Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Mandolin Tab for 250 To Vigo - Shooglenifty, Ceili Bandits

The last tune I'll post today is 250 To Vigo by the Scottish band Shooglenifty.  It was written by their fiddler Angus R. Grant and appears on the Shooglenifty album Venus In Tweeds.  However, this recording is taken from the album Hangin' at the Crossroads by The Ceili Bandits.  I came across The Ceili Bandits (Yvonne Casey, Eoin O'Neill and Quentin Cooper) during my first visit to Ireland in 2004 where I saw them play in Doolin.  They were also my first exposure to Irish trad music.

Shooglenifty can be a bit experimental, but The Ceili Bandits' take on this tune is fairly straightforward, which is why it's a great source to learn from.  At one point Shooglenifty shared the sheet music to 250 To Vigo on their website, which is where my mandolin tab arrangement comes from, but I can no longer find that original notation.  I did find some pdf notation here:

The Ceili Bandits don't play it real fast to begin with, but I've slowed down their version of 250 To Vigo to 80% of full speed, in case that helps with learning by ear.  250 To Vigo is not really a session tune- yet - but it would be a fun one to play with others.

Irish Jig Apples in Winter - slowed down recording

One of my favorite Irish music CDs is a 2010 live recording by Kevin Griffin, Eoin O'Neill and Quentin Cooper called Live at the Burren Centre, Kilfenora.  It is available from Custy's and Ossian USA.  Kevin Griffin is one of the best Irish tenor banjo players and this recording is pretty much a clinic in that style.  Problem is, he plays VERY FAST so it's not always easy to pick up on what he's doing.

A tune that caught my ear off this CD is the jig Apples in Winter.  To help with learning, I've been playing along with this tune at 70% speed.  I uploaded that same recording at the slowed-down speed onto YouTube and am sharing here so that others can know about this cool 6/8 tune.  The above notation comes form the Dusty Banjos presents Ten Years of Tunes tunebook.  It's not exactly what Kevin Griffin is playing, by any means, but it may help get you started.

Old Aunt Jenny with Her Nightcap On - Played Slow with Sheet Music Notation Transcription

An oldtime tune that I've been liking recently is called Old Aunt Jenny with Her Nightcap On.  It's in the key of G.  The tune is attributed to fiddler Estill Bingham, from Pineville, Bell County Kentucky.  It's a bit crooked and tricky.

A transcription of Estill Bingham's playing of Old Aunt Jenny is included in the book Old-Time Kentucky Fiddle Tunes by Jeff Todd Titon.  The band Notorious also recorded an uptempo version of this tune on their CD Elkins.  The transcription in the book is lacking suggested chords, but I found additional notation online that is based on Notorious' interpretation (essentially the same tune) with chords, which I have included here.
Using the Amazing Slow Downer app I slowed down the Notorious recording to 70% of full speed.  See below for audio.  Hopefully the combination of sheet music and a "play along" recording will help more people learn this great tune.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Musical Goal for 2014: Make My Influences My Influences

My musical goal for 2014 is to put in the work necessary so that my influences can become my influences.  What this really means is to focus on becoming an ear player so that things I hear my favorite musicians doing can be replicated and absorbed.
The traditional tunes I've been playing are not really an influence because I didn't listen to that kind of music before playing it, I just kinda started into it because the tunes were readily available in mandolin tab and fiddler's fake books, they fit well under the (GDAE tuned tenor banjo) fingers, and at the beginning didn't require anything more than a straight run through the melody at the proper rhythm.
No real analysis, sense of harmony or special arrangements were required to read the notation and bring these tunes "to life".  The benefit of playing all these tunes is that my fingers have gotten used to making the movements, but I haven't made the connection between finger placements and the sound that results.
Jerry Garcia
The music I listened to prior to getting a tenor banjo hasn't really found a way to merge with the way I've been learning music.  I'd like to change that.  The two bands I've listened to the most in my life are Phish and The Grateful Dead.  I feel like if I develop the ability where I can analyze the music these groups have made, especially the the theory of their melodic improvisations, then I'll be able to apply that in lots of areas.  In Phish it's more of a group effort with special attention paid to guitarist Trey Anastasio, but with The Grateful Dead it's Jerry Garcia's guitar leads that are of primary concern.
Trey Anastasio
I'm drawn to melodies which is part of the reason I'm playing tenor banjo, I think.  Another musician whose playing I would like to find a way to make into an influence is jazz guitarist Grant Green.  I'm not really a fan of jazz in the classic sense, but I've always been fond of Grant Green, who plays very clean melodic lines.  It's funny that a lot of these guys are guitar players but I don't play guitar.  I think they could just as easily be horn players, if I had been exposed to that music or if it were more prevalent.  
Grant Green
Tortoise and Medeski Martin and Wood are two other groups from whom I'd like to extract some musical knowledge.  But it could be something as simple as transcribing little bits from, say a Culture reggae song or a pop song by Arcade Fire or MGMT.  I'd like to get to the point where I can hear a chunk of melody and then instantly play it on my tenor banjo or ukulele while understanding the nature of the notes in terms of music theory.
Medeski, Martin and Wood
I don't believe in the phrases "I'm tone deaf" or "I can't play by ear".  Music is a skill which can be learned and constantly improved upon.  I'm also going to be taking lessons throughout 2014 (and beyond?), letting the instructors teach me what they think is best, understanding my musical goals, and diligently following the advice and teachings.

