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 Playing Advice: Clawhammer and Old-Time Styles
 ARCHIVED TOPIC: TOTW (OT) 18 September 2015: Rattletrap

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:

Zischkale - Posted - 09/17/2015:  21:57:52

There are at times weird tunes. An fiddle melody might be crooked, grinding in place for an extra measure or beat before snapping back in for another round. Then there’s this one, key of G and as straight as they get, offering a comforting eight bars and a warmly familiar fine part, then threatening to leap off the rails during the coarse part. It lurches hard (depending on the player) from C to C# and back down again, no warning or reason (except that it’s awesome).


I’ve been seeing it called the signature tune of the Roan Mountain Hilltoppers (of whom I only knew from the famous little documentary clip, linked here --, a Tennessee family band that can really get down to business, pure old-time goodness. Unfortunately I learned that Bill Birchfield, who could not only shred on fiddle but could lay down a hefty banjo or guitar backup in his own lefty overhand style, passed just this May 15. I’d love to hear y’all’s memories or thoughts on the band!


The tune’s easy to pick up, but I had hell trying to figure out the coarse b-part from the Hilltopper’s version. As I refine this one I’d like to get it closer to what the Easy Street String Band does--really great take on it. Both versions can be heard in this excellent post (and check out the great picture of Bill and his dad Joe):


Couldn’t find a thing on Fiddler’s Companion (though I’ve read this tune was adapted from Old Granny Rattletrap), and there isn’t an abundance of versions on Youtube, but here are some great ones (first one offers a possible explanation for the term "rattletrap"):


Here’s my take on it (gDGBD), sharing the mic with the mysterious fiddler extraordinaire only known as GDGD, who introduced me to the tune.


I’d love to hear everyone’s renditions. I tried experimenting with a choke on the 1st string instead of the slide but decided not to use it in the video--it’s a fun move to do though. This tune might a cool one to do an arrangement of, Janet! That Easy Street rendition might be the clearest source, I really enjoy that one.


More info on the Hilltoppers:


Their website --


Article on Bill’s passing --


Some info from Old Woodchuck in an archived post --


Place to snag one of their albums --

Edited by - Zischkale on 09/17/2015 21:59:13

5Stringtrout - Posted - 09/18/2015:  05:32:52

Great tune.  Field Recorders Collective has a CD and a DVD of The Roan Mountain Hilltoppers available.  The Konnarock Critters did a version too.

trapdoor2 - Posted - 09/18/2015:  08:28:30

LOL. I have been listening and playing OT for a lot of years. It seems I've always been a minute late for this tune, "wow, you should have been here for their last tune" "Sorry, we played 'Rattletrap' just a few minutes ago", etc, etc. I'll vow to go look it up, find a CD...and then forget to do so.

This is my first time to actually hear the tune...and it is a corker. Thanks!!

JanetB - Posted - 09/18/2015:  14:38:23

That's good you bring attention to the Roan Mountain Hilltoppers, Aaron.  Your video is a good 'un.  I'm listening to what I believe is Joe Birchfield's fiddle from the 2000 CD "Down Home" and came up with a clawhammer arrangement.  (You've got me pegged right -- I look forward to doing a TOTW fiddle tune tab like my husband looks forward to the Daily Sudoku puzzles!)   There were two different definitions for a rattletrap in your links.  One is a noise-maker for announcing the arrival of a tinkerer selling wares.  The other is a description of the vehicle used by the Birchfield family to travel to performances.

There's a 1982 interview I found through one of your links where Joe Birchfield (1911 - 2001) states he didn't play the fiddle for 30 years.  When he became too disabled to work and had picked it up again, he treated it as a special hobby.  His son, Bill, stated that there was a bit of "truth-stretching" in the interview.  Here's the link:

And here's a link to the tune that oldwoodchuck said may be related (Old Granny Rattletrap):  It would be fun to play them as a medley and see how similar they may be.  Both came out of eastern Tennessee.

Edited by - JanetB on 09/18/2015 14:45:28

Rattletrap (TOTW)

Rattletrap (CH tab)

JanetB - Posted - 09/18/2015:  16:32:17

Oh dear, found a mistake on my tab above (before LyleK found it big ).  The Galax licks had reversed fret numbers.  The problem is corrected here:

Rattletrap (CH tab)


blanham - Posted - 09/18/2015:  17:14:03

Good choice!  Here attached is Kerry on fiddle, and me on banjo, at a laid-back tempo.  Kerry learned it from a solo fiddle recording of Joe Birchfield.


