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Showing posts from 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?
D…

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 g…

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 pu…

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 di…

Leftwich Lessons: Rocky Road to 3Q

Today marks nine months of working with Brad Leftwich's two-disc Homespun DVD seriesLearn 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 fro…

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…

A Bridge Too Far

There just seemed to be something missing. Or maybe I'd just grown bored of its sound. But one way or another I wanted to make a change to my banjo. That change was a new bridge.

For a while, I was using a half-inch, no-top cheap Grover bridge, and I really liked the sound. When I changed to using heavy nylon strings, however, the lower bridge no longer worked. The only other option I had lying around was a thicker 5/8-inch bridge, which just sounded muddy to me. I tried to modify it by cutting off the middle foot to make a two-footer, which I prefer with nylon strings, but my hack job didn't really work.

About two weeks ago, I decided to try something new. I'd heard of Bart Veerman's bridges through the Banjo Hangout for some time, and a friend had recently installed one of Bart's bridges on a banjo that he let me try out. Having liked the sound, I decided to go for it.

Thinking back to that cheap Grover, I ordered a 5/8-inch, two-foot, no-top "mystery wood&q…

Postcards: Raccoon County

Raccoon County Music Festival Is Coming Saturday to Burton, Ohio

So my favorite local festival is this Saturday. If you are local to Northeast Ohio and a fan of banjos, old-time and other roots music, I strongly encourage you to attend the Raccoon County Music Festival in Burton, Ohio.

The annual event takes place from noon to 8 p.m. on the grounds of the Century Village Museum. Like Hale Farm, Burton's Century Village is a living museum with restored buildings and demonstrations of our pre-modern world. The festival features two stages for live music ranging from old-time and bluegrass to polka and blues, as well as workshops and jam sessions.

Workshops will include beginning and advanced old-time banjo taught by Glory-Beaming Banjo favorite Mark Olitsky, beginning bluegrass banjo taught by Rick Campbell and clogging taught by Laura Lewis Kovac. There will be kite flying in the afternoon for children. And a square dance will end the day, with all dances taught on the fly — no experience needed. Spontaneous jamming will sprout up all over the f…

'Touched With Fire' Update

Remember back a year and a half ago when we talked about an upcoming documentary about the Highwoods String Band? At the time, the film was slated to be released in the spring of 2013. However, here we are in the summer of 2014 and still no movie.

This is not to disparage the filmmakers in any way. As a reminder, "Touched With Fire: The Highwoods String Band Story" is being produced by Horse Archer Productions, a two-person, self-funded company that relies on fundraising to complete its projects. This will be the third film by the company that focuses on old-time music, joining "Why Old Time?" and "The Henry Reed Legacy," which are still available for $20 each.

As one of the people who pre-ordered the Highwoods documentary, I was curious what was going on with the project. And having possibly led some of you to invest in the film, it seemed like my duty to provide an update.

According to the company's website whyoldtime.com, the company was trying to …

Playing Music in the Valley

In the Cuyahoga Valley National Park is the historic Hale Farm & Village, an outdoor living museum of life in the 19th century.

Jonathan Hale, a farmer from Connecticut, came to what was then the Western Reserve in 1810. Three generations of Hales lived in the house he built in 1825.

Across what is now Oak Hill Road, a small village dots the bucolic landscape with barns, a church, a schoolhouse, a pottery shop and other small buildings . Today, reenactors inhabit the village to display blacksmithing, glassblowing and other trades. Great Lakes Brewing Co. operates a small organic farm, where it grows vegetables and herbs to be used in its restaurant. Hale Farm & Village is open year round, and each July it hosts Music in the Valley in collaboration with the local non-profit group Folknet.



This past weekend marked the event's 40th. In the video above, you'll see the wide variety of music represented at the two-day affair. The group I played with shows up at the 1:10 mark.…

Leftwich Lessons: Second Quarter

It's been six months since I started working with Brad Leftwich's Homespun two-disc DVD series Learn to Play Old-Time Fiddle. This is my second quarterly report on my progress.

You already heard from me earlier this month when I switched over to Lesson 2. There hasn't been much progress in the intervening two weeks since then. I've been listening hard to a couple different versions of "Citico" to get the rhythm of the tune better fixed in my head.

I'm starting to hear how my slow playing will eventually become the up-to-speed version I'm listening to from Lowe Stokes, Leftwich and Marcus Martin. However, the Martin version is reportedly in AEAC#, aka "Calico" tuning, not GDAD as the Stokes and Leftwich are.

