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Dec 8, 2022 - 8:44:59 AM
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4 posts since 10/2/2020

A record I've been very much enjoying lately is the old 1965 "Old Time Music at Clarence Ashley's, Part 2" Folkways album.

Two songs in particular I'm loving are "Little Sadie" (youtube.com/watch?v=mp80mQ-s7fE) and "Walking Boss" (youtube.com/watch?v=ZC8ZjmrKY2s).

On both of those songs, Ashley seems to be making some kind of odd sort of "clip-clop" sound with his banjo. It took me a few close listens to be sure that it was coming from his banjo, and not someone accompanying him and Doc Watson with some coconuts as a rhythm instrument, but it's definitely coming from the banjo.

Does anyone have any idea what's making that sound, or how to get that effect? I was messing around playing "Little Sadie" myself -- it's a really fun song to play -- and a few times I thought I was hearing something almost approaching that sound coming from my fifth/drone string, but not quite. I'm just really curious if this "clip-clop" sound was a relic of him holding his hand a certain way, or of some kind of odd strings, or finger picks, or -- who knows??

I'm not sure I've ever heard this sound from a banjo anywhere else, but I'd love to be able to replicate it! Ah, the mysteries of this instrument..

Dec 8, 2022 - 9:01 AM
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2082 posts since 5/19/2018

I think it is just a idiosyncrasy of the way he plays.

I’m sure he didn’t hunt down special strings, and I’m almost positive he didn’t use finger picks.

A lot of his sound came from his technique and the type of banjos he played. I’m not sure what banjo he is playing on in that recording, but a story that was related to me from my friend Ralph Rinzler, he told me this some 40 years ago, so hopefully I still have it right in my mind, was that CA had a POS banjo, near unplayable, and that Ralph loaned him a Gibson 100 and later gave him a RB250 to record on.

As for the sound, that’s 100% Clarence Ashley.

BTW - Great Record , and two of my favorite recordings of CA. 

Edited by - Alvin Conder on 12/08/2022 09:06:42

Dec 8, 2022 - 9:07:03 AM
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3227 posts since 9/5/2006

A lot of the old timers had that sound, an extra beat, but not really,within their timing that gives a counterpoint to their melodies. It is all in the right hand.

Edited by - Bob Buckingham on 12/08/2022 09:07:44

Dec 8, 2022 - 9:31:47 AM
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358 posts since 8/9/2022

Alternate string pull-offs are one characteristic feature of his banjo sound. But the sound you're referring to (that is very distinct) seems to be from the string contact he naturally made. There is a damping quality to it, very little sustain. but I doubt he was 'doing' anything deliberate to consciously achieve that effect. A short nail below the level of the fleshy finger tip could be one possibility.

Everyone's hands and technique are unique. It is fun to listen closely to great players and identify and explore sound possibilities. Thats how we learn and get inspired. In the long run the bigger joy is discovering and exploiting the lucky idiosyncrasies of tone you naturally make.

Dec 8, 2022 - 9:43:21 AM
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4 posts since 10/2/2020

quote:
Originally posted by quartertoner

Alternate string pull-offs are one characteristic feature of his banjo sound. But the sound you're referring to (that is very distinct) seems to be from the string contact he naturally made. There is a damping quality to it, very little sustain. but I doubt he was 'doing' anything deliberate to consciously achieve that effect. A short nail below the level of the fleshy finger tip could be one possibility.

Everyone's hands and technique are unique. It is fun to listen closely to great players and identify and explore sound possibilities. Thats how we learn and get inspired. In the long run the bigger joy is discovering and exploiting the lucky idiosyncrasies of tone you naturally make.


Yep - I've only been playing banjo since around the beginning of the pandemic, early 2020, after having been mostly a bass and guitar player for ~40+ years, but one of the things I've come to appreciate about the banjo is that it seems like no two people really play it the same way. I started out hoping to be able to emulate folks like Buell Kazee or Dock Boggs (and now this Clarence Ashley sound!), but I am happy to be working on developing my own playing in my own style for sure. Thanks for affirming this!

The "clip-clops" sound to me like something completely incidental, yes -- I wasn't assuming it was an effect he was specifically intending. It's just such an unusual and evocative sound, I couldn't help but wonder about it! 

