Circle of Fifths

Originally Published April 1995
Contributed by: Ben Ford

In my last article I talked about the dominant seventh chord and its strong tendency to move back to the root or tonic chord. This 5-1 motion (down a fifth, or up a fourth) is so important to all types of Western music, that I thought we ought to look at the big picture.

It just so happens that if you start at any note, and go down a fifth (or up a fourth) to the next note, and continue to move down a fifth or up a fourth, eventually you get right back to where you started from! For example, if
you start on a C, you would move through a sequence of notes like this:

C  F  Bb/A#  Eb/D#  Ab/G#  Db/C#  Gb/F#  B  E  A  D  G  C

Why this sequence occurs is a topic for a dissertation in Physics and Math. What matters to us is that we can use the Circle of Fifths to figure out the chords to many tunes.

Let’s say we are playing a tune in the Key of G. Notice that on the Circle, the G note is surrounded by C and D, which are the names of the 4th and 5th chords, respectively, for G major! It works exactly the same for each key: E is surrounded by A (4th or subdominant) and B (5th or dominant). Now it’s easy to see why the 4th chord is called the subdominant; it’s a fifth below the root, while the dominant is a fifth above the root.

Enough of this technical mumbo-jumbo; let’s go for a ride on the Circle of Fifths! Very often in various styles of music (especially ragtime), we can go on a little excursion outside the home key of the piece, and use the Circle to bring us back home. Example: Alabama Jubilee, in the key of C major.

The key of C major?!?! That usually means NO sharps or flats. But the first chord is A, which has the notes A-C#-E. Right out of the starting gate, we have jumped outside the key of C major. This adds variety and excitement to the piece, and even if you never before understood what was happening, chances are your ears at least told you that something unusual was going on.

How can we find our way back to C? By riding the Circle of Fifths!

The A7 chord is a dominant seventh chord, and pulls us clockwise around the Circle to D. By simply making the D chord a dominant seventh as well, we continue our momentum around the Circle to G. As expected, the G chord takes us home to C, a little breathless but none the worse for wear.

You’ll find this sort of trick used in all styles of music, but probably most often in ragtime tunes. The second part of Stone’s Rag uses the exact same chord pattern, A – D – G – C. The first part of Dill Pickle Rag is very similar;
the next time you play it, watch how it moves around the Circle of Fifths.

Music theory seems as dry as a desert to most folks, but a basic understanding of a song’s chord structure can really help you learn it more easily. It can also help you figure out how to play back up, harmonies or variations on the melody, or even to write your own music! I will talk about these topics in future articles, but for now, experiment
and have fun. Remember, as Pete Wernick says, “If it sounds good, it must be good!”

What is Old-Time Music Anyway? 

Contributed by Kathy Schwar

“Old-time” usually refers to music that evolved in isolated regions of the Southern Appalachians and other places in the southern U.S., based partly on tunes from the British Isles and on the rhythm of the banjo, which was developed from a West African instrument.  Old-time music predates bluegrass.  It’s the original early-recorded “country music” of the 1920s and 1930s, played by ordinary working people in communities, before travel was easy and before recordings could be heard on the radio. Old-time was the name given to this rural music by one of the first record companies to discover it and produce recordings.

The music may be fast or slow, played by a single banjo or fiddle, or the two together, or as a whole string band once guitars entered the scene somewhere after the turn of the century. There might be lyrics, although these might be “floating verses”, common to many tunes.  There’s a great deal of syncopation, and tunes might have extra beats or bars, or missing beats or bars.  Some wonderful tunes have little melody and lots of rhythm.  There are up-tempo square-dance tunes in major keys, and slow haunting ones in modes somewhere between major and minor. There’s a lot of variation between individual players as well as differing regional styles, and no one “right way” to play any tune.

It’s quite different from bluegrass, which was developed from old-time music and other influences, even though a number of tunes of the same name are played in both genres.  Bluegrass was created to be enjoyed by an audience, and each instrument in turn stands out by playing an improvised solo break.  Old Time was never performance music; it’s participatory music to sit and play, or dance to.

The Difference Between Bluegrass and Old-time

Banjo

  • An OT banjo is open-backed, with an old towel (probably never washed) stuffed in the back to dampen overtones.  A BG banjo has a resonator to make it louder.
  • An OT banjo weighs 5 pounds, towel included. A BG banjo weighs 40 pounds.
  • An OT banjo player can lose three right-hand fingers and two left-hand fingers in an industrial accident without affecting his performance.
  • A BG banjo needs 24 frets. An OT banjo needs no more than 5, and some don’t need any.
  • A BG banjo player puts jewelry on his fingertips to play. An OT banjo player puts super glue on his fingernails to strengthen them. Never shake hands with an OT banjo player while he’s fussing with his nails.
  • A BG banjo is tuned gDGBD. An OT banjo can be in a hundred different tunings.

