try, the more fun TOTW becomes.  Plus you only get better by trying and trying and trying and trying.

camcumberland - Posted - 06/09/2013:  08:31:11

Oh what the hell, here's my take.

VIDEO: Old Billy Hell
(click to view)


Gadaya - Posted - 06/09/2013:  16:54:15

I finally worked on "Old Billy Hell" today on the banjo and made an arrangement that I like.


J-Walk - Posted - 06/09/2013:  17:52:05

This is great. Everybody has their own unique interpretation. All good.

Keep 'em coming, folks. 

YorkshireWannabeOldTimer - Posted - 06/11/2013:  06:21:25

Great TOTW and great versions of the tune posted! With some trepidation - it's the first time I've posted a video - here's another, in D. (The sepia-ing resulted from an attempt to improve on a weird-looking video, but the cure may have been worse than the disease.) Got to mention that the banjo is an A-scale slotheaded spunover 12" pot-ted Dobson that very recently arrived for me in the UK, made by Jason Burns - it's a finer instrument than I could ever deserve.



Edited by - YorkshireWannabeOldTimer on 06/11/2013 06:22:28

VIDEO: Old Billy Hell
(click to view)


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