View Full Version : question about old time strumming

Jul-18-2006, 1:23am
i know in old-time music open chords are used, but what kinds of strumming patterns are used? i know in bluegrass you can get by on just about anything with the basic 2-4 chop, is there any kinds of simple rhythm like that for old time or do they very from song to song? are there different chords besides the two finger ones that you can you or can you use chop chords? i would like to leatn to play string band music and was curious. any readings, old posts or recommended listening of some strong rhythm players would be greatly appreciated. thanks http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/smile.gif

Jul-18-2006, 8:48am
I am relatively new to old time music myself, but what I have found in listening to it and in participating in some jams is that as far as rhythm mandolin, it varies and it depends. If you have heard someone play the bones in old time music, the mando strumming rhythm is often similar to the bones rhythm, and it varies according to the groove of the particular tune. Listen closely to the fiddle players to get a feel for the groove of the particular tune. The same tune can feel very different depending on the fiddler's bowing style.

My approach in the jams is just to do what sounds good to me, and it really depends on what other instruments are there (and nobody has thrown anything at me yet). If a guitar is providing a solid "boom-chuck" rhythm, then the mando can just strum some rhythms to add some texture and add to the groove. If there is a bass providing the boom, but there isn't a strong "chuck", then the bluegrass 2-4 chop seems to work well. If there are just fiddles and banjos, then I'll do a boom-chuck rhythm on the mando, usually with open chords, but closed chop chords can work too.

John Flynn
Jul-18-2006, 10:26am
My first old-time mando instructor, the guy that really got me in to OT, was very traditional, more traditional than I choose to be. But I do think of his advice as being "the rules that are made to be broken...occasionally."

He said that a mando player playing rhythm should do a straight "boom chuck" strum, on open chords, just like the guitar. On the mando, however, it should be mostly on the two bass strings. The treble strings should only be sounded sparingly or as an infrequent variation. Mando treble strings can be irritating on rhythm, if used constantly and loudly. He was against the use of chop chords for OT. Also, he felt you should never be so loud on rhythm that you can't clearly hear the lead fiddle. I think his advice is that way to go until you really know what you can do and what you can get away with.

As far as listening, Mike Compton does a great job on many of John Hartford's CD's as well as on his wife's CD, Sadie Compton's "Trouble Come Knockin'." His rhythm is very subtle and tasteful.

Jul-18-2006, 1:02pm
Mike Compton's rhythm is indeed very subtle and tasteful. And he does a lot more than the boom-chuck thing.

As far as traditional, the mandolin isn't really a traditional old time instrument. Neither is the guitar for that matter, but most old time jams now welcome guitar because it really adds a lot to the sound and rhythm. They also accept mando and bass and even ukuleles these days.

Jul-18-2006, 1:16pm
"As far as traditional, the mandolin isn't really a traditional old time instrument. Neither is the guitar for that matter"
And I suppose Mother Maybelle and the Carter Family are what then ?
Certainly not Bluegrass!

Jim Yates
Jul-18-2006, 2:56pm
"As far as traditional, the mandolin isn't really a traditional old time instrument. Neither is the guitar for that matter"
I suppose this depends on how you define "Old-Time". Pre-bluegrass bands and duos often contained guitars and mandolins. Some very early duo recordings consisted of only guitar, mandolin and vocals.

Jul-18-2006, 3:04pm
Oh boy a thread on the definition of old time!!! Time to get out the popcorn. When I play old timey stuff I tend to be pretty simple on rhythm. I still use mostly closed chords and play on the 2 and 4 but will be a bit gentler than bluegrass. I will alternate this with open chords played boom-chuck. I try to accent the other rhythm instruments.

John Flynn
Jul-18-2006, 3:14pm
Mike Compton's rhythm is indeed very subtle and tasteful. #And he does a lot more than the boom-chuck thing.
Agreed, but Compton is on a different level than a newbie asking for advice and looking for a simple formula to get started with. As far as mando not being a traditional OT instrument, that depends on when and where you figure the tradition was defined and what you define the tradition to be. There are a lot of opinions on that and none of them is 100% right or 100% wrong. It's really like Justice Potter Stewart's definition of pornography: "I can't tell you what it is, but I know it when I see it." Well, I can't tell you what OT is, and I won't let you tell me what it is, but we both know it when we hear it. And I hear it in some mando player's music, like Mike Compton, Curtis Buckhannon, Clyde Curley and Skip Gorman.

