Lesson 12: The Can Can Theme

Posted January 27, 2008

Have you ever had a tune get stuck in your mind and it won't leave?  Yeah, right, worse than a case of the hiccups.  Well, recently the Tennessee Lottery had a game going called "Million Dollar Madness" and the jingle on the radio was to the tune of the famous "Can Can Theme" by Jacques Offenbach.

Jacques Offenbach was born in Cologne Germany in 1819, and died in Paris in 1880.  He became known as a composer of light and humorous operettas. Offenbach founded a theatrical company in 1855, the Bouffes-Parisiens, and toured the United States and Britain, his many works enjoying great popularity everywhere.  He completed more than ninety works for the stage. His first success was "Orpheus in the Underworld" (1858) which contains the familiar verse that has become known as Can Can music.  Alas, Offenbach did not have a banjo in his orchestra and it would be another 90 years before Earl Scruggs established the bluegrass style.  Rest easy, Jacques, we will now correct this sad lack with a bluegrass version of the famous Can Can Theme.

First a basic melody, (In case you could forget it!) then four exercises to perfect the main phrases of the solo.  Finally, a bluegrass solo of the famous Can Can Theme

Basic Melody:  Can Can Theme

Before they work on a bluegrass solo, I strongly urge my students to pick the melody so the tune is clearly present in their ear.  When I begin the process of creating a banjo arrangement, I first sketch the melody and then begin to fit rolls and licks around the tune to create a solo.  Without a clear sense of the melody, a bluegrass solo lacks focus and may not make much sense to your ear.

The slow version below is relaxed enough to pick right along, but the actual tempo of the song is breakdown speed.  The faster audio clip will give you the real feel of how it should sound.  Get comfortable with this single note melody, then you'll be ready to learn the solo.

Audio:   Slow   Faster

On the following exercises, I have recorded the audio at three speeds, 80 beats per minute, 72 bpm cut time, and 100 bpm cut time.  My observation is that most players are likely to skip on to the solo before the exercises are mastered.  My further observation is this increases the time required to achieve an effective performance instead of making it shorter.  So, my friends, the exercises will pay off big time if you master them.  That means, you must play them fast watching your hands, not the tablature.  This way you will be playing the solo mostly from memory right from the start.

Exercise 1

Forward roll variations.  Index has to pick the quarter note in the first measure because it follows thumb on the 5th.  In the D7 measure, lift the first finger in the second half of the roll.


Slow  Faster  Fastest

Exercise 2

Second string hammer and a held 3 sustains the D note across the first measure.   IMTM at the end of the second measure.


Slow  Faster  Fastest


Exercise 3

The first ending is a descending scale down the first string.  I finger the 5,4,2 with fingers 4,3,1 although 3,2,1 will also work.  The double-middle roll, MIMT, is used twice.  If this roll is new to you, practice the pattern separately before adding left hand fingers. 


Slow  Faster  Fastest

Exercise 4

The Second Ending:   Notice the accent mark over the first string note.  That's a reminder that note is the melody and needs emphasis.  


Slow  Faster Fastest


Solo:  Can Can Theme

The two audio clips are 100 beats per minute in 4/4 time, and 112 bpm in cut time.  So the faster version is more than twice as fast as the slow.  This one needs to be FAST.  Think of that scene with the high-kicking ladies lifting their skirts to show ruffled pantaloons.  Must have raised pulse rates in the late 1850's!  Get HOT on the exercises, then the solo will fall into place nicely.

Audio:   Slow   Faster

Good luck picking!

Edward T Wing

Pick'n'Grin, Knoxville, Tennessee