The Waltz We Build – A look at playing clawhammer in ¾ time
One of the most common banjo questions I get asked is “Can you play clawhammer in 3/4 time?”. The simple answer is yes – just change your basic strum from boom-chuck-a to boom chuck-a-chuck-a. While this works, it can often give a rather heavy-handed feel to something that should feel light. Plus, if that’s all you’re doing, it can be pretty monotonous (which is generally not a good thing in life or music). I prefer to think in terms of “waltz time” as opposed to ¾ time. Although they mean the same thing and are interchangeable, I find keeping the image of a dance in mind is more helpful than a mathematical fraction.
There are some nuances to be looked at that can potentially make playing clawhammer in waltz time much more enjoyable for both the player and the listener. In this workshop, I’ll share some of my strategies for doing this with an emphasis on two key points - keeping it light, and making it breath.
Here are some of the things we will look at in this workshop…
Think Six, Not Three – To me, one of the keys to playing interesting and engaging waltz time is to think in patterns of six as opposed to three (patterns of six 1/8 notes). Once you start doing this, you start to become more aware of the off-beats which is often where the elusive “lift” can be found.
Roll on Buddy – Once you start thinking in sixes, you can start designing roll patterns that will make your playing much more interesting. At first these patterns will last one beat, but soon you can stick them together to create enchanting patterns that can last up to a whole bar!
To Add Lift, Rest Easy – To really make your rolls come to life and breathe, the secret is to take notes out (you could think of this as adding rests). Doing this adds space to your patterns and helps to accent some of the off-beats which generally will make your patterns feel much “lighter”.
Unsustainability – The fact that banjos don’t have much natural sustain makes for a unique challenge when playing in waltz time. Waltzes are usually played at slower tempos with lots of long, sustained notes in the melody. This type of thing is perfect for a fiddle, which can hold one note for several beats or even a whole bar, but not so much for us banjo jockeys. We’ll look at some solutions to the problem from both the software (using chords and rolls), as well as the hardware (mutes, effects, and banjo setup) side of the problem.
Strumming on the Ol' Banjo - If you've ever watched me play with The Lonesome Ace Stringband you might notice that, much of the time, I'm not actually playing clawhammer so much as just strumming the banjo. Actually, what I'm usually doing is some combination of strumming (more like a Dixieland tenor banjo player might) and clawhammer. I find this approach to be very useful for playing waltzes so, although strumming is a workshop (or two!) unto itself, I'll show you the basics and a few patterns that I find myself using a lot.
Touch My Heart – The concept of touch comes up in pretty much every workshop I do. That’s because I think it’s one of the most important and misunderstood (if not ignored) elements of the clawhammer toolbox. If Dynamic refers to the range of volume a player has, Touch refers to how much control the player has over that range. In my opinion touch is very important in all your playing, but it is VERY, VERY important when it comes to playing waltzes.
Lead and Follow - Although this workshop will focus mainly on playing backup, everything you learn can be applied to creating melodic arrangements of waltzes as well. Although I won’t be teaching specific waltzes I will touch on some of the principles that need to be considered when playing melodically in ¾ time, and I will provide tablature for arrangements of two melodic waltzes in the support material.
This workshop is geared toward intermediate to advanced players. You would want to have a fairly good grasp of the basic-strum, drop-thumbing and double-thumbing.
If you sign up for this workshop…
Leading up to this workshop…
There are a few things you’ll need to be able to understand, if not execute, leading up to this workshop. The first is just the “waltz-time basic strum” (boom-chucka-chucka). The second is a couple of clawhammer rest, or skip-beat, patterns. A few weeks before the workshop, I’ll send you and email that will have tablature and a couple video links that will demonstrate these foundations. Don’t worry, they aren’t too hard, but having even a basic understanding of these concepts coming into the workshop will enrich your experience and allow us to get beyond the basics during the workshop.
You’ll be sent an email on Friday January 12 with an invite and instructions for how to join the January 14 workshop.
The workshop will take place live at 2 pm Eastern Time on January 14. It will run between 90 – 120 minutes.
After the workshop you’ll be sent a recording of the workshop as well as a written overview of everything we cover. This will include tablature and video examples of everything that is tabbed. These booklets are generally 15 - 30 pages long and quite extensive.