Friday, February 25, 2011

Banjo Uke has arrived!!!

My banjo uke is finally here! It’s made by musician/luthier Jere Canote of Small Wonder Banjos - concert scale with 8-inch rim. I can’t really play it at this point, having no prior experience on ukulele, but I can at least plunk/strum a few chords. Below are some audio samples in the key of G to accommodate my knowledge of the chords G, C and D.

Devil Town (Daniel Johnston)
Ambiguity Song (Camper Van Beethoven)
Where the Hell is Bill (Camper Van Beethoven)

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Long Term Plan

I try to devote at least 10 hours a week to practice. Right now that practice simply consists of playing tunes on tenor banjo by reading the tab. I almost never practice scales, arpeggios, music theory, ear training, intervals, rhythm, memorization, music notation, or other fundamentals. I would like to work this type of practice into my routine at some point as I think that would help my overall development.

My banjo uke is supposed to arrive today. So now I'll have that instrument to practice as well. Within the next year I'd also like to get a 61-key Yamaha type keyboard, as well as a short scale bass guitar. My ultimate goal being to gain enough competency on all these instruments to create my own home-recordings, where I would record the lead melody on tenor banjo, for instance, then lay down the chords on banjo uke or piano, and add a bass track. Ideally I'd like to learn a limited number of tunes well enough to be able to play them on a combination of, say, 3 out of 4 of those instruments.

I'm fond of how piano is used as a vamping/chording/accompany instrument, especially in Cape Breton/PEI type music. I think it would be fun to play along with fiddle & accordion tunes on keyboards in this way.

For bass I'd like to approach it a little more avant garde, as most of my favorite bass players fall outside traditional music, like Chris Wood of Medeski Martin and Wood. His bass playing in the side-project The Wood Brothers (with his brother Oliver Wood) is a good example of a "roots meets contemporary" playing style that I'd like to emulate.

I dunno...this is all really far off but I think it would be a fun project.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Cold Frosty Battle of Aughrim!

The other day I noticed a similarity between the old-time tune Cold Frosty Morning and the Irish march After the Battle of Aughrim. So, last night I combined my favorite aspects of each into one piece tentatively called Frosty Battle of Aughrim. It's basically the A-Part to Battle of Aughrim with the B-part of Frosty Morn, with a few slight variations.

Battle of Aughrim is named for the bloodiest battle in Irish history in which the Jacobite Army was defeated by the Williamite army and, subsequently, Ireland fell into control of the English (July 12, 1691). Oddly enough, I was researching Cold Frosty Morning and apparently it is Scots in origin and is based on a fiddle tune commemorating the dawn of the day after the Battle of Culloden (April 16, 1746), the last major action of the 1745 Jacobite uprising. So that possibly explains why these fit so well together.

Both tunes are usually played in the key of Aminor, but I moved my version down a string to Dminor to make it easier for me to play on tenor banjo (open "E" replaces high "B"). I will make a recording of this soon and update this post with an audio link. In the meantime, you can hear a great version of Cold Frosty Morning on the Butch Baldassari and David Schnaufer CD Appalachian Dulcimer and Mandolin. And you can hear a sweet After the Battle of Aughrim on an album by the Clare-based (Ennis, Doolin) band The Fiddle Case.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

A Little Music Theory Goes A Long Way

A lot of old-timey tunes may spring from folk sources that pre-date music theory, but there are in fact notes, chords and scales behind traditional numbers that conform to theory. Knowing some basic music theory will help you better understand and play these styles.

The first thing to be aware of is what key a tune is in. Most traditional, Irish and bluegrass tunes are fiddle tunes. The 4 strings of the fiddle are normally tuned G,D,A,E - in 5ths from thickest to lightest string. The majority of fiddle tunes are in keys that are open strings on the fiddle. I'm talking about the keys of G, D and A (rarely E). I'd say that 90% of the most-played tunes are in one of those 3 keys, so that will help you hone in.

