Friday, February 28, 2014

The Mandolin in Old-Time, Jazz, Celtic, Bluegrass and more

Tenor banjo, which is the instrument I’ve been playing until now, seems to have two extremes.  At one end you’ve got the jazz guys – players like Eddy Davis, Cynthia Sayer, Elmer Snowden, Buddy Wachter and Tyler Jackson.  At the other end you’ve got the Irish tenor banjo players such as Barney McKenna, Mick Moloney, Gerry O’Connor, Enda Scahill, John Carty and Angelina Carberry.  There’s not much tenor banjo in between.

Enter the mandolin world, however, and you can find examples in almost any genre.  For jazz there’s Dennis Pash, Jethro Burns, Tiny Moore and Jamie Masefield.  In old-time you’ve got Norman Blake, Kenny Hall, Clyde Curley and Carl Jones.  Notable Celtic mandolin players include Andy Irvine, Mick Moloney, Marla Fibish and Luke PlumbProgressive/Newgrass guys start with Chris Thile, Mike Marshall and David Grisman.  I’d also like to mention Danny Knicely and Sam Bartlett, two additional favorite mandolin players of mine that I would characterize as eclectic.
Dennis Pash (middle) w/ Nick Robinson (L) and Dave Krinkel (R)
The Ragtime Skedaddlers
Clyde Curley (middle) with George Penk and Sue Songer
Marla Fibish w/ Jimmy Crowley
Danny Knicely of Furnace Mountain Band
I could have listed many more players (Tim O’Brien!) in many more styles (Italian!), but that gives you the idea.  It may not be as ubiquitous as guitar, but mandolin is certainly a more conventional instrument than tenor banjo and if you want to find mandolin influences you don’t have to look that far in any direction, even rock (Jeff Bird of the Cowboy Junkies). 

Mandolin’s versatility and playability ensures that you can have a lot of fun with it, whether you choose Bach, Bill Monroe, Brazilian Choro, or something of your own devising.  In addition, the discussion forums at Mandolin Cafe and Mandolin Hangout ensure that you'll have an interactive support group to bounce ideas off of.

50th Anniversary of The Beatles First North American Tour

This year marks the 50th Anniversary of The Beatles first tour of North America.  They first appeared on the Ed Sullivan show on February 9, 1964 and then returned to the USA in August of that year for a tour which included a stop in Las Vegas; chronicled here:

My greatest appreciation for The Beatles has actually been through interpretations of their songs by other artists, whether it be Yonder Mountain String Band performing And Your Bird Can Sing or It’s Only A Northern Song, Steve Earle’s cover of I’m Looking Through You, or the Grateful Dead busting out a Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds or a Why Don’t We Do It in the Road! 

Perhaps the greatest interpreters of Beatles music are Phish – the other “Phab Phour” – who often sprinkle perfectly placed versions of songs such as of Day in the Life and While My Guitar Gently Weeps into their sets.  In fact, when Phish began their Halloween tradition of covering a classic album in its entirety on 10/31/94, the first album they chose was The Beatles' White Album.  (On a side note – my wife and I got married while seeing Phish in Las Vegas – a show in which they covered Day in the Life).

Today’s music listeners have come to value a performer’s live show just as much if not more so than their recorded output, and view the concert environment as not just a place to play the “album version” of a song, but as a totally different medium requiring its own skill set.  So, I think it’s great when performers who have made their name through live performances pick up the baton left by John, Paul, George and Ringo and offer up their example of what The Beatles could have realized on the stage had they taken that path.

Phish 10/31/94 (for White album fast-forward to about 01:25:00)

I don’t think there will ever be another band that is so universally well liked and appreciated as The Beatles.  Everyone from musicologists to the latest consumer of Top 40 can dig what The Beatles had to offer in their brief time as a band.

