Playing at Berkeley Bob’s in Cullman this Saturday

If you happen to be around Cullman this Saturday, drop by; several of us are playing Bluegrass at Berkeley Bob’s Coffee House at 1pm, Saturday, September 7th, 2013. It’s at 304 1st Avenue Southeast, Cullman, AL.

Actually, we are ‘practicing in public’ for a bluegrass wedding we are providing music for in October. At any rate, it should be a fun time; come on out!

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Solid Blue at The Flying Monkey

I know this is sort of late notice – it’s this evening – but my friends Cindy Musselwhite, Bud Teague and company (Solid Blue is the band’s name) are playing at The Flying Monkey tonight. Check ’em out!

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Why is the Banjo so Mysterious?

I must declare here: the banjo is a thoroughly fascinating thing.  Whether playing Bluegrass, Old-Time, Folk, Jazz, or any other genre, it has a certain fascination, even a mystery, about it. And not only in sound, but in looks as well. Karen Lynn has described the sound as a ‘half-barbaric twang’ in her excellent, scholarly book by the same phrase.

But the intrigue goes beyond simply auditory and visual aspects of an odd object. There’s something more that makes the banjo a mysterious thing. Many people have stated that this is the main thing that attracted them to wanting to play the banjo, thus starting their relationship with me, also. My students and I have long discussed some of these. Here, I’d like to recall and assemble all the talking points on why the mystique surrounding the banjo.

I’ve categorized these points roughly as I have in several other blogs dealing with various qualities of our instrument: Visual, Auditory, and, in this case, Other.

1. Visual
That 5th string half way up the neck. Supposedly added by a Mr Joel Sweeney in 1836, although there are now historical indications it was added much earlier.

Nevertheless, no other American instrument has this 5th string; although other, exotic instruments in the world have something similar. These other instruments with sympathetic strings only serve to reinforce an alternate, exotic appearance in the banjo.

It’s a visually complex instrument. Often, it also has various ‘frills’, such as inlays (more than you typically see on either a guitar or mandolin), extra carvings (such as on the heel, neck or resonator) and peghead ornamentation. Having a drum, it also has lugs for tensioning the drum head, adding to the complex look.

2. Auditory
Rolls. Created with the advent of Scruggs style, rolls may be 3, 4 or more notes in length before repeating. Since these rolls are played with the thumb, index and middle fingers, different fingers will take lead notes in a manner that is undecipherable to someone who doesn’t play an instrument in finger- picking style (Scruggs style banjo, Cross picking a mandolin or guitar, or Chet Atkins style guitar, for instance).

3-finger rolls in 2/4 and 4/4 time. Here’s where syncopation starts to enter the picture. Three note rolls, repeated within a 2 or 4 beat measure makes for an off-kilter effect that is harder for our brains to process.

The 5th string is used as a drone. In the dominant style, Scruggs style, the 5th string is never fretted, giving it an almost subconscious root note. Once again, this is unique in American music.

These 3 points above are interrelated: a syncopated roll that may or may not be off-kilter, with an occasional drone note that comes out of nowhere. Add to that the fact that we usually think of notes coming from an acoustic instrument by means of a flat pick as opposed to the actual process of finger picking; no wonder our brains cannot decompile the process of playing a banjo.

There are strings stretched across a drumhead. This is the fundamental definition of a banjo. This is what gives it that signature ‘twang’. Even if you take another instrument, such as a mandolin or dulcimer, and place a drum head in the body, the sound becomes more that of a banjo than whatever the other instrument was.

Quick decay of the tone. Inherent in the basic physics of the aforementioned string across a drumhead; our ears define that characteristic banjo sound as also having a quick decay, giving it that plunky effect. Interestingly, if you increase the mass of the object separating the string from the drumhead (the bridge) it will increase the sustain of the note, giving the banjo a considerably different sound.

3. Other
You’ve heard the saying about the whole being greater than the sum of the parts? That metaphor fits logically here as well.

