The song of the week will be 'Buffalo Gals' in the key of A.
Buffalo Gals is the many old-time string band tunes that have made their way into bluegrass.
Although there are lyrics for this tune, Buffalo Gals more often than not is played as an instrumental in bluegrass circles. When played as a bluegrass banjo or fiddle tune, the keys of G and A tend to be the keys of choice for this tune. For its song of the week cycle, we will play Buffalo Gals in the key of A, but it is a good idea to also be prepared to play it in G.
There are many other titles for this tune, including: 'Alabama Gals' and 'Round Town Gals'.
Flatt and Scruggs (key of G)
Mike Scott (key of G)
For the sake of comparison and contrast, here is an old-time version of Buffalo Gals:
2nd South Carolina String Band - key of D
Finally, here is a good version that I would describe as Old-Time with Bluegrass leanings or tendencies:
Idyl Time - key of E (Idyl Time is a local Boise band that plays a mix of Bluegrass and old-time music)
See the attachments for the Idyl Time rendition of Buffalo Gals.
Form & Progression
Buffalo Gals is a 2-part fiddle tune that I have seen played two different ways at jams: some play each part only once through before going to the other part (AB form). Others play each part through twice before going to the other part (AABB form), which is how we'll play it when I call the tune,
The chord progression is about as simple and repetitive as it gets. For each part, the progression is:
This is Prog. Z5 on the Basic Chord Progressions handout. (Note: in some versions the B-Part is played using Prog. Z10 instead.)
The melody is also quite repetitive. If you take a glance at the melody sheets attached here, one of the first things you might notice is that measures 2,4, and 6 of each part are identical with each other.
Other points worthwhile observing to aid in learning and memorizing the tune include:
Measures 5 and 6 of each part are the same as measures 1 and 2 of the same part.
The B-Part differs from the A-Part only in measures 1 and 5.
The notes of the 3rd measure of each part are one scale degree lower than the notes of the 2nd (4th, and 6th) measure of each part.
Starting the Tune
Buffalo Gals is one of the relatively few AABB-type fiddle tunes that I prefer not to start with an 8 potato intro at a jam, because the first melody note of the first measure is identical with the main note I would be droning in an 8 Potato intro (in the key of A, an A note that is in the same octave as the A note that the melody begins with), thus making it sound unclear where the intro ends and the tune begins. So, I start with three quarter note pickups instead that ascend into the A note (E, F#, G#: the 5th, 6th, and 7th notes of the A Major Scale: these notes are written on the fifth attachment provided here, but not on the melody sheets.)
Buffalo Gals has a fast enough moving melody that one can play a satisfactory beginning-level bluegrass break for it without adding much around the melody. But, because the tune is so repetitive, I can't help but want to vary it up as I go through the phrases that constantly recur in the tune.
I have included in the attachments an example of a pattern I make use of on the instruments I play for adding notes around the melody. I call this the checkmark pattern, because if one were to represent the pattern on a graph, the dots would connect to form checkmarks. (See also the additional attachment labeled as 'Buffalo Gals - graph for the first one-and-a-half measures'.) This pattern is made use of sparingly in various spots in some of the breaks played on the two Bluegrass versions of the tune given in the links above.
I use this pattern very often on guitar and mandolin, and to a somewhat lesser extent when playing clawhammer (old-time) style banjo, but to an even lesser extent when playing 3 finger style banjo. Scruggs-style banjo lends itself well to other types of note choices that are determined by a repertoire of various right hand picking patterns (rolls), and clawhammer banjo has its own set of patterns that are characteristic of the clawhammer style, but for banjo players who are curious about how the notes given for the other instruments might fall on the banjo when played in 3 finger style and in clawhammer style, I have included banjo examples of the checkmark pattern applied to the first four measures of Buffalo Gals on the attachment. On banjo, this involves some pretty advanced-level playing relative to the much lower level of difficulty in getting the same combinations of notes on fiddle, mandolin and guitar.
To grasp the system whereby notes are added around the melody using the checkmark pattern, compare the first four measures of the A Part melody for Buffalo Gals with the 'Buffalo Gals - checkmark patterns example' attachment, breaking both of them down into half-measure chunks. (Note: there are more examples of the pattern on this sheet than what would tend to occur in my playing within any four consecutive measures: I use all these moves in my playing, but I don't usually string them all together back to back.) Within each half-measure unit, observe whether the melody is ascending from a lower to a higher note, descending from a higher to a lower note, or remaining on the same note, and observe whether or not the same thing is happening between the note that ends one of the half-measure units and the note that begins the next half-measure unit.
In the first half of measure 1, the melody remains on the same note, but then ascends to a higher note at the beginning of the second half of that measure. In this case, I start with the first melody note, then dip down to a slightly lower note, then return to the note I started with, and then ascend to a note that connects smoothly into the even higher melody note that the second half of the measure starts with.
The same idea applies to the second half of measure 1, though, in that case the melody ascends within that unit, rather than just when moving into the next unit: so the fourth/final note of the checkmark pattern that connects into the first note of measure 2 ends up being the same note as the second/final melody note in the second half of measure 1; the melody note in question is displaced in the process, coming an 8th of a measure later in the checkmark pattern example than where it occurs within the unembellished melody.
In the first half of measure 2, going into the second half of that measure, the melody moves in the opposite direction: descending instead of ascending. In that case, after the starting melody note, I first ascend to a higher note, then return to the starting note, then descend to a note that connects to the even lower next melody note that starts the second half of measure 2: thus, we end up with an upside down checkmark in this case.
Have a happy Easter.
Conversion Chart for Buffalo Gals in A
weekly on Wednesdays
Songs regularly called at the Beginner Bluegrass Jam and links from Jason's "Song of the Week" emails. (from Renee)
in alphabetical order