Summer Music Festival Preview – Red Wing Roots

Spring is almost here, so it’s time to start thinking about summer music festivals.  One festival that looks very promising is the Red Wing Roots Festival July 11, 12 and 13 in Mt. Solon, VA, which is located in the Shenandoah Valley sort of between Harrisonburg and Staunton – a beautiful part of Virginia.  The lineup is pretty stellar and tickets are on sale now.
The Steel Wheels
Now in its 2nd year, Red Wing Roots Festival was started in 2013 by The Steel Wheels, one of the rising stars of the Americana/Roots Music circuit.  The idea was to create a positive, inclusive, family-friendly environment to celebrate roots music, camping and outdoor activities such as biking, swimming, and hiking.  Natural Chimneys Park and Campground was chosen as the location for the festival.
Some of the artists I’m particularly excited about include Tim O’Brien, Pokey LaFarge, Peter Rowan, Furnace Mountain Band, The Steel Wheels, Mandolin Orange, The Stray Birds, The Devil Makes Three and Yarn.  The full lineup can be seen here

Our regional area is chock full of great annual campout festivals, including Shakori Hills, Floyd Fest, Watermelon Park, The Festy and more, but Red Wing Roots looks like a great one to add to that list!

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Luke Plumb Mandolin and Bouzouki Albums on Bandcamp

Now that I'm starting to play mandolin, I'm on the hunt for inspiring mandolin recordings.  This brought to mind Luke Plumb, the forward-thinking mandolin player for the Scottish band Shooglenifty.  I have a couple of Shooglenifty's CDs from a few years back, but the last time I looked for any of Luke's solo work the only things I could find would have had to have been shipped from overseas.  Nothing was streaming or downloadable through the usual sources.

When I searched again today I was pleased to see that this has changed.  Some time in the last year perhaps, Shooglenifty created a Bandcamp page where you can stream and download not only several of their more recent albums, but multiple side project releases as well, including Luke Plumb's A Splendid Notion and Wintering Out albums.
A Splendid Notion features Luke on mandolin and James MacKintosh on percussion.  Celtic mandolin with percussion may not seem like a good thing, but I urge you to check this out.  It works really well.  The track titles may be unfamiliar, although several of the tunes did sound familiar even if I can't quite place them.  Some liner notes would have been helpful, but A Splendid Notion is still one of the few quality recordings I've come across that features mandolin front and center.  Stream A Splendid Notion here.
Luke Plumb takes on more of a backup role on bouzouki on Wintering Out, his 2002 album with fiddler Simon Bradley.  I had long wondered what this album sounded like and today I got to find out.  It's not as mandolin-centric, but is still a delight to listen to.  Fiddle and bouzouki may be a more traditional combo than mandolin and percussion, but the tunes on Wintering Out actually sound less familiar and slightly more worldly.  Stream Wintering Out here.

Fiddler Aonghas R. Grant also has a solo album on the Bandcamp page (The Hills of Glengarry), if you're up for a wee bit of Scottish fiddle music.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Those Rare, Magical, Unexpected Live Music Experiences

Sure, it's great to go see one of your favorite bands live when you know all their songs and you're pretty much guaranteed a great show and a familiar experience, but it's a rare occasion when a completely unknown band blows you away with such a memorable performance that you become an instant fan.  I can think of only a few times where this has happened to me - from as far back as almost 15 years ago and as recently as this month.
Yonder Mountain String Band
Yonder Mountain String Band, 10/30/1999, Wolf Tongue Brewery, Nederland, CO
We had just moved to Longmont, CO in fall 1999 and had heard about this new local bluegrass band that was kicking ass and taking names.  So, having never heard their music before, we made the trip up the mountain to tiny little Nederland to check out Yonder Mountain String Band at Wolf Tongue Brewery on the night before Halloween. Snow was already on the ground, even in October, in this friendly mountain town and we got to know some of the eccentric locals at the bar before the band started.

