Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Ome “Celtic” Tenor Banjo

My ongoing Banjo Acquisition Obsession has been at least been temporarily nullified with the recent acquisition of a left-handed Ome tenor banjo! Mine is an 11” openback with a rolled brass tonering and Ome’s “Celtic” inlay design. The neck and rim are made of claro walnut with a handrubbed finish. It has 19-frets and a scale length just over 22”. The Ome tenor has a Sweetone tailpiece and Renaissance head, wooden armrest, double coordinator rods, amber colored tuners and aged brass hardware. I use the Irish tuning of GDAE - one octave lower than a mandolin.  A new Bart Veerman bridge is on order.

I chose openback over resonator. I prefer the lighter weight of an openback and the way it sits in the lap. I also like how openbacks look and sound, and don’t have a need for any extra volume that a resonator might offer. I chose the 11” rim (as opposed to a 12” rim) for a more focused sound and also out of a concern that a 12” might be less comfortable and place the bridge in a somewhat unusual position. Since 95% of my playing is done at home for my own enjoyment, I basically wanted a banjo that I would always want to play and never want to put down. The headstock design is fancier than I might have selected had that been an option, but I think I can get used to those classic contours.

Tanya at Ome strongly recommended their rolled brass tonering instead of something with a more “metallic” sound even though I do a lot of Irish playing. I trusted her Ome expertise and went with that suggestion. I am pleased with the choice as the banjo has plenty of volume and sustain as it is. I wouldn’t want anything louder or brighter.

The 19-fret neck and 22.125” scale length is an interesting combination. In the past I have experienced some shoulder pain from playing a resonator tenor with a 23” scale, but that has not been an issue thanks to the ergonomics of this Ome. The 19-fret neck does probably give it a more nuanced, cleaner tone than a 17-fret banjo. I also find triplets to be easier on a 19-fret neck than on a 17-fretter, so that is a plus, and the Ome's neck is not chunky; another plus.

In an increasingly crowded market of high-end banjos, I'm glad I chose Ome - which are hand made in Boulder, Colorado (since 1960).  I cannot think of any other banjo that would have been a better choice for me!  Order yours today!  Hastily recorded one-take sound samples below.  Cheers.


Monday, July 27, 2015

Review: Improvise For Real by David Reed

My biggest takeaway thus far from David Reed's Improvise for Real (IFR) book is an unexpected one - the additional amount of fun that it's brought to playing an instrument!  Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed playing already, but Reed's method has added a new dimension to this practice.  A freer way.  A more complete understanding.  A doorway toward expression.
IFR is not instrument-specific and it's surprisingly non-technical, but it'll quickly have you performing things that are much more complex than they seem.  Some of the ways he looks at music seem revolutionary, yet at the same time it echoes and confirms an awareness I had already been cultivating on my own, while putting it into more concise, coherent terms.

His book contains simple exercises that have infinite potential.  Exercises that give you permission to experiment, to see what the possibilities are, to take risks, to just have fun.  You will get to know your instrument.  The way I interpret Reed's teachings blurs the line between practice and playing.  It has increased my desire to pick up my banjo every day and try something new.

The other thing I've realized from working with Improvise for Real is that it's not about the rush to get better or be in any kind of hurry at all.  It's about enjoying the moment.  I do feel like it is teaching me how to be a better musician.  More importantly, IFR has given me the power to create music now - right now - instead of waiting for some future time when I'm good enough.


Friday, July 24, 2015

Cello Hand Shapes and Fingering Techniques for the Tenor Banjo?

The cello is tuned in fifths like a tenor banjo and has an even longer string length, so any reaches or stretches that a tenor banjo player has to deal with must certainly be more extreme on the cello, right?  For this reason I figured it wouldn’t hurt to research how cello players navigate the fingerboard of their instrument.

Based on what I found out, it seems as though cello players view the major scale in three note increments.  Unlike a mandolin, where you can reach 4 scalar notes on the same string without having to move your hand, on a cello you can only reach 3 scale notes in a row.  After playing those 3 notes you then have to decide if you’re going to shift and play the next three notes of the scale on the same string or on an adjacent string.

There are three different hand shapes or 3-note scalar patterns on the cello.  I've put it in my own words below, but this information is best explained in cellist Dave Haughey’s  Never-Ending Scale Exercise

Firstly, there’s X (whole + whole).  This is like playing notes 1-2-3, notes 4-5-6 or notes 5-6-7 of the major scale.  To play it you use the index finger, middle finger and pinkie with a fret spaced between each.  It’s a bit of an eXtension but is doable. 