A New Kind of Practicing

Thus far the type of music that my playing has centered on - Irish and oldtime fiddle tunes - has caused me to think in terms of static melodic lines devoid of chords.  I'd like to continue to use traditional melodies as fodder for learning, but analyze them from the ground up in terms of structure, chord changes and improvisation.  You can essentially take any tune or song and use it as a form of study.
Listening to identify the chord changes - by number - before determining the key and before playing the melody, would be the opposite of what I've been doing.  Once you figure out a song's structure, chord pattern and key, you can then try making the chords in as many different shapes and positions on the neck as you can come up with.  Play them all open, play them all closed and in different inversions/combinations of this.  Play that same chord pattern in a bunch of different keys as well.

Then you can try and transcribe the melody of the tune while also analyzing it.  For example, does the melody start on the 5th note of the scale?  Did the chorus seem to start on the four chord?  If so, which melody note is that? Analyze the movement of the melody and chords in such a way that you can provide an explanation for everything that's happening in the song.  Understand where every note falls in relation to the scale.

Once you have the melody transcribed, try playing it using as many open strings as possible, and then play it closed.  Then try playing it in as many different places/fingerings on the neck as possible, keeping it in the same key. You can continue this exercise by playing the melody in other keys.  For example, was the melody in G-major?  Then try playing it in F or A - both in closed positions and using open strings - to see how it feels and sounds.

Once you have the basic melody worked out, apply variations to it by adding triplets, double stops, fills and other ornamentation, or just improvise over it from a jazz perspective.  You can also isolate certain phrases and transpose them to other modes.  Take that G-major lick and change it to D-dorian.  Did that change any of the intervals?
Do enough of these kinds of exercises,  while also regularly working with a teacher or mentor to keep you on track, and you're bound to see some improvement.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

2013 – A Year in Music: A Look Back and A Look Ahead

My goal at the beginning of the 2013 was simply to be able to fake my way through Irish sessions, old-time jams, and other informal gatherings where music is played.  I feel like I met that goal on a short-term level, but the use of the phrase “fake my way through” implies that there may have been something disingenuous about this approach. 

During the 1st three-quarters of 2013 I focused on increasing my repertoire of Appalachian and Celtic tunes through rote memorization.  I was primarily motivated to do this so I could build up a list of bare bones tunes that – if necessary – I could lead at the Ashland jam.  I continued to attend other jams and sessions and took part in a few intimate house sessions and special occasion jams like the ones I organized at Midnight Brewery. 

These ongoing experiences, along with the saturated exposure to traditional music at Clifftop and Rockbridge, contributed to a greater familiarity with the tunes and an increased comfort with attempting to play them on the fly.  When at home, I strived to find new ways to make my practice as productive as possible; attempting to get something tangible out of it on a daily basis.

In late summer I made a new musical discovery:  the Bonne Humeur album by The Etcetera Stringband.  This instrumental album of early Caribbean and Creole dance music – tunes from Haiti, the Virgin Islands, Venezuela, et cetera – revealed a whole new genre of music worth exploring.  With the help of a transcriber, I now have the notation for all 18 tracks on this album plus a few more in this style.
2013 was also the year where I gained more familiarity with ragtime.  I am in the process of learning over a dozen raggy tunes, including Plowboy Hop, Maybelle Rag and Doc Brown’s Cakewalk.  In addition, I’m starting to go back and learn some of the Minnesota/Wisconsin style waltzes in the Mandolin Uff Da! tunebook, which could inspire the learning of additional tunes in three-quarter time…a rhythm I had been avoiding until now.

