“Art lives from constraints and dies from freedom.” – Leonardo da Vinci
“The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” – Orson Welles
So much of the music we love, or any great art for that matter, is born out of constraints. This truism is certainly on full display in the history of traditional Appalachian folk music, where glorious sounds sprang forth time and again from the most modest of circumstances and materials.
I also think it’s on full display with clawhammer style itself.
The continuous pulsation of the picking hand is what gives clawhammer the driving, hyponotic sound we all love; but the necessity of maintaining that persistent up and down movement of the hand also imposes its own constraints and limitations, as does the fact that we’re only allowed a single finger and a thumb for the striking of notes.
Yet, I think this is the very the thing that makes it so compelling. It’s in our solution to these challenges that we’ve created a sound that cannot be replicated in any other way, a sound that would never have made it’s way into the sonic ether had we not been brave (foolish?) enough to try to make music in the face of these obstacles.
Fiddle tunes, where it’s common for melody notes to be crammed into all the available spaces, certainly force us to confront these limitations head on. Sure, for the fiddler, getting all those notes is relatively trivial, given the mechanics of a playing a bowed instrument.
But for us banjoists attempting to present fiddle tunes in the clawhammer style, we have to get a bit creative if we want to include all those melodical embellishments, especially those that fall on the offbeats.
So decisions must be made. Decisions about what notes to leave, and what notes to throw out so as to not sacrifice rhythm at the altar of melody.
With some tunes, like “Little Billie Wilson”, the gods of downpicking smile upon us. Pretty much all the notes in this melody sit quite nicely in standard A tuning, making it impossible to resist the temptation to get em all in.
It’s a peppy, sweet little tune that doubles as both a great solo clawhammer piece and a workout for your fretting fingers. Enjoy!
Little Billie Wilson
aEAC#E tuning, Brainjo level 3
For more information on how to read the tablature, check out the complete guide to reading banjo tabs.