Road To Columbus
Here’s a video and article written for The Banjo Newsletter, published in July ’13. This is my arrangement of the classic Monroe/Baker fiddle tune “Road To Columbus”. The article and tabs dissect and explain the first 2 times through the form. If you are interested in the rest of the material please contact me and we can dive into it together.
Building an Arrangement
Arranging tunes for banjo contests can be a great way to incorporate new ideas into your playing. You will end up practicing the same piece over and over again trying to get every little phrase to sound perfect for the contest. You will get to know those phrases and licks so well that you will be able to use them in other tunes with similar chord changes, maybe even in different keys or fingerings. Then that lick has become a part of what you do.
With that in mind, when I arrange a contest tune I use new ideas that I’ve been working on, both ‘harmonic’ and ‘physical’. Harmonic is dealing with note choices and how notes relate to the chords, Physical meaning different left hand positions on the neck and how to shift between them efficiently, or new roll patterns.
There are many things to think about when playing in a contest. Without giving away all my secrets I will say that familiarity is a major part of a good performance. Weather it’s a familiar song to the judges, or an unusual song played using a recognizable technique, there needs to be something the people can hold on to in order for it to feel good to them.
I like playing standard repertoire that the judges are sure to know. Here is a breakdown of half of my arrangement of Kenny Baker’s ‘Road to Columbus’. The song is in the key of A, capo on the 2nd fret.
It starts with the same phrase Kenny plays on the fiddle from the recording on “Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe”. The string bend and release in the 2nd measure is mimicking the fiddle’s slide from B to (almost)C#. Then the first A part is a banjo-ized version of the melody, forward rolls on the first phrase and melodic on the second with a little backward roll triplet on the 5 chord. The second A is almost the same, but ends a little differently. Now the B parts move up an octave (just like on the recording). Again it’s a banjo-ized version of the melody: moving around 6th’s on the 3rd and 1st strings. Notice that the roll is not a straight forward or backward roll, but it is syncopating the melody notes on the first string: An inch more complex and a mile more musical. Notice the backward roll triplet on the 5 chord in the same spot as during the A part. It’s the little consistencies like this that polish up an arrangement. Beginning the second B part, the approach to measure 30 is a more complex version of the approach to measure 22. Then it moves down to the 4 chord through a Flat 7 major triad. That’s a trick often used by dobro players, very effective voice leading. (That concept will also appear again in this arrangement.)
Now for the second time thought the form. On the recording Bill Monroe plays “his own version” of the melody, quite different than Kenny’s. I play a very similar thing, starting with a Foggy Mtn.-style hammer on the 5th degree and a pull off to the 1 chord (measures 37-38), followed by a John Henry-style slide up to the 5th fret and pull off to the 4 chord (measures 39-40). For the second phrase it’s a melodic lick similar to the melody with some 6th’s like before. The next time on Bill’s phrase I bring in the 7th’s on both the 1 and 4 chords. Then a more complex variation on the melodic phrase from before. This time it’s all forward rolls as the left hand descends down the neck. The first B part starts with a very Scruggs-like feeling. (Making you comfortable right before making you uncomfortable.) Hammer-on’s over the 4 chord, and a similar thing over the 1 chord again. Then on the 5 chord things get tricky, starting with a melodic style line that shifts from open position up to the 9th fret on the first string. Now over the 1 chord is a line that I borrowed directly from Doyle Lawson on the Bluegrass Album Band cut of “On My Way Back to the Old Home”. It’s based on one of Bill Monroe’s signature licks. Doyle treats it as a Dominant 1 chord leading to the 4 chord. Meaning he’s playing a Mixolydian scale which contains a Flat 7th instead of a Natural 7th. Thanks Doyle. The fingering for this one is a real stretch. Notice that the high “A” note (capo language!) is played on the 2nd string during the melodic phrase, but moves to the 1st string for Doyle’s lick. I chose to do that because when Bill plays that lick the A and C# are both played on the same string. On the banjo you could play them on 2 different strings like I do during that melodic phrase, but the phrase just doesn’t sound right to me that way. I’m attempting to mimic the physical motion of the mandolin to get the most accurate sound. Now remember it’s all about comfort, so this mandolin/single-string passage is followed up by more of Earl’s stuff.
The rest of the arrangement is on the video, but I’m not tabbing it out in this article. Feel free to contact me if you’d like talk about the other parts.
When it comes to practicing this piece or a similar arrangement of your own (which I highly suggest) it’s important to isolate sections that are troublesome. Some of the parts will come easily, probably the Scruggs stuff first. But the more complex melodic stuff and especially the big mandolin line are probably going to take some work. Don’t get frustrated, just take it slow and make sure to get it right. It’s this method of practice that ultimately leads you to having complete control of the material.
By taking new techniques that you want to understand better, and arranging and practicing them in this way, they will become a part of your playing. You will eventually be able to manipulate the ideas rhythmically and harmonically. Invent some of your own licks and phrases to use in these kinds of arrangements, then you will be developing your own sound.
Please feel free to contact me at Kyle.Tuttle.Banjo@gmail.com with any questions about this material.
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