Friday, August 8, 2014

Branching Out, Drifting Away from Comfort Zones

Sometime in early July 2014 I came across a compelling version of Wade Ward's Old Joe Clark played by Stephen Wade.

Here's Stephen's video:

Here's the cut by Ward:

And here's a decent effort to break it down by Eli Smith:

Finally, here's my first effort to play the tune the way Ward does, done on 4 July:

Not surprisingly, Stephen told me that my crack at the tune was hampered by my Diller-influenced right hand. 

As I confided in another friend, also a former Diller student, my right hand no longer seems capable of departing from the stuff Diller jammed into our brains.  And while I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing (it does at least indicate there is something in my brain...), I'm not really capable of "getting" other styles. 

This isn’t the first time that someone has suggested my right hand was a political prisoner of the West Virginian banjo player Dwight Diller. 

Frankly, I’m happy to be able to play anything that’s even remotely recognizable, so my “defaulting” to Diller type music makes me happy.

But the suggestion that there was another rhythmic attack out there in the form of Wade Ward’s approach to tunes drove me to focus my attention on Ward’s playing, and then on Roundpeak type banjoing.

Here’s my second cut at the tune done on 7 July after fooling around with the tune for a few days:

I tried to take Bob Carlin’s tab in the Carlin/Levenson book, Wade Ward: Clawhammer Banjo Master, as a roadmap but ended up relying more on Eli Smith’s video – especially the slowed down version he plays beginning at the 1:30 minute point in the video.

Stephen thought I had come much closer with this one, especially on the signature part which is that slide bit at the start of the song, but recommended that I avoid getting stuck in my basic rhythmic beat, and focus on emulating Wade Ward's which would bring me closer to his version of the tune.

Two weeks in to the venture, I had still not cracked the Wade Ward code.  I thought I detected a bit of a core pattern in Eli Smith’s Old Joe Clark video, so I resolved to watch more of Eli’s laying, and flood my room with Wade Ward recordings. 

However, I did find a way into the Roundpeak rhythm.  As Stephen Wade and others made clear, Charlie Lowe and Round Peak playing had little to do with Wade Ward’s approach to the banjo, so I ended up having two codes to crack.  As Bob Carlin noted in a forward to his book, co-authored with Dan Levenson:

To northern banjoists of the late 1950s and early 1960s, Wade Ward’s name was synonymous with old time banjo playing.  If you wanted to learn the driving clawhammer style, you had to start with Wade Ward.  Before Tommy Jarrel, Fred Cockerham, Kyle Creed and their Round Peak ilk became the old time music gurus, “Uncle” Wade was the go-to-guy! 
(p. 6)

I did manage to locate a video in which, at the 2:22 minute point, Jeremy Stephens demonstrates Roundpeak playing, making reference to Tommy Jarrell:

Is this double thumbing the key to the equation?  I’m not sure.  Kevin Fore, a native of the Round Peak area near Surrey County, North Carolina, and a noted banjo player and banjo maker – and a close student of Kyle Creed’s playing, says this:

Round Peak music is characterized by a distinctive interplay between the fiddle and the banjo. The fiddle is often tuned differently to play in specific keys, and often a short bowing style is used. Like the fiddle, the banjo is tuned differently to play in particular keys, and most often a fretless banjo is played. A fretless banjo is a banjo that does not have any frets. Most fretless banjos were originally fretted banjos, but the players pulled out the frets down to the seventh fret and placed a brass or copper plate from the nut to the seventh fret. This gave the banjo players access to a greater number of notes which enabled them to follow the fiddle player’s melody more precisely. Round Peak banjo players also used a lot of slide notes, which produces a bluesy sound. Also, Round Peak banjo players use the fifth string in place of noting the first string at the fifth fret to produce that note. The role of the guitar, mandolin and bass is basically for keeping rhythm while the banjo and fiddle play the melody of the tunes.

Tom Collins breaks the Round Peak banjo stroke down in this video:
Part 1:

The short version is that this style:

Ø  Takes out the brush stroke
Ø  Adds an alternate string pull off, in this manner:

·      Down on the second string
·      Pull off on the first string
·      Down on the first string
·      Thumb on the fifth string

Two additional videos by Tom Collins on this style:

Part 3:

I’m still wrestling with these two alternative styles, trying to find a way into the rhythmic core of these two very separate traditions, but Stephen’s honest, helpful observations prompted me attempt to shift a bit out of my comfort zone. 

As a result, I think it is worth branching out.  I invariably end up coming back to the percussive right hand driven style that first appealed to me when Bates Littlehales and Dwight Diller offered to teach me a bit of clawhammer so many years ago. 

But every once in a while trying my hand at alternative approaches is enough to keep the brain fresh, the fingers nimble, and the ears locked and loaded to try and find new and interesting sounds. 

Play hard,


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