Posted by sixwatergrog on Thursday, August 4, 2011
In the past week I've reached out via email to noted banjo uke players including Linda Higginbotham, Jeff Claus, Sean Ruprecht-Belt, Gretchen Kerndt, Mike Manfredo, Erynn Marshall, Bruce Hutton and Lori Nitzel. I wanted to get their thoughts on the banjo uke in oldtime music: technique, tuning, scale length and anything else that would be helpful. Most everyone I reached out to responded with useful info. Here's a synopsis to what I've learned - the majority of which I can attribute to Linda Higginbotham who supplied me with her very detailed facts on how she plays banjo uke.
Tuning - Most use the (re-entrant) g-C-E-A tuning while some use "key of D friendly" tuning of a-D-F#-B. It's a matter of personal preference. I've thought about both approaches and I don't see much of an advantage with a-D-F#-B, so I'm sticking with GCEA for now. One thing I prefer is a low G for the 4th string. This gives you more range and bass. It's not necessary if all you're doing is playing chords, but I also intend to occasionally play melodies so this tuning will come in handy for that. Most of the banjo uke players I polled were not familiar with the low 4th string method. This is not as surprising as it may seem since the role of banjo uke in oldtime music is rhythmic, driving the backbeat, and it's not necessary to play a single melody note.
Strings - Most everyone said they used regular nylon uke strings, except Jeff Claus uses heavier nylon guitar strings.
Picks - Thankfully, for oldtime banjo uke playing, most players use a very thin nylon pick - .38mm to .60mm. This is good because I had already planned on using a pick to play no matter what.
Banjo Size - most didn't know what size banjo uke they used, although I suspect that it's either soprano or concert scale in most cases. Soprano is a 13" scale, while concert tends to be about 15" from bridge to nut (7.5" from 12th fret to bridge). I'm going with a concert scale of about 14.75".
Choosing and Substituting Chords - There is always more than one way to chord a tune. The chords chosen should express the overall feel of the tune. I mostly go from fakebooks and tab that already have the chords suggested without deciding for myself. At some point I hope to personalize this technique once my understanding grows. For substitutions, the general rule is that you can substitute a chord for one that it shares 2 notes with. So, you can switch out a G with an Eminor. The G chord contains the notes G-B-D, while the Eminor chord has the notes E-G-B. Both contain the notes G & B. There are other rules of thumb and things you can do like using double stops/dyads, drones, and so on; my approach is definitely going to evolve as I learn more. For oldtime music you don't need to change chords that often, in fact, too much chord changing makes it sound busy and non-traditional. However, I hope to draw from other accompaniment techniques, such as the world of Celtic bouzouki backup, for reference.
Friday, August 5, 2011 @6:47:26 AM
Good to see there is someone else here that plays banjo uke.
I just bought my first 5 string last week. Never played one before. I've been playing uke for about a year including banjo uke.
I've already committed to going to a couple of old time music jams in my area even though I'm a raw beginner on the 5 string. I asked if I could bring along my banjo uke to the jam and was told yes. That's good because I'll actually be able to play along in the banjo uke.
Seems like alot of folks don't condider tha banjo uke a real banjo or a real uke. Too bad because it's a wonderful instrument. btw, I play a Gold Tone BUC concert scale banjo uke.
I've also heard the higher aDF#A tuning referred to as "Canadian tuning" Not Sure why.
Friday, August 5, 2011 @11:49:00 AM
Thanks for the comment. You can back fiddle tunes without doing a lick of melody on the banjo uke if you don't want to. You can just "chucka chucka" or "do-wack-a-do" chords and as long as your timing is OK it sounds great...sorta like a washboard that allows you to change chords. Now that I've gotten one it's made me a better player of my other banjo because I've adopted some of the banjo uke technique I picked up. I recommend the Brad Leftwich album The Humdingers to hear this sound.
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