Intros & Outros Knowing a few standard intros and outros is an essential part of any aspiring banjoist’s skill set. Intros Playing a short musical introduction to a tune or song serves a couple of important purposes: 1.) An intro relates the tempo to the other players in your band (or jam circle) allowing them to join in at the correct tempo. 2.) An intro also conveys the “tonality” of the tune/song, allowing other participants to hear the tonal center of the key. This can be especially helpful to singers who may need to hear a bit of the music before they can confidently start singing in the correct key. Beyond the aforementioned reasons for adding intros to your arsenal is the simple fact that playing and intro will be expected of you if you ever “lead a song/tune” in a jam session or in a band. Playing an intro to “kick off” a piece of music is a critical part of the language of folk & roots music and, therefore, it behooves you to learn a few of the most common phrases so you can mingle successfully with the natives. Outros Outros are the musical equivalent of a concluding sentence. Outros also serve a couple of different purposes: 1.) Playing a classic ending lick at the end of a performance conveys a sense of closure and finality to the audience and/or the other musicians. 2.) Playing a familiar end tag at the conclusion of a performance allows the other players a chance to end at the proper time and in the proper manner. This ups your chances of having a much more cohesive sounding ending during a jam session or a loose stage performance. Videos Below are three videos I’ve created in order to teach you some classicly useful ways to introduce and conclude a song or tune during a jam or performance. Each video teaches essentially the same musical ideas across three different tunings: Open G (standard tuning), Double C, and Open D. Give these videos a view and then start the process of integrating these essential elements into your clawhammer playing. Click the links below to access the vids: Open G Tuning - Intros/Outros Double C Tuning - Intros/Outros Open D Tuning - Intros/Outro Tablature Open G Tuning – Intros/Outros Double C Tuning – Intros/Outros Open D Tuning – Intros/Outros
Consider algebra Some folks see algebra as a hopelessly confusing set of formulae and equations that seem to have no relationship to real life. Others see it as a perfectly practical tool for understanding and predicting real world events and phenomena. Both perspectives can be true. Suppose you find yourself at the store with instructions to buy as many light bulbs as $20 can get you. If so, what are you likely to do in that situation? You’ll probably find the light bulbs, compare the different prices, determine which product offers the most inexpensive price per bulb and then calculate just how many bulbs you can buy at that price for $20. In doing this, you’re “doing” algebra. You probably didn’t write down any equations or solve for any variables but what you did could, I imagine, be expressed and understood using such things. Someone who does have a strong understanding of algebra could likely communicate that shopping experience in algebraic terms. So algebra isn’t some mysterious magical system that we humans impose on the world but, rather, it’s a system for organizing and making sense of what’s already there. It’s a tool that allows its practicioners to better understand and to better communicate “how” certain experiences work. So, not knowing the ins and outs of algebra is not necessarily going to prevent you from having a successful trip to the light bulb store but, on the other hand, having a firm grasp on its practical applications could make your shopping excursion more efficient and possibly more fruitful. *note: I haven’t studied algebra since high school so I’m not sure why I’ve used this analogy. 😎 Music theory is like algebra There are countless musicians in the world making perfectly good music without knowing the “musical algebra” that theoreticians use to express and organize the phenomenon. Its only when we go searching for a deeper understanding of “how” music works that we need to turn to music theory. At some point in their journey, many musicians start seeking answers to some “what” and “why” questions like: What makes a chord a chord? What does it mean to say that a tune is in a particular key? Why do particular patterns of notes make a particular type of scale? What is a scale? What’s the difference between a major and a minor chord? What does “modal” mean? To answer these questions we use music theory. An Automotive Analogy Think of music theory as the mechanics of music. To start contemplating “what makes music tick” you have to take a look under the hood. You start by learning what each part is called and what it does and then you lean how these parts work together to form systems. Then you learn how all of those systems work together to “make the car move down the road”. Of course, there are many drivers who have no desire to understand the inner workings of their vehicles. They know “how” to drive the thing and that’s good enough for them. Likewise, many musicians are content in simply learning where and when to put their fingers. They want to know “how” to play a chord but aren’t concerned about the “what” and “why” of a chord. That’s okay. Everyone has to find their own way in this world. Some of us think more like mechanics while others think more like drivers. What I’m suggesting is that a driver‘s experience is enhanced when she understands a bit about what makes the car go and a banjo player’s experience is likewise enhanced when he understands a bit about what makes music come out of his banjo. A CHALLENGE FOR YOU Drivers If you’re a “driver” who tends to stick to the more practical aspects of the art and shy away from music theory and the “mechanics” of the music then dedicate a little time over the next few weeks to expanding your horizons. Check out some music theory resources (books, courses, websites) and then take what you’ve learned and see if you can relate it to your banjo playing. You’ll likely gain some useful insights. Mechanics If you’re a “mechanic“, chances are you’re spending a disproportionate amount of your time analyzing music theory and performing routine maintenance on your banjo when you could actually be playin’ the thing. Commit to playing your banjo for twenty minutes a day for the next two or three weeks. I’m not talking about practicing your banjo or learning some new song, scale, technique, or exercise. I’m talking about playing that thing. If you know some songs or tunes, play them…everyday. If you just know a couple of chords, play a basic strum with your right hand while switching between chords with your left hand…everyday. You may be the most skilled mechanic in the world but, if you don’t know how to drive, you’re going to have a hard time getting where you want to go. Conclusion In music as in life, balance is the key. Make some noise...
