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Ok you wild and crazy guys and gals, it’s a 4-tunes-for-1 Special Edition of the Tune of the Week!
Some of you may be familiar with the youtube video of Steve Martin’s “clawhammer medley.” The video comes from his stand up days, where he’d often include a banjo interlude as part of his act.
The video has received a few hundred thousand well deserved views. Some of those may be on account of Martin’s celebrity status (and the delight of finding out what a great banjoist he is), but probably more come from the fact that it’s just great music.
The tunes he plays are 4 traditional classics, with a few melodic liberties thrown in. The tunes, in order, are: Loch Lomond, Sally Ann, Johnson Boys, Simple Gifts, and then, in true seasoned performer fashion, there’s a final “call back” to Sally Ann (the transition to each of these is noted in the tab below).
It’s been requested by multiple folks for inclusion in the Tune of the Week series, and at long last is finally here!
There’s much fun to be had for the typical down-picking enthusiast in learning these arrangements as he plays them.
For starters, you’ll more than likely get the chance to spend some time in a relatively unfamiliar tuning. Whereas double D would be the contemporary favorite tuning to play them in, Martin uses an open D tuning, aDAF#D.
It’s a tuning I use for a few old time fingerpicking numbers, but not one I’ve ever used for clawhammer. If that’s the case for you as well, you’ll find yourself early on having to resist the urge to revert to your habituated D tune fingering patterns.[RELATED: If you’re interested in learning the old time and 3 finger styles of fingerpicking, then click here to check out the new Breakthrough Banjo course for fingerstyle banjo.]
But I think the payoff is well worth. Beyond the brain stretching benefits of venturing to unfamiliar territory, playing these chestnuts in a new tuning gives them a fresh and unique sound.
My Best Steve Martin “Impression”
The arrangement I’ve presented here stays pretty close to his, and I’ve also tried to emulate some of the elements of Martin’s clawhammer style in my playing of it. His playing offers a refreshing contrast to the tones and techniques that tend to dominate the world of clawhammer banjo at this moment in time, and offer yet another excellent illustration of just how many equally wonderful sounding ways there are to coax pleasing sounds out of the banjo.
If you’d like to develop your own Steve Martin banjo impression, here are some thoughts on how to do so.
Elements of Steve Martin’s Clawhammer Style, circa late 1970s:
Play close to the bridge. These days, the sonic aesthetic du jour is to play around where the neck meets the pot, where the banjo produces a sweeter, more open sound. Martin, however, clearly likes his banjo a bit more sour, playing closer to the bridge to emphasize its nasal twang.
Incorporate full fingered brush strokes. Martin likes to punctuate sections of his tunes with twangy, full fingered brush strokes. Play these right next to the bridge if you want extra bite.
Use triplets liberally. Plenty of triplet embellishments are sprinkled throughout his arrangement, achieved via hammer ons and pull offs of the fretting hand.
Hit the head! Whether an accidental byproduct of playing close to the bridge or a deliberate effort to enhance the rhythmic pulse, Martin’s thumb consistently strikes up against the banjo head following the downstroke of his right hand. I enjoy this effect myself.
Let it breathe. One of my favorite things about his playing here is the use of “space”, achieved through the abundant use of “skip” strokes, as indicated in the tab (click here for a video lesson on this technique).
Be dynamic. Like the use of skip notes to create space, Martin also varies the volume of his playing throughout the medley, deliberately leaning into and backing off specific phrases, which makes the whole listening experience that much more interesting and engaging.
Steve Martin’s “Clawhammer Medley”
Tunes: Loch Lomond, Sally Ann, Johnson Boys, Simple Gifts
aDF#AD tuning, Brainjo level 3
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.
[RELATED: 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.
Click here for a current list of all the clawhammer songs and tunes currently available inside of The Vault