On Sunday, Groundhog’s Eve, I attended a clawhammer banjo workshop taught by Adam Hurt. The workshop took place at Lew Stern’s Little Bear Banjo Hospital in Arlington VA. This event was planned for experienced players to learn some tunes from Kentucky fiddlers. Adam taught three tunes, one each from John Sallier, Art Stamper, and Ed Haley. Adam took the fiddlers’ interpretations directly to the banjo. He explained that sometimes banjo players learn tunes from other banjo players, and the learning pickers often simplify the tune for themselves. Then other players learn it down the line and simplify it even more, until all your left with is a bump-ditty ghost of the original. So he wanted to point us back to the fiddlers as a primary source for picking up new tunes.
I really liked the tasteful way Adam pulled this off. Some banjo players seem to be more mechanical in putting a fiddle tune onto the banjo. Sometimes trills, cuts, and endless runs of notes just seem a little too ambitious for even the best clawhammer player to pull off. Adam definitely keeps the drive in the music and isn’t scared to put in a well’placed brush here and there. It might be called a “tasteful melodic clawhammer” style.
Two things I picked up about tunings. Adam uses a gEADE tuning a lot for tunes in G, Am, etc. he says that he doesn’t use standard bluegrass G tuning very much. I really like this gEADE tuning as well. It gives a more pentatonic sound, and it does allow the 6 note and vi chord a more prominant place. Also, Adam usually tunes up without a capo. I don’t know how common this is, but I’ve usually seen people tune up to aDADE, AEAC#E, etc., with a capo. I really like the tension in the strings when tuning up without the capo. Bigger tone for sure.
One thing I picked up about right-hand thumb: Adam kept encouraging economy of motion, which is a concept I understand from classical playing. But he applies it in a unique way on the banjo. He prepares his thumb on the fifth string as soon as possible and keeps it there until it needs to play that note. He even said that he leans the thumb into the string and displaces it slightly. I assume that he also does this thumb placement on other strings when drop-thumbing. He seems to put the thumb on the string two or three beats before it needs to play. I’ve been practicing this slowly for a few days, and suddenly my volume has increased and my tone has deepened. Preparing the thumb seems to keep the rest of the hand very close to the strings, so the motions must all stay relaxed and efficient. Awesome stuff.
On sunday I bought a copy of chance McCoy’s CD from Adam. Man, I love this stuff. The full title is “Chance Mccoy and the Appalachian String Band.” I had heard a couple of Chance’s tracks at Les thompson’s studio when I was recording my CD last year, and I must admit that at that time I thought they seemed just OK and maybe a little too sleepy. but hearing the finished CD, man I love it. the fast, full band numbers are super tight and super energetic. I love the raucous frenzy of folks like Old Crow Medicine Show, but this other, tight sound is so powerful. Fiddle and banjo notes just driving down the tracks. And the slower, quieter numbers are very stirring. Chance sings “Little birdie” solo with clawhammer banjo, and I can’t get it out of my head. Just when I thought I heard enough versions of “Little Birdie” and “Gospel Plow” in one lifetime, chance really pulls off some sweet new interpretations.