This was a more innocent time, and being young and hungry, Yonder Mountain was just what I was looking for.  They had one foot in the traditional world, but more more importantly they were taking that next step into the unknown, steering bluegrass to where it had never been before.  I don't remember too many details from this show in particular, but as a diehard Phish and Grateful Dead fan, I latched on to Yonder Mountain big-time and for the next half dozen or so years would see them well over twenty times.  When I started learning to play oldtime and Irish music I temporarily got too snooty for bluegrass and jambands, or bluegrass jambands, but things are starting to mellow out again now to the point where I can circle back around to this music with a whole new appreciation of how truly fun it was and is.
My Morning Jacket
My Morning Jacket and Dr. Dog, 1/24/2004, The Canal Club, Richmond, VA had named My Morning Jacket's album It Still Moves in a tie for the best album of 2003, so on that testimonial alone I went to go check them out in Richmond on 1/24/04.  Prior to the show I had only listened to It Still Moves a couple of times, and it hadn't really made any impression on me.  As we were walking in to the Canal Club, the opening band was just starting.  I didn't even know there was going to be an opening band - opening bands always suck anyway - who is this Dr. Dog?

Minutes later I was enthralled by the music being made by an opening band that I was completely unfamiliar with.  I think Dr. Dog basically played everything off of Easy Beat, even though that yet to be classic album wouldn't be released for almost another year.  I remember going up to the band after the set telling them that was the best set I had ever seen an opening band play and I bought the only CD they had with them that night, which was Toothbrush.

As My Morning Jacket took the stage I was still gushing about Dr. Dog.  As far as I could tell, there was no way they were going to top that, but boy was I wrong.  Like the budding rock stars they were, My Morning Jacket commanded the stage with a gusto that instantly made them the equal of Led Zeppelin, U2, Pearl Jam, and all the other great rock bands that had come before.  Even more impressive, I would later discover that this was one of the first shows with Carl Broemel on guitar - as their previous guitarist had left the band just prior to this tour leaving them scrambling to find his replacement.  Even though I was completely sober for this show, I was so jazzed up afterward that I stayed up all night consumed by an excitement that I could find no limit to.

The Ceili Bandits (Yvonne Casey), 11/20/2004, McGann's Pub, Doolin Ireland
On our first trip to Ireland we stayed the first two nights in Doolin, a small village in West Clare reputed to be a music mecca.  This was a case of perfect timing, because we woke from a nap to find flyers posted advertising the CD release party for Yvonne Casey's debut album that Saturday night at the pub a short walk from our bed and breakfast.  Yvonne Casey was an up and coming local fiddler who had just recorded a self-titled CD with the band she was in called The Ceili Bandits.

I was completely ignorant and naive to Irish music at the time, but I thought we'd give it a go.  We weren't the only ones with that idea.  McGann's was packed with family, friends and locals, all of whom were in an extremely jovial mood, even for the Irish.  I don't know when exactly the music started, and I don't know when it stopped that night either, if ever.  Truly, truly magical.

At one point in the night I had this feeling rush over me that this was something to never forget.  Copious amounts of Guinness, champagne and Bulmer's had been consumed over several hours, but, despite the effects of booze I was able to harness that euphoric state and use it as a means to slowly nurture a true appreciation of Irish traditional music in the ensuing years.
Mandolin Orange
Mandolin Orange, 2/14/2014, Ashland Coffee and Tea, Ashland, VA
It happened again out of the blue and seeing Mandolin Orange a couple weeks ago is probably the impetus for this post.  I've had some great live music experiences over the last decade, but the ones that come to mind as peak experiences were all by bands that I was either already a big fan of, or at least relatively familiar with.  However, Mandolin Orange caught me completely off guard.

Mandolin Orange is a duo consisting of Andrew Marlin on guitar and mandolin, and Emily Frantz on fiddle and guitar.  I had listened to one of their CD's once and had watched some YouTube videos, but frankly it sounded sort of boring and I didn't really decide to go to this show until the day of.  Yeah well from the moment the first lyric was sung to the last note of the 2nd set encore, I was enamored by this transcendent, beautiful, mesmerizing evening with this understated duo.

