Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Leftwich at the First Quarter

A day after my six-year banjoversary, this is the three-month mark for my attempt to learn the downbow style of old-time fiddling as taught by Brad Leftwich. As you may remember, Christmas brought the gift of his two-disc Learn to Play Old-Time Fiddle DVD set on Homespun Tapes and his Old-Time Fiddle: Round Peak Style book and CD set. It seemed fitting to mark my banjo anniversary along with a quarterly update on my fiddle pursuits.

The first DVD (Lesson 1) has consumed me. Leftwich focuses the basics of downbow fiddling with long and short sawstrokes, the Nashville shuffle, and a series of beginning and ending licks to keep the rhythmic emphasis on the down stroke. These methods are taught via six tunes: "Shortnin' Bread," "Sugar Hill," "Jimmy Sutton," "Black-Eyed Susie," "Great Big Taters in Sandy Land," and "Jeff Sturgeon" (in that order).

Leftwich teaches the basic melody and then how to add drones and basic variations to the tunes. One thing that I've appreciated is that he uses variant tunings. In fact, the only tune in "standard" GDAE is "Great Big Taters." The others are in ADAE (key of D) and AEAE (key of A). Before using these videos, I always stayed in GDAE, almost too afraid to retune. Now, it's like the banjo for me. Tuning to different keys is just a part of playing the instrument.

So far, I've made it through the first five tunes. At first, I skipped learning the variations, all of which are the lower octave versions of the basic melody. Now, I'm going back and learning those too. My pinky finger feels like it's doing gymnastics, as Leftwich prefers to stretch the littlest digit up the fingerboard to play unison notes.

My brain still gets a bit mixed up switching to the lower strings, even though the bowing patterns remain the same. I keep reminding myself to slow it down. I imagine myself busking at the local farmers market, and I just want to speed up until my playing falls off the apple cart.

Despite making it through most of the first DVD, it's still handling the bow that gives me the most trouble. After 15 months of trying to learn the fiddle, I'm amazed that I still haven't settled on a bow grip. I keep testing different finger configurations to find what's most comfortable and achieves the sound I'm seeking.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Six Years in Six Days

Despite it being more than two months since my last post, this one comes early. The idea has been brewing since the beginning of March, when the realization that my banjo anniversary (banjoversary?) was this month. It was six years ago on March 24 that my banjo journey began.

Recording King Songster
For the first six months, my fingers flailed at Scruggs' style picking because that was the only way I knew of to play the banjo. When I bought my first banjo, I promised myself I wouldn't quit like I did with guitar back in high school. (These days I've really been wanting a guitar.) However, after half a year and meeting the woman who would be my wife, my banjo playing days were almost through. But then, hello, clawhammer!

I was still learning the difference between what was bluegrass and what was old-time music back then. It seems so obvious today, but I didn't really know anybody then who could have shown me the path. I had to find it on my own. When I did, the whole world opened up for me.

My New Year's resolution in 2009 remains perhaps my most successful resolution ever, as my goal was to rededicate myself to the banjo and learn how to play clawhammer style.

Here I am, still at it.

Although the fiddle has taken up the majority of my practice time over the past year, I still find time to play banjo a few times a week to keep myself sharp (well, sharp-ish). There is still a lot to learn. I've never been one to know a bunch of tunes, but I'd like to get better at picking up things on the fly. Most of my "new" tunes are those I'm learning on fiddle, which was one of my main goals of learning that instrument in the first place.

Passing it down
The most enjoyment I find playing my banjo these days, though, is the response I get from my six-month-old son. Sometimes, he'll kick along to the tunes. Lately, I've held him on my lap while playing. He likes to grab the fifth string and pop it.

I hold my breath every time for fear he'll break the nylon string. So far, that hasn't happened. But strings are replaceable. This time is not. Maybe in another six years, my son will be playing along with me. 

That's the dream.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Journey Back to Jamming

It's been several months since I've been to a local jam session. Since my son was born in September, it's just been too difficult to find the time. One of my goals this year is to get back to playing with others, preferably in the next month or so.

The thought of playing my banjo in a group again fills me with a bit of anxiety. By nature, I'm not the most outgoing person. Couple that with the feeling of being way out of practice, and you have a recipe for the nervous nellies.