As the year went on I diverted my attention from an ever increasing list of “tunes to learn” to try singing and playing some songs for fun, such as Wading in the Velvet Sea (Phish), She Wanted To Leave (Ween), Like a Dime (Eamon O’Leary), Ship of Fools (Grateful Dead), Lowlands (Gillian Welch), and Good Guys and Bad Guys (Camper Van Beethoven).  I hope to continue to allot some time each day for playing and singing songs.

Most recently, I’ve started to target specific areas of weakness, such as my nascent ear training.  This is being partly addressed in the form of lessons from Dennis Elliott by applying his mandolin study to tenor banjo.  I’m also starting to play baritone ukulele and have learned two tunes so far on uke:  the basic melody to Sonny Rollin’s St. Thomas and the carol In the Bleak Midwinter.  I may supplement my lessons from Dennis Elliott with occasional lessons from John Gonzalez at Fan Guitar and Ukulele.

Things may be starting to “click” in ways that I never before anticipated.  I’m hoping that this is the impetus for an upcoming domino effect of learning.  However, at every musical plateau one is reminded that there is so much more to learn.  As Curt Kirkwood says, there’s "nothing on the top but a bucket and a mop and an illustrated book about birds".

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Fun with Ukulele - St. Thomas basic melody (Sonny Rollins)

My no name baritone uke
Thanks to John Gonzales del Solar at Fan Guitar and Ukulele I've had a baritone ukulele strung up for about a week and a half now.  It's just a cheap, thrift store, no name baritone uke but it's got a good sound to it.  I've been messing around on it and the first tune I picked out by ear was Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.

Playing ukulele is good complement to my study of tenor banjo because it use a different tuning.  The 4-string banjo is tuned in 5ths like a mandolin or cello - GDAE from the lowest to highest strings.  The 4-strings of the baritone uke are tuned DGBE from lowest to highest, like the 4 highest strings on a guitar.  The different tuning of the uke helps reinforce ear training interval recognition.

I'm finding that the ukulele also has its own benefits.  The uke tuning offers a better "chord" sound than a 5ths tuning of a mandolin or tenor banjo, potentially making it easier to hear chord changes and making the uke more suited to strumming and singing songs.  In addition, classic melodies that don't have a wide interval between the lowest and highest notes are very conducive to playing on the ukulele.
Due to the way the uke is tuned, you can easily play these melodies in a closed position, never having to utilize open strings like I have to do on tenor banjo due to the longer stretches.  Because you don't need to use any open strings when playing a melody on the baritone ukulele, it means that it's a no-brainer to transpose that melody to almost any other key.

Today I learned the basic melody to the tune St. Thomas by Sonny Rollins.  The recording below is in the key of C, but on ukulele I could instantly change it to another key by simply retaining the same pattern up the neck.  It would take me a lot longer to transpose it on tenor banjo.

St. Thomas is a jazz tune, so you're supposed to improvise after introducing the main theme.  I haven't gotten to the improvisation part yet, but one thing at a time, right?