The lyrics so oddly remote yet accessible, the musicianship so refined, the songs so natural, going places I didn't see them going, ending when I didn't expect them to end, and continually enticing me in a way that was perfect in that moment.  I think everyone in that room felt the same thing.  Words can't describe it so I'll stop trying.  Andrew writes some great songs.

As I was driving home tonight something reminded me of that Dr. Dog / My Morning Jacket concert from 2004, and then it occurred to me that it was ten years ago last month that it happened.  Then I thought about those couple other occasions from my past that were similar experiences, and then I realized that most recently Mandolin Orange had left a similar impression.  Then I felt compelled to get this all into words so I spent the last 2 hours writing this.  Thanks for reading.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Holding the Mandolin – A Beginner Looks At Fretting Hand Placement

How do I grip the neck…where do I put my thumb?  Aaaarrrrrgggghhhh!!!!

After a half-dozen blissful, ignorant years of playing tenor banjo, I am starting to learn mandolin.  It is harder than I expected!  Sure, the mandolin tuning is the same as the “Irish” GDAE tuning I use on tenor banjo but the different fingerings means that I am having to unlearn some tenor banjo things that have become second-nature.
On tenor banjo I employ a cello or guitar influenced finger placement of one finger per fret – with finger 1 (index finger) covering fret 2, finger 2 (middle finger) covering fret 3, finger 3 (ring finger) covering fret 4, and finger 4 (pinkie finger) covering fret 5.  If you need frets 1 or 6 you just slide slightly out of position to reach those, and in lieu of playing fret 7 you simply play an open string whenever possible.

With the shorter scale of the mandolin, you'd think the stretches would be easier, but you end up having to splay the fingers out a lot more.  On mandolin the fingering assignments call for finger 1 on frets 1 and 2, finger 2 in charge of frets 3 and 4, finger 3 responsible for frets 5 and 6, and the pinkie finger on frets 7 and 8.  Because you can theoretically reach all these frets in first position, with mandolin you should be able to play melodies without the use of open strings. 
I’m struggling with getting my fretting hand into a comfortable position on the neck while still being able to reach all of the necessary frets with the proper finger.  My mandolin teacher has me practicing 4 different mandolin finger position combinations/stretches.  (I’m using fret 2 as my starting point for the example below, but these can actually start on any fret on any string as long as you keep the whole/half step spacing consistent.)  

1 and 5
Fret 2
Fret 4
Fret 6
Fret 7
2 and 6
Fret 2
Fret 4
Fret 5
Fret 7
3 and 7
Fret 2
Fret 3
Fret 5
Fret 7
Fret 2
Fret 4
Fret 6
Fret 8

Finger patterns 2 and 6 are pretty doable, but try to simultaneously place your index finger on fret 2, middle finger on fret 4, ring finger on fret 6 and pinky on fret 7 (patterns 1 and 5), or index finger on fret 2, middle finger on fret 3, ring finger on fret 5 and pinky on fret 7 (patterns 3 and 7) or index finger on fret 2, middle finger on fret 4, ring finger on fret 6 and pinky on fret 8 (pattern 4). 

Pretty tough stuff, and it seems to be the most difficult on the lower strings.  It’s hard enough to get your fingers into these positions in the first place, but try lifting them off the fretboard and then putting them back in the same place.  OK I'm signing off now to go work on this for like the next thousand hours.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Bob McQuillen - Contra Dance Piano Player

Just a few days after Pete Seeger’s passing, another traditional music icon died, albeit a much lesser known one.  I am referring to Bob McQuillen, the New Hampshire old-time contra dance piano player.  McQuillen died on February 4th at the age of 90, following a stroke.

Bob McQuillen played piano accordion, but he is best known as a vamping piano player in the "boom-chuck" style common to New England contra dance music.  Although he played chords instead of melodies, Bob still managed to write approximately 1,500 traditional sounding original tunes. 
Bob McQuillen at house party in 2013.  Photo by Don Plummer.
I’ve never wanted to dance in a contra dance and have never played in a pickup contra dance band, but I am still drawn to the sound of contra dance music. I find its hybrid of Celtic and Southern Appalachian styles coupled with a strong sense of rhythm appealing.  I could never limit myself to just the Irish trad or just the old-time repertoires, but I could probably survive for quite a while on a mixed bag of contra dance standards.

