Saturday, April 26, 2014

Instrument Review - Red Line Traveler Mandolin and Blueridge BR-40T Tenor Guitar with sound samples

Blue Ridge BR-40T and Red Line Traveler
Red Line Traveler Mandolin
I've had my Red Line Traveler mandolin for a little over three weeks now.  It features a spruce top, mahogany back and sides, a special snake head shaped peghead, chrome Grover tuners, an adjustable truss rod, a Cumberland Acoustics adjustable bridge, radiused fretboard, and came strung with D'Addario J73 strings.

The Red Line Acoustics brand Traveler mandolins are made just outside Nashville, TN by Steve Smith of Cumberland Acoustics and his small shop team.  The mandolins are modeled after the old World War I Army-Navy "pancake" style mandolins, with a flat-top and rounded body.  Steve has upgraded this classic design by adding a truss rod, radiused fretboard, different bracing and his trademark Cumberland Acoustics bridge.

Mandolin and Tenor Guitar Sound Sample - Over the Waterfall

These oval hole Red Line mandos are symmetrical.  Steve had a couple unclaimed ones in the build process, so he took the one I chose and finished it up as a lefty.  It took about 2 months total from the time I first contacted him until I was holding the instrument in my hands!

The Traveler has a good amount of volume and what I would call a "sweet" tone, probably due to the mix of mahogany and spruce.  I haven't had any setup done at all and can't really tell that it needs any.  Eventually I might have someone give it a once over, but it was very playable right out of the case it was mailed in!

As I now listen to these recordings made this past Thursday, a little over 3 weeks after receiving it, I am very impressed at the sound I am hearing (not only does the mandolin sound good, but as someone who took up mandolin in January of this year the person playing it doesn't sound too bad either! I had played tenor banjo for a few years prior which certainly helps with mandolin.)  For a hand made mandolin in the less than $700 price range, you can't beat the Red Line Traveler.

Blueridge BR-40T Tenor Guitar
My wife Laura has been backing me on tunes using a baritone ukulele tuned DGBE, like the 4 highest strings of a guitar.  She uses a pick to play and this works great for around the house, but when she takes it to an oldtime jam it's easy for the baritone uke to get drowned out by the fiddles and banjos.  And forget about taking it to most Irish sessions - the baritone uke is still a bit too foreign to be openly accepted in that environment.

Mandolin and Tenor Guitar Sound Sample - The Boys of Tandernagee

So, Laura wanted an instrument with more of a guitar-like tone that she could still play the same as the baritone uke she was used to - same chord shapes, strumming, 4-strings, et cetera.  A tenor guitar strung up DGBE was the obvious choice.  "Tenor guitar" may be a bit more accepted in trad music circles because noted Irish players like John Carty, Brian McGrath and Eamon Coyne have used a tenor guitar on some recordings, not to mention its history as a backup instrument in Texas style fiddling.

The Blueridge BR-40T kind of has a corner on the market of tenor guitars.  There's the Gold Tone model, but it gets poor reviews, and then there's the Ashbury line - out of the UK but made in Vietnam - which has some good feedback but there isn't as much information on.  The BR-40T stood out as the best choice.

The BR-40T is pretty much a copy of the classic Martin 0-18T tenor guitar.  It has a 13.5" lower bout, a 10" upper bout, is 3 7/8" deep, has a nut width just over 1.25", has a 23" scale and is 35.25" inches in overall length.  It has a solid spruce top and a laminated mahogany back and sides.  The neck joins the body at the 14th fret.  The neck has more of a rounded tenor banjo shape to it than a typical guitar neck.  The vintage style tuners seem to hold.  There's an adjustable truss rod and a radiused fretboard.

For an instrument made in China, the Blueridge is very well made and playable.  Laura had it checked over by John Gonzalez of Fan Guitar and Ukulele the day after it arrived in the mail and he only had to do some minor adjustments.  It comes strung up with strings for CGDA tuning, but John set it up for DGBE tuning with D'Addario Phosphor Bronze EJ26 strings.  There were a couple cosmetic blemishes, probably from when they were filing down the frets in the factory - common on instruments from Asia - but John was able to lightly sand those down so it's not noticeable.

