Clawhammer Core Repertoire Series, Episode One
If you'd like a free, downloadable ebook of lessons 1 thru 7 (over 50 pages of content), just click here.
The first tune we’ll be learning in the clawhammer core repertoire series is Soldier’s Joy, undeniably the most classically classic old-time tune of them all. Ask any random assortment of old-timey musicians from sea to shining sea to list their most popular jamming tunes, and Soldier’s Joy invariably tops the list. And for good reason. It’s one heck of a great tune. Many an unsuspecting Scruggsophile has been seduced to the drop thumbing dark side by its call, myself included.
Now, I’ve heard it said before that Soldier’s Joy is not a suitable tune for a beginner, that it’s too complicated or technically demanding. I’ve also heard it said that gerbils don’t bite, but scars don't lie. So let’s put that myth to rest. There is nothing inherently hard or easy about a tune. Yes, a particular arrangement of a tune can be technically challenging, but how you choose to arrange a tune is entirely up to you. For the most part, you’re free to make a tune as technically demanding as you wish. This applies especially in a jam setting, where the fiddle is typically responsible for making sure the melody is rendered with appropriate fanciness.
The Standard Procedure
In this core repertoire series, every tune will be first broken down into its skeletal melody. What you’ll find as we do this is that, stripped of their ornamentations and fanciful flourishes, all these tunes look about the same naked. Which is to say quite good, thank you very much. Once you’ve identified it’s soul, you can then dress the tune up however you wish, and how fancy you make it is what really determines how technically demanding it is.
This method of building each tune from the ground up is one we’ll use for each of the tunes in the clawhammer core repertoire series, and its an approach I suggest you familiarize yourself with. By stripping each tune down to its core and then building it back up again, you’ll not only find the process of learning new tunes much more accessible, you’ll also inevitably begin adding your own stylistic preferences into your playing. And you’ll be much closer to being able to make good music with other people. ‘Nuff said, it’s tune learnin’ time.
Step 1: Know thy Melody
First, you must listen. It is a cardinal sin of banjo learning, punishable by up to five consecutive nights at a singer-songwriter open mic night, to attempt to learn any tune before you have burned its melody into your cerebral circuits. This steadfast directive applies whether you are learning by tab, ear, cablecar, vestigial appendage, or some combination thereof. You should always be capable of humming the melody from start to finish before you ever start trying to learn it on your instrument. No cheatin.
And, again, what we’re really interested in here is finding the tune’s essence. Rarely do two musicians play any particular tune the same exact way; however, the core melody is always there. Individual musicians may decorate the tune’s skeleton in different ways, but its essence doesn’t change. For if it did, it would be a different tune. It’s analogous to the difference between you and your appearance at any given time: though your hair and clothes may vary from one day to the next, your friends and family still know its you. They can easily identify your essence underneath the decorations.
It stands to reason that the best place to learn how a fiddle tune goes is to hear it played on the fiddle. So let’s begin by listening to a few versions of Soldier’s Joy on the fiddle courtesy of the fiddle hangout (if you’re wanting to play music with others, I suggest you get in the habit of learning new tunes from instruments other than the banjo, which is why we won’t be using banjo recordings in this series).
While it's clear in each of these examples that the same tune is being played, no two versions sound the same. The notes, the phrasing, the rhythm is different in each and every one; however, you can still easily tell each one is Soldier’s Joy. Why? Because the core of the tune, which you identify naturally, is always there. And it’s that core of the tune that you must first know cold before proceeding further. So don’t move to the next step until you can hum that essence to yourself.