Dec 8, 2022 - 10:20:37 AM
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2016 posts since 2/9/2007

It's the sound of fingernail striking the string, in just the right spot and direction, on an exceptionally responsive and bright-toned banjo. I hear a bit of it sometimes in Wade Ward (who also played a resonator-back Gibson), and others, but Ashley seems to have been especially taken by that idiosyncratic effect of that particular instrument-setup-technique combination, and deliberately incorporated it into his sound. It takes a real loud banjo, along with the control to play it cleanly at way below its potential volume, to bring that "clop" out the way he did.

The way his unique banjo tone suited his unique voice was just brilliant.

Dec 8, 2022 - 10:50:30 AM
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2016 posts since 2/9/2007

quote:
Originally posted by Dan Gellert

It's the sound of fingernail striking the string, in just the right spot and direction, on an exceptionally responsive and bright-toned banjo. I hear a bit of it sometimes in Wade Ward (who also played a resonator-back Gibson), and others, but Ashley seems to have been especially taken by that idiosyncratic effect of that particular instrument-setup-technique combination, and deliberately incorporated it into his sound. It takes a real loud banjo, along with the control to play it cleanly at way below its potential volume, to bring that "clop" out the way he did.

The way his unique banjo tone suited his unique voice was just brilliant.


After posting this, I remembered something.  The few times I've heard a similar "clop" in my own playing, it's come from a fingernail that was just a little too short, so the string hit a little bit of fingertip after sliding off the nail edge. 

So, to disagree with myself:  It most likely is NOT the sound of the nail striking the string.  I wonder now if Ashley played with the fingertip rather than the nail.    Reed Martin, for one, does that-- not that his sound is anything like Tom Ashley's, but it's similarly achieved by subtle control of a high-powered banjo.

Edited by - Dan Gellert on 12/08/2022 10:52:15

Dec 8, 2022 - 2:16:05 PM
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RG

USA

3198 posts since 8/7/2008

What Dan said above, pretty sure that's what's going on, I have very short fingernails due to work, and I frequently get that sound when playing, and I also play a resonated banjo as well (Tom used a Gibson RB250 arch-top banjo on those recordings I believe). That arch-top will give you a "crisper" sound when set up properly. Here's video of Tom playing, hard to see his hand when it strikes the strings, but I suspect what Dan and Mike have said is correct..

Edited by - RG on 12/08/2022 14:31:13

Dec 8, 2022 - 8:22:32 PM
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Wobba

USA

55 posts since 4/15/2020

OK, listened to the videos. I play two finger as well. CA is one of my heroes. That sound you hear you get by using the very tips of your fingers. It's not produced by the nails at all. It's produced by the padding of the finger tip hitting the string in just the right way to give it that plucky-clucky sound you hear. I especially like getting a muted fifth string sound with my thumb. You have to hit it just right to get that. It's sort of the two finger equivalent of the clawhammer cluck. When I pluck the 5th, the padding on the edge of the thumb sounds the string and then mutes it slightly, creating a cluck sound. You cannot replicate that sound with either finger picks or finger nails. Its the padding of the fingers that produces it. In my case I mostly now use nylon. Main reason is that that produce better clucks that steel strings. I just really like the plucky tones I can get out of nylon strings as apposed to steel ones.

Dec 13, 2022 - 6:33:15 PM

706 posts since 10/23/2003

quote:Yeah almost all of Ashley's recordings were done on one or another Gibson RB.,  At some point right after he was "rediscovered" and acquired some money, a pawn shop owner somewhere near where he lived convinced Ashley that a banjo in his pawnshop was the Gibson Mastertone the Charlie Poole purchased in 1927 with his recordings money, causing some marital discord for Ashley.
There are pictures of Tom Ashley with an open back banjo at times before he bought the Gibson, but I have never heard anyone say what that was.

Originally posted by Alvin Conder

I think it is just a idiosyncrasy of the way he plays.

I’m sure he didn’t hunt down special strings, and I’m almost positive he didn’t use finger picks.

A lot of his sound came from his technique and the type of banjos he played. I’m not sure what banjo he is playing on in that recording, but a story that was related to me from my friend Ralph Rinzler, he told me this some 40 years ago, so hopefully I still have it right in my mind, was that CA had a POS banjo, near unplayable, and that Ralph loaned him a Gibson 100 and later gave him a RB250 to record on.

