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The Clawhammer Core Repertoire Series - an Introduction

Posted by Josh Turknett on Friday, August 30, 2013

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Introducing the Clawhammer Core Repertoire Series

So there you are. After many hours of diligent practice you've got all your bums dittied, thumbs dropped, ons hammered, and offs pulled. In other words, you're starting to get the hang of this mind twisting but endlessly fascinating clawhammer banjo business. And, as much as you enjoy playing solo, you think it might be time to start playing tunes with some other folks. You hear of a local jam group and decide it's about time you summoned up your courage and made an appearance. So off you go.

The jam begins in the key of D. Trouble is, you don’t recognize any of the tunes. You do your best to strum along quietly, but you're not yet at a point where you can pick up a tune on the fly after the first few listens. Finally, though, your turn to call out a tune comes up.

"What would you like to play?" asks the group's alpha fiddler.

Your face starts to flush as you struggle to remember the name of anything you can play, much less something in the key of D. Then, mercifully, something springs to mind!

"How ‘bout Sally Pawned a Pennywhistle?” you ask enthusiastically.

"Hmm...don't think I know that one,” says the fiddler.  “Anyone else know it?"

Heads shake in bewilderment around the room.

"Who'd you learn that one from, anyhow?" inquires the alpha fiddler.

"Umm...I believe his name is hhdavis43#. There may be a hyphen somewhere. He's on youtube."

“Ah,” says the fiddler, with a look of grave concern.

Flummoxed, you scramble to think of anything else.

"I could teach you this tune I wrote the other day. I think it's in B flat," you offer in desperation.

Other jammers start squirming nervously in their seats. An uncomfortable silence follows. "Hmm," says the alpha fiddler, "maybe we should save that one for another time." The group lets out a collective sigh of relief.

Your brain now in complete lockdown from full-on panic mode, you search in vain for anything else. “I guess I'll pass,” you utter in defeat.

The jam proceeds. You do your best to keep up with the unfamiliar set list, but in the end leave dejected and frustrated. Maybe this jamming business isn't for you. Back to the closet you go.

Venturing Out

Most folks in their banjo learning journey will at some point get the itch to start playing music with others. It’s an itch that warrants scratching, as one of the greatest joys in life is making music with other people. And jams provide a great venue for doing so. But, the idea can also at first seem intimidating. What if you’re not ready? What if you mess up and everybody stares? Or laughs? Or, even worse, stares and suppresses their laughter out of abject pity? What if you don’t know any of the tunes they play? For Pete's sake, why on earth would you ever subject yourself to such things?!

Fear not! The clawhammer core repertoire is here to fill you with confidence, fortify your constitution, and maximize your enjoyment of your early jam experiences.

Two of the best things you can do to make sure you’re first experiences jamming with others are blissful and rewarding are:

1) make sure you know some tunes that others will know, and
2) practice playing those tunes in a jam-like setting

To satisfy the first requirement, it’s a great idea to start developing a core set of tunes that old-time musicians just about anywhere will know. This way you’ll be prepared for any range of jamming experiences that may come your way. Though it’s possible to pick up tunes you’re not familiar with “on the fly", it's a more advanced skill, and there’s no sense waiting until you’ve mastered it to start playing with others. Such behavior would be entirely paradoxical, in fact, since the only way you can learn to pick up unfamiliar tunes on the fly is to actually practice doing it.

The core repertoire of tunes we’ll be learning are based on data compiled from multiple surveys of old-time enthusiasts. You’ll find each one of them on the top 20 playlist at, and in this series we’ll be starting with the most popular tune of all and then move down the list. Now, these tunes are not only great to know if you plan to play with other folks, they’re also just great tunes period. Their popularity is well deserved!

It’s possible that you’ve already learned some of the tunes in this series. However, if you’ve never actually played them with other musicians, I’d encourage you to still work through the exercises even on the ones you already know. When you start playing with others, you soon realize that you won’t usually be able to play tunes the exact same way you play it by yourself. In fact, sometimes you must play it quite differently for things to sound good. Personally, I never play any of these tunes the same way by myself as I do in a jam situation.

To satisfy the second requirement of practicing tunes in a jam-like setting, I highly recommend playing along with backup tracks. Metronomes are a great tool for practicing good timing, but they do not necessarily prepare you for playing with other musicians. Unless of course those other musicians is a grandfather clock. No, the best way to practice the skill of playing with other instruments is to actually practice playing with other instruments. Sometimes the obvious is obvious.

To find backup tracks created expressly for this purpose, head over to the old-time jam website. There you’ll find jamming buddies who will back you up any time, and they’ll play the same tune as much as you wish without protest. Unless that tune is Gangnam Style, which they won't play at all.

To get the most out of the backup tracks, begin by playing with the “slow guitar” backup track for the tune. Once you can play along cleanly and in time with it, move to the normal speed guitar backup. Once you have that down, give it a shot with the “fiddle and guitar” backup, where you’ll be providing the missing banjo part to round out the sound of a full string band.

Okay, let’s get started with Episode One!




2 comments on “The Clawhammer Core Repertoire Series - an Introduction”

EricFlatpick Says:
Monday, September 23, 2013 @3:39:52 PM

Thanks and kudos for putting this together. Great resource, thoughtfully constructed.

russelldu Says:
Saturday, September 28, 2013 @10:53:14 AM

+ EricFlatpick, I agree and appreciate it, I feel this is the most important and successful method of becoming an experienced, well rounded player.

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