Wednesday, January 14, 2015

A Strapping Young Banjo Player

It may seem like a silly notion, but a new strap might be helping me play more banjo. For the longest time, I had a homemade strap fashioned from a leather belt blank, some grommets and leather shoelaces. It worked fine, but it was a royal pain in the you know what to put on and take off. For Christmas, I received a brown Neotech Slimline Strap, and I couldn't be happier.

As shown in this video, the attachment loops have a quick connect clasp for easy installation. Also, when I'm sitting down to play, I can quickly remove the strap without removing the attachment loops.

Furthermore, the leather is attractive, and the overall strap seems very sturdy. The memory foam padding provides a high level of comfort, especially compared to my DIY strap that had no padding whatsoever.

However, the best thing about the strap is that I can stand up to play, and that new development has been a real boon to my playing time over the last month.

Having an active 16-month at home, sitting down to play has become almost impossible. My son will immediately come to my side, wedging himself between my knees and begin clawing at the strings. It's funny, but not conducive to serious playing.

Now, I can avoid his clutches and walk around to watch what else he's getting into (i.e., everything).

The only problem I've had with the strap is finding the perfect place to connect the loops. Unlike guitars, there's no set place to attach a strap, and you much find the balance point so you're not constantly pulling up on the neck to keep it at the optimum playing position. All in all, not a much a of a problem at all.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Happy New Year, Fourth Quarter of Leftwich, Second Fiddle Anniversary, Banjo Birthday and Welcome Back

Welcome back, banjo nerds. I took a much-needed hiatus over the solstice celebration, and I return to you fresh as a daisy. But in the intervening weeks between my last post and this one, I've missed a few milestones. So, Happy New Year! Now, let's get back into the swing of things.

Christmas marked three important anniversaries:
  1. Last year, I received the Brad Leftwich DVDs that I've been using to learn down-bow fiddling. In that time, I've made it through all of Lesson 1 and halfway through Lesson 2. The videos have greatly improved my bowing, though I know I still have a LONG WAY to go. I expect to finish Lesson 2 by June. By then I should have a nice repertory of tunes under my belt in various keys and tunings. 
  2. With that said, two years ago was when I bought my fiddle from my friend Guy and began this crazy journey. It's hard to believe it's been that long. The time has flown by, and it's been a heckuva challenge. 
  3. Finally, six years ago, I purchased my current banjo. It's been a good workhorse, despite many urges to get something else. That urge has instead manifested itself in learning different ways to tweak my instrument or learn new things. I love my current set-up, and a new strap (this year's Christmas present) has me getting used to standing up to play. With my one-year-old son around, standing is about the only way I can play without him grabbing at my strings.
The last year has been a good year for the fiddle, but the banjo was a bit neglected. As my wife and I were busy raising a baby, there wasn't much time to play tunes with others. Except for a couple parties and a festival, I mostly played by myself. In 2015, I hope to change that and reconnect with my old-time music community.


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

5 Glory-Beaming Gift Ideas for Winter Solstice & Other Holiday Celebrations

We banjo players and old-time music fans can be a fickle bunch to buy for during the winter holiday season, but fear not! I have compiled this short list of items that are bound to tickle your pickle. If you're struggling to round out your wishlist, just add these items or share this post with your loved ones. Now, let's get to it!

Do Not Sell at Any Price
By Amanda Petrusich

The book's subtitle "The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World's Rarest 78-rpm Records" is cemented when the author learns to scuba dive so she can search the bottom of the Milwaukee River in hopes of digging up castoff 78s from the Paramount factory in Wisconsin. Petrusich not only attempts to hunt down some choice shellac but also the reason why this community of mostly white men become so driven to search thrift stores and flea markets and go door-to-door to collect these out-of-print recordings. A fun read for anyone interested in old music and collecting.

Where Will You Be Christmas Day?
Dust-to-Digital

Sure you can find a local radio station playing Christmas music nonstop this time of year, but you probably won't hear these old numbers. A mix of old-time, blues, gospel and ethnic holiday songs, this compilation is sure to capture some of that old holiday magic and show the many sides of Christmas, from Jesus born in the manger to Leroy Carr spending the holiday in jail. Keep an ear out for some of my favorites by Fiddlin' John Carson, Cotton Top Mountain Sanctified Singers, Norman Edmonds and Lead Belly.

Anthology of American Folk Music
Smithsonian Folkways

Also known as the Harry Smith Anthology, this is often cited as the document that launched the Folk Revival of the 1950s and '60s. Released in 1952, this collection of tunes and songs from the late 1920s and early '30s formed the foundation of the Greenwich Village music scene and inspired the likes of the New Lost City Ramblers and Bob Dylan. A must-have for old-time music fans. You could spend a lifetime exploring these tracks. And don't forget Volume 4.

Inside Llewyn Davis
By Joel and Ethan Coen

A fictional account of a folk musician set in the aforementioned Greenwich Village folk music scene at a time just before the arrival of Dylan. Like their 2000 film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Coens tapped T Bone Burnett to produce this wonderful soundtrack. Title character Llewyn Davis's life is very loosely inspired by "The Mayor of MacDougal Street," the memoir of folk musician Dave Van Ronk. (Warning: Don't go in expecting an adaptation Van Ronk's life story, as I did.)

Art Rosenbaum's Old-Time Banjo Book
By Art Rosenbaum

The newest offering from the author of "Old-Time Mountain Banjo" and "Art of the Mountain Banjo," this book and two-DVD set provides 47 tunings and different picking styles for our beloved five-string. Rosenbaum groups the tunings into “families” that show how they can be used in playing solo banjo tunes, string band music and song accompaniment. Covering a wide array of downstroke and fingerpicking styles, the book is aimed at both experienced and novice players interested in broadening their banjo horizons.

Bonus Selections:

And if you're looking for something to buy your intrepid glory-beaming blogger, I'd like this Doug Unger banjo at Elderly Music. Happy holidays, readers!

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?