Saturday, January 25, 2014

Jerry Garcia Was Always At The Root Of It All

I'll be turning 40 next month.  I don't know if that has anything to do with it, but over the last few weeks I've been reflecting on the significant role music has played in my life for the last 20+ years.  Although I didn't start playing an instrument until I was in my early 30's, I've been a music obsessed listener going all the way back to my freshman year of college when I first heard the Grateful Dead's Reckoning.  That live acoustic album was soon to be followed by the discovery of Jerry's bluegrass side project Old and In the Way, and then the Jerry Garcia Band and other partnerships such as Garcia/Grisman, Garcia/Wales, and more.
Jerry Garcia
The Grateful Dead - or maybe just Jerry Garcia himself - was the "Big Bang" from which all my other musical interests spiraled out of control.  As I look back on my timeline I've once again come to realize that this remains the overarching nucleus to my musical tastes.  The early 90's were a time of MTV unplugged and although I hadn't been "turned on" yet, I remember liking Eric Clapton's Unplugged, which caused me to look for something similar.  Hence, the purchasing of Reckoning which was The Grateful Dead's 1980 "unplugged" album which predated the MTV brand by a decade.  From the acoustic sounds of Reckoning and the bluegrass twang of Old and In the Way, the path quickly led to the string-based Americana of Norman Blake, Tony Rice, Hot Rize, and John Hartford years before O' Brother would make this music cool.

Simultaneously, the out there groove of the Garcia/Wales jamming - as captured on the Side Trips Vol. I CD - plus the open-ended Dark Stars and other like-minded explorations, primed me with open ears to absorb the late 60's/early 70's electric Bitches Brew style jazz of Miles Davis.  As you probably know, a discovery of Miles Davis can be a home base of its own leading in all kinds of interesting directions, the most rewarding of which may be a step back in time to explore the history and roots of jazz, or a leap forward to check out more modern practitioners such as Medeski Martin and Wood or Bill Frisell.
The song-writing of Garcia's lyricist Robert Hunter combined with Jerry's arrangements puts you at a tuneful peak where peers are few.  As you look out from there you may see the likes of Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Bob Marley, John Prine, Townes Van Zandt and Gillian Welch.  Perhaps also Neil Young, Ween and Jeff Tweedy.  Certainly Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes.  There really aren't that many in that category in my opinion.  It's kind of hard to come down from there.

It was the Jerry Garcia Band that I would see first, at the Richmond Coliseum in 1993, completely naive to the scene.  Then, in the summers of 1994 and 1995, I got to see the Grateful Dead a handful of times before Garcia's passing. From that fleeting glimpse, I was made hip to the power of live music, which segwayed symbiotically into the peak of the jamband movement, coinciding with many crazy nights enjoying the likes of Phish, moe., Leftover Salmon, Yonder Mountain Stringband, and - dare I say - String Cheese Incident.
For me, the late 90's were like the roaring 20's and the trippy 60's all jelly rolled into one.  I continue to love Phish and appreciate how they have taken this compositional and improvisational model and expanded upon it in astounding ways, but when it comes down to it, a deceptively simple and pure Garcia solo on a song like Catfish John wins every time.  As I continue to think of bands that are or have been favorites over the years - My Morning Jacket, the Meat Puppets, Gillian Welch, Dawes, The Stray Birds - there's a very Jerry-like quality or strain running through it all.

When I finally started to play music with a focus on the melodic instrumental tunes of Ireland and Appalachia, it wasn't clear to me if this interest stemmed from something I had listened to previously or from some other motivating factor.  This music was just far enough removed to lessen the intimidation factor and allowed me to learn to "pick" without having to be in the direct shadow of any known musical heroes.  A song of my own, in other words.  But what at first seemed unrelated may have a connection after all.  There's a melodic continuity in Jerry's improvisations and a link to old-timey music that you can really hang your hat on.
As a subscriber to music magazines such as Relix, No Depression and Dirty Linen, my twenties were spent listening to a wide variety of what I'll call "good" music.  A couple years into my thirties I began nurturing a newfound and unexpected devotion to trying to play tunes on tenor banjo.  As I get ready to enter my 40's I'm prepared to put in the work to do what it takes to see music in a more advanced way.  I hope to use the underlying spirit of Jerry Garcia to really motivate and propel this next stage of music learning. The enjoyment will only increase as the mysterious language of notes opens up in strange, new ways.