If you’re one of those clawhammer players who likes to play old time fiddle tunes then you’ve no doubt seen and heard references to “modalism. You’ll see some tabs listing the key of a tune as A modal, for example. Or you’ll be in a jam and someone will say, “This is a modal tune. But what in the world does it mean to say that a particular tune is “modal”? Answer #1 I get this question from a lot of beginners and early intermediate players and I usually answer by demonstration. I’ll play a modal tune or two and let them hear the difference in the character of a modal sound versus a standard major key sound: Click to hear a tune that is modal Click to hear a tune in a major key Then I teach ’em a modal tune or two so that they get a feel for how the concept looks and feels on the banjo neck. Here’s some tab and a FREE video lesson of a modal tune for you: Watch this video here to learn the modal tune Pretty Polly: Click here for the tab to Pretty Polly *note: The tab and video lesson above is taken from my 30 Days to Better Banjo course. You can learn more about the course by clicking here. This “experiential” method to understanding modal tunes is certainly the most practical approach to understanding modal music. The more of these tunes that you learn and listen to, the better you’ll become at handling yourself in modal situations. So, answer #1 to the question, “What is a modal tune”? is: Listen to it and play it and then you’ll know. For some people, however, simply doing is not enough and their inquiring minds want to know the “why” behind the “what”. If you fall into this camp, then you may want to take a look at answer #2. Answer #2 Alright. I’ll give you a little bit of the technical answer to the question of “what is modal”? *note: You do NOT need to know or understand these concepts in order to play modal tunes. What I’m talking about in the paragraphs below is music theory stuff. It can be helpful to some people in some situations but it is by no means necessary for you to care about or understand this technical end of music in order to be an accomplished musician. If any of this stuff confuses you or you’re just not interested in “looking under the hood” then simply ignore it. If you’re confused by it but still interested in understanding, well…just keep your head in the game, read as much info as you can on the subject, then reread it a few days later, study it, talk to other musicians about it, and eventually, with some time and effort, basic music theory will make perfect sense to you. Anyway, back to the question at hand. A few technical points to consider about modal tunes: Some people in the old time/folk world explain a modal tune as a tune that is neither major or minor. This is true to a degree and it is a simple way to define modal tunes in reference to the more common major or minor key melodies that we’re more used to hearing in American music but it certainly doesn’t tell the whole story. It should be noted that all western music can be divided into “modes”. Melodies that we consider to be major or minor are no exception. To say a tune is major is the same as saying it is based on the Ionian mode. To say a tune is minor is the same as saying it is based on the Aeolian mode. In the old time music world, when we come a cross a tune that is in a mode other than Ionian or Aeolian then we refer to it as modal (not major or minor). But, again, this doesn’t tell the whole story. A “modal” tune can be based on a variety of modes beyond the Ionian or Aeolian. For old timers and folkies, these tunes usually belong to the Dorian mode or the Mixolydian mode. Confused yet? Good. Let’s move on and talk briefly about one way you can think of modes. If you know anything about the major scale then you have a way to start extrapolating a little knowledge of modal systems. Here are the notes of an A major scale: A B C# D E F# G# A I told you earlier the major scale is really just another name for the ionian mode. So, let’s start calling the above sequence of notes A Ionian. Now let’s shift the starting (and likewise the ending) note of this sequence. We’re not going to change the order of the notes…we’re just going to shift the start/end point. Let’s start on the second note of the A Ionian. That gives us this: B C# D E F# G# A B This we call B Dorian. B because that’s our root note and Dorian because it starts on the second note of the Ionian mode. Let’s look at another example. Let’s use the C major scale (also known as the C Ionian mode): C D E F G A B C Now let’s give it the same treatment we gave our earlier example and build a mode off of the second note of this sequence. What we get is the D Dorian mode: D E F G A B C D This we call D Dorian. D because that’s our root note and Dorian because it starts on the second note of the Ionian mode. Continuing with this idea for a second longer If we started a sequence from the third note of an Ionian mode we would have what’s called