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Bluegrass & Blues
Let's take a quick look at how to adapt old time frailing banjo for music that it's not usually associated with.
While bluegrass banjo is normally played with three-finger picking the frailing strum can be easily adapted to a bluegrass setting. The only trick is to keep the feeling of a steam of eighth notes rolling through the tune.
In this example we are mixing a few standard bluegrass elements together. In the first measure we are playing a frailing variation of the "Foggy Mountain" roll. In the second measure we are playing a phantom and then a standard hammer-on in a C7 chord.
In the third measure we are playing the third and fourth strings at the third fret. If you go back to the instruction on the blues scale earlier in this book you will find that the pattern in this measure is playing with the "flat third" of the blues scale.
The licks in the second and third measures are pretty typical of how bluegrass musicians create a feeling of drive and tension in their solos. The seventh chord and the flat third fit the flow of the song like a western saddle on a goat, but mixing those clashing notes into the flow of the picking pattern creates a feeling of tension that gives the other notes in the break a sense of urgency.
The count for this example is pretty straightforward, but the phrasing of the measures can be tricky. To really make this work you are going to have to spend some time listening to and jamming with bluegrass musicians.
On the next page I have put together a complete "fake" bluegrass tune for you that blends several standard bluegrass elements into something that sounds kind of cool.
Use this as something to experiment with. When you find yourself jamming with a three-finger player you can mix in bits and pieces of this example as you see fit. Remember, the only thing separating bluegrass and old time banjo is the physical technique used to strike the strings. You'll be surprised at how much you can learn from players not connected with old time banjo or old time music.
Covering all the possibilities of just the general idea of "blues banjo" would fill more than one book. What we are going to do here is look at a handful of ideas to get your creative juices flowing.
Boogie Chord Progression
A typical blues chord progression, sometimes called the "boogie progression", involves playing a pattern of major, sixth and seventh chords tied together with a turnaround.
This is easy but it sounds really cool.
The first step is to strum each of the chords diagrammed below. We have a G, G6, G7 and another G6. Just strum them one time each.
After the G progression we move up the neck to C. Once again, just strum each of these chords once.
And then we move up to D.
Now that we know the chord forms involved, let's put together a boogie chord progression.
Like I said, this is pretty easy, but it does sound kind of cool.
Let's look at the structure of this progression. Since we are playing it in the key of G our I chord is G, our IV chord is C and our V chord is D:
I I6 I7 I6 | I I6 I7 I6 IV IV6 IV7 IV6 | IV IV6 IV7 IV6 I I6 I7 I6 | I I6 I7 I6 V V6 V7 V6 | IV IV6 IV7 IV6 I I6 I7 I6 | I I6 I7 I6
Once you get used to the sound of this try it in a couple of other keys before we look at adding in a turnaround.
A turnaround does just that. It turns a chord progression around and leads you back to the first line of the next verse or chorus.
To play turnarounds we have to use triplets. A triplet is where you play three notes in the space of two.
In this turnaround we are walking up the fourth string and then sliding down to the D chord at the seventh fret. After the measure of D you just pick back up at the beginning on G.
You can pluck this out with your thumb, your middle fingernail or play it as a drop thumb pattern.
The count is 1& 2& 3& 4, 1& 2 3 4.
This works along the same lines as example one, but now we are walking up the third string.
The count is 1& 2& 3& 4, 1& 2 3 4.
In this example we are playing diminished chords down the deck. The progression of B diminished, Bb diminished and A diminished leads you down to the G chord.
This is a pattern that will work anywhere on the fretboard and it turns up in all kinds of great blues music. Eric Clapton uses this same pattern in the songs, "Keys To The Highway" with BB King on the "Riding With The King" album.
Once you are comfortable with a couple of turnarounds try mixing one into the boogie chord progression.
I I6 I7 I6 | I I6 I7 I6 IV IV6 IV7 IV6 | IV IV6 IV7 IV6 I I6 I7 I6 | I I6 I7 I6 V V6 V7 V6 | IV IV6 IV7 IV6 TURNAROUND | I I6 I7 I6
Once you can play this through with quarter note strums try blending in the frailing strum. You can use this progression for songs like "Bright Lights, Big City," "Sweet Home Chicago" and many more.
One of my favorite blues guitar players is the late, great Son House. That slide guitar sound still blows me away whenever I toss one of his CD's into my stereo. In fact, I like it so much that I started mixing it into my banjo playing.
Here's the deal, most slide guitar players work out of open tunings and as a result a lot of their techniques can be used on the banjo.
In this example we are playing a lick right out of Son House's bag of tricks.
It starts out with a simple basic frailing pattern and in the last measure we have a slide lick. For the slide we are strumming across the open strings, hammering-on at the second fret, sliding to the third fret and then pulling-off the third fret.
You can pay this slide lick with your finger or you can pick up a guitar slide and play it bottleneck style.
The count is 1 2& 3 4&, 1 2& 3& 4&.
If you like the sound of the lick in example one why not put it to work? Let's take a look at a complete slide banjo solo in the style of what Son House was playing.
Banjo Blues4/4 Time Key of G
Start off by playing the lick in Example One three times and then go into the slide from the third fret to the fifth fret:
We can't talk about blues banjo without mentioning Gus Cannon. Cannon's Jug Stompers was one of the all time great jug bands in the roaring twenties and Gus was a bona-fide blues banjo player.
Gus Cannon played fingerstyle banjo in a pattern that was something like the tab below.
In this tab we are playing the third and fourth strings with our thumb and picking up on the first and second strings with our index and middle fingers.
The count is 1 2 3 4, 1 2 3 4.
Nothing to it, right?
Now try working out a simple backup for the song "Minglewood Blues."
I Don't you never let one woman rule your mind IV V Don't you never let one woman rule your mind V I Said she keep you worried, troubled all the time
Don't you think your fair gal was little and cute like mine
Well I got a letter mama and you ought to hear it read
Once in a while Gus would throw a lick into the song to dress things up. It's usually something along the lines of the example below.
Try mixing that into "Minglewood Blues" and see what you can come up with. Keep in mind that you don't have to fingerpick this tune. Go ahead and see what happens when you use the frailing strum.
Have some fun mixing up the ideas in this chapter. See what you can come up with. You might wind up inventing a new style of banjo!
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