The Jerry Garcia songbook is basically the American songbook, and it's definitely worth looking into from the perspective of a player as well as a listener.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

DVD Review - The Guitar Player's Guide to Improvisation by Tim May and Dan Miller

I like checking out instruction books designed for instruments other than the instrument(s) I play to see things from a different perspective and to better grasp the universal nature of music.  It was for those reasons that I ordered some Flatpicking Essentials books from Flatpicking Guitar Magazine.  With those books came a DVD called “TheGuitar Player's Guide to Improvisation – An Approach to Improvisation” which – until a few days ago – had remained unopened.
Recently I’ve been getting a hankering to jam out on Jerry Garcia and Gillian Welch songs, so a tutorial addressing the concept of plucking something other than the straight “vocal-line” melody is something I could use.  Prior to watching this DVD my attempts at improvisation felt like flailing in water over my head, never sure where to land.  After watching this DVD just one time through I suddenly had a firmer understanding of how one might approach improvisation.

On the DVD, the talented flat-picker Tim May and Flatpicking Guitar magazine editor Dan Miller teach what they call “fake it until you make it”.  Tim and Dan's belief is that even beginners should be working on improvisation skills and that anyone can improvise a solo, even with no previous experience with improvisation.  As a mandolin/tenor banjo player, I kept waiting for things to come along that were too guitar-oriented, but for the most part the concepts they covered apply to any melody instrument.

Tim and Dan are noticeably cautious when discussing things that could be construed as music theory, out of deference to folks who may be hostile to that philosophy.  They do use some terms such as “targeting the third” so a little theory understanding is needed and expected, but if you pay attention and follow along you shouldn’t have any trouble comprehending everything they are going over.
Tim May
A lot of instructional DVDs start off overly simple, then jump to overly complicated real quick.  Tim and Dan have a way of keeping things uncomplicated throughout, but never to the point of feeling dumbed down.  The fact that they manage to make an esoteric concept – improvisation – understandable is quite an accomplishment.

Topics discussed include:
The scale notes that best fit over diatonic (of the key) chord progressions.
How to employ those scale tones using techniques such as scale runs, folded scales, harmonized scales, and crosspicking.
How to target chord tones (the root, third and fifth) in your solo as the tune changes from one chord to another.
How to use techniques like phrasing, note articulation, and dynamics to make your improvisation fit the song while sounding interesting, engaging and tasteful.

It’s na├»ve to think that one DVD will make you a proficient improviser – only hours and hours of focused practice will really achieve this.  But, watching this DVD will certainly help you on your way toward that goal.  At the very least it will allow you to sit in at a jam session and “fake it until you make it”!

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Left-Handed Fletcher Tenor Guitar for sale, hand-made by Jamie Dugan

Fletcher tenor guitar for sale
For sale is my 2012 Left-Handed Fletcher JD1 Mahogany tenor guitar.  Hand made by Jamie Dugan in Ithaca, NY.  

This finely crafted instrument is in very good condition with little or no wear and tear.  It cost over $2,000 new.  I'd like to get at least $1,200 for it to cover the cost of my next indulgence - which will be an electric mandolin.  Make me an offer!  Shipping will probably be around $60 to $80 - US buyers only.

Although this 4-string tenor guitar was made to be left-handed, the symmetrical design means that the "right" buyer could easily convert it to right-handed, if desired.  (Note: in that case one of the strap buttons would be on the wrong side for a right-hander).

I will include the hardshell case it came with AND a custom fit Blue Heron soft case/gig bag ($200 value) that I special ordered.  I tune this tenor guitar GDAE one octave lower than a mandolin but you can use a variety of tunings. 

