Learning old-time tunes by ear

Here’s one approach to picking up tunes at jams or from recordings.

  1. 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.
  2. Tune your banjo into that key.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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?
  6. 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…
  7. If you’re learning from a recording, stop the recording. Play independently for awhile. Can you? If not, play with the recording some more.
  8. 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.

4 Responses to “Tips: old-time”


  1. 1 Nicholas August 24, 2008 at 10:32 pm

    Thanks for this….i found your blog through trying to find info. on “Dry & Dusty” – trying to learn it from a Rhys Jones, Jeff Miller, and Jim Nelson recording. I like, specifically, your #5 – cleanest sound with least amount of work. I have really enjoyed playing songs I’ve learned by tab in Jarrell & Cockerham’s tabs for that very reason that they’re so clean and SO (efficient?) for your fingers.

    One question: have you noticed in your banjo playing that some songs stick out as songs that can be played well by themselves and evoke the song on their own? Do you play songs that, on the other hand, seem to only come alive with fiddle and/or guitar? when the chords are more fully realized? I feel that a solo banjo “Dry & Dusty” just doesn’t convey on its own what the fiddle can do with it so easily. I’d appreciate a quick response – new to this!

  2. 2 banjomeetsworld August 25, 2008 at 9:43 pm

    Hi Nicholas,

    To me, the simpler, trance-style old-time tunes like “Dry and Dusty” or “Shout Lulu” sound better with more than one instrument, such as banjo and fiddle. On solo banjo they can sound thin to me, especially on a bright-sounding banjo, and adding notes to flesh them out can lessen the trancey-ness that makes them so appealing.

    When I play simple old-time tunes solo, I tend to improvise and add syncopation to make them more interesting to me. Unfortunately, those are two techniques that don’t come through in tab. Also, simpler tunes seem to work better on nylon strings for me, and I’ve had more fun playing them on cello banjo than on my brighter Stewart.

  3. 3 Jeff Miller March 24, 2009 at 5:08 pm

    Noticed your post on Ill/MO banjo styles. you didn;t come up with much execpt to point out Dave Landreth’s playing as having more notes than round peak. You also mentioned the Dear old Ill CD and the KY banjo rapping/frailing sound.

    My take as a Missouri tune player, is less notes are always a good choice when the tunes have MORE notes. Many Missouri tunes do have a more fully developed melody and although Dave does capture most of those notes, his is not the only approach that works with these tunes.

    One thing I have found in Ill/MO tunes is that galax/RP licks do not fit with the beat. Adapt.

  4. 4 jack magee December 20, 2009 at 2:19 am

    ha… i dare you to start a jam session with me! i know we would play probably for days without hitting the same tune….i love your rhythm… im from mississippi … i been playing the fiddle for a good time now… also have a great clawhammer bango player here… yall would exchange stuff for days! anyway, i tried to see who you were and probed around here on your site some but still cant tell! lets make something happen, even if its some sort of virtual jam…. i record a lot, mostly with logic…got tons of video that i shot early on learning the fantastice rep that we have…

    im a great fan of yours now but just want to jam with you for one good night….i know we would be life long friends! jack


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