Mandolin and Tenor Guitar Sound Sample - Julianne Johnson

Laura says the size of the tenor guitar makes it very comfortable for a woman or a person with smaller arms or hands.  It's definitely louder than a baritone uke with more sustain and achieves that guitar-like tone she was looking for with better than expected results.  The sound samples featured here were recorded on her first day of playing it after it had been setup, so the sound could open up even more once it's broken in.

In summary, the addition of a mandolin to my tenor banjo as well as the addition of tenor guitar to Laura's baritone uke gives us a wider combination of sounds to choose from when picking and strumming tunes.

Friday, April 25, 2014

The Many Faces of the D-Major Scale

It’s been said that a single, unaccompanied melody is the intrinsic nature of traditional Irish music.  I agree.  In fact, I apply this basic melody-line philosophy as a starting point to almost all of the tunes I play, whether they are Irish, Appalachian, or something else. 

This doesn’t mean that a single-note melody line should be considered completely devoid of chords, because you can build chords from the ground up based on the notes in the melody and where they fall. (Unless you’re playing bluegrass or jazz, where soloing over chord changes is the norm).

A mode is a selection of tones arranged in a scale which form the tonal substance of a tune*.  Each mode has a tonal center - the first/lowest note of its scale.  Most tunes have a tonal center and will come to rest on that tonal center at certain key points in the melody.  The notes of a tune gain meaning in their relation to this tonal center.

Take the key of the D major (Ionian) scale for example.  The notes are D - E - F# - G - A - B - C# (two sharps).  All of the notes you’ll need to form basic chords are found in that key.  Every note in the melody can be seen as one-third of a potential chord, with that note functioning as either the 1, 3 or 5 of that chord.  (Breaking from that rule - I suppose the G note could be part of an A7 chord at times).
Maid Behind the Bar - D major (two sharps resolving to D)
D is the tonal center of D-major.  So, a D-note in the melody probably indicates a D-major chord (D, F#, A).  This means that D note can be harmonized with another D note, or an F# note or an A note.  There’s also a chance that a D note could be functioning the 3rd of a B-minor chord (B, D, F#) or as the 5 of the G-major chord (G, B, D), so the notes B and G become additional posibilities.  Let your ear be the judge.

It’s the same thing with an A note in a D-major tune.  That A could be an A-major chord (A, C# E), so you’d select either A, C# or E to harmonize with it.  However, the A could also be the 3rd of an F#-minor chord (F#, A, C#), or the 5 of the D-chord (D, F#, A). 

Cooley's Reel - E Dorian (two sharps resolving to E)
Additionally, because D is the tonal center you can also use D notes to harmonize as a drone with almost any note in the melody.  So you can see how even if the melody remains exactly the same with no variation there is room for the melody player to improvise with regard to the selection of notes chosen to pair with the melody note to make a double stop (AKA “small chord”, AKA “slant” or “reach”). 

That’s what we mean by the notes of a tune gain meaning in their relation to this tonal center.  If you know a note’s role in the melody, you can eliminate certain unlikely combinations.  For example, a C# note is not going to demand a C# diminished chord (C#, E and G).  That C# note is far more likely to be the 3rd of the A chord (A, C#, E), although it could be the 5 of the F# minor chord (F#, A, C#) when a minor quality is called for.
Campbell's Farewell to Redgap - A Mixolydian (two sharps, resolving to A)

Quite often in traditional music a tune will be comprised of notes in the D-major scale (D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#) but will have E, A or B as its tonal center instead of D.  When E is the tonal center we call it E-dorian (E, F#, G, A, B, C#, D), when A is the tonal center we call it A-mixolydian (A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G), and when B is the tonal center we call it B-minor (B, C#, D, E, F#, G, A). 

