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Clawhammer Core Repertoire Series, Episode 10: Nail that Catfish to a Tree

Posted by Josh Turknett on Monday, June 23, 2014

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Clawhammer Core Repertoire Series


Episode 10: Nail that Catfish to a Tree



“Nail that what to a what?!!”


Yeah, you heard right. You see, of the great things about writing music without words -- like a fiddle tune -- is that you get to name it whatever the heck you want.

Like "Nail that Catfish to a Tree."

As it turns out, Nail that Catfish is, comparatively speaking, a very recent addition to the body of popular old time jammery. It was written by Steve Rosen, banjo player for the Volo Bogtrotters, and its name apparently refers to a recommended method for skinning (it should be “de-skinning”, shouldn’t it?) a catfish. You can find out more from the composer himself here.

Thanks to its infectious melody, the tune quickly propagated itself into old time jam circles far and wide, which is how it landed in our list of core tunes. It’s also a tune that lays out very nicely on the banjo, so it’s not surprising that it was written by a banjo player.


We need more tunes like this. I’ll start a petition.

Before I get into the meat of the lesson, here's a preview of what the final banjo arrangement will sound like:


Note: If you'd like to get a free, downloadable ebook of Core Repertoire lessons 1 thru 7, and be sent the next book when it's ready, just click here.


Step 1: Know Thy Melody


As is typically the case, you’ll inevitably hear different fiddlers put their own spin on how this tune is played. However, in this case, we have the rare opportunity to hear an old-time jam classic rendered by the one who birthed it. So here it is, played by the composer himself:

Nail that Catfish to a Tree, by Steve Rosen

And here's a sprightly version posted on the youtube a few years back by fellow banjo hangouter Craig Evans:

Sprightly Catfish

Keep on listening till you can hum or whistle the basic melody to yourself. When you’ve reached that point, move along to step 2...


Step 2: Find the Melody Notes


With the tune now deeply embedded into your neuroacoustical recesses, it’s time to find those melody notes on the banjo. This tune is in the key of G, so first make sure you’ve twisted your pegs into standard G tuning (gDGBD).

Now there's one thing you'll probably notice as you go to find the first note of the B part on your banjo: it's not there. The B part begins on a "C" note, however, the lowest note on your banjo is a "D" (in standard G tuning). So what to do? Here, I instead play an E, which harmonizes with the melody just fine since it's the second note of a "C" chord.

With that in mind, below is what I hear as the bones of this catfish:

Catfish Bones.mp3

And here’s what it looks like in tab:


Step 3:  Add some clawhammery stuff


To make a basic, yet highly listenable, clawhammer version, let’s take each melody note that occurs on the downbeat (a “bum” note) and follow it with a “ditty” strum (i.e. a “brush and then strum”). When we do that, we get a tab that looks like so:

And transmutated into the sound of a 5 string banjo, we get this:


Transmutated catfish.mp3


And now, if we pair that up with a fiddle, here’s the result:


Paired Up.mp3


Step 4: Embellish as you see fit


At this point, we can stick with the version we’ve already learned, or throw in some more stylistic interpretation to make it our own. I like to keep this tune fairly straightforward and let the strong melody speak for itself, so nothing too fancy. You know what they say, you can put lipstick on a catfish, but it’s still a…..well, maybe not. To hear what mine sounds like, click the preview video from earlier.


Here’s what that version looks like in tab:


Lastly, if we pair my final version with the fiddle, we can declare this felinesque aquatic bottom feeder firmly affixed and ready for epidermal detachment:

Skinnin' Time.mp3  

Step 5: Practice smart


As always, you're friends over at stand at the ready to accompany you as you embark on your catfishing expedition. As is the case with all the core repertoire tunes, you'll find this one on the "old-time top 20" playlist. 


20 comments on “Clawhammer Core Repertoire Series, Episode 10: Nail that Catfish to a Tree”

Zischkale Says:
Tuesday, June 24, 2014 @5:12:03 PM

Thank you so much for the lessons. Man, I love that animated intro. That's branding right thar.

