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Uncommonly Strong Clawhammer Tunes #3

Posted by tfaux on Saturday, November 2, 2013

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Ai erwa and Huang hua çao

This month’s Uncommonly Strong Clawhammer entry is a pair of short traditional Chinese tunes, from flute transcriptions originally made by the Polish ethnomusicologist Ewa Dahlig. I have arranged the tunes for banjo because they fall easily under the fingers and because they make the banjo suggest a Chinese sanxian.  

The three-stringed sanxian has a long neck, like a Seeger style Vega, and a relatively small carved wooden rim covered with a stretched python skin. There are theories that the banjo may have descended from a similar Chinese instrument, perhaps packed along trade routes from east Asia to the Arab world thence across the Sahara to west Africa. The sanxian’s Asian cousins include the famous Japanese shamisen, and the less-known dàn tam, from Vietnam, both of which are played with a plectrum. These tunes work well as clawhammer pieces and also sound great played with a flatpick​.

Chinese melodies and ensemble textures are often surprisingly similar to old-time music: tunes may be short and repetitive, frequently making use of five-note scales; and Chinese traditional ensembles often employ “simultaneous variations”—what musicologists refer to as heterophonic texture—in which each instrumentalist plays a slightly differently ornamented version of the tune, not unlike fiddle and banjo music. 

As usual, I have transcribed the basic melody, leaving slides, hammer-ons, pull-offs, and double thumbing up to the banjoist’s discretion.  And as always, the transcription is meant to be a starting place for your own interpretation.


A .pdf file of Ai erwa may be found here>

A .pdf file of Huang hua çao may be found here>


My banjo recording of Ai erwa may be found here>

My recording of Huang hua çao may be found here>

Robin Kearton is the fiddler.






6 comments on “Uncommonly Strong Clawhammer Tunes #3”

izen Says:
Monday, November 4, 2013 @12:40:59 PM

I own a sanxian that I purchased in Beijing about 10 years ago, python-skin and all. It's head is more box-like than the one shown in the illustration. I'd post a picture of mine, but I'm travel for work for the next few months. It definitely has a sound reminescent of an instrument in the banjo family.

I'm wondering if anyone else might have one and share how the 3 strings are anchored at the tail end. The strings on mine came all tied together, which makes it a nuisance to replace a string.

To see and here what a sanxian sounds like, enter it in the YouTube search field. One video is

strokestyle Says:
Monday, November 4, 2013 @1:52:09 PM

Nice work again Tom Faux!

Spoekenkieker Says:
Monday, November 4, 2013 @3:52:23 PM

Thank you, these again are very beautiful.

banjomac Says:
Monday, November 4, 2013 @7:16:10 PM

It felt like Christmas opening up my email and discovering that the next installment was here!

whackamole Says:
Tuesday, November 5, 2013 @5:59:09 AM

I am loving this series of lessons/tunes. Excellent work and thank you for sharing. Can't wait for the next one and long may they continue. All the best.

bob sears Says:
Tuesday, November 5, 2013 @8:21:58 AM

Thanks so much for the new lessons. They really sound good and are a nice change of pace.

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