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In adapting blues and boogie woogie piano music to the banjo, there’s no shortage of inspiration for melodic lead lines, but the elements of the style that I find most useful are the fresh ideas for backup playing and comping. Since the style is generally pretty swinging and syncopated, these ideas might not be best suited for straight ahead driving bluegrass, but they fit wonderfully in tunes like “Foggy Mountain Special” or “Salty Dog.” As with anything else, with some moderation and discretion you might find a place for them throw in in more straight ahead settings as a way of injecting some variety. READ MORE
Hey Now Baby a la Professor Longhair – putting the left and right hands together
I generally focus on the right hand, or lead part, of a piano when adapting a piece to banjo, but a large part of the appeal of New Orleans and boogie woogie piano style is the syncopation and interplay between the two hands. Much like fingerstyle or Travis style guitar in which a bass part is played on the lower strings and rhythm and melody parts are played on the upper strings, these techniques can be adapted to banjo, though it requires a certain amount of arrangement and splitting your attention between multiple parts simultaneously. The example shown here is from Professor Longhair’s “Hey Now Baby,” which is a piece based on a ubiquitous rhythm and riff that appears all over New Orleans music (and ultimately rhythm and blues and rock and roll) thanks to the influence of African and Afro-Caribbean rhythms as those styles emerged.
The song is a straightforward 12 bar blues form in the key of C, and so I’ve shown the main riff along with several variations that can be used interchangeably. As is common in this style, a single riff can be played over the I and IV chords with some slight variation on the V chord and turnaround. The left hand, or bass part of the piano, plays a simple I-III-V major triad set to a 3-3-2 clave beat (two dotted quarter notes followed by a quarter note). In order to capture that bass register and really distinguish between the different parts, I like to tune the fourth string to a low C, which also has the advantage of being able to use the open third string as the third bass note (G) in the phrase. As with playing melodic style, it is helpful to use open strings whenever possible to free up your left hand and give you a chance to quickly cover more of the fretboard, and the open bass notes can resonate fully behind the riff played over it. This bass pattern is transposed to the IV and V chords as well, using open strings where available.
Note that the bass pattern is more or less consistent throughout all the variations presented even while the riff above it changes rhythm and register. The main 12 bar them is shown first. Variation 1 shows another take for both the I and IV chords, while the remaining variations just illustrate the I chord. You can watch the accompanying video for some further ideas for the rest of the form, including some classic turnarounds – and of course feel free to bring your own ideas to it as well.
I’m very excited to share my arrangement of the Professor Longhair classic “Big Chief.” This is the very first piano tune that I arranged for banjo and set me down the path of adapting blues and boogie for the 5 string. This can also be found in the March 2016 issue of The Banjo Newsletter. READ MORE