Bonus Episode: Putting It All Together
Welcome to the first bonus installment in the 8 essential steps to clawhammer banjo series. If you’ve completed the 8 steps series, then you now possess the fundamental technical building blocks needed to start creating all sorts of great music as a downpicking banjoist.
You know how to strike single strings, strum, sound the 5th, hammer on and pull off onto same and alternate strings, and slide. In other words, you’re poised and ready to unleash these skills out in the world in the service of great music.
Well, that’s what we’ll be talking about next. You see, the last thing I want is for you to finish the 8 steps and then fizzle out.
What I want to do next, then, is show you how to start putting your newly acquired skills to good use, and so I’m creating some additional content together to make sure you keep the momentum going.
In this video, we’re going to cover the basic rhythmic structure of clawhammer banjo, and I’m going to show you the ways in which we can combine the different technical elements we’ve learned together to create different sounds and rhythms.
After that, we’re gonna learn our first full tune: “Long Journey Home”.
First off, let’s examine how we put together the components we’ve learned to create various rhythms in the clawhammer style.
As I’m sure you know, one of the defining things about clawahmmer banjo is its driving rhythm. It’s probably the thing that drew you into the style in the first place. So, let’s take a closer look at how we go about creating that driving sound
To do so, we’re gonna cover just a little bit of music theory. Not too much, though – just enough to deepen our understanding of the topic, and nothing more.
The Basic Structure
Most forms of music can be divided into a basic, repeating unit of rhythm, known as a measure. And most of the time when we’re playing clawhammer, we’re going to be playing in what’s known as 2:4 time.
For the purposes of this discussion, the only thing you really need to know is that the fundamental rhythmic unit of much of the music we play is in 2 beat chunks. So, in 2:4 time, each measure has 2 beats.
To count that out, we just say “1, 2, 1, 2..” When we talk about beats per minute when we’re measuring speed, this is what we’re referring to. These are the clicks of the metronome.
We can divide those measures even further, by splitting each beat into 2 parts. Now we’ve divided our measure into 4. And we count that out as “1 and 2 and 1 and 2 and”. In other words, we insert an “and” in between the clicks of the metronome:
We generally refer to the “1” and the “2” as the downbeat, and the “AND’s” as the upbeat. In clawhammer, we’re almost always going to be playing the downbeat and upbeat with our frailing finger.
Lastly, we can divide those 4 measures in half again, leaving us with eight equal divisions. This we count as “1 e and a 2 e and a”. The “e’s” and “a’s” we’ll refer to as the offbeat. And, in clawhammer, the offbeat is the domain of the thumb. Almost always, when we’re playing a note on the banjo with our thumb, it’s a note that falls on the offbeat.
So this is the fundamental structure of most clawhammer music, and how you choose to fill in that structure is really a matter of choice. This structure is always there, regardless of whether or not we sound each part on the banjo.
We have the option of filling in the structure with a hammer strike or a strum on the down and upbeats, and with a thumb pluck on the offbeats. Or we can choose to leave any of those beats silent. Ultimately, the rhythms that we create in clawhammer depend entirely on how we choose to fill in that structure.
Now, let’s cover the two most common rhythms used in clawhammer banjo.
The “Bum Ditty”
For this rhythm, we’ll strike a single string on the first downbeat. When our thumb then comes to rest against the 5th string, we’ll leave it silent. On the upbeat, we’ll strum. And when our thumb comes to rest against the 5th this time, we’ll sound the string. Then, we’ll repeat that same pattern in the second half of the measure.
Altogether, this creates a “bum ditty” rhythm, which is created by leaving that first and third offbeat (the “e” count) silent.
Now, let’s create a second rhythm, again starting with a hammer strike. This time, when the thumb comes to rest against the 5th on the 1st offbeat, we’re going to sound the 5th string. Then, on the upbeat, we’ll make a hammer strike again with our picking finger, and then follow again with a thumb on the offbeat.
We’ll repeat that same pattern for the second half of the measure. Now what we’ve ended up with is a “bump-a-ditty” rhythm, which we’ve created by filling each of our 8 slots with a note from the banjo.
These two patterns – “bum ditty” and “bump a ditty” – are found throughout clawhammer banjo music, and both create a different feel and rhythm to the music. Some players tend to stick to one primarily. Grandpa Jones, for example, leaned heavily on the “bum ditty” pattern. It works especially well for vocal accompaniment.
Banjo players from the Round Peak tradition – guys like Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham – stuck more to the bump a ditty pattern. I personally will vary depending on the tune, and in some cases will vary what I do within the same tune. Overall, it’s just nice to have options so you can play what you like, and so you can keep things interesting.
You’ll notice here, too, that the main difference between these two rhythms as that in one you choose to sound the 5th string on the first offbeat, and in the other you don’t. In both cases, your thumb is pressed against it and ready. So, given the technical skills you now possess, being able to switch between these two patterns is a trivial matter.
A Starting Point
And although these two rhythms are the foundation of a lot of clawhammer banjo, this doesn’t mean you must use them all the time. As I said, we’re free to fill our fundamental rhythmic structure any way we wish; we can use one of these exclusively, move back and forth, or do something else entirely. It’s just a good idea to always have this backbone in mind when we’re playing, as it helps keep our rhythm solid.
As you start learning some of the tunes I’m going to teach you, try to be mindful of this underlying structure, as well as the ways in which we’re filling it. For this first tune, “Long Journey Home”, we’ll be leaning heavily on the “bum ditty” pattern.
Long Journey Home
Level 1 Arrangement, gDGBD tuning
The tune we’re now going to learn is “Long Journey Home”, in the key of G. And we’re playing it out of gDBGD tuning. This first arrangement, which is the one I review in the video, is a “level 1” arrangement. This means that all the techniques you need to play it have been covered in the “8 steps” series, and is the easiest in terms of level of difficulty (this doesn’t mean it’s “easy”, nor does it mean it doesn’t sound great!).
Long Journey Home
Level 2 Arrangement
This next arrangement is a “level 2” arrangement. Level 2 arrangements also only draw upon techniques covered in the “8 steps” series, but should prove to be a bit more of a challenge than level 1 arrangements. And they also should sound great! So, once you feel a little comfortable with the level 1 arrangement, try your hand at the level 2.
There are a few alternate string hammer ons and pull offs in this arrangement. If you recall from the lesson on them, they are denoted by a number underneath the tablature, which refers to the finger I use to play the note (1 for index, 2 for middle, etc.). If the string is lower in pitch than the one before it, then you’ll play hammer on; if it is higher in pitch than the one before it, then you’ll play a pull off.
That’s Not All, Folks
I’ll be back soon with another bonus installment, where we’ll learn another tune, and I’ll share with you the foolproof approach I recommend for learning new tunes. I think you’ll really like it.
See you then!