Friday, October 24, 2014

An Open (D)oor

It seems preposterous that after more than six years of playing banjo that I've never gotten very adventurous with tunings. Barring one or two instances, I've remained within the three most common intervals for old-time music: G/A, sawmill and CC/DD. Last night, I opened a new door and tried Open D tuning.

For those unfamiliar, Open D is f#DF#AD, whereas I usually play D tunes in Double-D (aDADE). That versatile tuning is well-suited for playing in a group setting, as the tunes seem to lay out easier and keep the scale notes and chord positions within easy reach. The thing is lately I've been confined to playing at home alone.

Now seems like the perfect opportunity to branch out a little.

Open D is sometimes called "graveyard tuning" — a perfect tuning with Halloween around the corner. To my ears, it has a bluesy quality and seems better suited for playing on the lower strings. Or maybe that's my own bias. Just from exploring the fingerboard, it seems I can get most the notes I need on the first two frets.

I tried to see if I could find the tunes I already know, but instead just noodled around for half an hour. Maybe this weekend I'll work harder to learn a tune and find my chord positions.

While the fiddle remains my focus, exploring new avenues on the banjo keeps things fun. I hope the experience will make me a better player in the end.

What are some of your favorite tunings? Do you have any you haven't tried yet? Let me know in the comments ... 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Keeping Warm Outside in the Cold

Every weekday since the spring, I've taken my lunch break in the park down the road from my office and brought along my fiddle. For the past few months, these half-hour sessions have accounted for about 90 percent of my practice time. Now that fall has arrived, these lunchtime sessions have begun to get a bit brisk.

The main problem is my fingers. Left exposed to the elements, my digits start to feel like icicles after a time. I had hoped learning to fiddle faster would keep them warm, but it seems I didn't account for the added windchill factor. One of those outdoor space heaters restaurants use on patios would be ideal, but not easy to transport. My only other solution is gloves.

The first image that pops into my mind is a pair of bulky mittens mashed against the fingerboard, the bow being gripped like an ice cream cone. That wouldn't work. Those gloves with cutoff fingers would be great if it weren't for the fact that the fingers remain exposed to defeat the whole purpose of keeping said fingers warm. Finally a solution arrived this past weekend.

Ever see those thin, little, stretchy gloves that are supposed to be one size fits all? They don't really do much in the dead of winter, but for my purposes they may be just what the doctor prescribed. They're thin enough where I wouldn't be trying to push through a thick layer of insulation to sound a note, but they would still provide protection from the cold.

Of course it's almost 80 degrees today, so conditions aren't suitable for testing. I'll find out soon enough.

How do you keep warm while playing music outside in the cold? 

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Review: Bart Veerman Bridge

Last month I mentioned ordering a new bridge for my banjo from Bart Veerman. After a thorough test drive of my revamped banjo, I'm here to deliver a thorough review.

What I ordered: Basic two-footed bridge, 5/8-inch tall, mystery wood, no top, 46-millimeter “clawhammer” string spacing. (Cost: $20, including shipping.)

My banjo specs: Short scale, walnut neck, 12-inch thin maple rim (Keller drum shell), Dobson tone ring, thin goatskin head, Chris Sands heavy strings. (See review here.)

Selection: Bart offers a wide variety of bridge styles with a long list of options to customize each bridge order. You can specify number of legs, height, wood, finish, string spacing, compensation and more.

Price: Bart’s bridges start at $15 and escalate in price depending on the myriad options available for customization. Your base option offers choice of height, wood and string spacing. Shipping is $3 within Canada, $5 to the United States and $7 elsewhere.

Availability: You can order Bart’s bridges directly from his website at or from respected online retailers Elderly Instruments and Janet Davis Music.

Quality: The Bridge is attractive and sturdy. The craftsmanship appears top-notch.

Ordering: Bart’s order form asks a number of detailed questions about your banjo to ensure the bridge you order best matches your instrument. The ordering process is a bit clunky, as you have to submit the order form and PayPal payment separately. However, Bart’s response time is excellent. He responded the next day, asking additional questions about my banjo to ensure the bridge met my needs. I ordered on a Friday, and the bridge was shipped on the following Monday.

Bart is based in Canada, so mailing time to the United States takes some time due to customs, etc. Bart estimated seven to 12 days. My bridge arrived in seven days.

Service: Throughout it all, Bart was in constant communication, notifying me when he received my order, asking questions and following up to make sure the bridge arrived and met my expectations. His customer service is superb.

The bridge arrived in a padded envelope with a business card and invoice. The bridge was marked on the bottom with a “1” on one foot and a “5” on the other to indicate the proper orientation in relation to the strings. I just slipped the bridge under the strings with my old bridge in place and switched it out for the new one with a quick check on the intonation, and I was ready to play.