You don’t have to delve too far into contra dance music recordings before you find ones with Bob McQuillen on piano.  A couple of my favorites are New England Tradition from 1988 featuring 6-string banjo master Pete Colby and Bob McQuillen with the Rhythm Rollers from 2008, which has some tasty accordion by Laurie Andres.  Just last night I was working on learning the first tune on that Rhythm Rollers album, a reel called Road to California.

Check out those recordings and more like them.  In the meantime here’s a public radio interview with Bob McQuillen from 2002:

Friday, February 14, 2014

Electric Mandolin – Why The Hell Not?

Blue Star Mandoblaster
Electric mandolin is definitely a niche instrument, but there are few options out there.  Bruce Herron makes his Blue Star Mandoblasters for a reasonable price of about $650 as sold through Elderly.  You can also order from Bruce directly.  It’s a little known fact that he does custom work – emandos and octave emandos – and seems eager to build you the electric mandolin of your dreams for a fair price.
JL Smith emando
Another maker of electric mandolins is JL Smith.  His instruments are considered to be about as good as you can get, with certain spec models starting at $699.  There's also a guy named Ron Lira of Honest Ron’s Guitars.  Ron’s emandos have a good reputation and start at about $750. 
Honest Ron Lira mandolin
Rob Collins of hand-crafts a model of electric mandolin that has a very clean, natural look.  He’s located in Hebden Bridge, England but his prices are comparable to US builders, even with the exchange rate.  If you’re willing to spend more than $1,000 it’s worth taking a look at Jonathan Mann’s Manndolins.  He makes some hollow, semi-hollow and solid body emandos you can drool over (don’t literally drool on them).

Rob Collins
Mann EM-4 solid body
There are many more builders of electric mandolins, and you can find most of them listed on

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Lilting Solfege adds "words" and meaning to instrumental tunes

Here’s a fun and helpful exercise that combines the concepts of Lilting and Solfege.  It's basically a way of adding "words" to instrumental tunes, which can expose similarities and order across various modes and keys.  All you need to do is determine a root or tonic note for a particular tune, then everything falls into place from there.  I'm still in the process of developing this idea since I just happened upon it, but here's how I currently understand and explain it.

Lilting is basically Celtic mouth music, used to preserve a tune’s “diddly-dee” without the use of instruments.  Experienced traditional musicians say that if you can lilt a tune then quite often you can also play it.  To me, lilting just feels like nonsensical gibberish, but by applying Western Music’s Solfege syllables to this practice I can give it meaning and relevance.

In Western Music Theory, Solfege, as I choose to interpret it, is simply assigning a unique syllable to each of the 12 chromatic notes.  The 12 syllables I use (in the order of 1 through 12) are:  doh, dee, ray, ree, mee, fah, fee, soh, see, lah, lee, tee.  From those 12 syllables, you can assign a phonetic sound to every note in a melody, once you determine what the tonic or “doh” is. (You may notice that the Sound of Music "doh-ray-mee-fah-soh-lah-tee-doh" major scale is contained within these 12 syllables.  In fact, all scales can be extrapolated from these 12 notes).

Note:  I use a non-conventional phonetic three-letter spelling for the Solfege syllables because it helps me to visualize them.  I also assume that “doh” is always the tonic note no matter what key or scale we are using (this is called movable solfege).  And, for the purposes of this exercise I use the same chromatic scale for both ascending and descending. 