a Phrygian mode. Using this perspective, we can layout the system like this: Dorian starts on the second note of the Ionian mode (major scale) Phrygian starts on the third note Lydian starts on the fourth note Mixolydian on the fifth note Aeolian(minor scale) on the sixth note Locrian on the seventh note As I’m sure you can see, we’re now starting to wade out into the deeper waters of music theory and it just doesn’t have a lot of immediate relevance to the task at hand. This is why I prefer offering up Answer #1 to Answer #2. I love studying basic music theory and I do often apply music theory concepts to my playing and my arranging but I’m careful to encourage you to jump in too deeply too soon…lest you get hung up on the conceptual understanding of the music at the expense of your experiential understanding. Conclusion The simple answer to “What is a modal tune?”: A tune that is neither major nor minor. The more complex answer: They’re all, technically, modal tunes. A good dose of music theory study will start to shed some light on the nuances of modally classifying melodies. Understanding, at least, how the Mixolydian and Dorian modes manifest themselves on your banjo might be helpful toward your understanding of these fuzzy concepts. Disclaimer I wrote and posted this article on a whim. I hadn’t sat down at the keyboard intending to talk about modes and scales and the mysteries therein but, rather, was inspired by a question that someone in the Play Better Banjo community had sent me. Answer #2 is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a complete answer. I’ve simply given you a peek behind the music theory curtain in an effort to relay a modicum of technical explanation of modes. If you want to take you’re music theory studies further, send me an email and I’ll do my best to connect you with some useful materials. Alright. Enough talk. Now, get out there and make some noise!
Do you know and understand your chord shapes across a variety of common banjo tunings? Most clawhammer banjoists know their basic chord shapes in the standard tuning of open G (gDGBD) but, for many players, when they migrate to alternate tunings (sawmill, double C, open D, etc.), there tends to be a disconnect. In my mind, a thorough understanding of chords (how they’re built and how they function) is a supremely essential part of any fully-functioning musician’s trick bag. Banjoists being no exception. So, I make it a point to teach my private and my online students the ins and outs of chord construction and function. For instance, in my 30 Days to Better Banjo course, participants learned “what makes a chord a chord” so that they can figure out chords shapes on their own…in any tuning…on any fretted, stringed instrument. You can probably imagine how this ability can increase one’s musicality and add enjoyment to the learning process, too. For example If you’re in the double C tuning (gCGCD) and you need to know how to play a B minor chord, you can simply use your chord theory knowledge to figure out the notes of a B minor chord and to locate those notes on your fretboard. No need to consult a chord book or go searching online when you’ve got the foundational knowledge right there in your head! The other side of the coin That being said, many banjo players (and players of folk instruments in general) get along pretty well without delving into these theoretical aspects of music. To folks of this ilk, practical knowledge takes precedent over theoretical knowledge. So which approach is best? In my opinion, both approaches to learning music (the theoretical AND the practical) are equally beneficial and the most well-rounded musicians constantly travel back and forth between the two camps. For a slightly more in depth look at practical vs theoretical modes of musical learning, check out this Play Better Banjo article: SOME THOUGHTS ON MUSIC THEORY, ALGEBRA, LIGHT BULBS, CARS AND LEARNING TO PLAY THE BANJO Chord Shapes for Alternate Tunings Some practical resources Below is a collection of helpful chord charts each demonstrating a handful of common chord shapes in a variety of commonly used tunings: Open G Tuning – 21 Essential Chords Open C Tuning – Common Chord & Movable Shapes Double C Tuning – A Handful of Useful Chord Shapes G Modal Tuning – 12 Useful Chord Shapes If and when you find yourself needing to know how to play a particular chord in a particular tuning, just reference these charts to find the info you need. Some theoretical resources For a deeper, theoretical understanding of chord provenance and function, I recommend you make an effort to learn some basic music theory. As I alluded to earlier, music theory and its application to the clawhammer banjo is covered extensively as part of the 30 Days to Better Banjo course. You can also gain a wealth of music theory information by seeking out books on the subject, searching online, or asking your personal music teacher (if you have one).
