Recording Elk River Blues

In my last post, I discussed writing a tab for Elk River Blues. The next challenge was to record my own version of this tune. I find the act of recording not only captures the tune, but also helps me to analyse my performance and make improvements, particularly around timing and rhythm.

I recently bought a Rode NT-USB condenser microphone and plugs directly into my MacBook via USB. This is a great mic for recording acoustic instruments and the USB interface makes it super easy to connect to a computer. I’m using GarageBand to capture the recording and mix the tracks.

My recording setup: Deering Vega Senator open-back banjo, Epiphone AJ-100 acoustic guitar, Rode NT-USB condenser microphone, MacBook Pro running Garageband.

I wanted to record the banjo backed with an acoustic guitar. I’m not great at flat-picking on the guitar, so I just used a simple strum pattern to keep the rhythm.

After several failed attempts to record this tune, I started to get frustrated. The time signature changes throughout the tune was throwing me off. I found it difficult to play along with just the metronome click-track, as there was no emphasis on the timing changes. So I used the Smart Drums in the iPad version of GarageBand to create a basic drum loop, then edited in the time signature changes. GarageBand only allows a single time signature for the entire song, so I just had to shorten the loop to emulate the bars in 2/4 time. This meant the position of the bars in GarageBand was no longer accurate, but this didn’t matter as I wasn’t using the scoring features.


Once I had a drum track to follow, everything came together! First I recorded the backing guitar over multiple takes, then assigned seperate tracks to the left and right channel. I found this gave a much fuller and richer sound than just one guitar. The banjo was recorded straight down the middle, with a little reverb to enhance the sound.

I left out the drums in the final mix because I preferred the simplicity of just the banjo and guitar.

I used the built-in Acoustic Guitar EQ effects in GarageBand for the guitars, but the banjo was harder to EQ. I ended up going for a brighter sound on the banjo that would cut through the guitars. I’d prefer a mellower tone for the banjo, but this just ended up sounding muddy. My Deering Vega Senator banjo naturally has a bright sound due to the tone ring, but I love the versatility of this banjo – it’s great for playing both clawhammer and 3-finger style.

I could have added some further embellishments – and maybe I will record it again in the future, but I thought it was better to keep things simple at this stage.

So here is my final mix of the tune. Please feel free to leave any comments or suggestions below! 🙂

Recording Elk River Blues

Elk River Blues

Elk River Blues was composed by West Virginia Fiddler Ernie Carpenter. This poignant tune was written in lament to the loss of his home, which was flooded when they built the Sutton Dam, on the Elk River.

Nathan Bowles recorded a beautiful rendition of this tune for his 2014 album, Nansemond. Nathan’s sense of rhythm and groove really shines through and gives the tune a laid-back, bluesy feel.

It’s written in standard open G tuning (although Nathan tunes his banjo up a half-step in the video).

I have tabbed out Nathan’s version of the tune, trying to capture the rhythm he uses. In some places this involves skipping the dit part of the standard bum-dit-ty clawhammer rhythm. You still perform the action to keep in time, but just don’t connect with the strings on the second stroke down. In the tab this is written as a dotted quarter note, followed by an eighth note (dotted_notes).

There are also a couple of tricky time signature changes from 4/4 time to 2/4 time. This may seem a bit strange at first, but feels natural once you start playing the tune.

Elk River Blues is a great tune to play and you can just keep repeating it, adding small variations to keep things interesting. I hope you enjoy playing this tune as much as I do!

Download the tab for Elk River Blues by Nathan Bowles.

Elk River Blues