Step 2: Find the melody notes
For the next step, let’s take out our banjos. Soldier’s Joy is in the key of D, so tune your banjo to aDADE (aka “double D” tuning). It’s time now to see if you can pick out the basic skeletal melody of Soldier’s Joy. Don’t add any rhythmic or melodic embellishments at this point. Just find the basic melody notes. It should sound something like this:
And here it is in tablature form (chords are listed above the tablature):
Step 3: Add some clawhammery stuff
Now, in the basic bum-ditty pattern of clawhammer banjo, the striking finger of the picking hand (be it your index or middle) is almost always going to be striking a single string on the downbeats of each measure (i.e. the “bums” always occur on a downbeat). For your convenience, the notes that occur on the downbeat are represented in a larger font in the tab above. To create a simple, but entirely adequate, arrangement for clawhammer banjo, just play those melody notes that occur on the downbeats of each measure, and then play a “ditty” stroke after them. In tab form, it looks like this:
And sounds like this:
Already, we have a respectable version of Soldier’s Joy for clawhammer banjo that would work just fine in a jam context. Also, since it’s constructed from the essence of the tune, it should also mesh just fine with many different fiddle arrangements. Here’s what it sounds like played alongside the fiddle:
And from the perspective of the fiddler (me in this particular case), this particular arrangement is perfectly good. Fiddlers mainly care about one thing when it comes to banjo players - that they keep a solid rhythm. Most couldn’t care less how many drop thumbs or alternate string pull-offs you manage, so long as you keep a steady beat and play your notes in time. So keep this in mind any time you’re trying to spruce up a tune. Never sacrifice your rhythm and timing for the sake of a fancier arrangement.
Step 4: Embellish to fit the situation
Now that you have a basic clawhammer version of Soldier’s Joy pared down to its essential core, you’re free to adorn it as you please. You could, of course, start adding in some extra stuff to flesh out a version that sounds good on solo banjo. However, since this series is about getting you playing with others, I encourage you to start thinking like a musician in an ensemble. Remember, what sounds good as a solo arrangement may not work so well in the context of a group, so it’s a good idea to start getting into the habit of learning how to adapt your playing to suit the situation and enhance the overall sound.
One of the best ways to adapt a tune to fit a jam situation is to try to match the arrangement and phrasing of the fiddler, since the banjo and fiddle playing in tandem is one of the most wondrous sounds in old-time music. Let’s try that with the fiddle version we just heard. First, listen to it again solo:
Now here’s how that particular arrangement and phrasing of Soldier’s Joy sounds translated to clawhammer banjo. Again, I’m trying to capture as many of the nuances of the fiddle part without sacrificing the rhythm.
And here's how that arrangement looks in tab:
Played with the fiddle, here’s how the two sound together:
Neat stuff, right?
Step 5: Practice smart
I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: the best way to practice jamming is to practice jamming. So, as you continue to work on getting this tune under your fingers, I encourage you to head over to oldtimejam.com and make use of the Soldier’s Joy backup tracks, which are the next best thing to practicing with living creatures. Start first with the slow guitar backup tracks. Once you can play along with that, move to the regular speed backup track. Once you have that mastered, then try playing along with the “fiddle and guitar” track to get the hang of playing it alongside the fiddle. See if you can adapt the way you play it to fit in the groove and double the fiddle as best you can. For extra credit, go back to those fiddle versions I linked to earlier and see if you can adapt your playing to fit well with them as well.
Whatever you do, don’t ever stop playing this tune. It’s number one for a reason, and deserves to be spread to the far reaches of the galaxy.
Monday, September 23, 2013 @10:09:01 AM
This lesson looks great! Can't wait to get home and try this! Thanks so much!
Dave in SLC Says:
Monday, September 23, 2013 @11:35:44 AM
When you say to "tune your banjo to aDADE (aka “double D” tuning)", I would suggest throwing a capo on the 2nd fret and tuning to "double C" for people who haven't used the D and A positions on a banjo to any great extent. If someone tunes their banjo all the way up to the "double D," I would be afraid of the extra tension on the banjo neck.
But still, nice job! :)
Dave in Utah
Josh Turknett Says:
Monday, September 23, 2013 @11:45:33 AM
Spitfire - you're welcome. Let me know how it goes!
Dave - Yep, many of us get to double D with a capo, myself included. Although unless you have a weak, truss-rodless neck, there should be no problem tuning up to aDADE without a capo. A number of folks do it that way, and so far as I know I've never heard of issues of warpage :)
Monday, September 23, 2013 @12:38:34 PM
I got the tune in my head and I love it.Thank you so much,best presentation ever!