Probably the most important (and least glamorous) part of playing the banjo is learning how to tune. It doesn’t matter how well you can play; if you’re out of tune, it’s not going to sound good. Stringed instruments are always in a state of flux. Your banjo strings are held taught at a constant high tension. This tension will stretch the strings and cause the tuning machines to shift. There are other factors, too. Temperature and humidity changes are often responsible for your instrument’s ever-changing state. The short story is this: All stringed instruments need to be tuned regularly Becoming skilled at the art of tuning is a foundational skill for banjo players Beginning Your Banjo Tuning Journey As beginners, most of us aren’t very skilled at tuning “by ear”. It takes a bit of time and experience to develop the ability to confidently identify and correct tuning issues as they arise. Remember that patience and persistence are all that you need in order to become an expert banjo tuner. In the meantime, if you are close to someone (friend, family member, loved one, neighbor) that can tune your banjo for you, be sure to ask them for help when you need it. Three Paths It’s important to be familiar with all of your options as there are a few different ways to go about tuning a stringed instrument: Relative Tuning – tuning to yourself Reference Tuning – tuning to another instrument Standardized Tuning – tuning with an electronic tuner* *This is the method I recommend to get you started during the Beginner Clawhammer Video Series. Tuning to Yourself Relative tuning works just fine when you’re going to be playing or practicing on your own. The idea is simple. You choose a string as a starting point (I always use the fourth string) and then you tune the rest of the strings in relation to that chosen string. Here’s a step by step breakdown that shows you the details of this process: Play the 5th fret on the 4th string. Now play the open 3rd string. Compare the two tones. The open 3rd string should sound the same as the 4th string fretted at the 5th fret. If the notes sound the same, they are in tune and you can move on to the next string. If the tones do not sound alike, then determine whether the open string’s pitch is “higher” or “lower” than the fretted note. Use the 3rd string tuning peg to raise or lower the strings pitch until it matches the fretted 4th string note. Once you’ve got the 3rd string tuned up you can start tuning the 2nd string. The process is the same except this time you fret the 3rd string on the 4th fret. This note should sound the same as the open 2nd string. If not, then make the necessary adjustments and then move on to repeat this process for the next two strings. Keep repeating the process until all the strings have been tuned. The only thing that changes for each step is the fretted note. Here’s a breakdown: 4th string/5th fret = Open 3rd string 3rd string/4th fret = Open 2nd string 2nd string/3rd fret = Open 1st string 1st string/5th fret = Open 5th string If that’s not completely clear to you, take a look at this diagram: Relative Tuning Diagram – Click Here to View Tuning to Another Instrument A second method is to tune to another instrument. This is a great way to get in tune with other musicians. A common way to do this: Ask a fellow musician to play you a D note. Adjust your D (4th string) to match theirs. Now tune the rest of your strings to your newly tuned 4th string using the Relative Tuning method. Now you should be in tune not only with yourself, but with your fellow musician as well. Tuning With the Aid of a Device As I mentioned earlier, it takes a bit of time and practice for most people to become proficient at tuning a banjo. Luckily we have a variety of modern tools available that can make the process easier and more consistent. Electronic Tuners Electronic tuners measure the frequency of a string’s vibration. They’re generally equipped with a meter that allows you to monitor whether a note is in tune. Electronic tuners are readily available and relatively inexpensive. A decently reliable tuner can be had for as little as $15. You may even be able to download a tuner app on your smartphone for free! Two Types of Tuners Different tuners have different means of “hearing” your banjo. There are two types. Let me give you a brief explanation of each along with their advantages and disadvantages. Microphone Style – This type of tuner hears your banjo through a small, on board microphone. The only disadvantage to microphone style tuners is that they don’t work well in noisy environments. The microphone will not be able to discriminate between a banjo and other sounds in the room, like someone speaking or another instrument playing. Contact Style – This type of tuner is attached to your instrument (usually by some sort of clip) and senses the vibration through