Six Water Grog's Favorite Albums of 2013 - A Baker's Dozen

We all have our own reasons for why we listen to music, how we listen to music, and what we're hoping to get from it.  These are the albums that met those needs for me in various ways during the year 2013.  (This article originally appeared on the Community Idea Stations' website).     
The Sadies – Internal Sounds (psychedelic country, spaghetti-western)
With 15+ albums over a 15+ year career, The Sadies have put out a lot of music. However, Internal Sounds is quite possibly the best album of their career. From the Bad Religion style punk of opener “The First Five Minutes,”, to the campfire friendly “So Much Blood”, to the classic rock guitar riffs of “The Very Beginning”, to the tribal sounding album closer “We Are Circling”, Internal Sounds bites harder than anything The Sadies have done so far.
The Wynntown Marshals – The Long Haul (Americana, alt. country)
If you’re a fan of Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt, Whiskeytown or early Wilco, you’re going to love The Wynntown Marshals. It’s as if The Wynntown Marshals are paying tribute to the great “No Depression” bands that came before them, while still writing and playing all original songs. When you take into account that this is a band from Edinburgh, Scotland, it’s even more impressive that The Wynntown Marshals have so convincingly absorbed a genre and sound that is distinctly American.
The Ragtime Skedaddlers – Mandolins at the Cakewalk(classic ragtime)
The banjo-mandolin can be unforgiving and shrill, but in the hands of Dennis Pash, the mastermind behind The Ragtime Skedaddlers, the instrument becomes a tool for expressing the music of the gaslight era. The Ragtime Skedaddlers (Dennis Pash - banjo-mandolin, Nick Robinson – mandolin and Dave Krinkel – guitar) take pieces by the great ragtime composers such as Scott Joplin and Charles L. Johnson and arrange them for twin mandolins and guitar. Mandolins at the Cakewalk is a very devoted, yet fresh, take on this happy sounding music.
Eamon O’Leary – Old Clump (Celtic singer-songrwriter)
The Murphy Beds – Eamon O’Leary’s duo with Jefferson Hamer – produced my favorite album of 2012. This year Eamon O’Leary is back with a “solo” effort titled Old Clump, which has been streaming, with very little fanfare, on Eamon’s Bandcamp page. I love the laid-back pace, minimal instrumentation, and how the lyrics fall into place in unexpected ways. Even when you know what is coming next, you still hang on every word. 
Shane McAleer – Long Time No See (traditional Irish)
This straight-trad, all instrumental fiddle album is about as real as it gets. Shane McAleer was a standout fiddler for the Irish super-group Dervish before a drinking problem caused him to leave the band. That was over a decade ago, but the now-sober McAleer is finally back with his first solo album, the appropriately titled Long Time No See. With tasteful guitar and bodhran backing, McAleer weaves his fiddle through the tunes with a calmness and patience that can only come through years of practice and exposure.
Fiddlin’ Banjo Billy and the Old Time Players – Rags, Relics and Rarities (Midwestern old-time, country rags)
The old-time music of the Ozarks and the Midwest is like the old-time hoedown music of the Appalachians, but with a little bit more of the Scandinavan (Nordic waltzes and schottisches), European (polkas), Irish (reels and hornpipes) and ragtime (cakewalks and marches) thrown in. One of the living legends of the Ozarks is Fiddlin’ Banjo Billy Mathews, whose repertoire numbers in the hundreds, if not thousands, of tunes. On Rags, Relics and Rarities Banjo Billy takes this musical smorgasbord and narrows it down to 11 old-timey numbers and 3 original compositions.  He’s helped out by Christine Breen on mountain style clawhammer banjo and Paul Breen on traditional six-string guitar.
Dawes – Stories Don’t End (contemporary / indie rock)
Dawes’ third album continues where the other two left-off, delivering that slightly retro, slightly easy listening, multi-layered deep-cut groove we’ve come to expect from the California quartet. Taylor Goldsmith remains a master of the rock n’ roll ballad, and his well thought out lyrics both engage and perplex, like “January Christmas lights under billion year old stars”. His guitar chops aren’t too shabby either. The basic rock n' roll instrumentation in Dawes – guitar, drums, keyboards and bass – means that each player has a well-defined role, coming together to form one of the best bands of the last decade.
Scattered, Smothered and Covered – Something In the Water (acoustic roots music)
A true local band, Richmond, VA’s Scattered, Smothered and Covered are four friends who get out to play on occasion at local breweries, wineries and restaurants, mixing original material with covers of Grateful Dead, Bob Marley, Townes Van Zandt, and more. You get the idea that if they weren’t playing in front of people that they would be just as content, if not more so, jamming on someone’s front porch or in someone’s basement. Yet something compels them to write and record new material. Of all the albums on this list, Something in the Water has the best chance of appealing to those between the ages of ages 8 to 80.
Rattletrap Ruckus – Redlight Rag (Eastern European influenced accordion music)
If I were to dream up combinations of instruments that would make for my ideal instrumental band, chances are I would say tenor banjo, accordion, cello and clarinet. Well, 3 of those 4 are featured in Rattletrap Ruckus along with one-string bass and washboard (no clarinet!). Their Bandcamp description says it best: “Rattletrap Ruckus is a rollicking four-piece instrumental band from Bellingham, WA. We play fiddle tunes, ragtime, tango, paso dobles, various breeds of waltz, klezmer, polkas, and oh so much more.”
The Green Boys – Oh Delia (country, Americana)
The wake left by folk success stories Mumford and Sons, Old Crow Medicine Show, Yonder Mountain String Band and The Avett Brothers has given rise to many lookalike bands across the US, the UK and beyond. It would be easy to lump The Green Boys into this classification, but to me it seems more like a zeitgeist fueled coincidence than purposed staging. With Oh Delia, The Green Boys have done a fine job documenting their musical progess, at least as it sounded in as of early 2013. If you were to see them live now you might find that they’ve already moved it up a notch beyond where they were a year ago, but like a cherished photo album Oh Delia will always be worth returning to.
Bryan Ferry Orchestra – The Jazz Age ("hot" jazz)
I pilfered this one from NPR’s best of 2013 list.  If it were just a recording of 1920’s sounding music, The Jazz Age would still stand on those merits alone. In other words, you don’t need to know that these are Bryan Ferry songs reimagined as instrumental trad jazz numbers, in order to love this album. This isn’t a “swinging on Roxy Music” type of project, but an inspired collaboration with top notch musicians that could be the soundtrack to Downton Abbey Season 4.
The Rhythmia – The Rhythmia is Fine and Dandy (ragtime, world)
The Rhythmia have many similarities to the above mentioned Ragtime Skedaddlers (both bands feature Etcetera Stringband alumni) and even cover some of the same material. What makes The Rhythmia different, besides the violin lead, is an inclination toward early Caribbean and Creole dance music. Where the Ragtime Skedaddlers do an amazing job playing the “head” of a tune, the Rhythmia utilize a bit more improvisation and – you guessed it – exotic rhythms.
Pharis and Jason Romero – Long Gone Out West Blues(folk, blues)
Jason Romero is regarded as one of the best instrument makers of the present day. His banjos are masterpieces of artistic construction, with his wife Pharis adding intricate custom inlays. All hand made in Horsefly, British Columbia. Jason and Pharis are also starting to garner accolades for their music making, having been featured earlier this year on A Prairie Home Companion and with Pharis winning Traditional Singer of the Year at the Canadian Folk Music Awards. Comparisons to Gillian Welch and David Rawlings are easy to make, but Pharis and Jason have a folkier, bluesier sound, harmonizing male/female duo vocals as well as any folk act, while harnessing the guitar and banjo picking abilities needed to add compelling solos and instrumental breaks to their songs.