Fiddle

  • A BG fiddle is tuned GDAE. An OT fiddle can be in a hundred different tunings.
  • Old-time musiciansOT fiddlers seldom use more than two fingers of their left hand, and uses tunings that maximize the number of open strings played. BG fiddlers study 7th position fingering patterns with Isaac Stern, and take pride in never playing an open string.
  • An OT fiddle player only uses a quarter of his bow. The rest is just wasted.
  • The BG fiddler paid $10,000 for his fiddle at the Violin Shop in Nashville. The OT fiddler got his for $15 at a yard sale.

Guitar

  • An OT guitarist knows the major chords in G and C, and owns a capo for A and D. A BG guitarist can play in E-flat without a capo.
  • The fanciest chord an OT guitarist needs is an A to insert between the G and the D7 chord. A BG guitarist needs to know C#aug+7-4.
  • OT guitarists stash extra picks under a rubber band around the top of the peghead. BG guitarists would never cover any part of the peghead that might obscure the gilded label of their $3,000 guitar.

Mandolin
It’s possible to have an OT band without a mandolin. OT mandolin players use “A”model instruments (pear shaped) by obscure makers. BG mandolin players use “F” model Gibsons that cost $100 per decibel.

Bass

  • A BG band always has a bass. An old OT band doesn’t have a bass, but new time OT bands seem to need one for reasons that are unclear.
  • A BG bass starts playing with the band on the first note. An OT bass, if present, starts sometime after the rest of the band has run through the tune once depending on his blood alcohol content.
  • A BG bass is polished and shiny. An OT bass is often used as yard furniture.

Other Instruments
A BG band might have a Dobro. An OT band might have anything that makes noise including: hammered or lap dulcimer, jaw harp, didgeridoo, harmonica, conga, washtub bass, miscellaneous rattles & shakers, or one-gallon jug (empty).

The Music

  • OT songs are about whiskey and chickens. BG songs are about God, mother and the girl who did me wrong. If the girlfriend isn’t murdered by the third verse, it ain’t Bluegrass.
  • OT bands have nonsense names like Hoss Hair Pullers, Fruit Jar Drinkers and Skillet Lickers. BG bands have serious gender-specific names like Bluegrass Boys, Foggy Mountain Boys, and Clinch Mountain Boys
  • A BG band has 1 to 3 singers who are singing about an octave above their natural vocal range. Some OT bands have no singers at all.
  • A BG band has a vocal orchestrator who arranges duet, trio and quartet harmonies. In an OT band, anyone who feels like it can sing or make comments during the performance.
  • All BG tunes & songs last 3 minutes. OT tunes & songs sometimes last all night.
  • All the instruments in an OT band play together all the time.
  • BG bands feature solos on each instrument.
  • BG bands have carefully mapped-out choreography due to the need to provide solo breaks. If OT band members move around, they tend to run into each other. Because of this problem, OT bands often sit down when performing, while a BG band always stands. Because they’re sitting, OT bands have the stamina to play for a square or contra dance.
  • The audience claps after each BG solo break. If anyone claps for an OT band it confuses them, even after the tune is over.

Personalities & Stage Presence

  • BG band members wear uniforms, such as blue polyester suits and gray Stetson hats. OT bands wear jeans, sandals, work shirts and caps from seed companies.
  • Chicks in BG bands have big hair and Kevlar undergarments. Chicks in OT bands jiggle nicely under their dungarees.
  • A BG band tells terrible jokes while tuning. An OT band tells terrible jokes without bothering to tune.
  • BG band members never smile. OT band members will smile if you give them a drink. You can get fired from a BG band for being obviously drunk on stage.
  • BG musicians eat barbecue ribs. OT musicians eat tofu.
  • BG musicians have high frequency hearing loss from standing near the banjo player. OT musicians have high frequency hear loss from standing near the fiddler.
  • BG musicians stay on the bus or at the nearest Motel 6. OT musicians camp in the parking lot.

 

Reprinted with permission from Old-time Lewes Visit the web site for their tunes list and helpful resources.

Build Your Own Cigar Box Fiddle

IMG_0255 (1)Contributed by Mike Deniz

I discovered cigar box fiddles (or CB fiddles) for the first time when cruising YouTube for tips on playing some of the tunes in the FOG repertoire.  I was captivated by the primitive construction that seemed to complement so well the “ol’ time” music played on them since the mid 1800s. I was instantly obsessed with owning one. Early in my research I had run across the “build your own” plans from a 1940 edition of Popular Homecraft magazine that was posted on cigarboxnation.com, a site that is primarily dedicated to cigar box guitars. Being that I am the least handy person you may ever meet, I passed it by in hopes of finding a more turnkey solution. My further online searches revealed only two for sale on the entire internet – one was a poor specimen on eBay and the other was a $600 made-to-order version, a cost I just couldn’t justify. So, I returned to the plans and decided to give it a go, and was pleasantly surprised how easy it was.