Most songs/tunes start with a chord that has the same name as they key it's in. In other words, a song that starts with a G chord is probably in the key of G. An even better way to tell the key is to see what the last chord of the chorus or B-part is. That chord will almost always match the key. (This works the other way too - if someone tells you that a tune is in they key of G, you can safely assume that it probably begins with a G chord, and definitely "ends" with a G chord). Once you know the key you can make some educated guesses as to which chords to use.

The average traditional tune is going to have no more than 3 chords. Most likely the I, IV and V chords. If there are any other chords, these will likely be either the II chord or, if it's minor sounding, the VI chord. In the key of G, for example, the I, II, IV, V and VI chords are G, A, C, D and E-minor (Em). Sometimes the V chord is played as a 7th (D7 in the key of G), but that is completely up to you.

As far as knowing when to change chords, I can't really help you there. The people that do that well just kinda feel it and it's hard for them to convey how they know that. They just know that it's going to happen. (A guitar player might not know why he has to go from the I to the IV, he just knows that he has to go to the IV chord next). I'm still waiting for that ability! The good news is the chords to traditional tunes are rarely carved in stone. With the right fundamentals you can make educated guesses that should get you in the ballpark, and even if you are "wrong", as long as you are playing chords that are appropriate for that key, you won't sound too far off. You'll be harmonizing!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Tenor Banjo Tab: Clouds Thicken

The next installment in my tenor banjo tablature series is the tune Clouds Thicken. It was written by Paul Rosen of the Charlottesville-based contradance band Floorplay and is featured on their album Block Party where it is paired with Sweet and Sour Rag. On the Floorplay website Paul graciously includes standard notation - AKA “the dots” – for all the tunes on this album.

Clouds Thicken can best be described as a creepy, minor-key jig (6/8 time). It includes some nice use of a flattened 5th note; in this case Bb.

Click here to listen to a snippet of the actual recording.
Click here to hear my pitiful attempt at playing this fantastic tune. (I don't do it justice!).

My tenor banjo/mandolin tab image is below. I believe everything is pretty much the same as the standard notation. It's kinda hard to see but that 1st note of the 2nd measure is a "1" to indicate a Bb note.

Floorplay covers a variety of styles including southern old time tunes, jigs, waltzes, Klezmer, rags, and contradance numbers. Their album Block Party is a fun, quirky record featuring all original tunes written by Paul Rosen. Clouds Thicken is just one of many great cuts to be found there.

Getting a Banjo Ukulele!

I'm getting a banjo uke! In March 2010, almost a year ago now, I contacted musician Jere Canote of Small Wonder Banjos about making a LH concert scale banjo uke for me. It's been a long time coming but Jere informed me that it is finally done and has shipped! It should arrive by the middle of next week.

I know nothing about how to play a ukulele, much less banjo uke. I've never even picked one up. Initially my plan is to approach playing it the same way I do tenor banjo. Most folks play ukulele by strumming with their fingers, but I want to try picking notes with a plectrum. I've ordered some rubber Wedgie picks which should work for nylon uke strings. Uke tuning is different than mandolin/tenor banjo - it's not in 5ths - but with my limited musical knowledge I can figure out where the notes are and find the chords as a result.

Rather than get some ukulele instruction books or tunebooks, or seek help from other sources, I think I'm just going to approach it from a "figure it out on my own" or "find my own way to play it" perspective. If that fails then I'll fall back on more established methods, although I may seek out a few lessons from a local instructor. I know what notes in a scale make up a simple tune like Arkansas Traveler, for example, so one of my first goals with banjo uke is to learn how to pick the melody to a simple tune like that and then go from there. Eventually I may have tunes that I play exclusive to banjo uke.

I will post an update once it arrives.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Tunebook Review: Mandolin Uff Da!

I would like to bring attention to one of my favorite tunebooks: Mandolin Uff Da! Let's Dance! Scandinavian Fiddle Tunes and House Party Music by Dix Bruce, which is a collection of tunes from the repertoire of Goose Island Ramblers accordion player Bruce Bollerud and arranged for mandolin. (An accordion version of the book also exists).

