The Old-Time Herald Volume 9, Number 8

Getting Started with Charlie Poole Style Banjo
By Pete Peterson audio recordings by Walt Koken
Thanks to OTH workshop editor Tim Thompson for the tablature design.

This workshop is aimed at an intermediate or better clawhammer banjo player who wants some idea of how to approach Charlie Poole’s sound. Bear in mind that Poole’s style was not meant for solo banjo, but blended banjo, fiddle, and guitar to create a raggy but controlled sound very different from most other old-time music. John Cohen once termed this approach “mountain chamber music, ” and to get the Poole ensemble sound, you’ll need the assistance of a couple of friends, on fiddle and guitar. If you don’t have it already, get a copy of County 3508, 3501, or 3516; or pick up the new Columbia/Legacy Charlie Poole three-CD set, C3K 92780 and give old Charlie Poole a listen.

The Left Hand Down Load a Tab Sheet (332kb PDF)

As one would expect from someone whose heroes were Vess Ossman and Fred Van Eps, Poole usually played in “classical” tuning: gCGBD for songs in C and D. Poole would then move up a and down the neck from one chord inversion to another. In its simplest form, there are only three patterns. At the nut, they make the I, IV, and V chords. The tab below shows ways of making these three chords a various points. Thanks to Walt Koken for this system of illustrating chords.

The Right Hand Down Load a Tab Sheet (332kb PDF)

Unlike clawhammer style, where the hand moves as a unit, Poole used his thumb, index, and middle fingers independently. I’ve found it convenient to use a thumb pick, but no finger picks, so as to accent the downbeat, usually played with the thumb. The “basic” stroke is to pluck a low string, (usually the 4th) with the thumb on the downbeat, and then pluck up simultaneously with the index and middle finger on the next beat. Alternate this with a “roll” pivoting on the index finger or thumb, followed by three up-picks as tabbed below:

Embellishments Down Load a Tab Sheet (332kb PDF)

Poole would often end a musical phrase by alternating thumb and index finger to provide a “fill” after a line of singing, as in the two examples below. Both are meant for the I chord.

An Example:
"If the River was Whiskey"
With Fiddle

Here’s an approximation of what Poole is playing on the breaks for “If the River Was Whiskey” (first cut on Charlie Poole, Vol. 2, County CD-3508). By the way, all of us fortunate enough to ready Kinney Rorrer’s book about Charlie Poole know the story of how Poole broke his hand trying to catch a thrown baseball, He loved to tell anybody who asked him to describe his banjo secrets, “First, you gotta let me break all the fingers in your hand.” I’m happy to say, you don’t need to do that!

Poole usually went from one chord to another alternating thumb and index finger, as in measures 5-8 here. At the end of it, you are playing the IV chord up the neck (in the section “The Left Hand,” it’s the second IV chord starting at fret 5) and get back to the I chord (measure 13) using the “embellishment” discussed in that section. It shows up again going from the V to the I in measures 21 and 22. One last comment—Poole played things rather sedately compared to modern fiddle tempos. These songs and tunes sound best at a moderate pace, or, to quote from Scott Joplin, “Do not play ragtime too fast. It is never correct to play ragtime fast.”

Pete Peterson has loved Poole’s banjo style since hearing New Lost City Ramblers records in the early 1960s. He plays one of Poole’s banjos on his recordings with the Orpheus Supertones and with Waking Up Tillie. He lives with Kellie Allen in Riegelsville, PA.

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