Thoughts on Old Joe Clark

Murphy Henry

I recently received this email from a student:

I have learned the notes to Old Joe Clark and can play the slow version along with the DVD. However, I absolutely cannot translate this to the correct rhythm. I cannot even get the first lick! I am going crazy!

And I answered thusly:

I don't know if it will make you feel any better, but MANY students have trouble with the correct rhythm to Old Joe Clark. It's hard! Remember: the first two notes you play are pick-up notes--before the down beat. The down beat is the third note, the fifth string. My guess is you might be hearing it wrong. If you are hearing the first note you play as the down beat, then you are.....well, let’s just say you’re in trouble! If you can count time, then you can count those first two notes as “and-uh” with the fifth string then becoming “one.”

ASIDE: I’m not much of a time counter myself, but when I was learning banjo I occasionally had need to count time. What worked for me was counting every single note like this: one-ee-and-uh (which would represent four notes), two-ee-and-uh, three-ee-and-uh, four-ee-and-uh. So a simple square roll—3,2,5,1—would count out “one-ee-and-uh.” One syllable for every note. Ignore this if it’s confusing!

Now, if you are worried about the "bounce" or what notes to emphasize, it's way too early for that. Just keep playing the correct notes mechanically for a while as you try to get them into your fingers. Do not try to play fast! I promise it won’t help. After a while, if you are faithful and diligent, the "correct rhythm" will come to you. Don't rush the process!!!!! In fact, you can’t rush the process. (Can you, Marty??) And if you could find someone to play guitar with you, that would help. Especially if the guitar player knows Old Joe to begin with.

Believe me, there is no trick to learning this, no magic cure. Listen lots to where I play Old Joe with the guitar on Beginning Banjo Volume 2. You might also try the Slow Jam DVD, which includes Old Joe played with a band. You can play along with us, and we leave a hole for you to play by yourself. That should help. Although it might be too fast to play along with at first. But you could listen over and over and over and vamp along. Learning to vamp to the song should help with your understanding of it.

You didn't say how long you'd been playing or using the Murphy Method, but if you are a really new player, or new to playing by ear, then it might be too early for Old Joe. You might need to go back and get some of the “foundation” tunes from Beginning Banjo Volume 1 and Misfits.

Last resort: Hop a plane and come take a lesson with Casey in Nashville or me in Winchester!

But in the meantime, as someone said to me recently (two people, actually!): Patience, patience, patience.

And don’t give up! Good luck!

5 thoughts on “Thoughts on Old Joe Clark

  1. Martha Carlton

    I think Old Joe Clark is one of the hardest songs I try to play. I have been working on it for years, and I still can not get it exactly right. I can see that I am improving, and I even developed an abreviated version to use at jams, but, the “real” OJC from Murphy’s lessons still eludes me. Patience and practice are still the thoughts to keep in mind. I WISH I could play this song….Oh, do I!!!!

  2. Mark Heilman

    I have to be completely warmed up to play OJC. I always play it at the end of the practice session, never the beginning. I’ve also found that playing it with the CAPO on the second fret makes it easier from a fingering standpoint. The change in position notwithstanding, I think the strings being lowered by the CAPO makes easier for me somehow.

  3. Martin Bacon

    Gosh, this sounds like “deja vu’ all over again”:) OJC was the origin of my coming to realize that Murphy really is the “Banjo Master” and I did better and was happier if I just took her advice and pressed on. I wasted months trying to learn OJC too early. I vote for the firm foundation plan and of course much like fishing, any time playing the banjo or in lessons with Murphy or Casey are not counted against your time here on earth, so I highly recommend lessons:) In fact, I am gonna look at my calendar right now:) It is definitely not easy to learn OJC before you are ready but it is a fabulous tune. The other good news about OJC is that it is a singing song played as an instrumental. You can listen to folks on the internet sing it and learn some words and that always makes learning a tune easier. At least for me, hearing a tune in my head is more than half the battle. I also think that playing it in A is easier but I think that that might be because it sounds so much more like the tune is supposed to sound that way.
    Getting into the tune from the vamp is a hard thing and I think Casey gives great advice about that but rather than confuse folks, I will leave that to her. That would be a really good albeit fairly short blog.

  4. susan

    Ah, I remember the months and months and months that Murphy’s MISFITS jam group would meet weekly and work on coming into a lead break and then vamping to OJC – not a pretty picture – or sound – as we fumbled and stumbled and train wrecked week after week. Like riding a bike, it will come, and then you have it. Being able to get into and out of OJC is a sweet reward for the hours and hours of frustration and well worth the time, effort, and energy.

  5. Steve F.

    I stuck my neck out and played the break to OJC at a Jam recently with Ernie Bradley and it crashed and burned. I told Ernie, I know I muffed that break something fierce. I started out good…then I totally lost the rhythm. Ernie told me HE can’t play it. Said its a difficult song he has always struggled with it so he just doesn’t play the breaks to it. Whew….I felt MUCH better.!

Comments are closed.