Most of the tunes are fairly easy to play - wonderful, memorable melodies straight from the folk traditions of Minnesota and Wisconsin, with strong Scandinavian and German influences. This is music that the 75+ year old Bollerud has been playing all his life; learned as a youth in the Northern Mid-West from old Norwegian fiddlers/farmers and local string band combos (fiddle, accordion, guitar, maybe a banjo). The folk music of this region has not been preserved anywhere near as much as the Southern Appalachian fiddle tunes, for example.

All 28 tunes in the book are written out in both standard sheet music notation and mandolin tablature with chords - in a very easy to read format. Thankfully this book contains a handful of tunes that may have otherwise faded out. Practically all of these tunes were new to me, and in fact there were even some tune types that I hadn't heard of prior to this book (schottische, anyone?). The copy I ordered did not come with a CD, but it came with instructions for how to download these tracks online and that worked out just fine. Each tune on the recording is played at two speeds: a slow version and more up-to-speed. A novice or intermediate player should be able to immediately start playing some of these, even at the faster speed. Although some tunes are going to take a lot of practice to play properly.

The waltzes in particular have more "pop" to them than I would associate with a typical American waltz. Also this music definitely swings with a raggy feel, which I didn’t expect. Highlights for me include Sally’s Hoppwaltz, Ryerson’s Hoppwaltz, Minnesota 6/8 Two Step, Almando’s Polka, Mabel Rag Two Step, Mabel Polka, Johnson’s Rhinelander Schottische, Tobacco Setter’s Waltz, Sugar Candy Schottische and Skjorte Frak Waltz. I doubt I will ever tire of these. Eventually I’d like to learn this complete collection. The book also includes a transcript of an interview with Mr. Bollerud where he talks about the history of this music as well as each individual tune.

If you already play Irish, old-time or bluegrass, these tunes will fit right in with your repertoire. Learn some and take them to your local jams, sessions or contra dance. Others will really enjoy hearing and playing these tunes which you will have discovered!

Watch Dix play three tunes from "Mandolin Uff Da! Let's Dance: Scandinavian Fiddle Tunes & House Party Music."
Mandolin Uff Da! Let's Dance sample "Skorte Frak Waltz"
"Skorte Frak Waltz" MP3
Mandolin Magazine MP3: "Sugar Candy Schottische" audio sample
Bruce Bollerud Interview Excerpt #1 (How Bruce discovered Scandinavian House Party music)
Bruce Bollerud Interview Excerpt #2 (The House Party & Music #1)
Bruce Bollerud Interview Excerpt #3 (The House Party & Music #2)
Bruce Bollerud Interview Excerpt #4 (The House Party & Music #3)
Bruce Bollerud Interview Excerpt #5 (Future of House Party music)
"The Tobacco Setter's Waltz" MP3

Monday, February 14, 2011

Album Review: The Gu-Achi Fiddlers, Old Time O'odham Fiddle Music

I recently happened upon a recording of fiddle-based music called The Gu-Achi Fiddlers, Old Time O'odham Fiddle Music, Volume 1. It is available on Canyon Records, a small label devoted to Native American music. Despite a cover photo which makes it look much older, I believe this music was recorded in the 1980’s so the audio quality is much better than one might expect.

The Gu-Achi Fiddlers hailed from the Southern Arizona town of Gu-Achi in the Sonora desert. They belonged to the Tohono O'odham Nation, formerly known as the Papago. They were led by two fiddlers, Elliot Johnson and Lester Vavages, and backed up by Gerald Leos Sr. (snare drum), Tommy Lopez (bass drum) and Wilfred Mendoza (guitar). All of those guys play on this release.

The music here is a melting pot of Native American, Mexican and European styles: schottisches, polkas, two-steps and mazurkas filtered through the indigenous melodies of the O'odham. The fiddle tradition of Southern Arizona dates back to the days of Spanish colonization, when Catholic missionaries introduced the Native American Papagos to their European instruments and tunes. The Papagos quickly adopted the instruments and absorbed the rhythms, giving birth to a form of old-time fiddle music that is uniquely Southwestern, a tradition that has survived until today.