Do not assume that a tune with two sharps is D major (Ionian) or B minor (Aeolian).  It could also be E Dorian or A Mixolydian.  You can hopefully see how each of these different modes use the same notes – but at different starting points – and would have the same chords at its disposal, albeit in different roles. 
Musical Priest - B minor (two sharps resolving to B)
The E-dorian mode is often mistakenly referred to as “E-minor” by Irish music players because it has an E-minor chord (E, G, B) as its root chord, but a true E-minor scale has a C note instead of a C#.  If a tune has a strong need for a combination of an E-minor chord and a D chord – such as Cooley’s Reel or Swallowtail Jig – it’s a sure sign that the tune is in E-dorian and not in a true E-minor aeolian scale like Rights of Man.

Which brings to mind a question I’ve been having lately.  Assuming that you define a non-major mode by comparing it to a major mode, is it better to think of A-mixolydian as the A-major mode with a flattened 7th note, or as a variant of the D-major mode with a tonal center on the 5th note (A) of the D-major scale?

Mandolin Finger Patterns of a Major Scale, in this case the D-major scale
On a mandolin, when you place your index finger on a D note, such as the D on the 5th fret of the 2nd string, the finger pattern used to fret that D to middle finger E (whole step) to ring finger F# (whole step) to pinky finger G (half step) is the same “whole, whole, half” sequence as placing the index finger on an A note and fretting B, C#, D with the rest of your fingers.  So, “whole, whole, half” when you start with the 1st note or the 5th note of a major scale.

A different pattern of “whole, half, whole” emerges when you place your index finger on either the E or B notes within a D-major scale.  A 3rd pattern of “half, whole, whole” is required when you start on either the F# or C# notes.  Finally, a 4th pattern of “whole, whole, whole” is used only one time when placing the index finger is on the 4th note of the scale – G.  You have to really stretch to reach from G to C# on the same string!
I Buried My Wife - D Mixolydian (one sharp resolving to D)
It’s not unusual in Irish music to have a tune with D as its tonal center but feature a C natural note instead of a C#.  The inclusion of the C natural note is an indication that the tune is in D-Mixolydian, not D major.  D-Mixolydian is the same as the G-major scale starting on a D note and/or the D-major scale with a flattened 7th (D, E, F#, G, A, B, C).  D-mixolydian is to G-major as A-mixolydian is to D-major.

*Note: this post was inspired by some information musician Grey Larson had written on a similar subject.  Most of this article is in my own words, but a few sentences are directly taken from his writing simply because he had phrased it so efficiently.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Medeski, Martin and Wood + Nels Cline: Woodstock Sessions Vol. 2

Medeski, Martin and Wood is a band I have the utmost respect for.  For 20+ years now I've been listening to pretty much everything they have released, as they put it out, and universally digging it.  I trust these guys to know better than I do when it comes to determining what music needs to be made.  So, when my copy of Woodstock Sessions Vol. 2 featuring guitarist Nels Cline arrived in the mail earlier this week I put it on that evening.  At the time it didn't jive with what I was in need of and I cut it off about 20 minutes in.  Noise.

But last night I gave Woodstock Sessions another shot, while returning home on a late Saturday evening hour-long drive along country roads, when there was no rush to be anywhere and all one has to be concerned with is stray deer - which there were plenty of.  The album worked much better as the soundtrack to such an endeavor.  What was once noise now became sublime.  
Woodstock Sessions Vol. 2 (where's Vol. 1?) was recorded live on August 27, 2013 at Applehead Studios in Woodstock, NY in front of an intimate audience, but it is edited in such a way so that you don't really hear it as a "live album".  Medeski, Martin and Wood are joined by consumate guitarist Nels Cline of Wilco fame, and this addition inspires sort of a bizzarro version of Medeski, Martin, Scofield and Wood.