Bart Veerman bridge installed.
Playability and sound notes: My banjo immediately sounded louder and crisper upon installing the Bart Veerman bridge. The tone has more clarity, pop and warmth with a quick note decay. Although I have not played my banjo in a group setting as of this writing, my suspicion is that it will be able to cut through better than it was able to previously.

It took almost no time to adapt to the wider “clawhammer” spacing. The difference is so subtle that I didn’t even think about the additional space at first, but now I’m reveling in the ability to drop thumb more cleanly without catching on the other strings. The slots fit my strings perfectly thanks to Bart’s initial emails about my banjo.

I don’t know what Bart’s method is of matching a bridge to a banjo, but he does a masterful job. Part of the secret has to be in his ordering form, which asks for all the particulars of your banjo. I entered nylon strings on the form, and he followed up about which strings to get the exact gauge.

Comparison: Bridge prices vary widely, from $3.50 mass produced no-name products to $60 boutique handmade bridges. I’ve used cheap Grover bridges and more expensive Moon bridges and some in between. Bart’s bridge prices fall nicely in the median between cheap and boutique options, but he sets himself apart by offering such detailed customization and having a knack for pairing his bridges to the banjo you describe. I’ve never had a bridge that made such an immediate difference. I would not hesitate to order another bridge from Bart or recommend his bridges to other players. His prices are reasonable, and his product and service are exceptional.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Leftwich Lessons: Rocky Road to 3Q

Today marks nine months of working with Brad Leftwich's two-disc Homespun DVD series Learn to Play Old-Time Fiddle. At last report, I had switched over to Lesson 2, which where the "down-bow" style gets much more complex.

Leftwich teaches a series of patterns named after the greats he learned from, such as "Tommy's Lick," named after Tommy Jarrell, and "Melvin's Lick." named after Melvin Wine, and others. These short patterns have some variations and can be slotted into various tunes to help drive the rhythm by keeping the beginning of phrases as a powerful downward bow stroke.

This past weekend, I started working on "Rocky Road to Dublin," from West Virginia fiddler Burl Hammons. So far, it's been very rocky road indeed.

This is the second tune that Leftwich teaches using "Melvin's Lick," which is basically a shuffle and a pulsed up-bow. As the lessons have gone on, I've had a harder time picking up the tune from the video alone. I've resorted to using the notation provided in the booklet, which is frustrating.

One of my goals was to develop better skills at picking up tunes on the fly, but that has proven much more difficult as the tunes become more complex. Perhaps I'm relying too much on my eyes instead of my ears, as I'm trying to watch the video for where Leftwich's fingers fall, rather than listening to what the notes are.

The other problem with this is that I don't actually read standard notation, though I can figure it out. The time it takes me to write my own notes about what the notation says is time that would be better spent working with the bow.

At any rate, I still rate these DVDs highly. The tunes have all been fun. Some are fairly common, while others are a bit more obscure. It's a good mix. The teaching style is pretty straightforward. However, I find it difficult to play along with the video. I wish there were audio files of the tunes to supplement the DVDs.

There are still five more tunes to learn. I better pick up the pace if I'm going to get through these lessons by the end of the year.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

From Abe's to Zollie's Retreat

The acquisition of a new family car has allowed me the luxury of being able to connect my iPod to my car stereo. Instead of cycling through my CDs to quench my old-time thirst, I now have my entire music catalog to satiate my ears.

A couple weeks ago I decided to start at one end and see how long it took to get to the other, going alphabetically by song title. Like I said, I started this little journey a couple weeks ago and have only made it to "Camp Chase." The funny thing is I'm encountering a lot of music I forgot I had.

With digital downloads and the availability of loads of out-of-print music in the "public domain," I have downloaded a lot of old-time material without really listening to all of it. Each time a new tune comes on, I play a game with myself of trying to identify the artist and title. I'm losing that contest. I often find myself thinking, "I didn't know I had this."

As is one of my favorite aspects of old-time music, I'm enjoying all the different versions of tunes I have. Like "Camp Chase," My collection includes versions by French Carpenter, Emory Bailey and Burl Hammons, all of them field recordings.

Each player tells the same general legend of the tune's origin as having won the freedom of a Confederate soldier after playing it during a fiddle contest held at the eponymous prison camp near Columbus, Ohio. Carpenter claims it was his grandfather, Solly Carpenter, who won the jailhouse fiddle contest. Hammons also cites the elder Carpenter as the source. Bailey tells the same story, but doesn't give names. While the origins of the tune are purportedly the same, each fiddler plays it differently.

It's a fascinating ride and full of surprises. Judging by my progress it might take a whole year or more to get through my digital music collection.

Have you ever tried listening to your music collection (digital or analog) from end to end? What surprises did you find? Let me know in the comments ...