All you need to do to get started is determine what note is the tonic for a particular tune.  For example, chances are that a tune that resolves to an A note over an Amajor or Aminor chord has “A” as its tonic.  In that tune every A note = doh, A# = dee, B = ray, C = ree, C# = mee, D = fah, Eb = fee, E = soh, F= see, F# = lah, G = lee, and G# = tee.  In another example, for a tune with a D note as the tonic, you would move the doh so that every D note = doh, Eb = dee, E = ray, and so on. 
Example:  Lilting Solfege for the tune Doon the Brae (in Am)
For this exercise, it helps to use a sheet music tunebook such as The Portland Collection Volume I or II.  Once you figure out what a tune’s tonic is (typically the note that the melody resolves to), make that note the “doh” and then from there you can pencil in a solfege syllable to every single note in the melody.  You don’t have to worry about “accidentals” because since you have a syllable for every single one of the 12 possible chromatic notes, you automatically have a solfege syllable for every note that could be in the tune.

Tip:  don’t get hung up on key signature.  A tune in D-mixolydian can look like it has a G key signature due to the one sharp in the treble clef, while still resolving to a D note in the melody.  In this case D would be your tonic “doh” and you don’t even need to worry about what key or mode the tune is in.  If a tune with D as the tonic happened to have a C-natural note in it, then the solfege name for that note would be “lee” (indicating a flattened 7th note in the scale).

Once you have a Solfege syllable penciled in for every note in the melody, try singing those Solfege notes in the proper pitch, in time with the tune’s rhythm.  Also try singing this while playing the tune on your instrument. With enough practice, soon you’ll be able to easily lilt the Solfege melody for any tune that you know all the notes for. 

One of the many benefits of doing this exercise is you’ll start to notice commonalities and patterns in ways that had never been synchronized before.  For instance, make note of the Solfege notes that occur at chord changes to see if any rules of thumb come together.  In the above picture for Doon the Brae, note how it changes to the ii chord (G) on the "fah" note, the V chord (Em) on the "ray" note, and the I chord (Am) on either the "doh", "ree" or "soh" notes.  

This exercise will also help you to hear intervals, and it has a way of providing "words" for instrumental tunes which will allow you to apply the same structure to all tunes regardless of key, which will help bring them together.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Army-Navy "Pancake" Style Mandolins

Instruments known as “Army-Navy”, “pancake”, or “flatiron” style mandolins were originally made by Gibson between 1918 and 1922 to be used by soldiers during World War I.  The term pancake refers to not only the round body shape but also the flat front and back.  These inexpensively made, no-frills instruments are not to be confused with the more figured and “blingy” archtop F style mandolins that would later become popular in bluegrass thanks to Bill Monroe.