Jul-18-2006, 4:25pm
Old time music predates Bluegrass.
It is far more diversified too. I would consider string bands ala Skillet Lickers(used a mandolin player- see Tanners Rag), Jug Bands( Dallas String Band), guitar/mandolin duets, Blues (Yank Rachel, who could be
lumped with jug bands.
Really anything before the Bluegrass Boys in '45, and after
if in the style of those recorded in the '20's and 30's.

Tom Smart
Jul-18-2006, 6:13pm
...Compton is on a different level than a newbie asking for advice and looking for a simple formula to get started with.
OK, here's a simple formula taught by Compton hisself:

Take a familiar tune like Jingle Bells, and tap out the rhythm of the tune with your fingers on a table or something. Notice how it still sounds like "Jingle Bells" even though there are no pitches to the notes? Tunes have a signature rhythm in addition to the melody itself.

Now play that same signature rhythm on your mandolin, changing the chords as appropriate. If you listen to Mike Compton on those John Hartford recordings, that's exactly what he's doing about 90% of the time. Only instead of a simple tune with a simple rhythm, like Jingle Bells, he's doing it on up-tempo, more rhythmically complex tunes like The Squirrel Hunters. If you're thoroughly familiar with the fiddle tune (like you are with Jingle Bells), you could probably identify the tune just from the mando rhythm and where the accents fall, without hearing the fiddle part at all.

This sounds ridiculously simple, and it is, but it works. Now just add some tasteful shuffles, flourishes, chord inversions, moving bass, etc., practice it for 30 years, and you'll sound just like Compton. But you can still add a lot to the rhythm section just by doing this at the most basic level.

I was once playing fiddle (along with a couple of other fiddlers) at a contra dance, when the piano player decided he wanted to dance. Without the piano, there was simply not enough rhythm to drive the tune. I picked up my mando, played chords as loudly as I could following the "rhythmic signature" of the tune, and the rest of the band could not have been more grateful to be back on track. Not easy filling in for piano with a mando, but it can be done!


Jul-18-2006, 9:19pm
Ok. I'm no Guitar player (and hardly a mando player) what is boom chuck? Is it pick the g string then strum the whole chord?

Thanks in advance.


Jul-19-2006, 7:37am
Hey Tom, I just played Jingle Bells on my desk with my fingers! That is cool! Seriously, I like the idea and am going to try it out.

I was talking with Caleb K. (mando player for Foghorn Stringband) a couple of years ago and he suggested working to get a "shuffle" pattern out of my right hand to mimic the fiddle bow. You can really hear him do it at the end of a phrase (like the end of an A or B part) to accent the fiddle. He also said he uses bar chords (like for A-tunes) because they ring more than chop chord shapes.

In listening to a bunch of Norman Blake stuff, you can go a whole record and not really hear a chop chord.


Jul-19-2006, 7:42am
Also, he felt you should never be so loud on rhythm that you can't clearly hear the lead fiddle.
One would have to play pretty dang loud/offensively to obscure a strong lead fiddle in old time music. But, I suppose there are cats out there who do just that.

Jul-19-2006, 8:39am
thanks for the tips guys, at least now i know where to begin.

Jul-19-2006, 9:29am
Sorry for the slight thread shift to what traditional old time music is.

The shuffle rhythm suggestion is a great one. That's essentially what I meant about listening to the lead fiddler to get a feel for the groove of the tune. I've been working on getting that shuffle rhythm going when playing lead and it isn't easy for me. One thing I've been doing lately is instead of having the metronome click 1-2-3-4 I've been playing tunes with it clicking just on the 2 and 4, which helps get that shuffle feel.

A good basic shuffle rhythm for beginners is the quarter, eighth-eighth, quarter, eighth-eighth rhythm. Or one, two-and, three, four-and. Played down, down-up, down, down-up, and accenting the 2nd and 4th beats.

Some of my favorite rhythm playing is on the Doc and Dawg CD. If you listen to "All About You" and "My Dear Old Southern Home" you can hear Grisman doing all this tasty stuff in the background while Doc is playing lead or singing. He'll do some chopping, some ringing chords, some strums, litle fills at the end of phrases, etc. all in the same tune. But this is with just one guitar and one mando, so it may not work as well in a larger old time jam session.

