Melody is king. If there’s a tune I want to learn on the banjo, I start by listening to multiple recordings of fiddlers. I find at least ten recordings and listen to a couple of minutes worth of each- almost like scanning an article. This takes about half an hour. At the end of this time I hope to have a good idea of the shape of the tune, the key and the chord structure. I then take out my banjo and try to play along with my favorite recordings. After woodshedding for a while, I then try to write tablature of the tune.
There are tons of great online resources. I usually start with Larry Warren’s excellent site Slippery Hill. Within that site I start with the equally awesome collection assembled by Walt Koken and Claire Milliner. Use the Find feature of your browser and search a word in the title of the tune. Another great source is the Digital Library of Appalachia. Here’s an exhaustive page of links from David Lynch’s site Old-Time Music.
Shape of the Tune
I then load the tune into Capo, a program that slows the tune down without changing the pitch and let’s you set multiple loop points for listening to specific phrases. Other good programs are The Amazing Slow Downer and Song Surgeon. Choose a phrase. I think phrases seem to predominantly fall into four beat segments. Four quarter-note taps of your foot will generally give you a good starting point. Try to sing this phrase to yourself and notice the starting note and the ending note. Once you’ve sung the starting note, what happens at the next pitch? Does it rise in pitch? Does it fall? Does it stay the same? Is it a hill that climbs upward? What does it turn to head back downhill? This process takes repetition and lots of practice. Like anything, the more you do it the easier it gets.
What Key Is It?
Old-time music recordings are often in one of four keys. A major, G major, D major and C major. There’s also a fairly common modal key that sounds like A major but is somehow darker. Try to find and sing the note at the beginning or at the end of a tune. Once you’ve sung this note, does the music feel “at rest”? Do you feel that it could be the final note and that your ear is satisfied? Musical phrases are often defined by tension and resolution. The note that feels the most resolved is generally the same as the name of the key. Once identified and I can sing this note, I then try to find it on my banjo. Another good way is to sing into your chromatic tuner if it has a built in microphone and see the name of the note you’re singing.
Chords, Chords, Chords
In general when two notes happen in succession it is considered melody. When two notes happen at the same time it is considered harmony. When three notes happen at the same time it is often called a chord or a triad. Each key has a handful of chords associated with it and these three-note chords are assembled from notes from the seven-note scale of the key. In the key of G major I look for the chords G, C and D. In the key of A major common chords are A, D and E. In the key of D major the chords are D, G and A. In C major the chords are C, F and G. Other chords occasionally make appearances but the above chord sets are a good starting place when trying to understand how a tune works. When listening to a repeating loop of a section of the tune I try chords from the key until they sound right.
Sing the Phrases
In many fiddle tunes the melodic ideas are organized into four-beat phrases that I like to think of as questions and answers. These ideas or phrases show up multiple times in the tune. I start by trying to sing one phrase. Once I can sing it then I try to find those same notes on the banjo. I look for two groups of eight or so notes that make up a single phrase. At this point I also start to write tablature of the tune. This helps me to understand the tune. Phrase by phrase I follow this process and then play the notes on the banjo while listening to the looped phrase from the fiddle recording. When finished I play the tune against several different recordings and make adjustments as needed.
Make the Tune Your Own
At the end of this several hour-long (sometimes days-long) process I hope to have a personalized, customized arrangement somehow rooted in the performance of several fiddlers that have come from earlier times. A friend of mine the excellent fiddler Andy Reiner wisely said something to the effect that a piece of sheet music (or single arrangement) is not something to be held frozen in time as if behind a piece of glass in a museum. Tunes are living entities that grow and change with time.
The process of listening to a series of source-recordings and then developing an understanding of the melody that you can then share with others I think is a time-honored and important process. I think of it as a small adventure. Enjoy the trip!