The most difficult part was finding the right cigar box. I combed all the smoke shops in greater Rochester looking for one that was the right size and construction. All these places sell empty boxes for around $3 each. A full size violin is about 24” long, with the body being about 14”L and only 4.75” W at the narrowest point to accommodate the angling of the bow; very few cigar boxes are this long and squat. I had to settle for one that was 11”L x 8”W, which meant I had to plan for the neck being proportionately longer to compensate.  This changes the point on the body where the bridge will be mounted, and where the f-holes will eventually need to be cut.

The other materials I acquired were:

  • ¾” dia. oak dowel (be sure to use a strong wood – not pine – since it would bear all the tension of the strings)
  • ½”W x ½”D wood strip for bass bar
  • Pencil-width dowel for sound post
  • Ukulele tuning pegs (these can be purchased on Amazon)
  • Steel strings
  • Two screw eyes (one large, one small)
  • Fingerboard with nut, tailpiece, and bridge (the instructions were to fabricate them all from wood, but I just purchased these instead with the string notches already in the nut and bridge
  • Wood glue

I cut the dowel to 24” long, and for a 5” length from one end, I sanded opposite sides of the dowel flat to a thickness of about 1cm. Into this flat end, I drilled four 3/8” holes an inch apart from each other, and assembled the ukulele tuners into them.  Then I drilled a small hall in the opposite butt end of the dowel big enough to eventually fit the larger screw eye.

The thing to remember is that the back of the cigar box will be the top of the fiddle. Onto it I traced f-holes using a template printed from Google Images, then cut them out with a small hand-held sabre saw. I then drilled a hole in the “front” of the cigar box such that there was a 1” distance between the top of the fiddle and the top of the hole. The dowel was inserted and passed through the entire interior length, then secured to the inside back wall with glue and the large screw eye, which was screwed through from the outside (the screw eye would eventually become the anchor for the tailpiece gut cord).

To the inside top of the fiddle I glued the wood strip such that it spanned the entire length between the center line of the box and the f-hole on the G-string side.  This would be the bass bar. Between the other f-hole and center line I glued the skinny dowel, cut such that it spanned the entire inside depth. This would be the sound post.

Finally, the last steps: 1) glue the fingerboard to the wood dowel and top of the fiddle; 2) fit the strings to the tailpiece and wind around the tuning pegs (the D and A strings were first passed through a small screw eye drilled into the ¾” dowel just in front of the nut), then fit the bridge. Because my fiddle was wider than average, I needed a taller bridge to prevent the box sides from interfering when bowing the G and E strings.

To see the original Popular Homecraft plans, click HERE.

It’s no Stradivarius, but it sound OK.  I’m working on my second CB fiddle now. Stay tuned!

Winter a Hazard for Instruments

by Kathy Schwar

mandolin caseI recently attended a workshop on caring for musical instruments during Rochester area winters. While much of the information may be common sense to some people, I found it really helpful for protecting instruments. As they say, “Instruments still think they’re trees,” though they are not, so they need special care in maintaining the wood and lacquer. Plus, the effects of the cold can affect the sound.

Stutzman_Logo_NewDave Stutzman of Stutzman’s Guitar Center was the workshop speaker. This information is intended as a summary of “need to know” points:

  • In winter, it’s all about maintaining humidity to prevent cracking. While every instrument will not crack, it is hard to say which will and which won’t. But Stutzman knows that harsh winters will bring so many panicked musicians in for repairs that he has had to turn some away.
  • Keep instruments out of the cold as much as possible. But if they’ve been subjected to it for some time, let them acclimate, best for a few hours, in their cases when they get home. Don’t immediately open the case; Stutzman has actually seen that cause instantaneous cracking of the finish.black white ourline clipart girl wearing winter clothes shivering
  • An easy rule of thumb is that when you turn your furnace on for the season, start humidifying your instruments. When you turn it off in late spring, humidifiers aren’t necessary.
  • Keep your instruments in their cases with a humidifier, not on a stand. This keeps the humidity constant and also helps humidify the neck.
  • If you use a console home humidifier, know that the gauge on the machine may not be accurate. A digital hygrometer, available where indoor-outdoor thermometers are sold, provides a more accurate humidity reading. Indoor humidity should be maintained at 45 to 55%. Keep all instruments in one room if you can. In winter the basement would naturally be more humid than upstairs, but don’t leave instruments there in summer.
  • Some humidifier choices are the Dampit-type humidifier, which is easy to use by following directions on the package. Also, hold it by both ends when shaking it out. MusicNomad’s The Humitar and similar options are available. If you fill the devices routinely once a week, twice a week when temperatures plummet, you’ll be reasonably sure there’s enough moisture. Take care that humidifiers don’t drip.
  • In summer, by the way, keep instruments out of a hot car or loosen the strings. When outside keep them in the shade with the case cracked open. But overall, Stutzman said, instruments subjected to cold “lose more moisture than they gain” in heat.

