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Thread: Bluegrass-ifying old banjo songs

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    Default Bluegrass-ifying old banjo songs

    I like to sing a lot of those clawhammer-banjo type songs like "Pretty Polly" and "Railroad Boy" but I don't know how to put them over at casual gatherings, especially if there's no banjo. Most of those tunes are just one chord throughout, which is paradoxically not that easy for most people to improv a break over, and I don't really like it when people dress them up with a lot of little embellishment chords because it loses that eerie quality. Does anybody have any thoughts about this, besides taking up the clawhammer banjo?

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    Registered User catmandu2's Avatar
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    Default Re: Bluegrass-ifying old banjo songs

    Some instruments are well-suited for "modal"-style song and instrumental form. A couple of the aspects characteristic of effective instruments for "solo" or song accompaniment playing are: the ability to drone, provide harmonic, contrapuntal, and rhythmic accompaniment. Instruments with lots of strings and scale-length (guitars, banjos) make it easier to deploy these elements-- Then along comes fiddle--also highly effective, but because of its droning and rhythmic capacity. The way I've approached it on mandolins is the same as with these others (drones, harmonies, rhythmic drive) but due to its relative limitations in these regards the techniques to execute such require a bit of extra work.

    It's probably a lot easier with multi-string playing experience; Mandolin is more challenging for this type of playing--and using the experience of other approaches helps to model "what to do/how to sound"--using these to emulate the approach required for mandolin

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    Registered User catmandu2's Avatar
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    Default Re: Bluegrass-ifying old banjo songs

    And another approach you might take--if banjo isn't your thing--is simple lap dulcimer

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    Default Re: Bluegrass-ifying old banjo songs

    Thanks, but it was more a question of how to 'wrangle' these songs at a jam so that they don't put people off. It seems like most of the bluegrass band versions of Pretty Polly, for instance, involve a lot of trading fills and playing during the singing to keep the energy up, which is kind of a recipe for a lot of stepped-on-toes if the players don't know each other, though.

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    Registered User catmandu2's Avatar
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    Default Re: Bluegrass-ifying old banjo songs

    Ah I gotcha

    Can't help you there--my version of Pretty Polly is after Dock Boggs'

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    Mando accumulator allenhopkins's Avatar
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    Default Re: Bluegrass-ifying old banjo songs

    Couple issues: one characteristic of some of the old-time "modal" (which is a misnomer: all music is in some kind of mode) tunes, is alternative banjo tunings: 2nd string raised to C, 4th string dropped to C, 5th string dropped to F#, etc. In a standard bluegrass jam, banjo players will stay in straight G tuning throughout, so developing "licks" around a tune that, say, never uses the open-2nd-string B, may frustrate them if they're not used to it.

    And, as rightly pointed out, the old-time banjo technique often involved a melody or melody variant played against a drone, so there aren't "chord changes" per se. The people who often have a tough time are guitarists and bass players, who are asked to whang away on a single chord throughout the song, or try to fit the chord structures they know around the melodic changes.

    Look at some "chestnut" tunes like Old Joe Clark, Shady Grove and June Apple. Modern convention is to liberally use the flat-7 chord (F if playing in G) when the melody seems to call for it. If you listen to the old-time bands, that was much less common. Sometimes the backing chord wasn't changed at all; sometimes the "regular" 7th was played, despite dissonance between the F and the F# in this example.

    Some old-time tunes easily make the trip to bluegrass, some don't. I can listen to the Osborne Brothers "bluegrass up" The Cuckoo



    and enjoy it, but also notice the complete rebuilding it's undergone since Clarence Ashley

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    Registered User Chip Booth's Avatar
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    Default Re: Bluegrass-ifying old banjo songs

    I guess you'll have to take up clawhammer! It's a blast

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    Default Re: Bluegrass-ifying old banjo songs

    Quote Originally Posted by allenhopkins View Post
    but also notice the complete rebuilding it's undergone since Clarence Ashley
    Great explanation, great example.
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