As readers know, I've spent most of my music-playing time this past year learning the fiddle. However, I still don't feel confident enough to play it in public. Besides, there are plenty of fiddlers around and not enough banjo bangers to keep them honest.

It seems high time I get back to woodshedding tunes on the five-string to get myself back up to speed. I like to practice by playing along with recordings. Last night, I was reminded of the handy Old-Time Jam Machine, an online source for backing tracks, which allows you to play along with recordings — minus the instrument you're playing.

The site has fiddle, banjo and guitar tracks for many common tunes, and you have the option of playing with fiddle and guitar, fiddle and banjo, banjo and guitar or just guitar backing. If you haven't tried it, I highly recommend it, especially to those who are nervous about attending their first old-time jam session.

My first jam of the year is coming soon. It'll feel good to feel part of the local old-time community again.

Monday, January 6, 2014

A New Year. A New Goal

The holidays brought a bounty of gifts to help me improve my fiddling. As you can see from the photo above, it was a Brad Leftwich Christmas. You can also see my new Snark clip-on tuner. These resources should help me level up my bowing. After working from Wayne Erbsen's Old-Time Fiddle for the Complete Ignoramus for the past year, it was time to seek new challenges.

Awhile back I had borrowed Leftwich's Old-Time Fiddle: Round Peak Style from the library and deemed it a good resource, but nearly incomprehensible in terms of trying to read the tabs. However, it came with a CD with more than 80 tunes that I hope to learn by ear once I figure out the bowing "licks," which is where the Homespun DVDs come in. (By the way, you can download those 80-plus CD tracks via the eBook page at the Mel Bay site. Look for the "Downloads" tab and click on "Download Extras.")

So far, the DVD lessons are proving to be just the challenge I was seeking. I'm through "Shortnin' Break" (AEAE) and am now working on a more complex rendition of "Sugar Hill" (ADAE), compared to the version I learned from the Erbsen book. Leftwich teaches downbow, which is taking a little getting used to, but it's coming along.

To update you on how I finished up 2013, I hit my 125-hour mark. It came down to the wire! I had to put in some longer sessions on the last few days of the year, but I made it. My goals for this year are to reach 300 hours between fiddle and banjo, and to get back to playing with friends and going to local old-time sessions.

What banjo (or fiddle) resolutions do you have for 2014? What are your musical goals for the New Year? Let me know in the comments!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

2013: Year in Review

Having just looked back on the progress I've made playing the fiddle this year, it seems appropriate to revisit some of the other blog-worthy events of 2013. This has been a momentous year. By far, the biggest highlight of the year was becoming a father, but there were some pretty cool things happening in my old-time music realm as well. Here are a couple notables.

Interviews
We kicked off the year with an interview with Chris Valluzzo of Horse Archer Productions about the upcoming documentary on the Highwoods String Band. At the time, the documentary was scheduled to be released in the spring or summer, but a wild goose chase for more footage of the Highwoods playing live has delayed the project. Valluzzo provided an update in October on Facebook, saying the film should be ready around Christmastime.

In March, Greg Galbreath of Buckeye Banjos spoke to the Glory-Beaming Banjo about creating custom banjos. Since then, Galbreath has closed his custom orders list to begin focusing on building his own designs, starting with No. 200. You can see all the banjos we talked about during the interview on his website under "Latest Banjos." That "Vanitas girl" banjo turned out to be for Scott Avett of the Avett Brothers.

Festivals
February brought a new event in the Cleveland area, the Shore Folk Festival in Euclid, Ohio. This blog's banjo hero Mark Olitsky taught a workshop and joined in on jams. There were performances by local old-time musicians and a square dance. It was a neat event, but there hasn't been any word about whether there will be another one in 2014.

The summer featured my favorite local event, the Raccoon County Music Festival. I met up with friends to play tunes in the lawn. This will be a fun one to take my son to in the coming years.

In Concert
I didn't get out to many shows this year, but I did catch The Freight Hoppers on their way through Cleveland last winter. I'm hoping they'll be back this year for another winter tour through the Midwest. Frank Lee and the gang provided a great evening of tunes and songs, despite the absence of the band's founding fiddler David Bass.

These were some of this year's highlights on this blog. What were your favorite banjo-related happenings in 2013? What are you looking forward to in the New Year?