Sound samples 
(Fletcher tenor guitar lead melody played by me with baritone uke backup):
Home With the Girls in the Morning

Grasshopper Sitting on a Sweet Potato Vine

Rakes of Mallow


  • All Mahogany body
  • Black Binding
  • 21" Scale Length
  • 32" Total Length
  • 1.25" Nut Width
  • Fretboard Side Dots
  • Upper Bout 8"
  • Lower Bout 11"
  • Strap buttons
  • Acoustically Tuned Top and Back.
  • Arched X Braced Top
  • Wood-inlaid Rosette
  • Two way Adjustable Truss Rod
  • Banjo-style Peghead with an Ebony Peghead overlay
  • Ebony Fretboard with Abalone Dots
  • 5-Star Geared Planetary Tuners with Ebony Knobs
  • Bone Nut
  • Floating Ebony Bridge
  • Cast Weber Tailpiece
Contact me if interested!
Fletcher tenor guitar in Blue Heron soft case/gig bag

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Special Guitar Tuning: Five Strings Tuned In Fourths

One great thing about a tenor banjo tuned in fifths is that you have the same interval between each string:  G-D-A-E from low to high (or C-G-D-A).  It’s a very logical tuning.  Contrast that to a guitar where you have the interval of a 4th between each string except for the open G to open B.  (the B string would need to be a C to maintain intervalic symmetry).  Although, if you want to play in closed positions on tenor banjo (no open strings) there is one issue or limitation to the 5ths tuning – the  s  t  r  e  t  c  h!

It’s very difficult to reach from frets 1 or 2 to frets 7 or 8.  You can manage it on the mandolin because the mandolin’s 13-inch scale means that you can place the index finger on the 2nd fret and the pinky finger on the 7th fret without too much trouble.  But even on a 21” scale tenor banjo that just isn’t doable.  So what if you added a 5th string and tuned in 4ths?  That might be a good compromise. 

A 5-string instrument tuned in straight 4ths A-D-G-C-F would have a similar pitch range, but everywhere requiring stretch from frets 2 to 7 on tenor banjo would only be from frets 2 to 5 in 4ths tuning.  The next fretted note in the scale would always be on the 2nd fret of the next higher string and not the 7th fret of the current string.

I haven’t given too much thought yet to the chord shapes, but from a melodic standpoint single-note melodies should fall under the fingers pretty well in 4ths tuning.  Since you would not have to use any open strings, transposing a melody to another key would be as simple as taking that same pattern and moving it up or down the neck.  This might allow you to perceive melodies like a horn player. 

I am going to try this out with an inexpensive short-scale Luna guitar.  A local luthier is going to set it up as a 5-string left-handed instrument tuned in 4ths – A-D-G-C-F – using a mandolin tailpiece to keep the strings low to the body behind the bridge saddle.  We’ll see how it goes!  I'll report back once I've tried it out.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

My First Taste of Jamming

For someone who grew up listening to improvisational music (Grateful Dead, Phish, Medeski Martin and Wood, and several 90's jambands not worth mentioning), my music playing thus far has been surprisingly devoid of improv.  I've been content to play basic tunebook notation versions of Irish and oldtime tunes.

Any forays into the realm of "soloing over chord changes" have felt extremely un-fun and uncomfortable so I've completely avoided it.  Even though I host a trad/roots music "jam", there's no real improvisation required on Irish jigs and oldtime fiddle tunes which is what drew me to those types of melodies in the first place.

However, over Christmas I had the opportunity to play with a Deadhead guitar strummer who expected me to pick up the chords and take solos to songs like Bertha, Dead Flowers and a Dylan song I've forgotten the name of.  (All songs I had heard before but never tried to play).  It was a very low pressure, hanging out kind of environment, and instead of hating it I actually kind of relished it.

I'm sure what I was doing sounded pretty bad.  I still have a hard time hearing chord changes and it's hard to solo over the chord changes if you can't even figure out the chord structure.  The fact that I'm used to flat-picking tunes and thinking melodically helped a little even if I didn't always pick up on what the chords were.

Anyway...this kind of has me wanting to play more music in this style.  I like the idea of taking a folk song with a simple chord structure and using it as a foundation for practicing improvisation.  The two best practitioners of of this I can think of are Jerry Garcia and Bill Frisell.

Consider Garcia's interpretations of songs such as Catfish John, Peggy-O, I've Been All Around This World and Last Train from Poor Valley, as well as some of the Garcia/Hunter originals like Loser, Candyman and It Must Have Been the Roses. Bill Frisell's experiments with folk and country standards have included Cluck Old Hen, Goodnight Irene, Shenandoah, Lost Highway and Sitting On Top of the World on his The Willies, East/West and Further East/Further West albums.

