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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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

  1. Stop the recording and play the tune independently. Can you do it? If not, play with the recording some more.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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

10 Responses to “Tips: other”

  1. 1 gary schattl August 23, 2008 at 9:39 pm

    I sure could use your tuning chart as I don’t a keyboard to find the notes and am used to tuning the strings reletive to each other.Do you have a chart that showes how to get from one key to another by using the numbered fretts as a referance?

  2. 2 banjomeetsworld August 24, 2008 at 2:10 pm

    Gary, the tuning chart will just show tunings like this: aDADE, aEADE, etc. I won’t show people how to get into each tuning. You can use a tuner or knowledge of the fretboard to get into the tunings.

    Here are some tips on tuning:

    Chromatic tuners are great. I recommend the kind that tells you what note you’re playing. I’d also recommend that you learn how to count up the frets to find a specific note on the fretboard.

    Every fret is a “half step” in the western scale. It doesn’t matter where you start the scale; it’s the intervals that count. Here’s the scale starting on an A:

    A Bb B C C# D Eb E F F# G G# A

    Your tuner might show it as this:

    A A# B C C# D D# E F F# G G# A

    To see how it works, turn on your tuner and tune your third string to A. Press the first fret and look at the tuner. It should tell you that the note has changed to B flat (or A#–they’re the same thing). Press the next fret and the note will be B. Go up one fret at a time to about the 5th fret to understand how to count up the scale. Try it on other strings, too, and notice the pattern. No matter where you start in the above scale, the intervals are always the same. One fret takes you up one place in the scale.

    I’m not talking about memorizing scales but about being able to say, “I know that the open second string is a D. I need the first string to be an E. Where can I find an E so I can tune the first string to it? I can use the second string and count up the frets: open is D, first fret is E flat, second fret is E. That’s the note I need. I’ll hold the second string at the second fret and tune the first string to match it.”

    Spelled out in such detail, it sounds laborious, but it quickly becomes second nature. It means that you can get into any banjo tuning if you know the pitch of just one string. For example, if you see a banjo tuning written like aEAC#E, you can tune your third string to A and quickly figure out the rest just by using frets. And if you really don’t want to buy a tuner, you can find an A at this site and use frets to go from there:

    Taking this approach also makes you more aware of the relationships between strings in the various tunings, which will help you learn by ear.

    If you want a quick fix, Mike Iverson has tuning charts for some common tunings here:

    Click to access Banjo%20Tunings.pdf

  3. 3 Charles Crotts October 29, 2008 at 4:42 pm


    I don’t know if this is the right place for this question if not I apologize.

    I am fairly new at the banjo and working with a fretless (I know). I have started experimenting with alternative tunings but am a little worried that I will damage the banjo itself. It is very nice and the only one I have so I would hate to murder it after we’ve become such good friends. Am I being paranoid?

    The banjo is a Mike Ramsey and the player is 8 months into a serious banjo habit. Thanks

  4. 4 banjomeetsworld October 29, 2008 at 5:56 pm

    Charles, I don’t think you can damage your banjo by trying tunings that are within the range of common banjo tunings. However, you might want to ask your question at the Banjo Hangout, where there are hundreds of people who know more about the physical properties of banjos than I do:

    Have fun!

  5. 5 Martin November 6, 2008 at 10:53 pm

    Hi Cathy,

    I’ve just found this HUGELY useful site (from one of your BanjoTube videos off BanjoHangout), and I want to first thank you for your efforts. I will certainly be coming back here a LOT in my learning of CH banjo!

    I’ve only been playing for about 8 months – so I’m still on the clawhammer standards – ‘cripple creek’, ‘pretty little dog’, ‘cluck ol’ hen’ and the like, however, I’m already seeing potential for the clawhammer ‘bum-ditty’ sound to be applied to some of the more recent music from my home nation of New Zealand. Most music from there, now, comes out with a very relaxed Ska-Reggae-Dub beat which is not unlike a stressed “bum-DITty”. Infact, when playing with a guitarist who was also learning, he instinctively dropped into these sorts of beats.

    Are there good tricks for adapting clawhammer to these sorts of more modern sounds?

    Thanks in advance!


  6. 6 banjomeetsworld November 8, 2008 at 2:32 pm

    Martin, welcome to the site, and thanks for the interesting question. If the beat you’re describing is the one I’m thinking of, it would sound cool in clawhammer and shouldn’t be too hard to play.

    Usually when I’m figuring out a new rhythmic pattern, I ignore the thumb for awhile–I just let it rest on the 5th string–and first see what my frailing finger needs to do. So first I identify which beats I can comfortably and accurately get with the downstroke. Then I see how the thumb can get the up beats, either on the 5th string or on some other string.

    I also use an upstroke with my frailing finger for some things but you might avoid that until you’re super comfortable with the standard down stroke.

    Finally, you could also treat your banjo like an ukulele, doing 100% strumming up the neck. It can make a nice change from playing melody: you can play melody a bit, then switch to making chords up the neck and strumming, no pick required. I hope to do a video about that in the next month.

  7. 7 Martin November 13, 2008 at 4:06 pm

    Thanks so much for the interesting reply. For the record, a good example of the sort of beat I am thinking of is ‘Fat Freddy’s Drop – Wandering Eye’ Youtube has a version here: (which is worth listening to regardless).

    I really look forward to seeing the video you mention in a month or so! Meanwhile, I’m going to keep mucking around trying to figure this banjo out…

    Thanks again!

  8. 8 Cathy November 23, 2008 at 11:53 pm

    Martin, I’ve got a video up now that shows a uke-style strum that can be used to emphasize the back beat:

    It’s busier than a ska-like beat, but you might be able to apply the same principle to get the sound you’re looking for.

    To emphasize the back beat when you’re playing melody, you can use the same muting technique on individual notes (don’t fret the note all the way) and use a firmer strike on the notes that fall on beats 2 and 4.

    Thanks for the link to the video–I enjoyed it.

  9. 9 Rob Taylor January 7, 2010 at 3:36 pm

    Firstly let me say I’ve always admired the Banjo and the skill of the players yet stayed with the guitar myself going on to become the director of Carparelli Guitars Canada , yesterday I had the opportunity to see a master at work and see first hand just what goes into making a first class instrument, the detail and expression that goes into crafting one of these left me speechless.

    The master luthier was Bill Rickard of Rickard Banjos

  10. 10 Sara Wolf September 30, 2012 at 11:44 pm

    I’ve been getting into playing balkan tunes lately and have had a really hard time chosing the right clawhammer tuning. (sawmill is good for chords but is missing the low notes and making me play an octave higher than I want) It looks like a lot of the songs have a lot of Gm, Cm and D, but of course there are different keys. I was wondering what tuning or tuning you would recommend for balkan music? I’d love to be able to combine melody leads and also hold down the chord progressions like I do when I play other types of music.

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