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Showing posts from February, 2011

My First Banjo

My decision was made during the winter, when all good thinking gets done in Northeast Ohio. I wanted something to take up the slack in my life, and the banjo was my choice.

After the IRS sent me my tax refund in March 2008, I bought a Recoding King Songster from Cliff Fitch, a luthier from Texas who also was a Recording King dealer. He promised a professional set-up before shipping the instrument and included a hardshell case for $500. Seemed like a good deal to me.

The Songster was a "bluegrass" banjo, which just means it had a resonator -- never mind that plenty of old-time musicians have used resonated banjos. The neck was thin and easy to play, but the finish was a bit tacky, which caused my palm to stick to it occasionally. Regardless, the Songster was a solid instrument and Fitch's adjustments (most notably, a good bridge) made it sound good to my ears.

I started to learn Scruggs' three-finger style and was pretty dedicated for the next six months. However, I ne…

Setting Up the Sound: Mark Olitsky, Part 2

Read part 1, "The Banjo Wizard of Cleveland"

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A small part of Mark Olitsky’s distinct sound comes from how he sets up his banjos. He says he likes a deep, bassy sound from a banjo, and he uses heavier strings, a relatively loose head, a low tension tailpiece, and “things to keep as much towards the low end as possible.” You might notice some duct tape if you look at his banjos closely.
Olitsky usually plays one of two banjos. His “jamming” banjo is a Vega Little Wonder with an 11 13/16-inch diameter pot, Fiberskyn head, and a partially fretless neck he says was made at Goose Acres by Bob Smakula and Kevin Enoch.
“At the time that I was buying this banjo, I couldn't afford to buy two banjos and I wanted to try playing a fretless,” Olitsky says. “A fretless plate was put over the fret slots already put in the new neck. My plan was to try my new banjo out as a fretless for a month or two, and then when I was ready, have the plate removed and frets put in. Well, that wa…

Mark Olitsky: The Banjo Wizard of Cleveland

My first exposure to the dance-groove rhythm of Mark Olitsky’s banjo was in a brief YouTube clip of him playing at the Tazewell County (Va.) Fiddler’s Convention. Just over half a minute was enough to leave me craving more. Thankfully, Olitsky lives in Cleveland, just half an hour north of my home.

For the past two years, I’ve attended a workshop with Olitsky at the Kent State University annual Folk Festival, where I’ve tried to gain just a tiny insight to his playing style. Last week, he explained his approach to the banjo and old-time music.

“I don’t know how I would describe my style,” he says. “When I first started playing, I tried to put in a lot of melody notes, not really a melodic banjo style — I wasn’t proficient enough for that — but something that I thought might sound like an intricate take on the melody, with as much drop thumb as possible.”

However, that all changed after Olitsky attended his first music festival in the South, where he saw banjo players who played a mor…

Hanging Out with Banjo Geeks

Nothing says "dropping out of society" like learning the banjo.
--Daniel Roth, "O Brother! Daniel Roth Goes to Banjo Camp and Learns to Play Along," Jan. 21, 2002
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If you're anything like me, the decision to play the five-string banjo can seem a solitary pursuit. No one I knew played the instrument, and it wasn't until I was a couple years into playing that I met others among the banjo afflicted. However, I found solace in an online community dedicated to banjo players, the Banjo Hangout
At the BHO, as we regulars refer to it as, I found a whole army of banjo players from all walks of life. There are professionals willing to share advice, banjo builders who share their projects, instrument experts to give flash appraisals, and fellow novices to share in the journey of learning to play all kinds of music. Consider it as the Facebook for the banjo enthusiast. 
The Banjo Hangout helped me buy my first banjo, helped me realize I actually wanted to play old-t…

Not Just One Way to Play

One of the fascinating things about the banjo is the many ways the instrument is played. For every player, there is seemingly a different method. Some styles have distinct names with many practitioners, whereas other styles are distinctly unique to one musician.

When I first started, I didn't really know another style existed beyond how Earl Scruggs plays, which is a three-finger picking style that involves syncopated "rolls," alternating the thumb, index and middle fingers. Scruggs elevated this style to point that it now bears his name, Scruggs style.