What is Bluegrass Music?

Contributed by: John J. Long
Originally Published May 2001, 

bluegrass band-3833562_960_720What is bluegrass music? Opinions vary some, but here is one. It is produced by musical instruments that are stringed and acoustic, and singing. To have an authentic bluegrass sound you must have a five-stringed banjo, played “Scruggs” style. The style is played using picks attached to the thumb and first two fingers producing a rhythmic “roll.” The other one or two fingers rest lightly on the banjo head to provide a reference point for a smooth rhythm.

Earl_Scruggs_2005
Earl Scruggs, 2005

The Scruggs style is named for Earl Scruggs who began playing with Bill Monroe in 1945. Bill Monroe, referred to as the “Father of Bluegrass,” had been developing bluegrass music for several years, but it was the style of Earl Scruggs that pretty much solidified the sound known today as bluegrass. The music was called bluegrass because Bill Monroe came from Kentucky, the Bluegrass State. Earl later teamed up with Lester Flatt (also playing for Bill Monroe at the time) to form the Flatt and Scruggs band that went on to spread the bluegrass sound far and wide (you may have seen them on The Beverly Hillbillies). Other notable pioneers in the bluegrass banjo sound were Ralph Stanley, Raymond Fairchild (both still playing), and Don Reno. Most bluegrass bands evolved when a person played for a year or more with a well-established band and learned the business, and then left the group to start their own band. Several bands were formed by brothers, some having spent some formative years with other bands.

MonroeBrothers
Monroe Brothers

Other bluegrass acoustic instruments normally used are: guitar, fiddle, mandolin (which Bill Monroe played), resophonic guitar (Dobro), and bass (acoustic preferred but electric allowed for convenience). Not many bands have all of the instruments, but you need at least four: banjo, guitar, bass, and one of the others. The guitar is not strummed; rather it is picked alternately from a single bass string to the three treble strings, with some bass runs leading from one chord to the next. Most guitarists do not play the melody (flat pick) on breaks; some can’t, and others don’t because it is rare that a guitar can be heard over the other instruments. On stage, microphones help the guitar to be heard.

Once the instruments are in place, you need some vocals. Most people playing the instruments also sing, if not lead, joining on the choruses with harmony. Most bluegrass music is learned and played by ear. Not much music is readily available in written form to local groups who play for their own enjoyment. It is learned by listening to the recorded versions. Not many groups use music stands on stage, and it is even more rare in impromptu get-togethers (jams). There are plenty of books around with the words to the songs, but the music is not included so a person must have access to the recordings, or to others who sing or play, to learn how a song goes. It is helpful sometimes to have
help with the words to a song available when you are first learning it, or if it is particularly difficult.

The format of a bluegrass song is normally as follows:

  1. One person kicks off the song with an instrumental intro, typically banjo or fiddle;
  2. The lead singer sings a verse and a chorus (others join in on the chorus with harmony);
  3. Second instrumental person plays a “break” (a rendition of the verse or chorus melody);
  4. Lead singer sings another verse and chorus (as above);
  5. Another instrumental break (sometimes two instruments will split a break);

And so on, until the end of the song, typically with a vocal repeat of the chorus.

Some songs are instrumentals only, where each person takes a turn playing the melody. A typical bluegrass show or jam is about 75% vocals and 25% instrumentals. While each person is taking a break on the song, other persons are playing rhythm backup, using chord progressions from the “key” of the song. The backup is very important, and must be done tastefully so as not to overwhelm or distract the person doing the lead, either vocally or instrumentally.

Bluegrass Virginia-stringband-1937
Virginia String Band 1937

In a typical bluegrass jam, several people (6 – 10 or more) gather around and take turns selecting a song for the group, choosing the key (from 8 normally used), and leading the song. Most in the group will know the song and join in on the choruses, and take breaks. Others not knowing the song initially can play along by ear most of the time, when chord progressions are not complicated, and can pick up a song usually after hearing a couple of vocals and instrumental breaks. A picker should know the chord progressions, called the “circle of fifths,” which describes the relation of one chord to the other in a song key (A through G). Most guitar and banjo players use a CAPO to shift the playing position of a particular song key, to make the chord formations easier to play.