John Flynn
Jul-19-2006, 10:51am
Ok. I'm no Guitar player (and hardly a mando player) what is boom chuck? Is it pick the g string then strum the whole chord?
Yeah, you pick the bass note on the downbeat and strum the chord on the upbeat. It has sort of a "boom chuck" kind of sound, with the boom being the bass note and the chuck being the strum.

Tom Smart
Jul-19-2006, 11:08am
Shuffles (there is more than one kind) are also an essential technique for old-time backup and lead. People usually associate Bill Monroe with the "chop," but he's also the master of shuffle. So give a good, deep listen to a lot of Monroe. It may be "bluegrass," but there's a lot of old time in his right hand.

Adam Tracksler
Jul-19-2006, 4:20pm
when I'm playing in an OT jam (and when I'm lucky enough to not be the only mando player, I really like to play other voicings of the song's chords and oh yes, double stops!!

Jul-19-2006, 7:48pm
Thanks, Gentlemen!


Jul-20-2006, 12:19am
you don't really need lesson books with the ol' cafe here http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/biggrin.gif

Jul-26-2006, 6:54pm
In the interest of reopening this topic, i've been looking for a way to emulate clawhammer banjo on the mandolin.

In my mind old time means american style fiddle tunes and my favorite form for them is the banjo/fiddle duet.

Call me a mandolin player with a minor identiy crisis but i really love the clawhammer sound.

So anyway i've been working on a cross-picking/cord chopping backup. Generally i try to phrase the melody like a clawhammer player around cross-picked lines, while interspersing some chop chords and double stops. It works well, when it works, but the difficulty on the mandolin is that the melody often lays outside of the chord so it becomes very difficult to play both. I think the solution may be to do things the banjo way, and just skip the hard meoldy notes and try to keep the song intact.

Well i'm off to practice

Jim Yates
Jul-27-2006, 10:13am
I believe Niles H. did a column about clawhammer mandolin a few years back. Maybe someone has a copy they could send you.

John Flynn
Jul-27-2006, 10:30am
In the interest of reopening this topic, i've been looking for a way to emulate clawhammer banjo on the mandolin.
Isn't that about like a cook trying to get top sirloin to taste like ground chuck? http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/tounge.gif

Seriously, though, I also think good clawhammer sounds great and I have had the privledge to meet and play with some great clawhammer players. Mandolin is great in its own right and can do many things a banjo can't. Overall, mandolin is a more versitile instrument. But a mandolin can't capture what a great clawhammer player can do. It can possibly play the notes and the ryhthm, but it just falls short on good clawhammer tone.

I just tried it on my favorite banjo track, "Sally in the Garden" by the Bony Goat Band, with the late Steve Mote on banjo. I love that track! I can now do the notes verbatim along with the banjo on the track, but it is not even remotely the same sound. I think it takes a really good clawhammer player, with a great banjo, to do that.

So why not just take up the banjo?

Michael H Geimer
Jul-27-2006, 12:12pm
There's just no 'cluck' on mandolin.

But ... wanting to sound like Clawhammer Banjo playing touches on the use of drones.

I'm not the cleanest player; I let the higher strings ring in the background all the time, without regard to the chord (if something sounds bad, then I'll mute the offending tone).

I think it helps lend an 'old' flavor to single note lines.

* * *

Lately, Pretty Lady and I have been singing 'The Mermaid' ala the Blakes latest CD. It's an old sailing song, and is working well with just two voices and mandolin.

I strum a mixture of true open chords, along with some three finger 'chop' voicing, but will allow those to ring. The feel I use is similair to guitar strumming (Boom Chuck), but I don't drive the strums. Rather, I lay back and give the 'impression' of strumming. Most of the song is carried by the vocals. The strums mostly support the tempo and rhythm, not harmony. It's mostly texture.

By 'laying low' behind the vocal sections, the single note work stands out better once the mandolin steps out to play its lead lines.

I think if the mandollin played something more complex behind harmony vocals ... things would sound pretty 'naked' once everything drops out to only a solo mandolin playing single notes.

IMHO ... fancy accompaniment is often a wasted effort. A simple background will help maintain focus on the foreground.

- Benig

Jul-27-2006, 2:31pm
Clawhammer on mando- timely pull offs and hammers can get that rhythm going. The cluck thing is a fad, like 12" pots.
Or maybe I'm just an old guy....