Pancake mandolins are still around today and are often favored by Old-Time and Celtic musicians for their mellow presence and depth.  These types of mandolins are also a good choice for those who simply prefer a more old-timey, understated look.  I have found a handful of builders who currently make this style of mandolin in the $600 to $900 range.  These luthiers have each taken this classic design and upgraded it with their own individual touches, expertise and other improvements.
The Red Line Traveler
By Red Line Resophonics (Cumberland Acoustics).  Luthier Steve Smith and his assistant Jason make these finely crafted pancake mandolins in their shop just outside of Nashville, TN.  In addition to being the guy who makes the parts used by other instrument builders, a few years ago Steve set out to create his own Army-Navy style mandolin at an affordable price.  Each Redline Traveler features an adjustable truss rod, adjustable compensated Cumberland Acoustic ebony bridge and Grover tuners.  There are many custom wood options for the back and sides.  Steve usually has a mandolins at various stages of production, so the wait time for a new Traveler mandolin can be as little as 2-weeks.  Price $650 to $750 with gig bag.
Crystal Forest mandolin
Terry Majewski only makes 4 or 5 of these flat top mandolins each year, and they are beauties!  He uses Cumberland Acoustic bridges and his mandolins actually appeart to be very similar to the Red Line Traveler.  I’ve seen some great reviews of Terry’s mandolins online.  The Crystal Forest Facebook page states, “These mandolins have a mellow, yet still loud and powerful sound sought by Celtic players, as well as many Old-Time mandolin players.  They are equally at home in a bluegrass jam where they hold their own against loud guitars, banjos and fiddles.  A great mandolin for traveling, the office or pick'in around the campfire.”  One could be yours for around $695 plus an additional $40 for a hardshell case.
Alden Originals
I don’t know a whole lot about these mandolins, which are made by Clay Alden in Tennessee, although they have a very pure, traditional look.  His standard Army-Navy model mandolin comes with a Spanish cedar top and mahogany back and sides, with prices starting at $595.  Custom options are available.  Clay makes all the parts from scratch, and when I contacted him recently his current waiting period was 4 to 6 weeks.  Alden Originals also makes bouzoukis, dulcimers and solid body electric guitars!
Sawchyn Beaver Tail mandolin
These Beaver Tail mandolins look pretty cool.  They are made by Sawchyn Guitars in Regina, Saskatchewan Canada, to the same exacting standards of his higher priced guitars.  The basic price is $899.95 Canadian (approx. $815 US Dollars) and Peter Sawchyn offers several ways to spiff up your mandolin with upgrades. 
Don Rickert A-N
Don Rickert can make you a totally custom Army-Navy instrument similar to the one in the Stew-Mac campfire mandolin kit for a price of about $875.  These “copies” are true to the originals, which would have cost a soldier about $12 in the early 20th century.  Don says these instruments have an incredibly big sound.
Elloree Envoy mandolin
As far as I know Rick Felkel of Elloree Guitars in West Monroe, Louisiana is still making his sturdy flat-top mandolins in the $500 to $600 price range.  Rick’s mandolins are a little different.  The body is larger:  12" long and 11" wide.  Instead of having pieces of bracing in the top running from one end of the body to the other, the bracing on Elloree mandolins are like spokes in a wheel, starting at the bridge and branching out to all parts of the top leaving no dead spots. The neck is bolted on like that of an electric guitar.  The body depth is between 1 7/8 to 2". 
Big Muddy
Finally, there’s Big Muddy Mandolins from Rocheport, Missouri.  At one time this company was churning out nearly one thousand mandolins a year, but now production has been scaled back significantly, with just two employees and luthier Mike Dulak doing the majority of the critical work, giving each mandolin the attention it deserves.  If you’re looking for a handcrafted real wood mandolin, Big Muddy is a great choice, although their body shape is a little different than the traditional pancake style.  Priced from $645.

If you play one of these mandolins or know of other builders making Army-Navy mandolins for $900 or less, I’d love to hear from you!

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Aw Feck: Kevin Burke, John Carty and Dervish coming to Central Virginia

Later this month some great Celtic performers are coming to Central Virginia.  First off, there’s Kevin Burke and John Carty on Thursday, February 20 at In Your Ear Music and Recording, 1813 East Broad Street (19th and E. Broad), Richmond, VA.  Part of the JAMinc concert series, where performers volunteer their time by doing in-school performances the day of the show (closed to the public).  
Kevin Burke and John Carty
Kevin Burke is a well known fiddler, having worked with Christy Moore, Tim O’Brien and many more over the last 30 plus years.  However, I’m actually more familiar with John Carty and I hope that he will not only be playing fiddle but will also feature some Irish tenor banjo and/or tenor guitar at this performance.  I have a couple of John’s CDs and find him to be a brilliant, creative musician.  Jam Inc. concerts are always intimate, house-concert style performances - a great place to see live music.  For more info call 804 320-7067 and ask for Wally.  (Note:  Burke and Carty will also be a C-ville Coffee on Wed. 2/19).
On the very next night, Friday, February 21, Irish trad super-group Dervish brings “the session to the stage” at Charlottesville’s Paramount Theater.  Led by the charismatic, bohemian-like singer Cathy Jordan, Dervish lives up to its name by being one of the few mainstream Irish acts that retains the feeling of authenticity, as if they would be just as happy playing in the corner of roadside tavern as they are in a majestic theater.  Nonetheless, this will be a big show filled with high-energy tunes and tight arrangements.  Joining them for this performance is sean-nós dancer Brian Cunningham.  Tickets here.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Mandolin vs. Tenor Banjo

Blue Star Mandoblaster
When I originally chose to get a tenor banjo as my first (and only) instrument it was partially because despite being a relatively obscure and unique instrument, all you're really really doing with tenor banjo is playing an over-sized mandolin, or "banjolin".  Especially in the GDAE tuning, which is the same as a mandolin but one octave lower.