PickinNC Says:
Tuesday, June 24, 2014 @10:13:32 PM

For real man, love the Brainjo intro. And awesome walkthrough of the song.

Josh Turknett Says:
Wednesday, June 25, 2014 @3:45:15 AM

Thank you both! I had a good time making the intro/outro clips, but it's nice to know someone else is amused by them as well :)

Paul Foytack Says:
Wednesday, June 25, 2014 @7:57:01 AM

Very cool.
This is where the saying "more than one way to skin a cat" comes from.

Josh Turknett Says:
Wednesday, June 25, 2014 @9:08:12 AM

Haha. Or a catfish.

Zischkale Says:
Wednesday, June 25, 2014 @9:11:19 AM

Had no idea that Nail that Catfish wasn't 100 years old. As an aside, I love Steve Rosen's website. It's old-time internet. There's even a chat room. I just wasted about 30 minutes on his dadgum site.

Josh Turknett Says:
Wednesday, June 25, 2014 @9:13:13 AM

Haha, it is so old time internet. I kinda hope he never updates it.

Zischkale Says:
Wednesday, June 25, 2014 @9:14:42 AM

Same here, though I would very much like one of those sharp t-shirts.

Paul Foytack Says:
Wednesday, June 25, 2014 @10:04:33 AM

That's what I meant Josh.
The saying does refer to skinning an Catfish not a pussycat like most people think.

Josh Turknett Says:
Wednesday, June 25, 2014 @10:09:19 AM

Wow, cool bit of trivia Paul - so many layers to this tune!

jmoathout Says:
Wednesday, June 25, 2014 @10:53:16 AM

"Skinning versus de-skinning" reminds me of Steve Martin (I think) explaining how he learned of the difference (or not) between flammable and inflammable. Thanks for the tune.

Josh Turknett Says:
Wednesday, June 25, 2014 @10:57:41 AM

Steve stole all his material from me :)

Paul Foytack Says:
Wednesday, June 25, 2014 @4:20:06 PM

Now I feel like Jethro Bodine.
I'm tore twixt playing the 5 string and being a Neuroplastician!

zevio Says:
Thursday, June 26, 2014 @3:39:02 AM

thank Josh. always look forward to these gems

fretfulchild Says:
Sunday, June 29, 2014 @8:48:05 AM

A clear, beautifully presented tutorial, spiced with the kind of wit that always makes learning more enjoyable.

kwilson Says:
Friday, July 4, 2014 @12:13:16 AM

A great tutorial, and I'm enjoying playing the song. But I'm wondering if there is a transcription mistake in the tabs. In the Step 2 tab, the first note is an open second string. In both the Step 3 and Step 4 tabs, that has been changed to an open third string. In the video, however, it sounds like you are playing an open second string for the start of the A section. Is this correct?

I have been playing according to the Step 4 tab, but it wasn't sounding like what you were playing. That was when I noticed the Step 2 tab differs from the other two, which may explain why my catfish kept sliding off the tree.

kwilson Says:
Friday, July 4, 2014 @12:27:31 AM

Let me clarify. What I am hearing is an open second string on the first "and" in measure one. It is written in the last tab as the two and three strings both played open on a brush, but I'm hearing just the open second string in the video. Is that correct?

Josh Turknett Says:
Friday, July 4, 2014 @4:29:10 AM

Hi Kevin - I believe you're hearing correctly. Though you are free to play that "and" note as a brush, I probably am just striking the open second note as a single string on the video version (makes that melody note stand out a bit more). Good listening, and good ears!

Josh Turknett Says:
Friday, July 4, 2014 @4:38:01 AM

Also Kevin, just realized I'd changed those tabs to reflect that, but had never uploaded the revised version. I just did, so it now fit what you hear. Thanks again!

kwilson Says:
Friday, July 4, 2014 @7:08:44 AM

Thanks for the updated tab. I look forward to working on it.

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