Aug-01-2006, 7:43am
i've been looking for a way to emulate clawhammer banjo on the mandolin.

On recordings:
On Fire & Ready!" - Niles Hokkanen #("Little Sadie Revised")
Into The Fever Rain - Jerry Rockwell & Niles Hokkanen #("Soldier's Joy")
Commando Sessions Vol.1 - various artists #("Over The Waterfall")

From the Mandocrucian's Digest (http://www.users.waitrose.com/~john.baldry/mando/hokkanen.html) contents breakdown (by category)

<span style='font-size:8pt;line-height:100%'>Bluegrass and Old-Time:
Baker, Kenny (issue #4)
Blake, Norman & Nancy (6)
Clark, Bobby (profile) (18)
Gaudreau, Jimmy (3/op)
Lawson, Doyle (10)
McLaughlin, Dave (1/op)
O'Brien, Tim (7)
O'Connor, Mark (11)
Ostroushko, Peter (15 &16)
Rowan, Peter (1/op)
Watson, Jim (14)

Instructional Articles:
The Transposing Game (20)
Developing Rhythmic Elasticity (21)
Variations On A Theme: Ideas/Approaches for Soloing (22)
Playing For Square and Contra Dances w/Larry Edelman (13-14)
Articles about the Mandolin-Banjo (19-21)
Instructional Columns:
Bluegrass w/John Baldry (1-4, 6-11, 13-22, 27)
Eldred Hill guest column (13)
<span style='color:red'>Clawhammer Mandolin w/Niles Hokkanen (4-6, 11)</span>
Old-Time Fiddle Tunes For Mandolin w/Judy Hyman (6-9, 11)
New England Tunes For Mandolin w/David Surette (13, 19)

"3 Ponies" (tune by Nancy Blake)
Remembering Bill Monroe (27)
Bluegrass tunes from readers (5, 7, 9, 22, 27)
Texas Fiddle Style Mandolin ("Wagoner") (4)</span>

Issue #5 (Cajun) is sold out. #Special through Aug 15, 06 - All Digest back issues 33% off. Minimum order (for discount) is $30 (pre-discount).

There are also some "clawhammer mandolin" examples in the books The Mandola Sampler and in Hot Solos For Bluegrass Mandolin ("Shady Grove").

Isn't that about like a cook trying to get top sirloin to taste like ground chuck? #
It can possibly play the notes and the ryhthm, but it just falls short on good clawhammer tone.

John - just cause Curtis Buckhannon doesn't do it doesn't mean one can't get fairly close to that sound. #

The right hand moves are not mechanically the same as frailing, and you work up and down the neck with the left hand a lot. #What you are after is an emulation of the note sequences and overall sound qualities you hear in old-time banjo. Once you understand how some of that banjo stuff lays out verbatim on a mando neck, then you can develop the ideas in a more mando-tuning friendly way. #

The only other guy that I know of who explored this was Larry Rice. Larry had worked up a few tunes in a similar approach back in the early 80s when I did some stuff with him; at the time I was also(independently) adapting old-time fiddle and banjo sound to mando. Andy Irvine was also influenced by frailing banjo and there are some similarities/commonalities in his across-the-strings playing and what I'll do as "clawhammer mandolin.

About ten years ago, Radim was interested enough in the technique to ask me to show him some of approach. (He worked some of those type licks into a track on his next record too.)#

Niles Hokkanen

Aug-01-2006, 8:07am
Just a quick suggestion about strumming: listen to Dave Grisman. He uses all sorts of different strums when he's not playing bluegrass (e.g.: the "Not for Kids Only" album).

Aug-05-2006, 7:12pm
this has been one of the most informative threads i have seen. thanks for the easy to understand and applicable posts guys http://www.mandolincafe.net/iB_html/non-cgi/emoticons/smile.gif

Loren Bailey
Aug-07-2006, 9:41am

I'll echo your sentiments. I've enjoyed this thread and will use many, if not all, of the suggestions. I realize now that I started learning music/mando the wrong way. Like many others, I assume, I started out wanting to learn the "leads" and melody. I wish like mad someone had told me to practice rythym and strumming chords first. Would have made life a lot easier. Now coming back and learning this is really helping my timing. Thanks to all who have contributed.