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On an otherwise ordinary day, Mike, the protagonist in this opening parable, happens upon someone playing clawhammer banjo. Captivated by its rhythmic, driving sound, and the pleasing drone of the 5th string, he decides he MUST learn how to play it.
He happens upon some instructional materials, and begins his studies in earnest. After getting some fundamentals under his belt, he takes a stab at some more advanced arrangements.
Yet, once he begins to play them, he notices something peculiar. Despite being more complex and “advanced,” something seems to be missing. Like the foot-tap-inducing, hypnotic drive that sucked him into clawhammer in the first place.
And the 5th string drone seems to have vanished without a trace.
Mike’s story is not uncommon: a player progresses to learning more “advanced” clawhammer arrangements and find things sound different, perhaps worse.
What’s happening here? More than likely, Mike is learning arrangements in the “melodic” style of playing.
For those unfamiliar, “melodic” style is when a banjoist tries to include as many of the melody notes as possible when playing a tune.
Melodies that have been written for the human voice (i.e. a song) tend to have their fair share of space. Aside from the occasional auctioneering outlier, there’s a limit to how fast we can sing.
So, when adapting songs for clawhammer, it’s usually not too difficult to include most, if not all, melody notes while still maintaining the driving sound of a downpicked banjo.
On the other hand, melodies written for instruments capable of producing a lot of notes per unit time – like the fiddle – tend to be quite busy. Adapting these melodies for clawhammer requires you to make decisions.
Decisions about when to leave out a melody note in favor of preserving drive, and when to leave them in favor of preserving something melodically essential.
Take this week’s tune, Yellow Barber, as an example. The original is a busy little beast of a fiddle tune by Kentucky fiddler Buddy Thomas, who was known for playing busy little beasts of fiddle tunes.
In sitting down to arrange this for banjo, there weren’t many instances where I felt that dropping a melody note wouldn’t sacrifice too much of the tune’s essence.
In other words, there weren’t many melody notes I felt I could cut from “Yellow Barber” (pun fully intended). As a result, I ended up with about as “melodic” an arrangement as you’ll typically see from me, and one that serves as a great example of “melodic” clawhammer.
(RELATED: For more on the distinction between melodic and other styles of banjo, check out the melodic-style arrangement of Soldier’s Joy from the “Round Peak Recipe” post)
As discussed above, you’ll find that the thumb, when employed, is now typically called into the service of melody over drone. And the 5th string only makes an occasional cameo.
You may also hear a bit less drive. For me, for this particular tune, that’s ok. “Yellow Barber” is more baroque than breakdown.
Of course, these finite categories only exist in our collective imaginations. Every arrangement can be plotted on a continuous spectrum from “rhythmic” to “melodic,” with the dividing line between the two existing only in the ear of the beholder.
(RELATED: learn how to arrange any tune anywhere along the “rhythmic to melodic” spectrum as part of the “How To Play By Ear” module in the Breakthrough Banjo course.)
So what about you? Do you like clawhammer banjo that’s mellifluous and melodic, driving and droning, or somewhere in the middle? Let me know in the comments section below.
aDADE 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.