Using Common Songs to Hear Intervals

There's a lot of information online regarding the use of song associations for interval training.  So, I set out to find ascending and descending examples for all the intervals from a minor 2nd through an octave.  Here's what I came up with:

Minor 2nd (one half step)
Ascending:  Jaws Theme
Descending:  Joy to the World

Major 2nd (2 half steps or semitones)
Ascending:  Happy Birthday or Frere Jacques/Fray Felipe
Descending:  Mary Had a Little Lamb

Minor 3rd (3 half steps or semitones)
Ascending:  So Long, Farewell (Sound of Music)
Descending:  Frosty the Snowman

Major 3rd (4 half steps or semitones)
Ascending:  Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
Descending:  Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

Perfect 4th (5 half steps or semitones)
Ascending:  Here Comes the Bride or Oh Christmas Tree
Descending:  Old MacDonald Had a Farm

Augmented 4th/Tritone (6 half steps or semitones)
Ascending:  The Simpsons theme
Descending:  Black Sabbath Black Sabbath

Perfect 5th (7 half steps or semitones)
Ascending:  Twinkle Twinkle Little Star
Descending:  Flintstones

Minor 6th (8 half steps or semitones)
Ascending:  The Entertainer (3rd and 4th notes)
Descending:  no example found ("doh-mee" descending solfege)

Major 6th (9 half steps or semitones)
Ascending:  old NBC theme or Hush Little Baby
Descending:  Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen

Minor 7th (10 half steps or semitones)
Ascending:  Star Trek theme
Descending:  no example found - please help

Major 7th (11 half steps or semitones)
Ascending:  Take On Me
Descending:  no example found - please help

Octave/Perfect 8th (12 half steps or semitones)
Ascending:  Somewhere Over the Rainbow
Descending:  There's No Business Like Show Business (2nd and 3rd notes)

Some of these song associations are so ingrained that they are super easy to hear.  In other cases I struggled to find familiar examples; as in I can't really imagine the Star Trek theme for an ascending minor 7th.  Some of the wider descending intervals must not be very common at all, because I found no usable examples for a descending minor 6th, descending minor 7th or descending major 7th.  

If you know of other intervals examples, especially any that might be found in Grateful Dead or Phish songs, please share them.  

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Banjo Is Best T-shirt - For the Tenor Banjo Player on Your Christmas Gift List

This holiday season give a gift that banjo players will love – the Banjo Is Best T-Shirt designed by jazz banjoist Cynthia Sayer!

Banjoists are the butt of a lot of jokes, so the Banjo Is Best shirt is a way for the musician or music fan on your Christmas list to poke some of that fun back in the other direction whilst showing off his or her banjo pride.  Plus, please note that the banjo in the design only has four strings – a small detail that tenor banjo players will appreciate.  Order here.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Christmas Songs Are Great for Developing Your Ear

The ear training study continues.  I've only been at it a few days, but I'm already seeing results.  Last night before going to bed I decided I would try to pluck out Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas on tenor banjo. It actually came to me quite easily and I went to sleep feeling like I had it under the fingers.