contact. The big advantage to contact style tuners is that they aren’t as easily “confused” by ambient sounds and work well in louder playing situations. *note: I recommend purchasing a contact style tuner because of the advantages I just mentioned. An affordable and generally reliable make/model is the: Intelli IMT500 If you’re not convinced that a “clip on” tuner is the way to go, then I would recommend you buy a: Snark SN-2 Chromatic Tuner This one has a built in microphone as well as the clip and you can toggle back and forth between the two functions via a switch on the side. *note: Make sure to buy a chromatic tuner. A chromatic tuner can read any note and tune any instrument. How Do I Tune Using my Electronic Tuner? Tuning with an electronic tuner is a pretty straightforward process: If you’re using a contact style tuner, clip it to your instrument’s headstock. If you’re using a microphone style device, place it near your instrument. Pluck a string. The tuner should respond by telling you what note is being played and whether it’s “higher” or “lower” than it needs to be. While watching your tuner’s meter, adjust the string tension until you’ve successfully tuned the string. *note: If you still need more guidance concerning electronic tuners or the other two tuning methods, watch my video: Banjo Tuning Explained
Tablature (often called “tab” for short) is a simple, written system of musical communication. Although it looks very similar to standard musical notation, it’s quite different in many ways and much easier to learn and use. The Lines You’ll notice that, in the example above, we have five parallel lines running laterally across the page. Each line represents a string on your banjo: The line at the bottom of the tablature (G) is your 5th string The second line up from the bottom (D) is your 4th string The third up from the bottom (G) is your 3rd string and so on… Notice that the 5th string, the short string on the top of our banjo, is represented at the bottom of the tablature. This can seem counterintuitive to some people. Don’t make the common mistake of reading the tab “upside down”! The Numbers The numbers on the lines represent the fret(s) to be played by the left hand. Tablature is read from left to right; just like you would read music or a book. To make sure you understand, let’s try a simple example using a familiar melody: You Are My Sunshine Reading from left to right, play the notes indicated in the tab above and you should start to hear the first couple of phrases from You Are My Sunshine. (You are my sun shine my on ly sun shine…) See how that works? The Other Stuff What about all of the other stuff? What’s with the lines, symbols, fractions, and what not?! Well, a lot of the symbols, lines, etc that you see in tablature are borrowed directly from standard written music. So, if you know a little bit about how to read music, that’s great; you’ll be able to transfer that knowledge to your tab reading. If you don’t know anything about reading music, that’s great, too! Just ignore every symbol, line, and circle that you don’t understand. You’ll be fine as long as you remember these three things: Tab is read from left to right The lines represent the strings of the banjo The numbers represent the fretted notes on the string Some More Stuff Oh yeah, I forgot to mention: The m and t letters underneath the notes represent which finger of the right hand should be sounding that note. m = middle finger t = thumb *note: I use my middle finger to strike the strings, some folks use their index. If you use your index then, for you, m = index. Make sense? That’s It. You’re Good to Go If you understand these basics, then you’re ready to use tablature to supplement your banjo learning. I use tab as a learning aid in all of my lessons (except for the Beginner Clawhammer Crash Course) so, if you’re using any of my materials here at Play Better Banjo you’ll have plenty of opportunity to hone your tab reading skills as you go! A Cautionary Message Tablature is a great tool for banjo learning and for communication between student and teacher but it can become a crutch if not used properly. Make it a point to memorize all the music that you learn to play. After you’ve used tablature to learn a song or idea, then focus on committing that song or idea to memory. Do not get into the habit of reading from the tab while you perform the music! This is okay when you’re first learning a piece but, remember, the ultimate goal is to play from memory. That’s all I’ll say on the subject for now. You’ll probably hear more from me on this subject down the line. Sufficed to say: Tablature is an invaluable tool that can do wonders for your learning and comprehension. Just make sure you train yourself so that you don’t need the tab in front of you in order to make some music. Alright. I’ll shut up now.