BREAKING NEWS: We’ve just added a Novice Class to our Women’s Banjo Camp, July 29-31, in Winchester, Va. No experience necessary!
I had been wondering where I was going to use that quote from George, one of my Tip Jar Jammers. It certainly makes a great title for this blog. Here’s the back story. We usually have a fair number of women at my Tip Jar Jam and one night it was all women. And George. And while we don’t usually drink at the jam, Kathy G had brought in a bottle of port and we were enthusiastically following Saint Paul’s sage advice to “take a little wine for thy stomach’s sake.” Soon the air was punctuated with ribald remarks, risqué allusions, gales of laughter, and womyn singing. Into the middle of all this walks Dan, another Tip Jar regular. Says George, “Thank goodness you’re here! They’re drinking wine and playing in B-flat!”
And that spirit—the freedom to laugh boisterously, to share jokes in a room full of understanding, to enjoy the sound of womyn’s voices raised in three-part harmony, to pick the banjo however you pick it knowing that you will be supported and not judged--is the spirit that makes our Women’s Banjo Camps so successful. And so much fun. That spirit is the wind beneath our wings. (Even if Alice Gerrard doesn’t like that song!) And in the middle of this “good natured riot,” there is much learning. And perhaps a little wine at the late night jams…
Each of our Women’s Banjo Camps has organically and of its own accord revealed a particular focus. This year my suggested focus will be the idea of playing in open C without using a capo.
What does that mean and why do it? After all, isn’t that why capos were invented, to play in C? Well, yes. You certainly can play in C using a capo and I’m all for that! Just take any song you’ve learned in G, slap the capo on at the fifth fret, tune up the fifth string, and………I hear a question.
What? How do you tune up the fifth string? Well, you use those little spikes that are there.
What? You only have one spike? At the seventh fret? Well, you can put your fifth string under that one spike and then tune it up three more frets. No, the string won’t break. Usually it won’t break…
What? You don’t have any spikes? Well, you can leave the fifth string where it is, tuned to a G note, and that will work. Yes, it does sounds a little funny.
These are a few of the problems I’ve encountered when telling a roomful of banjo players to “capo to C.” Furthermore, once they have situated the capo, tweaked the tuning, and figured out all the fifth string problems, then you are confronted with the very real problem of teaching folks where the vamp chords are. It sounds simple to say “Just move everything you’ve been vamping up five frets” but, in practice, this is extremely hard for beginning or even intermediate players who have little experience using a capo. Their markers are all gone!
Nevertheless, in order to make sure that women can sing in my jams--because women usually sing most bluegrass standards in the key of C or higher--we capo up to C in every jam to do some “womyn singing.” I insist on it. But here’s what the students have taught me: THEY DON’T LIKE TO CAPO IN C. It’s a pain in the butt, it takes too long, there is way too much re-tuning, and they don’t like the way it sounds. (And honestly, the sound of an inexpensive banjo capoed to C is not pleasant.)
Thus, I’ve been teaching my Tip Jar Jammers to improvise in C without using a capo. With one roll, the Foggy Mountain Breakdown roll (2121,5215) which they already know, and a couple of two-finger chords positions (first and second position C, both movable to make F and G), they can play a simple, improvised break to any three-chord bluegrass song. It’s not fancy but it sounds like bluegrass. And they like it. And the “upgrades”—new licks that can be added on—are really fun!
Question: Don’t you have to retune the fourth string to a C note to play in C?
Question: That’s a bit terse. Could you elaborate?
Answer: Sorry, too much Facebook! Yes, you can retune the fourth string down to a C note to play in C. Earl did that in Home Sweet Home, Pike County Breakdown, and (deep catalog!) in his backup to Paul Warren’s Billy In The Lowground. But you don’t HAVE to tune the fourth string down to play in C. And the whole point here is to NOT retune anything.
I remember when I was learning to play the banjo I almost always capoed up to play in C. At that time I was, of course, in thrall to Earl, which is not a bad thing, and I loved learning his breaks to songs note for note. I prided myself on sounding like Earl. But since I often sang in C, I’d have to capo up five in order to play Earl’s break in the key where I could sing it. It did not occur to me to try to work out a different break—my own break—in open C. That only came years later. At the time, I was completely invested in trying to sound like Earl as much as possible so I would be accepted by the banjo-playing community.
I remember the great banjo picker, Jim Fee, heard me play the song Just Because at a festival in Florida where he was running sound. My husband and bandmate Red was singing it in C, so I capoed up five to play my break. I thought I had done a pretty good job until Fee-Fee saw me later and said, in his gruff Kentucky way, “Why’d you pick it way up there, Murph? You oughta pick in it open C. That’s where the sound is!” Of course, I wasn’t nearly the picker Jimmy was (then or now) and it would have been too hard for me to play the melody in open C then. So I was just doing the best I could. But that thought sorta stuck in my mind, and as the years went by and I got more confident in my own playing, I began to try a few songs in open C and I discovered that Jimmy was right. Of course he was! Open C has a bigger, more robust sound. And yes, when I play Earl’s songs there (Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms, Little Girl In Tennessee) I don’t sound “just like Earl” anymore, but I like to think that his spirit—playing the melody “as she is sung”—is still there.
If you are interested in being a part of a weekend filled with the joyous spirit of womyn picking the banjo and singing their hearts out, join Casey and me July 29-31 in Winchester, Va., for our Women’s Banjo Camp. All levels are welcome. And we have just added a Novice Class in which no experience is necessary. All you need is a banjo and a set of picks. Kathy Hanson will be teaching the Novice Class. And, yes, we may be drinking wine and playing in B-flat. Bring your own wine!