There is a refreshingly un-polished energy to this “scratchy” and slightly out of tune music...the players rely more on attitude and enthusiasm than any sort of technical virtuosity. It turns out this is a style of music I had been wanting to hear, I just didn’t know it until I heard it! Not quite polka in the German sense, not quite Mexican, and definitely not the same as old-time Appalachian fiddle music. I encourage anyone with an interest in traditional or indigenous music to check this out. It’s guaranteed to put you in good spirits! (If you are a musician try playing some of these tunes - you'll love 'em!)

Friday, February 11, 2011

Music for Silent Film tonight at Randolph Macon

The Snark Ensemble presents "The Sounds of Slapstick" this evening at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland.

The Snark Ensemble are an instrumental group that performs new music to silent film, responding to and amplifying the events taking place on screen.

“The six-member group sounds like a New Orleans jazz combo out on a lark; the melodies slide and lumber during melodramatic moments and zing merrily when accompanying visual shtick.”
— Nelson Pressley, The Washington Post

The performance will take place at 8:00 p.m. in St. Ann’s Performing Arts Building. This event is free and open to the public.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Tenor Banjo Tab: Fraksetter's Waltz

Here is the first installment in what I hope to be a regular series featuring the audio and tablature of some of the tunes I enjoy playing. Click on the post title above - or click here - to be taken to a page where you can hear the audio. I'm a novice; I don't really know what I'm doing, and I don't claim to have any sort of expertise or musical knowledge whatsoever. So take this with a grain of salt. But if you're looking for a great new tune to play I think I've found one for you!

This tune comes from the Dix Bruce tunebook Mandolin Uff Da! Let's Dance! Scandinavian Fiddle Tunes and House Party Music, which is a collection of tunes as played by Goose Island Ramblers accordion player Bruce Bollerud. (This is a fantastic book of tunes that I highly recommend. I hope to review this book soon!).

What I'm calling Fraksetter's Waltz is actually a hybrid of two waltzes from that book: Skorte Frak Waltz and Tobacco Setter's Waltz. I really, really liked the B-parts of both of those tunes, and they seemed to work well together, so I play them together as an AA/BB style waltz. (I just made up the name Fraksetter's Waltz). The attached audio is me playing it in the key of D. I think this might have been the first waltz I ever played.

Please pardon the quality of the tablature picture. I wanted to get it done quickly and took it with my phone. In the future I hope to develop a better way of uploading the tab. Please note that my Irish tenor banjo tab will always work for mandolin. The only difference being in some cases I might have simplified some measures due to the tenor banjo stretch.

Playing Music is Like Typing

Playing music for me is like typing. If a tune lives between frets 1 and 6 + open strings and is written out in tablature, then I can usually read the tab well enough to play what it shows on the page. Some minor variations might happen accidentally, but overall I can pretty much make it sound like the tune it's supposed to be.

This is the same to me as transcribing a hand-written letter into a typed one. Although imagine that the letter I'm typing is in a foreign language that I don't understand. I have a pretty good attention to detail, so I can almost get the letter word for word without any spelling errors, but I still have no idea what the letter that I'm typing says. That's what playing music is like for me. Any variations I do are more like type-O's than different ways of saying the same sentence.

I'm working on a repertoire of about 100 traditional tunes. So in effect, I "type" out the same musical letters over and over again. Hopefully some day I'll have these tunes memorized...then it'll be like an actor reciting his lines...but more like the actors in Avatar who had no idea what they were saying because their lines were in the Na'vi language they made up for that film.

As weird as it sounds, I enjoy this process. It helps that I am not striving towards any sense of authenticity, proficiency, or tradition. I play music for the sake of playing music, for my own enjoyment and fulfillment. The instruments I've chosen are merely vehicles for playing the tunes I want to. However, I do wish there was somebody out there whose musical goals and interests overlapped with mine to the point where we could get together and practice on a regular basis, and work out a set of crappy versions of traditional tunes! Anybody?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Learning Traditional Tunes from Written Music

Traditional tunes do not have an established, original version. No tunebook contains what would be called the definitive version of a tune. It is simply one arrangement of it. So, learning traditional tunes from written music is not the recommended way to do it. However, there's nothing wrong with doing it that way in my opinion. Here's one way of doing it.

