Banjo Practice (Sandy River Belle)

I mentioned the other day I was working on the tune Sandy River Belle on clawhammer banjo. Learning this tune is my first experience playing in the Sandy River Belle, or Old G tuning (gDGDE). I like the tuning and I’m going to figure out how to play some other G tunes that way.

I recorded a practice session this morning and picked out one attempt at the tune to share here.

Sandy River Belle

Sandy River Belle is a well-known fiddle tune, but it also has a special distinction. There is a particular banjo tuning – The Sandy River Belle tuning – named after it. I should say tunings with an s because there are variations on the Sandy River Belle tuning. I’ve been learning one of those – the one that’s also called “Old G” tuning (gDGDE). Among other things, this tuning is well suited for the tune, Sandy River Belle. Curiously enough, this tune is also played in good old G tuning by a lot of players. I’ve been learning the tune on clawhammer in Old G, and one of these days I’ll try recording myself playing it on video – but for now, here are a couple excellent versions.

Let’s start with April Verch, a fantastic Canadian fiddler from the Ottawa Valley. There are not many April Verch videos around that do not show her playing fiddle. In some she plays fiddle and dances, but in this one she dances and the music is driven by her banjo player.

Next, I stumbled into a version of the tune featuring squeezebox. Here is Sharon Shannon…very nice.

Two great covers

Time for a daily dose of country & western.

Let’s start with Iris DeMent covering Merle Haggard. I could listen to this tune about 100 times in a row.  Funny how some music does that to you, grabs you where it counts and won’t let go. Iris DeMent just hammers this one home, backed up by Marty Stuart and his very well-dressed band. The single snare drum is a beautiful touch.

Although Iris DeMent is not a prolific songwriter, I usually think about her as much as a songwriter as a performer, because she has written some great ones. However, as I listened to the last tune, I thought about this one, written by Harlan Howard and Bobby Braddock – God May Forgive you (but I won’t).


Iris DeMent Tonight!

Iris DeMent is playing Hugh’s Room tonight! We’re meeting my sister Susan and her husband Peter there for dinner and the show. Can’t wait! In case there is anybody out there who doesn’t know Ms. DeMent’s music, here’s a taste…

Forked Deer

A fiddle tune is like a cool drink of ice water – always welcome here at 27th Street. Here’s Spencer Branch playing the Forky Deer. Check out the way Kelley Breiding attacks the tune on clawhammer. Wow!

Spencer Branch do songs too, not just tunes. Here’s Black Widow Lady

Martha Spencer appears in this trio as well as in the Whitetop Mountaineers and in The Whitetop Mountain Band. Picking is a family business for the Spencers.

Tuning Tangle

Old Time banjo players use a number of different tunings as a matter of course, compared to bluegrass pickers who typically use one standard tuning and do all their work within that.

First you have your basic G tuning, and if you capo up to the 2nd fret and tune or spike your 5th string up to A from G, you have A tuning.

There is Double C tuning, which is handy for quite a lot of fiddle tunes. If you capo up in that tuning, you get to Double C capo 2 or Double D tuning.

Then there is Sawmill tuning, used for modal tunes. It is also called G modal or with the capo on 2, A modal. Sometimes it’s called mountain modal, just because.

Most clawhammer players familiarize themselves with the tunings I mentioned above and so they learn three sets of fingering (if you use a capo, the fingering stays the same).

Last year at banjo camp I learned a couple tunes in Standard C tuning. That looks like G tuning except you tune the 4th string down a full step.  Again with the capo, you have Standard D tuning. I’ve been learning Arkansas Traveler in Standard D.

Beyond this it starts getting both confusing and interesting because there are in fact dozens of old time banjo tunings that have been used in this musical tradition. Some of them are named after certain tunes such as Sandy River Belle tuning and Cumberland Gap tuning. Of course there are multiple tunings that go by the same names just to be confusing. One player’s Cumberland Gap tuning is another player’s Sandy River Belle tuning.

Here is what is likely a partial list of old time banjo tunings. This is from the Zepp website. There are a staggering number of possibilities. I wonder if there is anyone out there who can play something in all of them?


Cold Sunday morning – let’s warm up with some music from Texas. Here’s Butch Hancock

And here’s Texas Tornadoes performing Mr. Hancock’s best known tune, She Never Spoke Spanish to Me.

Button accordion for a Saturday morning

Since I immersed myself in clawhammer banjo music I haven’t listened to nearly so much button accordion music as I used to, and haven’t played my squeezeboxes so much either. That doesn’t mean I love those musical traditions any less. Let’s listen to a taste of Quebec button accordion. This is Éric Gagné. There are a couple videos on Youtube featuring him performing. M. Gagné is about as good a player as I’ve heard. Check out how his whole body is involved with the music.

Off to play Go…

I’m off to play some Go this evening so I’ll leave you with a little something to listen to. Here’s Kilby Snow playing autoharp and singing Troubles….