VIDEO: Rattletrap
(click to view)


greenbrooms - Posted - 09/21/2015:  05:56:25

COOL tune aaron!! thanks so much for sharing it, it's a lot of fun to play. here's my pre-coffee attempt:



VIDEO: TOTW 9/18/15 -- Rattletrap
(click to view)


greenbrooms - Posted - 09/21/2015:  05:58:07

bob -- i really love your arrangement. you and aaron both make this tune sound great as a banjo+fiddle duet. i need to find myself a fiddler to play with

Zischkale - Posted - 09/21/2015:  22:27:22


Originally posted by greenbrooms


bob -- i really love your arrangement. you and aaron both make this tune sound great as a banjo+fiddle duet. i need to find myself a fiddler to play with

Hey, you're out in Virginny, gotta be fiddlers crawling out of the woodworks over there. Really like the tone on that 'jo, and it's a beautiful instrument. What is it? Looks like an octagon!


Thanks for the excellent arrangement as usual, Janet, was wondering how you'd tackle this one! I like the two-note Galax lick, I think Mike Iverson does something similar with three notes, but this one's a lighter touch, great way up to the 5th string.

Thanks for the comments, y'all!

greenbrooms - Posted - 09/22/2015:  04:09:20


Originally posted by Zischkale

Hey, you're out in Virginny, gotta be fiddlers crawling out of the woodworks over there. Really like the tone on that 'jo, and it's a beautiful instrument. What is it? Looks like an octagon!


you'd THINK they'd hear my playing from miles around and just come flocking to my doorstep.. sheesh. once i get a few more tunes under my belt, i'll go and find where they're hiding :)

banjo is a new addition! an old folk art banjo brought back to life by BHO's own Noah Cline (do a quick search for his name and you'll find a lot of his projects on here - some awesome mountain banjos). he finished this one up with a goatskin head and nylgut strings, so it's got a nice plunk to it. here's a video of him showing it off.. one day i'll be able to pull the same sounds out of it that he does!

JanetB - Posted - 09/22/2015:  08:58:11

Old Granny Rattletrap and Rattletrap are said to be related.  The first tune in a medley I recorded, Old Granny Rattletrap, is from Bill Hensley's 1940's recording.  Bill (1873 - 1960), like the Roan Mountain Hilltoppers, was from eastern Tennessee.  (More info on Bill Hensley:

The Hilltoppers came together as a group in the 70's, though the founder, Joe Birchfield (1912 - 2001) played fiddle all his life.  I'd conclude that Old Granny Rattletrap is an older tune based on the relative ages of the fiddlers and the dates of the recordings, though I can't be 100% certain.

Here's what I discovered in comparing the two tunes:  their similar part lies in a few measures of Old Granny Rattletrap's A part and the bulk of the B part of Rattletrap. Importantly, it's in the B part of Rattletrap where you hear the "kicker" in the tune -- an unexpected, rattling chord change going up a half-step.  You don't hear the entire "weird" chord (a C# chord when played in the key of G) in Old Granny, but you do hear that primary note (an F note) that's a half-step higher from what you'd expect to hear.  I inserted a text in the tab to indicate where the similar section begins. (It's right at that same Galax lick you noted in my Rattletrap tab, Aaron.)

I'm playing my Gold Tone cello banjo with minstrel nylgut strings. Coincidentally, Old Granny Rattletrap has a minstrel flavor in its rhythm and feel, with the B part reminding me of Fire on the Mountain.  (When I play it I think of Banjo Hangout member bd and the many minstrel tunes he’s posted.)

And so, Aaron, there is just a bit more to ponder about your interesting TOTW.  I recorded Rattletrap as the second tune in the medley and worked on pronouncing more the “weird” chordal move in the B part, thanks to you! 


Old Granny Rattletrap/Rattletrap medley (CB)

Old Granny Rattletrap (CH tab)

Zischkale - Posted - 09/25/2015:  16:25:04

Awesome work, Janet -- thanks for recording these as a medley and tying the tunes together! I'm really drawn to that strange accidental in Rattletrap (glad to recognize it in Old Granny as well, now!)--would love to find others that feature that sort of quirk (aside from modal tunes).

Sounds great on the cello banjo, inspired choice! Have been drawn to those things since I saw Cathy Moore playing one. Got to give it a go at the fiddle store here in Austin, lot of fun to play. The thing's a beast!

atleson - Posted - 09/30/2015:  14:39:34

i haven't received notifications of the last few Tunes of the Week.  How do i email Eric?

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