Secondly, there’s 2 (half + whole).  This is like playing notes 3-4-5 and notes 7-1-2 of the major scale.  For this pattern you also use the index finger, middle finger (finger 2) and the pinkie, but there is no open fret between the middle finger and the index finger.

Thirdly and finally, there’s 3 (whole + half).  This is like playing notes 2-3-4 and notes 6-7-1 of the major scale.  For this pattern you use the index finger, ring finger (finger 3) and the pinkie without an open fret between the the pinkie and the ring finger.
Cello's Three Basic Hand Shapes - by Dave Haughey
On a GDAE tuned tenor banjo there’s a D-note on the 7th fret of the 4th string (G-string).  Using these cello fingering concepts, you might play a two-octave D-major scale by using Pattern X on the 4th string (frets 7-9-11 / notes D-E-F#), followed by Pattern X on the 3rd string (frets 5-7-9 / notes G-A-B), followed by Pattern 2 on the 2nd string (frets 4-5-7 / notes C#-D-E), followed by Pattern 2 on the 1st string (frets 2-3-5 / notes F#-G-A), then shift up and play Pattern 3 on the 1st string (frets 7-9-10 / notes B-C#-D).

There's so much more you can do with this and so many ways to think about it.  I encourage you to check out Dave Haughey's Never-Ending Scale Exercise that I linked to above because it does a good job of explaining some of the possibilities.

Two Octave Scales in Each of the Seven Modes:
Ionian = X-X-2-2-3
Dorian = 3-X-X-X-2
Phrygian = 2-3-3-X- X
Lydian = X-2-2-3-3
Mixolydian = X-X-X-2-2
Aeolian = 3-3-X-X-X
Locrian = 2-2-3-3-X

Friday, July 17, 2015

Warren Haynes on Playing With The Dead: Trust That the Magic Will Happen

Today I read the following quote by guitarist Warren Haynes on his experiences with playing with members of the Grateful Dead:
"Playing with the Dead is all about relaxing and letting the music flow and come through you and not being in a hurry to force it to go somewhere, trusting that the music, the magic, will happen, and they’ve always been about waiting for that magic to happen and capturing it when it does happen."
This is advice I could have used a few weeks ago when I put together an Irish session at a local brewery. Even though I wasn't the best player there, I was the organizer and kind of the person in charge so instead of relaxing and having fun like everyone else, I over analyzed everything. I ended up having a good time but things could have been a lot easier if I had not been trying to force the "craic" and was just letting it happen naturally.

A few days later a couple participants told me that they had had a good time at that session, so it was then that I realized that my experience/reality was probably not the same as the others who were there. This is information worth taking to heart because tomorrow Laura and I are supposed to play some tunes at a fundraiser with a fiddler friend of ours. Instead of worrying about whether the music is jiving, I am going to try and remind myself to just settle back easy and just let the notes fall as they may.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Eddy Davis' 4-String Banjo Video Lessons

Eddy Davis
Tenor banjo legend and Hall of Famer Eddy Davis (AKA Mr. Greenmeat, AKA The Manhattan Minstrel) has started posting a series of 4-string banjo video lessons to YouTube.  These lessons are primarily designed for banjos tuned CGDA, but are also broad enough to cover general music basics as they apply to any four string instrument.

Why should you care?  Well, anytime a player of Eddy's stature provides this kind of direct insight into his or her philosophy of music it's worth taking note, even if the material being covered doesn't directly apply to your specific musical genre or "dialect".

Here are the first few videos.  There are at least 14 of 'em!


Saturday, July 11, 2015

Trey Was Great, But The Dead50 Fare Thee Well Shows Aren't His Legacy

Trey Anastasio, Phil Lesh and Bob Weir (6/27/15). Photo by Jay Blakesberg
The five recent "Fare Thee Well" concerts celebrating the Grateful Dead's 50th anniversary cemented their status as the greatest American rock band of all time.  At the same time, these shows also seem to have solidified Trey Anastasio's status as the best living rock n' roll guitarist.  Nobody on the planet could have filled those shoes any better than Trey did.

I knew that Trey would be good, but I had no idea that he would be that good, or that well received.  He put in an unbelievable amount of work getting those songs down to the point that they were second nature.  Under immense pressure he delivered in droves.  You could sense that the music was coming from the purest, most reverent place possible, yet his years of experience as the Phish band leader and months of focused practice on the vast Dead catalog meant that he knew when to step up and take charge (and at the Chicago shows that was often).

