Song Breakdown: Clinch Mountain Backstep

For some reason, this is a tune that I sort of ignored for a while because it wasn’t being called at my local San Diego too often. But, when I moved to Seattle, I found it was played everywhere. The first festival I went to in Seattle, that tune got called at least 5 different jams in one night. So I figured I should learn it better – and figured I’d take you along with me. I’m really sorry it took me so long to really dive into this tune – it’s a ton of fun!!

Here’s a chart I’ll be using for this breakdown – Clinch Mountain Backstep

As always, when learning any tune it’s important to listen to a lot of variations of recordings of it so you can hear the nuances. This is especially true for old tunes that likely were passed down by ear meaning there’s a lot of variations on the basic melody. And this is triply true for old fiddle tunes. So with that in mind, here’s some recordings I’ve been listening to

Backing Tracks
Especially with fiddle tunes, using a backing track for practicing is a great idea. Here’s one at 90 BPM –

The tune is mostly a simple AABB tune in A but it’s “crooked” meaning not all measures have the same number of beats. I call this the “backstep” for obvious reasons. The song is in 4/4 but the backstep (which occurs in the B part at the 16th measure in my chart) has a single measure of 2/4 before going back to 4/4. That little measure gives this song its real punch. I’ve heard some recordings that get rid of the 2/4 measure (like this recording from Sugar Creek Bluegrass), but to me, that’s the soul of this song – so I don’t recommend that.

The “backstep” throws the counting off in this tune which an be tricky at first. I recommend simply listening to the tune and counting (out loud) before you try to play it. The A Part is straight forward, so the good news is you just need to focus on the B Part! Below is a basic counting chart for the B part only.

Scales and recommended practices
Generally this song is called in A. Reviewing A major and A minor pentatonic are good starts. With tunes like Clinch Mountain, knowing where the 3rd (C#), 5th (E), and 7th (G) tones are can be really helpful for soloing. In your solo breaks, you can use the b3, the b5, the #5, and b7 to create some interesting tension that can help make sure your solo stand out a bit more.

Fiddle tunes are melody focused tunes – so a solid understanding of how the melody is played is essential. Once you’ve listened to the melody enough to hum it without the recording, start tackling the melody. Clinch Mountain’s melody is simple enough where you should try to get it by ear first and use my chart as a reference if needed.

As usual, I recommend learning the melody in at least two positions. Aside from using the positions noted in the tab provided, you can make a quasi 3rd position by “closing” the first position by subbing the open strings for the the 7th fret of the string before (i.e. the 7th fret of the A string is the same as open E).

For the second position, basically you’ll start with your middle finger on the E (7th fret of A) and stay in that position (that’s what the little 2 above that first note means) . Mainly this variation will use just first, middle, and pinky fingers. While the third finger isn’t really used too much in the melody in this position but can be really helpful to hit “off melody” notes when soloing.

  • First finger = 5th fret
  • Middle finger = 7th fret
  • Pinky finger = 10th fret

The main chart that I provided has 2.5 ways to play the chords (I know, I’m all about the .5 for progressions haha!). The first variation uses the same chords throughout the variation. The second variation uses chords that somewhat follow the melody line – so the A part uses one set of chords and the B part uses another.

You can use different chords from what I have listed in my chart. For some chord shape ideas, you can check out my Major Chord posts.

Once you have this tune down pretty well, you may want to try the Doug Dillard version of this tune. The melody is the same but the chord progression is a fun variation. The B part chords are more “hits” than strummed chords also. Listen to his recording of it and you’ll get the gist though. Personally, I really like this variation – though I can’t say I’ve ever played it at a jam (yet anyway!)

Wrapping Up
Clinch Mountain Backstep’s slight crookedness can make it a really nice break from traditional “square” tunes. While it can be a jam buster in some circles, it’s called frequently enough that you’ll probably be fine calling it at most festivals. Make sure you start learning this tune by listening and counting through the whole song.

If you are liking the song breakdowns and want to learn more, check out my personal coaching page. Feel free to leave a comment below as well.

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