I've only listened to the album that one time not 12 hours ago, but I interpreted it as four engaged soloists with a deep-seated understanding of music allowing their collective abilities to arrive in any territories "the now" deemed pertinent.  Medeski, Martin and Wood have a reputation of being groovemeisters, but anyone who has seen them live knows that - while true - they also spend almost as much time channeling shamanic visions that have more to do with anthropology than chord changes.  

The addition of Cline takes that a step farther.  The groove is definitely still there, but it's subliminally hiding out under a blanket of sound with little intention of showing its face.  Rather than play to the whims of an audience and go in a direction that might dictate, MMW + Cline shake off those surface level inclinations continually in search of deeper layers.  As a result, your're not really listening to John, Billy, Chris and Nels as individuals, but rather as a greater-good celestial music mind. 

That's what it sounded like to me at least.  You be your own judge.  And remember to eat lots of fish; it'll help you with your scales.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A Goldmine of Tune Transcriptions – Tater Joe’s Old-Time Musical Mercantile

Last week I happened upon a site I had never noticed before:  Tater Joe’s Old-Time Musical Mercantile, described as A Collection of Transcriptions and Recordings From Workshops, Lessons, and Personal Efforts.
Tater Joe’s site primarily consists of over 200 clawhammer banjo tabs by Ken Torke and almost 150 fiddle transcriptions by Mark Wardenburg.  The fiddle tune pdf’s also contain chords, making them especially helpful to mandolin, guitar and bass players.  Torke and Wardenburg both play in the Pig’s Foot String Band, and I believe Ken Torke is the one who maintains the Tater Joe's site.   

Pig's Foot String Band
Some of these tunes are ones I haven't seen the notes for anywhere else, and it looks as though new transcriptions are being added all the time – with a few as recently as this month.  The site also features recordings and transcriptions from mandolin player Caleb Klauder’s (Foghorn Stringband) Walker Creek Music Camp Old-Time Mandolin Workshop from October 2013.  Very cool!

Tater Joe’s is a site worth checking out and checking back in on often. 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Custom Made Left-Handed Electric Mandolin For Sale

Buy now - $375!!!  US buyers preferred.

A one of a kind lefty Blue Star Mandoblaster electric mandolin made by Bruce Herron in Michigan.  Excellent condition. (Also willing to trade for a lefty Big Muddy Mandola).
the LH Blue Star Mandoblaster I'm selling
Natural satin finish
Rosewood fretboard
Upgraded hum-canceling Dimarzio pickup
TKL gig bag included
Back of electric mandolin - notice the nice grain seen in the natural finish

Closeup of the lefty Blue Star Mandoblaster headstock
Below is an audio sample:

Let me know if you have any questions.  If you’re interested in buying this one-of-a-kind electric mandolin make an offer ASAP!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Keeping Music Simple: All You’re Really Doing Is Whistling

It’s no wonder that one of the primary instruments in Irish traditional music is called the tin whistle (emphasis on the word “whistle”).  Because, when it comes down to it, all one is really doing when playing traditional music is using a musical instrument to “whistle” the tune.  You don’t have to make it any more highbrowed than that.

All it takes is one instrument whistling the tune to make it musically complete.  Multiple melody instruments might get together to whistle the same tune in unison and although it could become more vibrant as a result, it would be no more complete. 

Using an instrument may give you more options than you’d encounter just from whistling – different fingerings, ornaments, embellishments and other accoutrements are at the gifted instrumentalist’s disposal – but there’s no real reason to get flashy with it.  Music is music and the tune is the tune. 

You can carry this concept over to other genres to a certain extent.  Almost anything you’d whistle out of your mouth can be played for enjoyment on an instrument.  You may not be able to whistle all of the Trey, Mike, Page, and Fishman parts to Bathtub Gin, but you still might find yourself whistling the melody to that Phish song, for example.

So, the next time you’re getting overwhelmed or frustrated with music, just whistle…it’ll set your mind at ease.  And by “whistle” I mean play your instrument!

