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
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.
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.
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
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.
"If the River was Whiskey"
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
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.