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 Playing Advice: Clawhammer and Old-Time Styles
 ARCHIVED TOPIC: TOTW 4/3/15 The Virginia Reel

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Nick Hornbuckle - Posted - 04/03/2015:  09:29:44

Firstly-thanks to Bret for the opportunity to share ‘The Virginia Reel’.


 My learning this tune came as a direct result of wanting to see JD Crowe in person. I had lived in Seattle since 1986 and in 1992 I picked my banjo back up again after several years of being a rock and roll bass player. 

 In the fall of 1993, I learned that JD was going to be part of the ‘Masters of the Banjo ‘ tour, which would make a stop at the University of Washington. I promptly bought tickets to see one of my heroes up close, looking forward to the rare chance to see a living legend.

 To my, at that time, slight disappointment, JD was not able to make the West coast leg of the tour and was replaced by Dr. Ralph Stanley. Oh well, one living legend is as good as the next, I suppose! I had no idea that the other players, unknown to me at the time, would have such a dramatic impact on my banjo playing.

 I was especially intrigued by Tony Ellis’ use of tunings from outside the narrow confines of Bluegrass, and the fact that he wrote such beautiful music for the banjo. Will Keys playing was as charming as he was, and Carroll Best was a revelation-who was this guy?  Seleshe Damessae's playing was amazing, and Seamus Egan's tenor playing, along with the great John Doyle, spoke strongly to my own Scots/Irish roots.


 I had seen and heard clawhammer players before, but none with the drive and groove of Kirk Sutphin. Inspired by the concert I went to Silver Platters the next day and bought Kirk’s great album ‘Old Roots and New Branches’ as well as Tony’s disc, ‘Farewell my Home’.

 I had never had much luck with playing fiddle tunes in the Keith style as it was just too mathematical to me, but I really wanted to play some of the tunes on Kirk’s CD.  My goal was to play exactly what the fiddle played, not a roll based banjo interpretation and while playing in the key of D in Keith style was really difficult, playing in Double C, capo 2 might be easier...

 My first few attempts were pretty good but not very nuanced or musical. I realized from watching Kirk that it was possible to get notes using either hammer-ons, pull-offs or a combination of the two-I didn’t have to pick every note, which was a fundamentally different approach compared to the techniques I had learned from years of studying Earl Scruggs' style.

 This was a quantum leap in my approach to playing the banjo, and has facilitated my adaptation of fiddle tunes to the banjo, as well as my ability to play three finger style with two fingers. 

 I know that these techniques are common among clawhammer players, but they are rarely found in traditional three finger Scruggs’ style. Once a player understands that the left hand techniques are articulating eighth notes instead of the more common sixteenths, everything falls into place. I suggest a more delicate right hand touch to match the amplitude of the hammer-ons and pull-offs in order to to produce a more 'even' sound.


 Now to the tune….’The Virginia Reel’ is on the album ‘Old Roots and New Branches’ (County Records B0000012EQ) and is played by Kirk on fiddle and either Gregg Hooven or Paul Brown on second fiddle.

 I can’t recommend this album any higher than to say it is in my top 10 of all time favorites. The playing is sublime and the arrangements are clear enough to get granular with melodic intricacies….it’s great and immensely inspiring…buy it now!

 I recorded ’The Virginia Reel’ with my friend, Miriam Sonstenes for my album, ‘12x2(+/-1) and am attaching our recorded version of the tune. I shot a video of me playing the tune at tempo and slower which can be found here…

 Finally, here is a pdf of the tune…

 I hope you enjoy ‘The Virginia Reel’ as much as I do and that my use of different tunings, hammer-ons and pull-offs will inspire you to experiment with these different ways to ‘get the notes’!

  Thanks, Nick


VIDEO: The Virginia Reel
(click to view)

The Virginia Reel

The Virginia Reel

vrteach - Posted - 04/03/2015:  11:10:50


I forget if I knew that there was an actual tune by the name Virginia Reel. Mostly when we hear that the dancers want to do the Virginia Reel we make sure that we have a medley to play for them because it can go on for a very long time.

I'm at work and lunch, so I only have access to my crummy aluminum banjo, but here is a CH version I recorded after listening to your excellent rendition. The recording is a bit noisy because I'm in a room next to an air-handling unit. I finally did it right in the third repetition, but unwisely I went for a fourth one.

Edited by - vrteach on 04/03/2015 11:12:38

Virginia Reel


bhniko - Posted - 04/03/2015:  15:11:42

Nick, I sure wrapped my ears around your Virginia Reels. Have to give it a go.


dbrooks - Posted - 04/03/2015:  15:48:42

Great tune and an even better write-up, Nick. I enjoyed hearing about your banjo journey.  I also  like the comparative comments about banjo styles. Thanks for the contribution. 


bbjork - Posted - 04/03/2015:  17:49:23

Thanks for this tune, once I heard Tony Ellis I jumped all over his style which also led me to clawhammer.

JanetB - Posted - 04/04/2015:  08:47:17

What a treat to have you sharing this tune, Nick.  I'm enjoying your CD tremendously.  Your 2-finger style is as good as old-time picking gets. The description of eighth notes compared to sixteenth notes says it all.  I'll look into getting the CD you recommend and will be grateful to learn more about Kirk Sutphin who I've heard of, but know little about.

This version comes from Parley Parsons of Galax, VA.  He was recorded by Andy Cahan and Paul Brown and it's available in the Field Recorders' Collective site.  I've been trying to learn some of his fiddled pieces, so this was a good opportunity.  If anyone wants tab, just let me know.

Old Virginia Reel (TOTW)


hendrid - Posted - 04/04/2015:  10:53:03

Nice tune Nick. It will be a lot of fun.  Aha, I know this melody, Mrs McLeod's Reel/Uncle Joe/Hop High Ladies/Virginia Reel, and more,  WRONG.

I then went to the Fiddlers Companion,  Found 7 versions of the Virginia Reel, some with melodies under several different names and the Old Virginia Reel with 4 versions.  JanetB played an Old Virginia Reel or not or both.  Maybe a bunch of tunes/melodies under floating names.

 As vrteach, Erich said, he thought it was a dance and then remembered it was a tune.  I looked at and found a lot of Virginia Reel dances.  The first dance one I played started off with Coming Round The Mountain, oops, wrong tune.  Others played various tunes or medleys or no tunes at all.


Anyway, interesting Nick and you did specify the record/CD.  Enjoy   Don

Edited by - hendrid on 04/04/2015 10:58:29

CamC - Posted - 04/04/2015:  19:20:39

Here's my attempt at Nick's arrangement, not quite up to speed, but I got through it.

VIDEO: The Virginia Reel
(click to view)


bbjork - Posted - 04/05/2015:  05:04:28

Nice job Can.

Zischkale - Posted - 04/09/2015:  19:14:49

Awesome, Nick, didn't expect to find this style in the TOTW! Awesome stuff, I have a feeling I'll be checking out that tab a lot closer. Thanks for providing me with a ton of new names, too, just widened my to-listen list.



Originally posted by vrteach

The recording is a bit noisy because I'm in a room next to an air-handling unit.

Just another drone as far as I'm concerned!


SCclawman - Posted - 04/15/2015:  13:43:44

This is a wonderful tune of the week thread.

Cam, Janet, Erich - you all have done a wonderful job on your interpretations of the tune


As one who really has enjoyed your CD, I enjoyed reading about your journey that led to you playing in the style that you do. You've got a wonderfully delicate touch on the entire album, and it's been of my favorites to listen to.

Thanks for sharing your version here with the BHO. If you are reading this and don't have Nick's CD, go buy it!

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