This morning when I woke up I got out my recently strung up baritone ukulele, which I don't yet know how to play and which is tuned differently than the tenor banjo, and worked on picking the same melody in the same key (A) on the baritone uke.  As I was figuring it out on my lefty baritone uke, Laura got out her baritone uke and started to add chords behind the melody I was playing.  Just as we were starting to get it (or maybe a tad bit before) I clicked Record on an iPad app to capture it while it was still fresh.  Below is the recording.

As soon as I get done typing this I'm going to practice singing the solfege syllables along with the melody as I play it.  I started with the note "A" when playing Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas on tenor banjo, so I continued with playing it in A when switching to baritone uke.  Here are those solfege syllables as I hear them:

Have (doh) your (mee) self (soh) a (doh)
Mer (soh) ry (fah) lit (mee) tle (ray) Christ (doh) mas (ray)
Let (doh) your (mee) heart (soh) be (doh) gay (soh)
From (doh) now (mee) on (soh) our (doh)
Troub (mee) les (ray) will (doh) be (tee)
Miles (lah) a (tee) way (doh).

I could have that wrong since I played it by  ear and haven't looked up the notation.  In case you're wondering, the "doh-ray-mee-fah-soh-lah-tee-doh" for the key of A-major is A-B-C#-D-E-F#-G#-A.  Singing these syllables as you're playing the melody is great practice.  You can do it with any melody you hear or play.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Is there a “Do-Re-Mi” for other Modes besides the Major Scale?

That’s a question I asked myself last night.  Most of us know that "do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do" is the major (Ionian) scale.  But I was wondering if there were similar syllables you could sing or hum to represent other modes such as dorian, mixolydian and aeolian?  I think I’ve found the answer.
Before I get any further, I’m going to change the spelling of these notes to be more phonetic.  It’s easier for me to visualize/internalize it as "doh, ray, mee, fah, soh, lah, tee, doh".

In "doh, ray, mee, fah, soh, lah, tee, doh" the root note is “doh”.  So you can call this "Doh Ionian”, for the Ionian scale with the root note "doh".  Anytime you use the Ionian intervals of Whole, Whole ,Half, Whole, Whole, Whole, Half you have "doh, ray, mee, fah, soh, lah, tee, doh", regardless of what key you are in.

To make a “Do-Re-Mi” for another mode, all you have to do is start with “ray” instead of “doh”.  For example…

"ray, mee, fah, soh, lah, tee, doh, ray" would be Ray Dorian.

“mee, fah, soh, lah, tee, doh, ray, mee" would be Mee Phrygian.

"fah, soh, lah, tee, doh, ray, mee, fah" would be Fah Lydian.

"soh, lah, tee, doh, ray, mee, fah, soh" would be Soh Mixolydian.

"lah, tee, doh, ray, mee, fah, soh, lah" would be Lah Aeolian.

"tee, doh, ray, mee, fah, soh, lah, tee" would be Tee Locrian.

"doh, ray, mee, fah, soh, lah, tee, doh" comes back around to Doh Ionian.

By starting on a different note than “Doh” you change the key of the scale and the intervals between the notes are different.  When the intervals are different it no longer sounds like the major (Ionian) scale, so you end up with “Do-Re-Mi’s” for each of the 7 modes.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Ready For More Music Lessons

I'm ready to resume private music lessons with a new teacher or teacher(s) to address some critical weaknesses in my playing.  My first lesson is tonight and I have another one scheduled with a different instructor next week!  

The area most in need of work (in my perception) is ear training.  For example, I struggle with hearing the chord changes in a simple fiddle tune like Soldier's Joy (it's complete guesswork), and playing a common melody such as For He's A Jolly Good Fellow by ear is a challenge.  I flounder all over the place not knowing if I've found the right notes or not.

Technique I'm already fairly decent at because I have memorized basic versions of over 100 tunes that I got from tune books and other written sources.  Theory is also something I'm relatively comfortable with and fascinated by.  For someone who primarily plays traditional music - historically passed down by untrained musicians - the words "dorian" and "mixolydian" don't give me brain freeze.  But, trying to pick out Happy Birthday or Twinkle Twinkle Little Star by ear can cause me immense frustration.