Try to listen to multiple versions of the tune before playing it. Use You Tube, Rhapsody, your CD collection,, play along CDs, midi files, mp3's and so on. To this end you'll be familiarizing your ear with the tune. Then find as many different written sources for the tune as you can and compare them all. Some tips include searching online for the tune name + tablature, or + pdf, or + image, or + sheet music, or + notation, or + lead sheet. Many of these sites have audio to go along with the written music. It doesn't matter if the version you find was written for another instrument than what you play or if the versions you find are in different keys. You can learn something from all of them. Also consult all the tunebooks you happen to have for additional versions of the tune.

You can usually determine which key the tune is normally played in by the versions you find. If you find 4 versions and 3 of them are in D, then it's probably a D tune. See how it feels in that key. More often than not it'll be fine in that key. Or if you're feeling adventurous and want to explore a less familiar key, such as Bb or F, then try that and see how it does in that key. A basic understanding of scales and theory is required to do this, but it's quite simple once you grasp the concept. If the chosen key has notes or sections that provide difficulty, then sometimes a switch to another key can remedy that.

Mix n' match sections from all the different arrangements until you're left with a rendition of the tune that suits you. It's perfectly OK to throw in your own variations on the melody based on how you want it to sound. It's also fine to simplify or embellish the tune where needed in order to play it cleanly and the way you want. Once you have a rendition figured out, you can pretty much play it that way every time. Variations and improvisations will come naturally as you learn more and more tunes with similar enough licks. Or write out variations based on all the different versions you found. Once you play a tune long enough it will sound and feel like it was learned by ear. Eventually it will be committed to memory and you won't need the sheet music. But you can always fall back on it if you need to. Helpful or not?

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Hot Seats - Ashland Coffee and Tea review

(photo by Ed Pennybacker)
The Hot Seats returned to central VA's premiere listening room on Saturday, January 29th for a well-attended show in front of a loose, yet seated, audience. The comfortable and attentive environs of Ashland Coffee and Tea provided an ideal setting to showcase the band's superb musicianship. The setlist was a mix of classic older material, traditional fiddle tunes, well chosen covers, and catchy new original numbers that hopefully will find their way onto a record soon.

Frontman Josh Bearman sang lead on most of the songs and moved effortlessly between mandolin, clawhammer banjo, tenor banjo and bass throughout the two-sets. It's hard to determine which of these he is most proficient at as he plays them all exceptionally. Mr. Bearman also kept us in stitches with the between song banter, which is part and parcel of The Hot Seats' stage show. The newest member of the band, fiddler Graham DeZarn, accentuated the traditional aspects of the quintet with his gritty yet elegant playing. Graham's fiddle is a much welcome addition to the lineup. Despite an injury which limited his 5-string playing for this gig, 3-finger banjo player Ben Belcher still managed to wow us, as always, by straddling the line between bluegrass and ragtime. Of special note is guitarist Ed Brogan who blew many away on this evening with his unconventional licks and dulcet crooning, most notably on the Porter Wagoner cover I'll Go Down Swinging. However the largest cheers, and I do mean cheers, were for reserved for drummer extaordinaire Jake Sellers. It's rare to find a drummer in this style of music that is as integral as Jake is, and when finally given the opportunity to applaud the crowd responded generously.

Old-time music is often cast into a mold. The Hot Seats break this mold with an innovative approach that channels the energy of the best pre-bluegrass stringbands. Fortunately, with The Hot Seats it is not on a scratchy 78 that we have to experience this music but live and in person. I hope they can return to AC&T soon, however, if you missed this show you can next catch The Hot Seats on Tuesday, February 15 as part of the Listening Room Series at the Firehouse Theater in Richmond, sure to be a great show. Or catch them on the road as they travel around the mid-Atlantic and over into Scotland this summer.

Set List (Listen to the show here!)