The Banjo’s rural background. Like all things rural, there is no slick marketing. If it is worth something, go find it yourself. And don’t spoil the secret by telling everyone on Earth, either – just tell your neighbor.

Perception of being on the ‘wrong side of the tracks’. Ever since the days when the banjo was associated with plantations, slaves and minstrel music, it has been perceived of as less-than-ideal. That personality has stuck with the banjo even to this day, despite having changed hands into different ‘owners’ several times. Owners have included slaves, minstrel performers, young ladies of proper upbringing who wished to rebel against Victorian society, the isolated rural population in general, hippies, and now practitioners of Bluegrass; what a motley crew!

Perceived simplicity. Especially true of the older styles of playing, before Mr. Scruggs, conjuring up images of the ‘Old South’. A simplicity that is still enthusiastically embraced by many. This is a paradox, I’ll admit. How can an instrument be both undecipherable and at the same time simple? And yet that is the perception many of us have of it.

Multiplicity of tunings. Some of which are very distinct: modal tunings, minor tunings and such. Few instruments have such a wealth of tunings. Quite frankly, as I sit here I can’t think of another instrument that approaches the banjo in terms of the richness of tunings; traditional or modern.

History. History is closely integrated into many of the points as stated above, but there is one more point to be made in regard to history. The recent history of the banjo is fairly well known. It came over from Africa with slaves and modifications have been made to it since that time to the extent that the original Banjar, or Akonting, or whatever came over here, is a very different instrument from the modern day bluegrass banjo. The banjo was not of European ancestry, as many other instruments were. Indeed, it was perhaps brought to Africa from the Middle East centuries before its journey to America. Were the sitar and sarod also ancestors to the banjo? In short, We know just enough history to allow for imagination to fill in the rest of the details.

I hope you’ve found these points as fascinating as I have in compiling them!

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The Deep Ellum Banjo Man

Back in December of 2009, I travelled to Denton, Texas to watch my oldest daughter Paige graduate from the University of North Texas. We had a grand time there, especially on the Denton County Courthouse square, with all the touristy type stores decked out for Christmas. And that used bookstore! You see, Denton, like many small Texas towns, had a opera house on the Square ages ago. This one, like all similar opera houses in Texas I know of, had fallen into disrepair. So it was converted into, at present, a huge bookstore. What a wonderful place to browse in!

Anyway, I digress.

I had also heard that there was a very interesting street sculpture just east of downtown Dallas of a banjo man. Armed with information from the Internet, I set out to find him on Me and My New Pickin' Buddythe way back, and sure enough, there he sat in the Deep Ellum District at the southwest corner of North Good Latimer and Gaston Avenue. Quite an imposing figure, I have a few photos of him here, along with yours truly picking a number with him.

The Deep Ellum district in Dallas was once a famous venue for Blues musicians. It appears its renown has diminished in recent decades, though.The Banjo Man, with Downtown Dallas in the Background BanjoManDallas3

Compare these small trees in front of the building with what is current on Google Streetview.And alas, when I went to Google street view just now, the Banjoman is barely seen on the higher-altitude view, but in the street view (seemingly newer as the trees are bigger), it appears that some construction is going on at that corner. Could it be he has been removed?

There is another similar ‘tinman’ elsewhere in Deep Ellum, two blocks northwest at Good Latimer and Miranda Street; this fellow appears to be a singer, not a banjo player.

Click on these images for a slightly larger photo.

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Getting Good Feedback

As you progress in playing the banjo, your skill level will increase. Simple enough. But realize that that increase in skill level doesn’t come just as a result of your having practiced for a long time. You also need feedback; something that will tell you when you are going wrong. And it should tell you early in the process so you don’t have to relearn any more than is necessary.

Feedback, as ( defines it, is “knowledge of the results of any behavior, considered as influencing or modifying further performance”. Good feedback is anything that helps you improve your playing by successfully delivering on this definition.