Music Teacher Jan DeWeese
Back in March when I took a couple one-on-one lessons at an Irish music workshop, the instructor was under the impression that he was providing instruction on "Irish tenor banjo".  That was, I suppose, correct, but what I'm really trying gain in any situation like that is musicianship skills that will apply across the board.  Even though I mostly play Irish and Appalachian tunes on tenor banjo, the musicians who really inspire me are guys like Jerry Garcia, Trey Anastasio, Bela Fleck, John Medeski and Bill Frisell -- artists who transcend genres and have an open-minded and original outlook toward music and complete command of their chosen instruments.  

There’s a music teacher in Portland, OR named Jan DeWeese who places music theory at the center of his teaching method, emphasizing the cultural roots of the harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic elements of music.  DeWeese states that “European traditions leading to classical music gave us our chordal foundations, Irish tunes delivered the melodic invention of bluegrass, and through the Malian blues and the African diasporas in Cuba and Haiti came the polyrhythmics of ragtime and New Orleans jazz.  It's here that much of my music theory teaching now focuses.”

Through learning by ear, DeWeese helps his students break free from rote dependence on notated collections.  He emphasizes that understanding the harmonic (European), melodic (Celtic), and rhythmic (African) features of each is central to this learning process.  Jan DeWeese isn’t local to me, so he’s not the instructor that I’ll be using, but I’m hoping that the teachers I work have a similar approach!

Friday, November 29, 2013

Building a Ragtime Repertoire

If you get Steve Parker’s book Ragtime for Fiddle and Mandolin and Mel Bay's Favorite American Rags and Blues for Fiddle by Stacy Phillips, then you'll have your bases covered when it comes to sheet music for many of the common stringband rags such as Pig Ankle's Rag, Stone's Rag, Mineola Rag, Plowboy Hop, Whistling Rufus, Stone Mountain Wobble and many more.  However, I've also found some great raggy tunes from other books and sources.  For example...

April Verch’s book/CD The American Fiddle Method - Canadian Fiddle Styles contains the ragtime foxtrot Walking Up Town in the key of C.  I really started to love this tune after transcribing it to the key of G, which is the way it is played by Tom Cussen’s Irish traditional band Shaskeen on their album titled Walking Up Town.  It's a little easier to play in G so you can start with April Verch's sheet music and tweak it based on Shaskeen's version.

The Dix Bruce and Bruce Bollerud tune collection called Mandolin Uff Da! Let's Dance:: Scandinavian Fiddle Tunes and House Party Music is one of my favorite tunebooks, containing many great waltzes, schottiches and polkas.  It also contains two very fun rags – Mabel Rag Two-Step (which I prefer to play in D than the arrangement in F in the book) and Red Rooster Two Step (which is noteworthy because it’s a 3-part tune that changes keys…the first part sounds like a march, the second part sounds ethnic, and the third part is very raggy).  In addition Mandolin Uff Da! also has some tunes called Almondo's Polka and Sally's Hoppwaltz which also have ragtime elements.  You won't find these tunes anywhere else, and they really deserve to be played by more people.

Celestial Mountain Music’s All-In-One Jambook contains a country rag I like a lot called Saturday Night Breakdown.  Click here to listen to me playing this tune.  Janet Davis’ The Ultimate Mandolin Songbook has a transcription of Scott Joplin’s classic rag The Entertainer that almost makes this tune doable!

Paul Rosen of the Charlottesville, VA area contra dance band Floorplay has written many tunes that I’ve started to play, including Clouds Thicken, Critter’s Gone to Texas and Locust Tree.  Just last week I started to learn one he wrote called Elgin’s Rag, which has become my favorite rag.  Paul has posted the sheet music for all of the tunes on Floorplay’s Block Party album, including Elgin's Rag, here.

On a site called Old Time Mandolin there's the mandolin tab for B-flat Rag by the Madisonville String Band.  Paul Tyler transcribed Les Raber's version of Dill Pickle Rag for Oldtown School of Folk Music's Tune of the Week series.

There’s also a site called Dr. Fiddle with many transcriptions of rags, including Cumberland Blues by Doc Roberts and Duck Shoes Rag and Ruth’s Rag by the Grinnell Giggers.  Rags may be somewhat scarce, but with a little poking around you'll have more tunes in that syncopated style at your disposal.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Cabin A - new fireside field recordings by Cardinal Puffin

My wife Laura and I spent last weekend in a cabin in Spotsylvania County.  The idea was just to get away for a couple days and relax, read books and drink beer by the fire.  In addition, I thought it would be a good opportunity to play some of our current favorite songs and tunes without the distractions of everyday life getting in the way.  I like to periodically document our musical “progress”, so I kept the Olympus LS-14 on record whenever we were playing. 