MVP Trey was directly responsible for leading many jams to the magical places that people didn't think were still possible, but with the added benefit of it never feeling forced or obligatory.  He treated each moment of these five nights as if it were the most important moment of his musical career, and rightfully so.  Plus, whenever he sang lead vocals on a Jerry song I'm sure most everyone in the crowd quickly learned to breathe a sigh of relief and assurance.

Yes, this was a great career-move for Trey whether he was thinking on that level or not.  However, I have seen it mentioned that these shows would be Trey's legacy, and I have a bit of an issue with that point of view.  It's actually a kind of insulting when you think about it.  It's like saying all the hard work he's done up until now - and the work he'll continue to do - was OK, but making those final Dead shows an incredible experience for thousands of deadicated 'heads is the most important thing he could have ever done.

Having seen some mind-fuckingly awesome Phish shows on many occasions, I can assure you that Trey has already been performing at this level on an almost nightly basis for decades now.  His true legacy lies not in the Grateful Dead music he just helped resurrect, but in the dozens of brilliant compositions and countless hours of collective group improvisation that have been created via his "day job" with Phish.

Without Trey ultimately assuming the helm, these shows could have easily been filled with more senior moments than moments of transcendence, but that speaks more to Trey's overall skills and confidence as a musician and his legacy of work lying outside this one-off ensemble rather than within it.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Quebec City Review - Pubs, Restaurants, Things To Do

Quebec City's Lower Town
I don't do many travel posts, or non-music related posts anymore, but it's always fun to provide a synopsis of a cool place.  Having just spent 10 days in Quebec City, I feel the need to write something about it!

Here's a rundown of the best pubs, restaurants, and attractions.  I'll start with the most important things first - breweries and dive bars!

Corsaire Microbrasserie - Located across the St. Lawrence river in sister-city Lévis, this brewery/restaurant is a short and easy ferry ride from Quebec City.  Step off the ferry, walk to the street, turn right, walk a bit more and the brewery is right there - perfectly located to take in views of Chateau Frontenac and other QC sights from its outdoor deck.  Much to my approval, Corsaire seems to specialize in English style malty beers, bucking the trends toward super-hoppy and Belgian brews.  Their Davy Jones Stout ranks among the best stouts (or beers) I have ever had.  It resembled a Guinness but had much more to offer.
Brasserie la Korrigane - Don't let the upscale décor fool you, this place is serious about their beers!  Also don't let the sometimes "fruity" descriptions throw you off.  The blueberry in their Emily Carter blueberry beer is so subtle it'll have you asking for seconds.  Korrigane is in St. Roch - a hip, developing part of town that lies outside the walls of old Quebec, but is within walking distance (or an Uber cab if you're tired).  The food menu is also quite inventive at Korrigane.  We shared some excellent wings and artisinal poutine.  My favorite Korrigane beer was The Kraken!

Le Bateau de Nuit - Probably one of the best bars of all-time, this place is easy to miss. It's on rue Saint-Jean, a street already loaded with bars and restaurants, both inside the St. Jean gate and out.  You have to walk a few blocks up Saint Jean to get there, beyond where most tourists venture, but it's worth it.  Look for the green door at 275 rue Saint-Jean and walk up the stairs to enter a beer lover's haven. There's blues, jazz or heavy metal music playing on the speakers, a friendly, knowledgeable, and generous bartender, trippy things to look at and a selective assortment of the finest beers.  Despite its esteemed reputation as a world-class dive bar, you probably won't see any other tourists in Le Bateau de Nuit, thus helping to maintain that very reputation.  Don't be scared to enter, but leave at your own risk. Cash only.
Pirate-themed artwork in Bateau de Nuit
Bar Ste-Angèle - The above mentioned places are all outside the walled old city of Quebec, so you have to be somewhat adventurous to even want to check them out.  However, Bar Ste-Angèle is located right in the thick of it (albeit on a side street, with very little signage, with late opening hours, so no one seems to know about it, and they seem to like it that way).  Bar Ste-Angèle is not just a refuge from the swarms of people in that part of town (this gets old after a while), it's also a refuge from jacked up prices.  There aren't any $14 cocktails here...unless you mean a pitcher of rum punch.  Bar Ste-Angèle has the old Hollywood feel of a run down cocktail bar in Los Angeles; not something you would expect in quaint Quebec City.  I recommend visiting after 10pm on a Friday or Saturday when they have live jazz bands playing (real jazz - none of that dinner music stuff).  It actually might be a little crowded with locals on those nights, but you'll be among friends.

