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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Left-hand Techniques Are Like…

Or, I should say ‘Fretting Hand techniques’. Lefties use the right hand for these moves, obviously.

After learning the basic rolls and a few chords, students are ready to move on to several other topics, one of which involves fretting techniques. Due to the loose nature of banjo strings (as compared to guitar and, especially, mandolin strings) we have a plentiful array of uses for slides, hammer-ons and pull-offs with banjos. The looser the strings on a stringed instrument, the easier and more prevalent these techniques are.

Here are a few tips for getting the right feel in each of these three fretting hand techniques.

Slides
Slides should be done with the thumb as an anchor on the banjo neck. Use the joint of the thumb closest to the tip of the thumb; keep this spot as a fulcrum from which the sliding finger pivots. This forces the movement to come from a flick of the wrist, not the arm or shoulder. If I were to relate the proper motion of a slide to a common everyday parallel, I would say it is like sewing with a needle (but with your fingers, not your arm).

Hammer-ons
With hammering-on, you are really trying to hit the fretboard behind the string; that string is just in the way of your strike.  A good hammer-on test is to try doing it without the picking hand doing anything. Just the fretting hand motion of hammering-on should be enough to give you a good sound. An everyday parallel would be swatting a fly with a fly swatter (again, with your fingers, not your arm)

Pull-offs
Often the last of the three techniques to learn and perhaps the hardest of the three, good pull-offs can also be tested for by getting a sound from them without the picking hand. It doesn’t really matter whether you pull up (technically this is called a push-off) or pull down (technically called a pull-off); I call them both a pull-off, as does everyone else I have ever talked to. The sound is the same. I tend to do a push-off, except on the first string (at the bottom) where it is far easier to do a pull-off (it’s easier because there is no string below the first that is in the way of doing a pull-off). An everyday parallel that gives sort of the same resulting feeling would be opening a jar.

In general, use the smallest muscles possible whenever you are doing something than requires finesse (all three of these techniques require finesse). Finger and wrist-associated muscles are better than the bigger arm and shoulder muscles. Your middle finger seems to be best for these three techniques to start with. As time goes on, you’ll want to get adept at using other fingers for these techniques as well.

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Just Like Earl

Playing the banjo just like Earl Scruggs is a common effort among some banjoists. I even have one or two that I play almost exactly like him, but those are the exceptions, not the rule. This is a fairly natural pattern of thought. After all, for most beginners, it is the only reference point they have at first, thus the natural tendency to sound just like what they have heard.

As time progresses, and as you skill level goes up, don’t worry about getting the song exactly like the original version. Here’s why.

1 – It’s too much extra effort. If you’ve been playing very long, you already have your own style, which may or may not be similar to whoever you are trying to emulate (usually Earl). Although it’s true that playing someone else’s version will introduce you to new licks and techniques, you want to keep this in balance: not too much of totally new stuff, yet also not too much of totally your own creations. Strike a happy medium here. If you try to play totally someone else’s version, you will miss the advantage of the standard banjo licks you already know.

2 – Low ROI (Return On Investment – a financial term). What will be your reward for learning “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” exactly like Mr. Scruggs played it? Sure, no doubt it will sound pretty cool if you get it up to speed and it is played cleanly, and with the right accents in just the right places for his style. But that’s about it. The original was already done, the initial buzz from someone else playing that first version has come and gone.

3 – Nobody notices. Except for a few banjo players (and geeky ones at that!), no one is likely to ever notice you have played the song just like someone else.

4 – It impedes your own creativity. Similar to argument 2 above; although you will get some advantage from looking at how someone else did it, there are only so many standard licks you will get from one player. After learning a good number of others’ licks (external licks, you could call them), it is better to create you own, in your own style.

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A Banjo Lifecycle

A banjo is…

Envisioned

Created

Marketed

Found to be a source of inspiration

Bought

Cherished

Played

Played a little less

Stored suddenly

Found suddenly

Treasured and played again

surprisingly, stored

Rediscovered by same, played

Reluctantly stored

Languished

Sold

Played, enthusiastically

Played less

Played even less

Sold again, even cheaper

Modified, with disaster

Given up on

Sold in a garage sale

Stored broken

Found to be taking up too much space

Trashed unceremoniously

Long after and occasionally, remembered by someone

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