The longer tenor banjo scale length and potentially different fingering technique wasn't an issue or drawback for me initially.  For one thing, I had never played mandolin or any other instruments before getting a tenor banjo, so I had nothing to compare it to.  It seemed normal to me.

Secondly, the type of instrumental Appalachian and Celtic fiddle music that I chose to play on tenor banjo is key-driven and allows for lots of open strings.  In other words, a "D" tune is almost always played in D so you can learn it with open strings knowing that you won't have to transpose or play in a closed position.  Nobody at the session is going to suggest that we try that one out in "C" or "E" if it's always played in "D".

When I've tried mandolin in the past, it always felt awkward due to the shorter scale length and double course strings.  I was also a less of a musician then and didn't have any specific mandolin oriented exercises and drills to work on and keep me focused.  But now that I'm taking lessons from a mandolin player, I'm learning that there are mandolin-specific things that you just cannot do on tenor banjo.

Red Line Traveler
You can do closed position chords on a tenor banjo pretty easily, so that's not really an advantage that the mandolin has.  In fact, the shorter mandolin scale length makes the chords feel more choppy than I may prefer.  The real advantage of the mandolin starts to become clear when you move melodies up or down an octave, or to different keys, or to different positions/fingerings.

Soloing without the benefit of open strings becomes a possibility, which allows a lot of other patterns and concepts to come together. Of course, you can utilize open string notes just like you would on a tenor banjo, but you don't have to.  I also think that taking up mandolin will make me a better ear player, because it's so easy to transpose closed position arpeggios and scale patterns that your ear starts to make connections.

I still love that banjo sound, but maybe instead of trying to make the tenor banjo do it all, it might be better to reserve it for more genre driven techniques - such as "Irish" tenor banjo - and then use the mandolin as a tool to explore music in general.  They are both in the same tuning, so any "light-bulb" moments I have on mandolin can then be transferred to tenor banjo.

But, now I'm wondering - should I also learn how to play guitar???!!!

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Skype Ear Training Lesson with Nick DiSebastian

I've been working with music transcriber Nick DiSebastian to notate the entire Bonne Humeur album by the Etcetera Stringband as well as some other songs.  I'm fond of the transcription work he did for me, so when Nick said he could do Skype lessons and offered to do a special ear training oriented lesson with me I took him up on it.  It was the first time I had ever done a Skype music lesson.

Nick studied at the Berklee College of Music with ear training as a main focus.  He took Ear Training level 1-4, Advanced Harmonic Ear Training, and Advanced Ear Training.  Nick believes that having that connection between hearing what’s happening, understanding it, and being able to play is the most important skill as a musician.  I agree and it's those same skills that I am trying to nurture so I definitely wanted to see what someone with this area of expertise had to teach.

Nick DiSebastian
The lesson essentially boiled down a semester's worth of music theory and ear training into one hour of teaching.  It was a lot to take in, but I took good notes and recorded the audio from the lesson to listen to later.  I found Nick to be a very patient, detailed and competent instructor able to adapt his methodology based on my level of expertise and understanding.  I was a little hesitant about doing this type of lesson over a webcam instead of in person, but it was basically the same as being in the same room, and it worked for what he was going over.

Some of the points covered were:
How melody and harmony relate - how the notes relate to the chord of the moment. 
Singing/humming root notes at chord changes to better hear where the motion is happening.
Writing out the scale degree for each note in the melody.
Chord inversions - singing descending and ascending triads in all inversions.
"Voice led" chord progressions in different places on the neck.

It'll take a long time and a lot of work to fully realize these conceptual practices, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel.  I plan to take additional Skype lessons from Nick DiSebastian once I've had time to let some of this sink in.  To schedule your Skype lesson with Nick, check out his contact page or email.