Honorable Mention - Pub Nelligan's, 789 côte Sainte-Geneviève.  Hippie-ish crowd (or what passes for hippie in QC), and a traditional music session every Tuesday night.  What more could you ask for?!
The session I attended at Pub Nelligan's
Le Hobbit - Hobbit Bistro was recommended to us by our Air BnB host Frederick, so we went there for breakfast (petit dejeuner) on our first morning in Quebec.  It was amazing!  We went back for dinner another night.  Hobbit offers gourmet food at bistro prices.  The food is modern, innovative, and well-crafted.  Stop there for dinner on your way to Bateau de Nuit or head there for breakfast.  They open early.  Great coffee!
One of the many cafes in Quebec City
Portofino - The burgeoning foodie in me says that I should pick something more edgy, but this fine Italian restaurant in the heart of old Quebec City really hit the spot.  We went for lunch and had wine, soup, pasta and a post-meal coffee.  It was perfect!  At night they set out tables and you can dine on the sidewalk (as most places do on a nice evening in this area).  Portofino is well positioned for lingering and people watching.  This would be a good place to splurge for dinner.

Excellent espressos, cafè au lait and lattes are easy to come by in Quebec and by no means did we even begin to explore it all, but our favorite spot - our "local" - was Chez Temporel...a quiet, no nonsense cafè right around the corner from the apartment we stayed in.  It's just far enough off the beaten path that it felt like the place to be on any given morning.  As I mentioned earlier, Le Hobbit wasn't bad either.  Order a latte by the bowl and savor the goodness!
St. Lawrence River Cruise - This 90 minute maritime excursion on the AML Louis-Jolliet costs less than you might think.  About $34 at the time of this writing.  There's a costumed interpreter on board full of historical nuggets (not as cheesy as it seems), and the sightseeing is awesome.  Not only are there great views of the city, but you also get to see Montmorency Falls, which I am happy to tell you are taller than Niagara Falls.  This cruise is a pretty common thing to do - this isn't some hush-hush tip - but it's still worth doing.  There's a full restaurant and bar on the boat.  It was a lot of fun.  Be prepared for wind if you plan on staying on deck instead of inside the climate controlled area.
Laura enjoying a whisky on board the Louis-Jolliet!
The falls as seen from the river cruise
Bicycling on Île d’Orléans - OK, get this: there's a rural island in the middle of the St. Lawrence River less than 20 miles from Quebec City.  And it's loaded with orchards, strawberry fields, cideries and wineries!  I didn't even know about this island or the opportunity to rent bikes and visit it until past mid-way through our trip, but I'm so glad we spontaneously did this!  How it works is you make a reservation with the Ecolocycle location at the farmer's market in Quebec City, then you show up at 9:45am on your chosen day and they have a taxi shuttle you over to their shop on Île d’Orléans.  There, you are fitted with a bicycle, helmet, lock and given suggested itineraries and even a tutorial if needed.  You have the next 6-and-a-half hours to explore the island on your own before the taxi comes back to pick you up at 5pm.  Île d’Orléans is over 70 miles in circumference, but there are shorter routes.  Heck, you can do like we did and stop at pretty much every winery or cidery you come to.  They all seem to have outdoor decks or patios with incredible views of vineyards and the river, as seen in the pictures below.
Domaine Steinback Cidrerie on Ile d'Orleans. Chug-a-lug, chug-a-lug.