As for the sound, that’s 100% Clarence Ashley.

BTW - Great Record , and two of my favorite recordings of CA. 


Edited by - writerrad on 12/13/2022 18:34:28

Dec 13, 2022 - 6:43:25 PM
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706 posts since 10/23/2003

About 12-13 years ago there was an attempt to set up a Banjo and Charlie Poole museum in the cotton Mill Poole had worked in in Eden NC that I was involved in and I mentioned this to someone descended from Poole who had custody of Poole's banjos who said he had heard about that and that Ashley had been hoodwinked by the pawnshop owner though that was a pretty good banjo.

The thing most of us who were drawn into life by Ashley's banjo playing might want to know is that during the 20s and 30s Ashley was more of a guitar player than a banjoist, but in his old age as arthritis or some other affliction came on to him, he felt that he could play the banjo more easily than guitar. I do think he made a few guitar recordings toward the end of his life when he learned it was not true.

There is a whole older generation of old time music people who date from the late 50s and 1960s like me who were drawn to Old Time Music by his magnificent banjo playing and singing and band leadership. It is a pity that so many people who claim to be into old time music do not know who you are talking about whether you call him Tom Ashley or Clarence Ashley or Tom Moore!

Dec 14, 2022 - 1:43:10 AM
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1862 posts since 7/4/2009

quote:
Originally posted by Wobba

OK, listened to the videos. I play two finger as well. CA is one of my heroes. That sound you hear you get by using the very tips of your fingers. It's not produced by the nails at all. It's produced by the padding of the finger tip hitting the string in just the right way to give it that plucky-clucky sound you hear. I especially like getting a muted fifth string sound with my thumb. You have to hit it just right to get that. It's sort of the two finger equivalent of the clawhammer cluck. When I pluck the 5th, the padding on the edge of the thumb sounds the string and then mutes it slightly, creating a cluck sound. You cannot replicate that sound with either finger picks or finger nails. Its the padding of the fingers that produces it. In my case I mostly now use nylon. Main reason is that that produce better clucks that steel strings. I just really like the plucky tones I can get out of nylon strings as apposed to steel ones.


Ashley is not playing two finger on either of those recordings. He did occasionally use a fingerstyle (listen to "Whoa Mule"), but it sounds more like three-finger playing than two finger to me. On both of the recordings on the OP he's frailing.

Dan Gellert has it right. 

Dec 16, 2022 - 11:18:46 PM
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312 posts since 4/13/2007

quote:
Originally posted by writerrad

The thing most of us who were drawn into life by Ashley's banjo playing might want to know is that during the 20s and 30s Ashley was more of a guitar player than a banjoist, but in his old age as arthritis or some other affliction came on to him, he felt that he could play the banjo more easily than guitar. I do think he made a few guitar recordings toward the end of his life when he learned it was not true.
 


As far as I know Tony, that on the album he did with Tex Isley, Ashley plays guitar (well) on all the tracks where Isley is playing autoharp or when there are two guitars.
Chris

Dec 17, 2022 - 8:21:25 AM

706 posts since 10/23/2003

quote
:Yes I have that album for about 30 years  https://folkways.si.edu/clarence-ashley-and-tex-isley/old-time/music/album/smithsonian.  It belongs in every home!
I also have the recording  Ashleye made of Rising Sun Blues with Clarence Green in the 20s somewhere.     I do believe he also played guitar with Byrd Moore's Hot Shots.   They don't name bands like that any more.  
Ashley also played the trombone  apparently in a brass band as we have a picture of him trombone in hand in band uniform,   
'People imagine these people were isolated from the  big swirl of world music when they were part of it. !
 
Originally posted by Chris Berry
quote:
Originally posted by writerrad

The thing most of us who were drawn into life by Ashley's banjo playing might want to know is that during the 20s and 30s Ashley was more of a guitar player than a banjoist, but in his old age as arthritis or some other affliction came on to him, he felt that he could play the banjo more easily than guitar. I do think he made a few guitar recordings toward the end of his life when he learned it was not true.
 


As far as I know Tony, that on the album he did with Tex Isley, Ashley plays guitar (well) on all the tracks where Isley is playing autoharp or when there are two guitars.
Chris


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