However, Scruggs was not the first to pick the banjo with three fingers, nor was he the first to use metal finger picks, but he was the most popular. Now, his style is emulated by the majority of Bluegrass banjo players. 
Aside from Scruggs style, there were many other finger-picking styles. Old-Time banjoists like Dock Boggs, Charlie Poole, and sometimes Uncle Dave Macon (who played any way he wanted) used three fingers, bu…

A Fall Into Banjo

The past four posts have served as an introduction to this blog and what I plan to cover in the future. I hope to present a well-rounded view of the banjo and Old-Time music. As the author, however, I can't help but interject with tales about my own adventures with the instrument.

I consider myself an experienced novice. I know just enough about the banjo to know I still have plenty to learn. In that regard, I hope my experiences will help others who might be interested in learning to play the banjo.

My decision to play the banjo came in the winter of 2007 when I contacted the writers at the Americana music blog Hickory Wind about buying a banjo, which was prompted by an article on the site about buying a guitar. After a series of e-mails and some online research, I bought a Recording King Songster in March of 2008 and started to learn Scruggs three-finger style.

Even then, I wasn't a huge fan of the high-speed banjo picking of Bluegrass music, but the Scruggs style is so popu…

See the Sights: Sites to See

In the old days, Old-Time music was passed down person to person by direct contact. That is the nature of folk music. However, the Internet is changing that. True isolation is becoming rare in the United States, as an increasing percentage of the population has access to computer networks. Now, Old-Time music is passed down avatar to avatar by broadband connection.

As a beginning banjo player, the Internet is an invaluable resource for learning tunes and accessing information on anything from buying an instrument to researching musicians. Of course, you have to be wary of some sources that might be misleading, but the Internet is for the most part a great tool for any banjoist.

My top five banjo and Old-Time websites are:
Banjo Hangout -- a forum for all types of banjoistsDigital Library of Appalachia -- free sound filesZepp Country Music -- for all your banjo -- find other musicians to play with Northeast Ohio Old-Time Music Group (via Facebook)
I'll go into more …

Who's Making That Racket!

The popularity of Old-Time music follows a cyclical trend. When the record industry was created in the 1920s, it was this traditional music that topped the charts. When Bill Munroe created Bluegrass, his repertoire was based in this earlier style. During the 1950s, when Pete Seeger was freaking out Joe McCarthy, Old-Time revivalists were forming the basis of the Folk Boom of the '60s. Nearly every decade has had some form of resurgence in American Folk music. The past few years seem to be showing another up-tick in this raucous music.

So, just what the heck is Old-Time? That seems to stump many people. To the layman, Old-Time gets lumped in with Bluegrass as one in the same. In fact, I didn't know the difference between the two styles until I was about a year into playing the banjo. The late Mike Seeger tried to explain it in an essay from 1997, appropriately called "What Is Old-Time Music?"

I like to think of the difference between Old-Time and Bluegrass as my parents…

A New Golden Era

The banjo. What a glorious instrument.

The five-string banjo is an American invention. It has roots in a gourd-bodied instrument that slaves brought from Africa and then became mega-popular during the 1800s, when the black-face minstrel shows exploded like Rock and Roll did in the 1950s.

After the Civil War, banjos became a hot business item for manufacturers in New York City, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago -- heck, even Cleveland had a banjo company headquartered there. From about 1880 until the Great Depression, innovations abounded in banjos from builders like the Dobson brothers, S.S. Stewart, Fairbanks, Bacon, Cole, Buckbee, Lyon & Healy and many more.

(For an in-depth history of the banjo, check out America's Instrument by Philip Gura and James Bollman. See Bill's Banjos and Mugwumps for some photos of these vintage gems.)

Banjos made during late 19th and early 20th centuries are highly sought after. Talk to any bluegrass banjo player and you'll likely hear the…

What Do We Have Here?

This blog has been percolating in my mind for several months now. As the author of The Booze Hounds Inc. Running Team and a gainfully employed magazine editor, I was never sure if I would have enough time for a second blog.

The Glory-Beaming Banjo will be semi-regular blog -- whatever that means -- about banjos and Old Time music. Planned are a series of rotating topics on playing advice, instrument upkeep, banjo builders, musicians, helpful websites, and my personal journey with this so-called "drum on a stick." I hope you'll join me for the ride.

I am far from a banjo expert, but I hope my experiences since I took up the instrument in 2008 will be helpful to new players and that my enthusiasm for the music will spark a dynamic discussion among the readers of this blog. I am in no position to give lessons, but I can point to a number of sources that may be helpful.

As you can see, the sidebars to the left and right are full of items to explore. On the left, you'll …