Monday, September 23, 2013 @5:06:03 PM
Great lesson! I'm not surprised considering how good good your website is. A big thank you!
John McGraw Says:
Monday, September 23, 2013 @5:10:37 PM
One of my favorite tunes. As a novice, I often have trouble finding the basic melody, so this approach is appreciated.
Suggested tunes in the future:
Saint Anne's Reel
Monday, September 23, 2013 @5:22:03 PM
This is an incredibly generous contribution to the clawhammer banjo community with terrific tips, tabs, and links. Although I've been playing for about 3 years now and know many of the "jam" tunes, I've had little experience playing with other musicians. I'm anticipating that this series will be perfect preparation for building the confidence and fluidity I'll need to jam with real people. Thank you so much!
little finch Says:
Monday, September 23, 2013 @6:10:13 PM
I've been working on learning Soldier's Joy in G so this was an interesting new look at the tune. As a neophyte I find it a bit daunting that to really get good at this would (seemingly) require developing a transposing agility and ...wow! I feel a bit overwhelmed! Little Finch
Monday, September 23, 2013 @6:35:28 PM
Thank you. Excellent post.
Monday, September 23, 2013 @7:04:09 PM
Good lesson! I played fiddle tunes on guitar, mandolin and dulcimer 30 years ago. Now that I am learning clawhammer banjo, I am learning to play the same tunes over again, using a technique very much like you describe. I tend to use a very legato technique, with a lot of hammer-ons and pull-offs.
Josh Turknett Says:
Tuesday, September 24, 2013 @4:59:20 AM
Thanks all for the kind words. Much appreciated!
John - you can expect at least a couple of those tunes to pop up in this series :)
little finch - I would encourage you to consider trying out soldier's joy in D as outlined above. Most all fiddle tunes have a standard key in which they're played (unlike songs, where the key is often changed to suit the vocal range of a singer). S of you think you'd like to play it with other folks at some point, it's almost a certainty they'll be playing it in D. And don't be intimidated by the new key - one of the great things about the banjo's alternate tunings (like aDADE in this case) is they're designed to make certain keys easier to play in and better sounding.
Tuesday, September 24, 2013 @12:02:17 PM
This looks great! I'm in the process of moving, so my banjos are packed-up and about to be shipped out to the new place. Can't wait to get started with your leasons. I have a difficult time identifying the melody, but I'm certain your approach will be of great help. And it give me a chance to start learning how to use other keys.
Shady Grove Says:
Tuesday, September 24, 2013 @3:09:22 PM
I like the logical approach. If there was a book, I'd buy the book and CD to give to my nephew who does not live close by. I know that he would appreciate it. Thanks for the post, I'll be looking for the upcoming work. I add my thanks to your growing list.
Thursday, September 26, 2013 @5:08:04 AM
Great lesson, shows in simple steps how to build up a banjo arrangement from a simple melody. Looking forward to your posts in the future.
Friday, September 27, 2013 @10:29:55 AM
Thanks a million for your great lesson. I've enjoyed learning the tune.
Saturday, September 28, 2013 @4:37:53 AM
Many thanks. I have trouble picking out a melody by ear. Many tabs are so complicated that I cannot make them sound like the tune that I know.
This is great, you give the basic melody that I need, and then let me build on that. Perfect for me, who seems to have a tin ear, but still wants to play with others.
I would be willing to pay for a service like this.
Friday, January 31, 2014 @9:27:07 PM
Dave from Utah: My banjo is tuned to aEAC#E right now (been trying to learn some Round Peak style banjo and fiddle, and working on the A tunes. My fiddle is tuned AEAE right now, which makes some neat drone and double stop sounds). I haven't had the slightest issue with warping or anything else. All I need do is tune 2nd string 1/2 step up to D and 4th down to D, and I got "a daddy" tuning. :)
I like to go without a capo if possible, to stay used to having my left hand down by the headstock--it should mske things a bit easier when I finally get a fretless.
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