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Creating clawhammer arrangements

Sunday, December 29, 2013 @9:01:34 AM

I have long admired Pete Seeger's version of the Golden Vanity and have tried a couple of times to follow his playing on banjo.  But never could really get comfortable with it.  I did play a guitar version, so have a good feel for the tune and know the basic chords.  As I have gotten more comfortable and confident in my own playing I have started making my own arrangements of favored songs.  And decided to give this one a try. 

With many songs you can start with the basic melody and work from that.  This is the process I followed for a clawhammer version of What Child is This?  But in this particular tune Seeger's vocal is quite rhythmic, and it was difficult to really get it.  So I went for a strong accompaniment instead, with a focus on the vocal.  The trick with accompaniment is to complement the vocal without overwhelming it.  It is really easy to go overboard, but the old adage "less is more" rings true here.  You also want to look for opportunities to take advantage of slides, hammer-ons and other clawhammer characteristics to let the banjo ring true. 

For editing I find Tabledit to be a terrific tool.  Not only is it useful for making arrangements, it is also an excellent learning tool.  Learning by ear is an important skill, but so it making notes and creating some type of visual representation to help the aging (at least in my case) memory.  Tabbing out something you have learned by ear can really help lock it into your brain.  And builds skills that you can use later for work such as arranging and composing. 

Time is also an important factor.  After the initial arrangement live with it for a while -- at least a couple of days.  Repeated listening (yes also record yourself) and playing will reveal spots that need adjusting.  This arrangement of The Golden Vanity went through a couple of significant revisions on its way to the current version. 

Through the process of arranging you get a chance to really make a tune your own.  The final result here clearly bears the Seeger influence, but is also something that represents my own unique take on the tune.  And I hope provided a fun piece for other clawhammer players.  You will find it under my Tabs section.  Enjoy!

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