Feedback can be categorized as Auditory, Tactile, or Visual. No, smell doesn’t count.

Auditory:  This includes Pitch, Timbre, Volume, Intonation, or Rhythm as sources of feedback.

Types here are recordings of your playing, listening to yourself live (the least effective, BTW), or a metronome. Any one of these could be areas for improvement, but some can be very tricky to even find a clue that you are off.

I had a problem with this when I first started playing the banjo. I didn’t realize that my timing was too variable. (Yes, you can vary your timing, just a little (playing ahead or playing behind it’s called), but that is purposeful, and very little is needed for the effect; I’m talking about the much more common pitfall of simply having bad timing.) I didn’t realize I had it until I heard myself on a recording, then I knew what to do (get a metronome and use it on a regular basis). It was just a matter of knowing what the problem was in the first place.

Tactile: Fretting fingers, picking fingers and hand, and to a lesser extent, you arms and shoulders. The most overlooked source of information, especially in the tips of the fretting fingers. Train yourself to listen to what your fingers are telling you. Pay attention to the following.

What your fretting hand is telling you:
1) I’m exerting pressure on the fretboard with my fingers
2) There is a wire between my finger & the fretboard
3) I’m also touching something like a wire on the side
4) I’m stretching that wire underneath (up or down)
5) I’m touching a fret (purposefully beneath or accidentally on the side)

Traing yourself to be aware of each of these fretting hand signals above.

6) Your calluses. Don’t have any? Then you probably aren’t getting enough practice! BTW, too much water on your hands causes calluses to not form as easily and to go away quicker.

What your picking hand is saying:
1) picks too loose or they fall off easily. Get a pair of needle-nose pliers and spend 10 minutes adjusting them. Get all the ‘air pockets’ out; the space between your fingers and the picks, so that there is almost total contact with your fingers. Make sure they are tight enough as well.
2) Picking is too forceful – lighten up and find how smooth and gracefully you can play
3) Picking is too soft – play with confidence! It will sound so much better.
4) Aching hands and fingers. A certain amount of this is inevitable in learning something new, but soon (just like with riding a bike, or lifting weights, etc.), this should go away. If it is still a problem, make sure you aren’t holding your hand in an unnatural position. Here’s where an instructor can really help out.

Your arms and shoulders: Same thing here in terms of unforeseen stresses and strains. Make sure everything is in a natural position and comfortable.

Also, you should know that good quality modern bluegrass banjos are, literally, THE heaviest stringed instruments that you actually pick up (yes, an upright bass is heavier; thankfully it sits on the floor!). If you aren’t used to holding one while standing for long periods of time, then your back and shoulders are probably going to get strained. Gradually get used to it by standing more and more as you practice.

Visual: A lot of this category overlaps with others (auditory and tactile). I think we have covered them well enough above. These include:
1) Metronome
2) Positions of hands and fingers
3) Stance and posture, etc.

In addition, different kinds of feedback may be from yourself (that is, your own eyes, ears and fingers), or from others (an Instructor or other person).

Just remember these points in closing:
1) Anything you can detect or know can be considered feedback
2) Almost all feedback can be helpful
3) Any gained feedback requires a response in order to be put to effective use
4) That response must be positive

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The Spam I Get

This is actually quite funny. I get these sort of emails every month or so. Obviously these are spam at best; phishing attempts  in a worse scenario. These are email requests I get from my website, because one of my email aliases is out there for people to contact me.

Today, I’d like to share some of these ridiculous-to-the-point-of-being-funny spams I have gotten requesting “music lessons”! As you can see, the spelling and grammar are dead give-aways. When they don’t ever mention a banjo or mandolin (they just say ‘instrument’) you also know.

More often than not, the theme is that their son or daughter (typically 14 years old) is coming to the states and they want to know you instrument (duh!), rates, availability, etc.

Read on for a few classic examples. I’ve included a few comments with <> brackets.

