Playing “dark” tunes
Many of the tunes on this site are dark, and some are complex. You might be tempted to assume that a minor tune is “sad” and should be played slowly, but these are dance tunes, made to be played at dance tempos. Embrace the darkness!
Learning by ear outside the usual repertoire
Learning by ear is your ticket to musical freedom. Here’s how I pick up tunes that are outside the usual clawhammer repertoire. Maybe my process will give you ideas.
For learning Irish and other complex tunes, I rely on the Amazing Slow Downer, which lets you change the tempo and pitch of a recording independently.
I start out learning the tune at full speed or close to it. I don’t slow it down until about a third into the process, when I’ve got the outline and need to get the details. Then I slow it down as much as necessary and gradually speed it up again.
Phase 1: The basic idea of the tune
- Find a really fun recording of the tune, because you’re going to spend a long time with it.
- For Irish tunes, I go with driving bands like Solas or Flook rather than more vanilla recordings.
- I avoid any slow or special teaching versions of tunes, because they usually don’t communicate the feel of the tune.
- It often helps me if there’s a solid and preferably driving chordal accompaniment and, of course, a clear melody.
- Identify the likely 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. Also note if the tune has a minor sound.
- Find a tuning that will work for that key. This can be trial and error. If it turns out to be 100% error, use the playback software to raise or lower the pitch of the recording so it’s in a better key.
- If I’m working on an Irish tune or some other tune that I might end up playing with others, I learn it in the “correct” key.
- If the tune isn’t a session tune, I’ll put it in a key that works on the banjo.
- Sketch the outline of the melody–find the first note of each measure, for example. Slow the tune down if necessary. For me, it’s usually easier at this point to keep it near normal speed.
- Determine if the tuning really will work: As you play the basic notes of the melody, hit adjacent strings, too. If they always sound wrong, you need a different tuning. Also, if the tune seems to take place mostly on the 1st and 2nd strings, you might want a different tuning that will use more strings and give you a fuller sound.
Phase 2: The details
- Start filling in the melody. At some point during this step, I’ve figured out everything I can get at normal speed and slow the tune down so I can hear and play the details.
- Experiment with different ways of getting the melody notes. I often stop the recording here and work on trouble spots to figure out efficient ways to get the notes.
- Play and play and play with the slowed-down recording until it feels too slow. Then speed it up slightly. Repeat until you’re at full speed.
- Continue to tweak trouble spots. Cut notes that just aren’t worth the trouble or violate the banjo-ness of your sound.
Phase 3: Nailing it
- Stop the recording and play the tune independently. Can you do it? If not, play with the recording some more.
- Try playing independently again. Then play a different tune entirely and go back to your new one. Then play with the recording some more because you’re playing with great musicians and it’s a blast.
- Play the tune independently over and over again. Listen for things you can do to make it your own. Play the tune your way for days. Don’t listen to the recording.
- After a few days, listen to the recording again without playing along. You’ll hear stuff you missed the first time, or things you want to try. Try them.
Tuning chart to come