Learning old-time tunes by ear
Here’s one approach to picking up tunes at jams or from recordings.
- Identify the key: Listen for the “home” note. That’s often the note the tune ends on. Find that on your banjo and figure out what note it is. That will probably be your key. For example, if the tune ends on a satisfying D, that’s probably the key.
- Tune your banjo into that key.
- Sketch the outline of the melody: Try to play just the “bum” notes or just the first note of each measure. If the notes are in weird places, you’re in the wrong tuning—go back to step 1.
- Notice the chords that are happening, because they’ll help you find the notes. (This is why you learned the basic chords in every tuning!) Look at the guitarist if necessary, or guess the likely chord based on how the tune shifts and the position your fingers take as they go from one “bum” to another.
- Fill in the melody, trying different ways to make the notes until you find the one that gives the cleanest sound for the least work. Drop thumb? Hammer on? Pull off? Does making the chord help?
- Make it your own: Once you can play the melody with a solid, consistent rhythm, start messing with it. Try sliding into a note, or syncopate a bit, or take some notes out, or…
- If you’re learning from a recording, stop the recording. Play independently for awhile. Can you? If not, play with the recording some more.
- Play the tune independently for a few days, without listening to the recording or other musician. Then listen to the tune again without playing along. You’ll probably hear things you missed or have changed. Tweak as necessary.
More old-time tips
For a lot more information and discussion about clawhammer banjo in the old-time tradition, visit the Banjo Hangout.