#1 This is a typical theme. A teenage son or daughter. Coming to the states. Bad grammar. This one also refers to the son named John as ‘she’.

How are you today?
I got your contact email while searching for Music and dance teacher on the internet. I have a son (John) who is interested studying music. John doesn’t have any previous in the instrument but he is ready to learn. She’s 15 year old with very sharp brain <well, that’s good, because ‘she’ sure didn’t get it from dear ‘ol dad :)>
If you will agreed to accept John as your student,please get back to me with the following information..
Total fees for one months lessons(Two hours lessons in a week)?
Your teaching location and phone number?
The instrument you teach?

I want the lessons to start by 5th of November.

PLEASE DONT REPLY ME IF YOU ARE UNAVAILABLE TEACHER.   Looking forward to hear from you.



I will like to know if you have available slots/times to teach my son for lesson 3 time a week. It will be useful if you could get back to me with your area of Expertize/Specialization and also your charges.
Expecting to hear from you soon so as possible to proceed with the arrangement.

Mrs <American-sounding name was here>

#3 This kind is interesting as they actually state some banjo-related information upfront. Horrible spelling, though; you know it did a number on my WordPress spell checker. From looking at the To: line in the email, it was also sent to many other banjo teachers, several being friends of mine. An obvious spam.

hello my name is will liams amd from uk, i saw your advert on and i want you to teach my son who is cooming down to Alabama for holiday how to play guiter or any thumb style rhythm guitar orScruggs, so i will like to hear from you can contact me at  <a Yahoo email here>

I wonder – how many successful phishing attempts come about from such emails? I don’t get enough to be annoying; maybe one a month. Still, it is amazing that people still propagate such stuff.

Needless to say, I did NOT respond to any of these!

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Tales of My Picking Demise were Greatly Exaggerated

I didn’t realize until a friend told me the other day, that I have left people in the Blogosphere hanging indefinitely in regards to my banjo-injured arm.

Long story short: it’s back to normal!

Long story long: As you may recall, I had started to develop some sort of inflammation of the tendon in my right forearm, right where I rest my arm on the armrest. I had always kept my arm down pretty hard on the armrest, so after so many years, it must have caused a repetitive motion injury.

So I put a piece of pipe insulation over the armrest, causing it to give me some padding for my forearm and also causing me to remember not to bear down so hard with my forearm. I also did the same pipe insulation solution on my mandolin, as my arm rested in exactly the same place on the mandolin.

Such injuries take a long time to heal, apparently. Over the next 3 to 6 months, it gradually got better.

Today, I am pretty much free of any symptoms. However, if I go back to playing without that insulation over the armrest, sure enough, in a little while, I will start feeling that icy-hot sensation starting to come back. It’s a small price to pay, and I don’t mind it, but it is a little awkward to keep my arm above the armrest when playing other folks’ instruments.

So the take-home here is simply not to bear down so hard on the armrest. It may happen to you in your middle or late years.

Pipe insulation on the armrest

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Update on the Stella Harmony 12-string

A couple of years ago, I blogged about my oldest brother’s first guitar, an old Stella Harmony 12-string. Little did I know at the time, but that has been the most popular blog I have written. I have even had several offers from people wanting to buy my Stella Harmony.

Down through the years, though, it had started to show its age. The neck was slightly bowed and the finish was all caked with a thin layer of really tough grime. The frets, never very good to start with (for all the rest of the excellent quality that it was) really needed replacing; they were almost square in cross-section. It was rather difficult to move across such frets.

I had recently had some excellent work done on my two oldest mandolins by Jeff Glover, down at A. B. Stephens on Drake Avenue here in Huntsville. So I thought I would get Jeff to look at it. I have to say it turned into another success story!

Jeff looked it over and was very enthustiastic about restoring it. To me, that is an essential ingredient in instrument repair (or instrument building, or playing, or… you get the idea!)