Set I
Trouble on My Mind
Mule Wife
Everybody's Doin It
Bully of the Town
Jack Wilson - Sugar Hill
Feel Like Growin' Old
Texas Gales
Looking for Money
Yonder Comes a Sucker
Alabama Jubilee

Set II
Killing Time
Hesitation Blues
Go Down Swinging
Betsy Likens
Sam Stone
Don't Worry About the Poor
Come on In>
Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance>
What's the Ugliest Part of Your Body?>
Beefy Cheese Boogie
Evite Gabriel
Sandy Boys

Dirty Baby
Jerry the Junker

The Shark is Black

On Friday, April 1st Hammer No More the Fingers will be holding a CD release party at Durham's MOTORCO for their new album Black Shark.
Black Shark is the band's 2nd full-length release, following 2009's impressive Looking for Bruce, and is a definite step forward. It's practically impossible to pick a favorite track out of this cohesive batch of songs. "Black Shark" and "The Agency" are probably the most popular among fans, but every track here is a winner. Other bands in the circuit might get by on lesser chops, but the musicianship within HNMTF is top notch. At times there are hints of surf rock and 90's slacker bands, as other reviewers have noted. Most noticeable though is the tight, concise, "econo" jamming. Joe Hall weaving tastefully unique guitar chords around Duncan Webster's aggressive bass lines, while drummer Jeff Stickley's confident but humble drumming displays an unexpected level of attention and experience. The music is matched with smart, particular, yet cryptic lyrics that might be hard to grasp at first. Although after a few listens, meaning and understanding start to seep through the abstract. How far you take that meaning is up to you. The parts make a surprisingly full whole in the case of Hammer No More the Fingers.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

New Tenor Banjo - Made by Tommy George of Somerville, TN

I recently got a new Irish tenor banjo from Tommy George of Somerville, TN. It features:
-refurbished rim
-Whyte Laydie style tonering
-2 piece birdseye maple neck with black centre stripe and snake shaped peghead
-Ivoroid bound Ebony fingerboard 17 fret 21" scale, dot inlay, side dot position markers
-Mini Grover tuners
-New Grooved tension hoop, flat hooks, and shoes with bolts & washers
-Nickel plated metal hardware
-Natural finish with an amber tint

I like it a lot! I've been playing it almost constantly since I got it. I love the mini Grover tuners, which are similar to guitar tuners. If you click on the post title "New Banjo!" up above it should play a one-take clip of me playing Boswell's Fancy from the Portland Collection, one of the new tunes I'm working on, recorded earlier tonight.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Aha! Moment

I think I had an aha! moment last night when I couldn't sleep. Lets use the tune Star of Munster as an example. I learned Star of Munster in A-minor. It involves playing notes on strings 1, 2 and 3 of my 4 string tenor (no notes fall on the 4th string/G-string in the key of A-minor). I've never been able to play this tune cleanly because several times during the tune you must play the notorious 7th fret B note (on the 1st string/E-string). So, what I've done is move the whole tune "down" a 5th to D-minor. This means that everything I was playing on strings 1, 2 and 3 is now played on strings 2, 3 and 4. When it comes time to hit that 7th fret note, because I have one more string to use in D-minor, I can play the open E-string and get that note. The problem is that since most folks play this tune in A-minor, I would not be able to play with them if I'm doing it in D-minor. Here's where the aha! moment came in - a capo!!! I've never played guitar, and never used a capo, so I've never really thought about them before. But, theoretically, if I used my D-minor fingerings but put a capo on the 7th fret, I should be back in the key of A-minor for Star of Munster. So I think I'm going to get a capo and try this out.

In addition, the main chord shapes of G, C, D and Em are very easy to play on the tenor banjo in Irish tuning. However, I don't always like the chord shapes of A, D, E and F#minor for example. So, another use for the capo would be for a tune that's supposed to be in the key of A. You could capo on the 2nd fret, and then play the tune and/or chords as if it were in the key of G, but it would sound like A. It seems like that would make things a lot easier.

A guitar player reading this would probably be like "no duh", but this is the first time in 4 years of playing that I ever thought about this. Now I'm going to look for a capo!