Looking back, there were some definite flubs and missed notes, but we were able to work our way through over 15 tunes and songs, giving them all at least two takes each, and had a lot of fun doing it.  It we didn’t quite get it after three attempts, we moved on to something else.  The idea, as always, was to capture the sound we currently make, warts and all.  I played tenor banjo on all tracks.  Laura played baritone ukulele on the majority of them, but can be heard on bodhran on two tunes.

We are calling it Cabin A by Cardinal Puffin…Cardinal Puffin being the made up band name for the music we make together.  These are like field recordings.  I basically just split up the wav files as soon as I got back home and saved them as individual tracks.  No editing or sound engineering was done (quite obviously).  You can listen to it by clicking on the player below.  Below that is a track by track rundown.

Cardinal Puffin – Cabin A
Recorded November 23 and 24, 2013

Saturday Night Breakdown is a raggy little number in the key of C from the Leake County Revelers, although we got it from Celestial Mountain Music’s All-In-One Oldtime Jam Book/CD.

Good Guys and Bad Guys is a Camper Van Beethoven song.  I learned the little melodic bit in a lesson a few years ago, but only recently started playing it.

Johnny Mickey’s is an Irish polka, presumably written by a guy named Johnny Mickey.  I learned it from Steve Kaufman’s Four-Hour Celtic Workout, so my version is a bit watered down I’m sure.

Chinquapin Hunting is an oldtime fiddle tune.  This is Art Stamper’s version, but I memorized it second-hand from Celestial Mountain Music’s Celestial Slow Jam book/CD.  I love how this tune is in D but doesn’t require a D-chord in the B-part.

Brosna Slide is an Irish slide (slides like faster jigs in 12/8 time).  I actually just picked this one up by ear through going to sessions – for once the way you’re supposed to learn this music!  Laura plays bodhran here.

What Deaner Was Talking About is a song by Ween, one of my all-time favorite bands.  We also like to play the Ween song She Wanted To Leave, which I hope to share at a later date.

Coleman’s March is – I assume – an Appalachian tune but I’m not sure.  Marches also often have Celtic roots.  I kinda learned this one by ear as well.  When I look at the music I see notes that I’m not playing, so I prefer to just keep it simple and play it the way I play it.

Caroline is a Caribbean tune from the Etcetera Stringband’s Bonne Humeur CD.  A couple months ago I sent all 18 tracks from that album to a music transcriber named Nick Disebastian who put them all in mandolin tab.  I’m saving 3 or 4 of my favorite Caribbean/Creole numbers that album for a future project, but thought that Caroline would be a good one to include here.

Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots is a Flaming Lips song.  We were pretty heavy into a growler of red ale when we tried recording this, so all 3 takes were botched in some way.  Perhaps we should have rehearsed this song instead of trying it on the fly.  What you’re hearing is the first take, which ended up being the least butchered of the three.

Cha Bai comes from the Cape Verde islands and is included in John Philip Sousa’s 1890 book National Patriotic and Typical Airs of All Lands. However, we got it from The Rhythmia.  Nick Disebastian transcribed this for me, but we had never tried playing Cha Bai together until the day we recorded it!  For only having a quick practice, I think it came out pretty good.

My Darling Asleep was one of the first Irish tunes I ever tried to play, but it's taken me years to memorize it and I'll likely forget it again soon.  Even though it’s a very simple, repetitive melody, I always forget how it goes.  There were other jigs I could have chosen, but this one popped into my head and we actually played it halfway decent on this day.

The Banshee is an Irish reel.  I don’t necessarily play reels like “reels”; I just play them however I play them.  On the 2nd day in the cabin it was very cold and the wind was howling outside, so it made sense to play The Banshee.

Devil Town is a song by Daniel Johnston.  It’s an easy three chorder with just two verses, which makes it the perfect, drunken campfire song.  I added some impromptu lyrics from the Phish song Cavern to give it a third verse.

LandN Rag comes from Alex Hood and His Railroad Boys.  However, I got interested in trying it after hearing someone playing it on tenor banjo.  I’ve been learning quite a few rags lately, and I’m probably not as polished on LandN Rag as I am on some of the others, but LandN Rag it is!  In hindsight it might have been better to try Hawkins Rag instead.

Belle Layotte is a short little Caribbean tune in the key of F.  It’s another one from that Bonne Humeur album by the Etcetera Stringband.  It’s deceptively complex but also very hypnotic if you can get into the groove of it.  I’m not sure if we got there but we sure tried.  Laura played bodhran here partly because ukulele doesn't really work on this unusual melody.

Let me know what you think of the music!