Vignoble on Ile d'Orleans (Isle de Bacchus)
Le Capitales de Quèbec (baseball). If you're in town while there's a game going on, definitely try and go.  It was one of the most fun baseball games I've ever been to.  The stadium is small enough that there's not a bad seat in the house.  Great atmosphere.  Everyone is in it together.  The fans really love their team, who play in the Candian-American Association of Professional Baseball (not affiliated with the MLB).  The stadium is located in the north end of St. Roch.  Some, but not all, could make the 1.6 mile walk from the city, but it's an easy cab ride.  The Capitales won the game we attended!
Ghost Tours of Quebec - Having recently attended a, shall I say, less than professional ghost tour in my home town, I was pleasantly surprised by this very well done tour through Quebec City's murderous and spooky past.  Our guide and storyteller William Black knew his stuff.  It was interesting throughout, but perhaps not very scary until the grand finale when William took us into a haunted cathedral.  Maybe my eyes were playing tricks on me, but as he was talking I kept thinking I sensed shadowy people sitting above us. It was weird and creepy and I'm a total skeptic, so who knows.  I was glad when we exited that building.
Chateau Frontenac - the most photographed hotel in the world
-Take a tour of the Citadelle.
-Walk along the walls of the Fortifications of Quebec National Historic Site.
-Visit the expansive Terrasse Dufferin.  Continue onto the Governors Promenade up to the Plains of Abraham Battlefield Park.
-Don't just take pictures of the Chateau Frontenac, go inside and have a drink in their super swanky wine and cheese bar.
-Test your stamina by walking up and/or down the Cap-Blanc Stairway (392 steps!).
-Take the Ferry to Lévis, hop off, then hop back on.  You'll be super cool if you do.  You'll be even cooler if you take the time to down a few pints at Corsaire Microbrasserie while in Lévis.
-There's a ton of statues, monuments and history that you can learn about on your own!
Bring your walking shoes. Quebec City was the most physically demanding vacation destination I think I have ever visited. We did miles upon miles of walking up and down hilly streets and stairs, not to mention the bicycle excursion that was tacked on at the last minute.  We pretty much stayed in a state of self-induced exhaustion the whole trip.  I definitely left in better shape than when I got there, even with all the beer drinking and poutine eating.

For a relatively large, happening city, it gets extremely quiet at night.  We stayed about a block and a half off the main drag in a small neighborhood known as the Latin Quarter of Quebec City, and it was incredibly quiet at night (at most times of the day, actually).  It was you could hear a pin drop quiet.  It felt really safe and secure.  I liked that about it.
The people are friendly, but try and learn some French.  I had good intentions of learning French before going, but really slacked off.  Upon arriving it became apparent that I didn't know jack shit, but that was OK because pretty much everyone in the city is in the service industry and speaks English in addition to French.  But a few random words and phrases were appreciated, I think.  There was none of the stereotypical French snobbery from the Quebec locals.  It was like you had all the best European characteristics - culture, art, cuisine - mixed with all the best Canadian traits - extreme friendliness and hospitality.
There's more I could write but I'll stop here.  People don't read anymore anyway.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Guitarist Vic DeRobertis on Playing Like Jerry Garcia

Left-handed guitarist Vic DeRobertis of the New England based Grateful Dead tribute band "Playing Dead" shares some tips for playing like Jerry Garcia in this Guestlisted Guitar Lesson with Jeff Gottlieb.


Friday, July 3, 2015

Dawes' Taylor Goldsmith on The Grateful Dead

Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes (photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
The online-only Glide Magazine has posted an interview with Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes as part of its Easy Answers series.  Each installment of Easy Answers asks a (sometimes unexpected) musician to describe the importance of Grateful Dead music in his or her life.

It's no surprise to me that the Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia have had a significant impact on Taylor Goldsmith - not just in his guitar playing which has elements of Garcia's touch, but also in his delivery of the rock ballad.  Nobody did that better than Jerry, but Dawes comes pretty close.  Here are some highlights from the interview.

What is your personal favorite Grateful Dead song and why?
(Goldsmith) This changes all the time. At different times it’s been “Unbroken Chain”, “Box Of Rain”, “Ship Of Fools”, “Stella Blue”, “Looks Like Rain”, “Shakedown Street”, among others…but if I were to play a first time listener one song by the Grateful Dead that best represented the best of their songwriting, the guitar playing, the harmonies and the singular way they play off of each other, in my opinion, I’d put on “Jack Straw”. So I guess that says a lot.

What is your favorite era of the Grateful Dead and why?
(Goldsmith) I really love Reckoning. With that record it felt like I fell in love with them all over again. They were playing in such a new and interesting way and between that funny sound of Jerry’s direct input acoustic, Brent’s playing at the time, and listening to them hold back and play so much quieter than I had ever heard. I also loved knowing they released another equally incredible live electric record with Dead Set in that same year. It’s hard to say it’s my “favorite”, but it has definitely left its stamp with me that might not be as easily distinguishable as other era’s.

What do you feel is the greatest misconception a lot of people outside the Dead’s circle have of the band?
(Goldsmith) Two things: that it was ever about anything other than the music for those guys and that the culture that surrounded them was a product of the band. All of the extraneous elements of their public conception were just a product of their deeply devoted fans. I think those aspects have been a blessing and a curse. A lot of people misjudge the band before ever hearing the music, but at the same time, they have arguably the most committed and unique fans a band could ever ask for.

Read the full interview here: