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Classic Fiddle Tunes on the Banjo #1: "Boatman"

Posted by Josh Turknett on Monday, November 5, 2018

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Banjo Core Repertoire Series, Essential Fiddle Tunes Edition

Episode 2: Boatman (Ed Haley's)

by Josh Turknett,


In the introduction to this new season of the Core Repertoire series, I said that playing fiddle tunes on the banjo represented a unique sort of challenge. Specifically, the challenge of playing all the notes of the fiddle tune without sacrificing the signature elements of the banjo we know and love - the driving and droning. 

Or, to elaborate, without sacrificing the rhythmic patterns that give the banjo "drive," and without neglecting the 5th string drone. 

But admit defeat we will not. Nay, we shall meet this challenge head on!

And as I said in that intro, and will soon demonstrate, meeting this challenge may appeal to the puzzle solving enthusiasts amongst you. 

Today's challenge is one of my favorite classic fiddle tunes, "Boatman." Specifically, the version played by fiddler blind Ed Haley of West Virginia. I chose it both because it is a phenomenal tune, and because it is well suited for illustrating the key concepts of solving the fiddle tune challenge. 

So, in this episode, I'll take you through one of the "notier" sections of Boatman and walk through process of deciding how to actually play those notes on the banjo. Here again is what the final arrangements of both the fingerstyle and clawhammer renditions sound like: 


To download the tabs, click your desired arrangement below: 

Click Here To Get The CLAWHAMMER Tab

Click Here To Get The FINGERSTYLE Tab

And for reference, here are the tabs for the final arrangements: 





Finding Homologies

When working up a new tune, part of the decision making involves deciding where on the fretboard to play a given note. 

As you probably know, the same note can usually be found in more then one place on the fretboard, and knowing where those places are is enormously helpful to this process.

For example, in standard G (gDGBD) tuning, the open 1st string is the same note as the 2nd string at the 3rd fret. It's also the same note as the 3rd string at the 7th fret. And the 4th string at the 12th fret! 

Now, let's take a look at our selected measures 9 through 12 (the first 4 measures of our B part) and find all the possible spots that we could play the notes of the fiddle melody (note that this section is found abundantly throughout the song - it is repeated twice as the B part, and half of it is found in the A part as well. Furthermore, the tune's structure is ABCB, so it is essentially played for more than half the tune).

Here's what that section looks like, with all the melody note locations plotted out:

Ay caramba!

So many choices!

In fact, a little back of the napkin math shows that, even if we only restricted ourselves to selecting from these possibilities (not considering adding the 5th string, dropping a note, embellishing the rhythm or melody, etc.), we have over 50 billion possible ways we could play just these 4 measures!

50 billion!

Now, to simplify things, let's go ahead an remove the worst possibilities from the perspective of fingering economy, i.e. the notes that would require some crazy fingering acrobatics (where the distance between two subsequent notes is more than 3 frets up or down the fretboard). Now, here are our narrowed down choices: 

From this point forward, we'll take this foundation and turn it into a fingerstyle and clawhammer arrangement. 

Fingerstyle Arrangement

Let's begin with the first two measures in our section . As an example, here's one way we could choose to play it: 

Here we've chosen to play all of our notes on a single string, kind of like a guitarist would.

But therein lies the problem. If we play it like this, it kind of sounds like a guitar. 

The notes are there , but the banjo magic has gone. We might as well be playing a banjitar and lose all the street cred we've worked so hard to accrue!

So that won't do. How on earth then, with billions upon billions of possibilities, do we narrow things down? 

We do so by constraining our decision making. Because to achieve our desired ends of retaining the magic of the banjo, to have our cake and eat it too, we have a set of constraints, which are: 

1) Wherever possible, avoid playing subsequent notes on the same string.

2) Play melody notes on an open string where possible. 

3) Add drones where possible (but note that if the melody an entire measure is filled up with eighth notes, doing so may sometimes require dropping a melody note)

4) Make it physically possible to play - i.e. it must be possible to finger within the anatomical limitations of our hands. 

5) Add rhythmic embellishments like syncopation. This one is somewhat of a personal preference. Perhaps the primary critique of melodic style playing is that it lacks rhythmic interest.

And I tend agree. Even the most technically dazzling playing gets boring real fast without rhythmic interest. Perhaps not surprisingly, melodic style players have a tendency to focus exclusively on the melody.

Adding some rhythmic embellishments, like syncopation, can really help to liven things up, as can dropping the occasional note to let things breathe.


So back to our two measures. 

If we were to play things as they are - meaning no drones, no rhythmic or melodic embellishments, here's one possibility (note that all of these note locations can be found in our original tab of homologies above):

Below is what I play in the video, which you can see in the posted tab above. You'll see I've added in the 5th string in a couple of spots, and dropped a couple of melody notes - one in favor of syncopation, and one in favor of a drone. 

The 3rd measure in this section is the same as the first, so we'll play the same thing as we played in measure 1. 

That leaves just 1 more measure, which is this: 

Not quite so many options, and the most straightforward solution is:

Here we also have the last part of the measure to do what we wish with! In this arrangement, I've just filled it with a drone note to let things breathe for a sec.


Clawhammer Arrangement

As is the case with "melodic" fingerstyle playing, melodic clawhammer is sometimes criticized for being lacking in the rhythm department. 

And that we cannot tolerate, because that beguiling pulsating rhythm was what drew us to clawhammer to begin with!

Once again, our goal here is to have our cake and eat it, too. And doing so will again require making the right kind of choices to narrow down our initial set of possibilities into a final arrangements. 

We already have the constraints imposed by the down-picking style itself, which are: 

1) Notes that fall on the downbeat and upbeat are played with picking finger, while notes that fall on the offbeat are played either the fretting hand - as hammer-ons or pull-offs - or with the thumb.

In addition, here are the additional constraints we'll be using to help us steer us towards our desired outcome: 

2) Play melody notes that fall on the offbeat with the thumb or as a pull off to give them equal volume to those played by the picking finger (unless desired to lessen volume), as notes generated by a hammer on will be lower in volume than those generated by a plucked string.

3) Add drones where possible (note that if an entire measure is filled up with eighth notes, doing so may sometimes require dropping a melody note).

Here again are our narrowed down possibilities for our section of study:


Let's begin with the first 2 measures above. 

One way we could play it would be to play the whole thing on the 2nd string, using a series of pull offs and hammer ons. 

Are we playing all the melody notes? Yes. 

Does it sound like clawhammer? Not at all! The pulsating, driving quality of the clawhammer stroke is gone.

Now, here's an alternative that's closer to giving us what we're after:

Notice here that all of our notes that fall on the offbeat are either plucked by the picking finger or the thumb. 

All that's left is to flesh it out with some drone notes on the 5th string: 

Now, we're able to maintain a clawhammer rhythm (either "bump-a-ditty" or "bum-ditty") throughout these two measures. 

The 3rd measure in this section is the same as the first, so we'll play the same thing as we played in measure 1. 

That leaves just 1 more measure, which is this: 

Not quite so many options, and the most straightforward solution is:


Puzzle solved!

When broken down like this, it's astonishing that we are ever able to decide on what we actually play. For this short fiddle tune, there are still more possible ways of playing its melody on the banjo than there are particles in the universe (viewed in this way, the obsession with copying one single player's way of playing a song on the banjo seems pretty absurd, right?)!

Fortunately, we can narrow that process down using constraints. Those constraints, and the decisions they lead to, are ultimately what create a given style. 

Which is why doing this sort of thing for yourself, formally or informally, is what ultimately allows you to develop your own voice as a musician. 

About the Author

Dr. Josh Turknett is the creator of the Brainjo Method, the first system for learning  banjo that incorporates the science of learning and neuroplasticity and specifically target the adult learner.

Check out the Brainjo course for CLAWHAMMER banjo

Check out the Brainjo course for FINGERSTYLE banjo 

Check out the Brainjo course for OLD TIME FIDDLE



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