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Beyond Scales and Arpeggios: Some Tune-Based Practice Exercises

Liz Carroll
In a recent All Things Strings interview with Irish-American fiddler Liz Carroll, she was asked if she practices scales and arpeggios.  She responded that the tunes themselves are the practice:  “there are lots of nice runs within tunes, so I feel I get to practice arpeggios there”.

It was refreshing and encouraging to read this from an expert in traditional music because I have been trying to formulate a practice routine centered around tune-based exercises.  I believe an intellectual understanding of scales and arpeggios can be helpful when placed within the context of tunes.  The transition to mandolin is helping me flesh out this concept. 

Here are some tune based practice techniques that I am in the process of implementing:

Play the same phrase or lick in all keys using both open and closed strings.  Note how the same phrase is made in different ways.  Expand up on this by playing the whole tune in all keys using open and closed shapes.

Play the tune in a higher or lower octave if possible.

Play a tune or phrase in the same key but in at least 4 different positions on the neck:  1st position (pinky on 7th fret), 2nd position (ring finger on 7th fret), 3rd position (middle finger on 7th fret), 4th position (index finger on 7th fret) and so on.  The beginning phrase of the B-part of Arkansas Traveler is a good one to work with.

Be mindful of each where each note in the melody is in relation to the scale as well as the chord of the moment.  For example, a G note in the key of D is the 4th note of the scale, but could also be the root note of the IV chord.  A C# note in the key of D is the 7th note of the scale but might also be the 3rd note of the A chord.

Harmonize each note in the melody with what mandolin player Carl Jones calls a slant or reach (AKA a double stop).  This exercise puts the practice of harmonizing a scale to use within a tune.

Fill in quarter notes and other holes in the melody with arpeggios.

Transcriptions:  Practice transcribing unfamiliar tunes from Book/CD sets containing both the audio and notation.  Compare your transcription to the actual sheet music or tab.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Flatpicking Guitar Tabs for 4 Standard Fiddle Tunes

A few weeks back I got an acoustic guitar:  a pre-owned lefty Larrivee P-03 parlor guitar.  It’s a nice instrument and I’m lucky to have it.  I’m also lucky if I get in 15 minutes at the end of every other day for a little bit of flat-picking after I’m done with all my mandolin and tenor banjo playing.  Things are moving along slowly.  Coming from 4-stringed instruments and having never played guitar before, it’s pretty easy to get lost among the 6 strings.

Even on the guitar, melody is still king for me so I’m more concerned with playing tunes than strumming chords.  I’ve chosen 4 standard fiddle tunes as the first ones to learn on guitar:  Girl I Left Behind Me, Over the Waterfall, Redhaired Boy and St. Anne’s Reel.  Surprisingly, none of these tunes ever struck me as being particularly exciting to play on mandolin or tenor banjo, but the switch to guitar has brought new life to these familiar melodies.

I’ve been using the flat-picking guitar arrangements below to help memorize the tunes.  In each case I like the simple clean lines and the patterns these result in on guitar.  Perhaps there is something to these old favorites after all!

What do you think?!

The Murphy Beds to perform live web concert, Wed. April 2, 8pm EST

The Murphy Beds - photo by Jesse Daniel Smith
Tomorrow at 8:00 PM EST (Wednesday, April 2) the Murphy Beds (Eamon O'Leary and Jefferson Hamer) will be playing a live web concert, streaming courtesy of Concert Window. Here's a link:

This is the second installment in Concert Window's Songs from the Couch series, which is a new curated series of web shows, hosted and performed before a live studio audience. 
Log in now to reserve a seat. This is an interactive event, with chat, requests, virtual heckling, virtual tips – virtually anything!

The Murphy Beds perform traditional and original folk songs with close harmonies and deft instrumental arrangements on bouzouki, guitar, and mandolin.  Their self-titled 2012 debut was Six Water Grog's best of album from that year and now resides near the top of my all-time favorites.  This will be worth checking out if you are able to.