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I must admit, I’ve put off recording this week’s song as a Tune of the Week installment.
Not because I don’t like it. On the contrary.
I put it off because I love it almost too much. Why?
Because, for me, it encapsulates everything I love about traditional southern mountain banjo music. Or maybe just music period.
First of all, it was composed by one of my heroes, the legendary Fred Cockerham of Round Peak, NC. And unlike much of the repertoire spawned from that tradition, this one was composed as a banjo tune.
It’s also in one of the less encountered “alternate tunings.” And it shows perfectly why those tunings exist – sure, you can play it in another tuning, but it’s just not the same.
It’s also loose structurally. There’s space in between the phrases that’s yours to do as you wish with. Space to play whatever you want, as long or as short as you’d like. There’s no rush to get on with it. Just stay in the moment, and play what seems natural.
Thematically, it covers the classic ground of longing and unrequited love.
And even though the melancholy and heartbreak is palpable in both its lyrics and musical aesthetic, I could play it endlessly (it’s rumored that Fred would play it over and over as well). I think there’s something profound about the human condition wrapped up in all of that, which may explain why the song feels so sacred.
As mentioned, this song uses one of the banjo’s “alternate” tunings (since there is not really a primary tuning for banjo, I feel compelled to always place alternate in quotes…). The tuning here is typically referred to as f#BEAD, though here’s it’s raised up a whole step to g#C#F#BE (you can either tune directly or use a capo at the 2nd fret), putting the result in the key of E.
You may hear this referred to by some “Cumberland Gap tuning.” However, given that there are other tunings that go by that name, and given the rabbit hole that it is the “naming-of-tunings-by-a-particular-tune” convention, I’d caution against using that terminology for the sake of clarity.
It’s a tuning that lends itself well to aimless noodling, and so you may want to spend a bit of time messing around with it once you’re there. To help frame your noodles, it’s useful to know the 3 primary chord fingerings (the I, IV, and V, which in this case are E Maj, A Maj, and B Maj). Here are the positions for those:
I’m also currently testing out a few setup configurations for the “Roscoe” model of “the Brainjo,” which has the plunkiest tone of the 3 offerings. For this recording, I’m using a set of LaBella nylon strings (“classical” set).
This suggest something different than just that we seek happiness and avoid sadness. I seems that this says something profound about the human condition.
g#C#F#BE tuning, Brainjo level 3-4
Notes on the Tab
Notes in parentheses are “skip” notes. To learn more about these, check out my video lesson on the subject.
For more on reading tabs in general, check out this complete guide to reading banjo tabs.
Level 2 arrangements and video demos for the Tune (and Song!) of the Week tunes are now available as part of the Breakthrough Banjo course. Learn more about it here.