The Key Question

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The favorite pastime of bluegrass musicians is taking part in jam sessions. Before launching into a new tune in a session there is always the key question, which is just that – what key are we doing this in? If the session is being led by a banjo player there is a good chance that the keys of G and A (capo two) will feature heavily, particularly for instrumentals. Many (most?) classic banjo instrumentals like Bluegrass Breakdown, Foggy Mountain Breakdown and Earl’s Breakdown are in the key of G, and Bill Keith developed his early melodic style in this key with the Devil’s Dream and Sailor’s Hornpipe. However, when he joined Bill Monroe’s band Keith had to find a way of playing the Sailor’s Hornpipe in Bb to accommodate Kenny Baker, who played it in that key. I guess that capoing the banjo at the third fret to play in Bb would have made for difficulties, and Bill actually tuned his strings up half a tone and capoed at the second fret to create Bb open tuning.

Since those early days it has, of course, become standard for bluegrass banjo players to play melodic style in all the keys, with or without the assistance of a capo. However, it is still very common for banjo players to learn fiddle tunes in G, period. Common examples of this banjoisation are tunes usually played on the fiddle and mandolin in D, like Soldier’s Joy, Arkansas Traveler and Ragtime Annie.

Clearly we all have to learn some flexibility in this matter. It is interesting to note that the Sailor’s Hornpipe (known earlier as the College Hornpipe) has a long history stretching back over the centuries. You can find a host of arrangements of this tune in a variety of keys on the Folk Tune Finder website. D is a common key for the Sailor’s Hornpipe along with G and Bb, and it is played in A in the famous version at the annual Last Night of the Proms in London. The key of D is my favorite for playing the tune on the mandolin – it utilises all four strings and makes effective use of open strings which create that ringing ambience espoused by bluegrass and old time music. But in a jam session you are more likely to need to play it in G, so a degree of flexibility is required. And the principle applies as a matter of course to vocal numbers, when the key is dependent on the preference and range of the singers, particular the lead vocalist. Bill Monroe’s original recording of Little Cabin Home On The Hill with Lester Flatt was in A, but it comes as no surprise to find that Bobby Osborne has recorded it in B. And in live performances Monroe would sing In The Pines in either E or F, though it is quite common for bands to do this one in G.

Flexibility and adaptability are key qualities required for successful participation in jam sessions, and I hope you have a great summer season playing some wonderful music!

John Baldry
May 2019

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