Trey Anastasio has said in interviews that he believes that musicians are channels - stewards of the music for a brief period of time.  You can see evidence of this everywhere - from a symphony orchestra to the timeless sounds of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.  I feel like I'm just now starting to see the potential for joy one can get from playing music.  It's like a river that pulls you along.  I don't want to be tied to a genre or style or restricted in any way with music...I just want to play it.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

All Music Is Music: Finding the Melody

In an All About Jazz interview from 2009, guitarist Bill Frisell had this to say about his approach to melody.   

When I first started getting into jazz, I studied what was going on with the music theoretically and would look at things more in a mathematical way. I would look at the chords and learn what the chord tones were, what the scales were. But somewhere along the way, I tried to understand all the inner workings of the melody. If the melody isn't there, then it really doesn't mean anything. It's also where it gets harder to explain. With every song, I'm trying to internalize the melody so strong that that's the backbone for everything that I am playing no matter how abstract it becomes. Sometimes I'll just play the melody over and over again and try to vary it slightly. It's really coming from that, like trying to make the melody the thing that's generating all the variations rather than some kind of theoretical mathematical approach.

Interviewer asks: Could you explain what you mean by internalizing the melody?

It's playing and hearing the melody and not playing anything but the melody until it starts going on inside your body, even without thinking about it. But the older I get, the longer it seems to take to learn new things and get it to the point where it's really deep down in there somehow.
Bill Frisell
This approach to melody coupled with the fact that he often uses the American folk songbook as his palette, is what drew me to Bill Frisell in the first place.  (Frisell grew up playing clarinet and seems more influenced by saxophone players than guitar players.)

A love of melody is partly responsible for why, when I started playing music, I came upon traditional Irish and oldtime tunes.  No chordal backing is even necessary.  The tune is the melody and everyone is going for it in unison.  To use a jazz term, you play the “head” all the time.  You’re not flailing around trying to improvise over chord changes or comping/vamping while waiting for your turn solo.

Grant Green is another guitarist who was influenced by horn players.  Green had a very unique, linear, single-note melody style that was almost devoid of chords.  He rarely comped - when his guitar drops out and he trades off with the piano player, for example, you don’t really hear him doing any backing.
(Check out his Goin’ West and Feelin’ the Spirit albums).  I read somewhere that when asked why he didn’t play chords Green responded “Charlie Parker didn’t play chords”.  

I wonder if, as a tenor banjo player I could also be influenced by horn players?  My ultimate musical goal is to be able to hear a melody and play it.  That could be anything from an Irish jig, to a Grant Green solo, to the vocal-line from the song You Are My Sunshine, to the Trey Anastasio guitar part following the “we love to take a bath” lyric in Bathtub Gin.  A slow, simple, basic style is fine with me.  All music is music.

Check out this full set of Bill Frisell with banjoist Danny Barnes from the 2008 Northwest String Summit:

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Grateful Dead, Phish and Medeski, Martin and Wood Repertoire Tape

In his book Primacy of the Ear, Ran Blake recommends the creation of a personal listening recording that exemplifies your musical direction and illuminates areas in which you especially need work.  Blake says that each selection should be short -  one or two minutes at the longest.  These are not just melodies to memorize; it's your own personalized soundscape.

Inspired by this concept, I created a playlist consisting of snippets of Grateful Dead, Phish and Medeski, Martin and Wood songs.  I've uploaded the audio as one long track.  I've also posted the snippets to YouTube as two different "videos".  Read on for the song list sequence.

Grateful Dead
Uncle John's Band intro - Dozin' at the Knick
Uncle John's Band jam one - Dozin' at the Knick
Uncle John's Band jam two - Dozin' at the Knick
Fire on the Mountain intro - Crimson, White and Indigo
Althea outro - Without A Net
Bird Song - Reckoning

Bathtub Gin melody after "we love to take a bath" - Hampton Comes Alive
Lizards solo - New Year's Eve 12/31/95
Divided Sky "section after silent segment" - Hampton Comes Alive
Theme from the Bottom intro - Billy Breathes
Weigh intro - Rift

Medeski, Martin and Wood
Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down "head" - Radiolarians III
Where's Sly? "head" - It's A Jungle In Here
Is There Anybody Here That Loves My Jesus intro - Shackman