He corrected the bow in the neck, and removed and replaced the frets; did a bit of inlay work, too. The most dramatic part, though, was in restoring the finish. Apparently, that crud that had collected on the guitar finish over the decades actually served to help preserve it. It had been stored in attics for much of it’s life, but there are no heat cracks in the finish, and I suspect that was due to the coating of crud. Jeff buffed it to a glossy finish – that must have been a joy to do.

Today, it plays and looks better than it has in many a year! I guess this sounds like a plug for Jeff Glover, and I suppose it is! Take a look at the pics.

Jeff Glover with the Stella Harmony 12-StringJeff Glover and me at his shop with the Stella Harmony 12-String.Stella Harmony 12-String

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Wastin’ Time

Every once in a while (I’d say, once a day for a few minutes) try pushing yourself with practice.

Don’t worry about playing sloppily, or too fast, or too crazy-sounding. Push some kind of an envelope in your banjo life!

Whether it’s trying to see just how fast you can play, or trying to create a new chord. Or seeing how fast you can make your brain come up with a totally new lick, or maybe even trying to improvise a melody on the fly. As you may suspect, the results will be disaster more often than not. Do it for a few minutes anyway; it won’t hurt you practice for a few minutes, but it may well assist you in opening a new door or two as you explore and become less timid with the fretboard.

It’s also a bit like what we call wasting time, but I’m thinking of a slightly different type of wasting time here. After many years of playing and practice, I’ve had many, many opportunities to find myself way off-base; down past left field, deep in the backwoods of seldom-heard licks and unusual techniques. Most are little-known for a good reason: they are lousy! Most every musician who has played for very long has a similar resume of time wasted.

Supposedly wasted, I should say.

Because there are a few worth revisiting! Those rare nuggets that you discover either by serendipity, or by rote, or by a well-placed mistake (students actually do this one very early on, and I always try to point that fact out to them: don’t throw that one away – It’s a keeper!). Sometimes, we arrive at a great new lick just by brute force, brought on by necessity.

As you can imagine, these forays into the unknown involve a lot of wasted time. Not much can be done about that, but I will offer one tip to maximize the whole process: get as much hands-on time as possible with your banjo when creating new licks to minimize time truly wasted. Thinking about the creation process is one thing, but actually doing it is what counts.

Just give it a try!

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Life’s a banjo!

One of the main things I strive for in blogging is to complement what students learn in actual lessons. Sources for banjo lessons are plentiful these days, so I try to present a different perspective. One that you don’t get in a typical “How to Play the Banjo” lesson book. It’s more about how to “think like a banjo” (a phrase I have been using frequently these days). Because for many folks, discussing not only what to learn and how to do a technique, but also how to learn and how to think in a new way becomes a catalyst for more efficient and more enjoyable learning.

Because people learn in so many different ways. Some are visual learners, who like to see a diagram of what is being discussed in order to get it. Others like to get a book on the subject and go read it, taking time to reflect on all the nuances they find. Still others, being mainly auditory, like to discuss it with the teacher and other students in a very active way. It’s best to combine as many of these various ways as possible.

And one of the grandest things about approaching learning from different perspectives: success applies to just about everything! Not only banjos; not only stringed instruments; not even only musical learning, but life in general.

For instance, take the topic of how difficult it is to learn the banjo. Why is it difficult? Or more precisely, why is it perceived as being difficult? If it were easy, then everyone would be playing the banjo, just as almost everyone can read, or walk. Easy skills are taken for granted and thus not valued as much on a daily basis. But banjo playing is no more difficult than any other task that isn’t dead-easy. It takes the same gumption to play a banjo as it does to finish college, or learn the guitar, or whatever else you are thinking of at the moment. Some do take longer than others, but it is still the same mental process we must go through regardless.

So, to find success in playing the banjo means you also have the keys to finding success in whatever else you find difficult in life. The only challenge left is reasoning from the specific (banjos) to the general (life) to find the life application.

Life’s a banjo!

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