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Prime Porch Picking Time

Spring is in full swing, and the weather is perfect for playing the banjo outside.

My wife and I bought our first house in December 2011, and from the beginning was I looking forward to using the porch for picking.

Earlier this year, some friends joined me for a small house jam, and we got a couple opportunities to play outside instead of the stuffy attic. Recent scheduling conflicts, however, put future plans on hiatus, but that hasn't meant that I'm not out there playing.

We live in a diverse neighborhood, and it's been enjoyable seeing the reactions from the neighbors walking by, mainly youngsters who variably give me the disparaging stink-eye or approving head-nod. One guy, whom I call the "Friendly Neighborhood Roving Rapper," stopped before me on Sunday and engaged in a duel of sorts, with him rapping at me while I played "Candy Girl" back at him. My first rap battle!

Similar to joining my first jam, I've had to learn to play through the distraction of the passersby. The urge to impress is in direct conflict with my ability to maintain accuracy.

As luck would have it, my one neighbor is a fiddler, and while we've only had occasion to play together once, I know I'm not disturbing them when I'm outside picking away. The neighbors on the others side may be another story, but so far no complaints.

While playing with others forced me to play faster, playing by myself has reminded me how enjoyable it can be picking a tune slowly. It gives me the opportunity to explore different textures of a tune, with rhythmic accents and variations. I've transferred my joy of tinkering with my banjo to tinkering with a tune.

Speaking of which, I have been experimenting with different bridges and bought two Grover bridges from Elderly Instruments to try out, along with a Fielding tailpiece. I'm a firm believer in only changing one thing at a time, so I installed the 1/2-inch non-tipped bridge with a center support, and -- Wow! -- the sound was a great improvement.

My banjo came with a 5/8-inch, medium Moon bridge, and I've also tried a straight, 11/16-inch, ebony-tipped bridge and a 5/8-inch, non-tipped Morris bridge, but none of them really satisfied me with my recent change to Ome heavy steel strings.

The cheap, Grover bridge made an immediate impact. First of all, the action is much lower than I've ever had my banjo. And most importantly, the sound is crisper and louder. Oddly (or maybe not), I get an occasional buzz, but it seems to go away after a few moments of playing, which is probably a side effect of having a skin head.

If the buzz gets worse as the summer humidity sets it, I'll have to switch to the 5/8-inch Grover with the ebony and ivoroid inserts.

And one of these days, I'll get around to installing that new tailpiece, but right now my banjo sounds perfect and the tinkerer in me is satisfied.

On a side note, while examining the packaging of my new bridges, I learned that Grover is based in Cleveland, yet another local banjo connection I never knew about.


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