My biggest problem so far with this second disc is getting the feel of the syncopation on "Tommy's Lick." I'm hoping that it will click the more I play the tune and get closer to the sound, but it may require slowing dow…

The Next Lesson

All this playing fiddle in the park has been a big help in my progression with Brad Leftwich's instructional DVDs. Up until now, I've been consumed with Lesson 1 of his Learn to Play Old-Time Fiddle series from Homespun. Yesterday, I finally cracked the seal on Lesson 2.

The disc starts off with what Leftwich calls "Tommy's Lick" or what some refer to as "synco shuffle" (for syncopated shuffle), which leads to the first tune, "Citico." Shifting from simple saw strokes and basic shuffling to this style is tough to wrap my head around, and reading about it doesn't help — at all.

In fact, the more I try to understand it, the more nebulous it seems. I need to close the websites and open my ears.

While I don't yet have the feel for the bowing, I was gratified by how quickly I grasped the fingering for the tune, which Leftwich teaches in GDAD, a new tuning for me. Granted, it's not that difficult since the tune never drops to the high D …

Playing in the Park

Now that the weather is nice, my lunches have gotten much more old-timey. Instead of eating at my desk like I did through most of winter, I am now bringing my fiddle along and exiting to a nearby park to play tunes.

There's a quiet picnic area with a set of secluded tables that are usually empty when I arrive, providing a comfortable place to play away from the sensitive ears of others.

But usually empty is not always empty. Take today, for example, nobody was at the tables when I arrived, but about halfway through my practice session my solitary area filled with other lunchtimers and forced me to suck it up and play for a crowd.

Confession time: My demeanor is not the most extroverted, especially when it comes to playing music and even moreso when it comes to playing the fiddle. However, my midday forays to the park have helped me overcome the impulse to clam up or stop playing in the company of an unexpected audience.

Twice I've been complimented for my novice fiddling, and …

Playing in Between Times

Fatherhood has had a profound impact on my life, as it should, and playing music has come to occupy a different space than it did before my son's arrival last fall.

It used to be that I'd carve out an hour almost every night to play banjo or fiddle. I would mark the calendar each month with the local old-time jams I planned to attend, and then attend them I would.

Ever since my son was born last September, these luxuries seem beyond my reckoning. Now, I play my music in whatever time I can manage between work and family duties.

My wife has been OK with my instruments residing in our dining room, close at hand for when I have the time to play.

When the weather is nice, I drag my fiddle to the office and play in a nearby park at lunchtime.

When my son gets fussy eating his dinner, I yank my banjo off the stand and play until he's ready for the next bite.

When his eyes are fluttering as he settles down for a nap, I serenade his dreams.

And when he's finally off to bed for…

Eighth Annual Banjo Festival Honors Mike Seeger's Legacy

For those familiar with old-time music, Mike Seeger’s name rings like the banjo he was renowned for playing. This summer, the eighth annual MikeSeeger Commemorative Old Time Banjo Festival will pay tribute to his legacy with a series of concerts and workshops on the weekend of July 12-13.
The Birchmere Music Hall in Alexandria, Virginia, will host the concert on Saturday, July 12, featuring Tony Trischka, Cathy Fink, Richie Stearns and Rosie Newton, Marcy Marxer, and Rick Good. Tickets are $29.50 and available through Ticketmaster (service fees apply) or directly from the Birchmere box office.
The roots music store House of Musical Traditions in Takoma Park, Maryland, will host the workshops on Sunday, July 13, featuring old-time fiddle, clawhammer and finger style banjo. Space is limited, and the organizers recommend registering early at www.hmtrad.com/lessons/workshops.html#banjofest. If it is less than three days before the workshop, call (301) 270-9090 to register. The workshops …

Showdown at the OK Plateau

In reading about productivity tricks learned from the late author David Foster Wallace, I was introduced to the notion of the "OK Plateau," a concept coined by another author, Joshua Foer, who defines this as the place where people reach an acceptable level of skill and then stop trying to learn new things, which Wallace describes in his very long novel Infinite Jest.
"Then [there's] maybe the worst type, because it can cunningly masquerade as patience and humble frustration. You've got the Complacent type, who improves radically until he hits a plateau, and is content with the radical improvement he's made to get to the plateau, and doesn't mind staying at the plateau because it's comfortable and familiar, and he doesn't worry about getting off it, and pretty soon you find he's designed a whole game around compensating for the weaknesses and chinks in the armor the given plateau represents in his game, still — his whole game is based on this …

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 variation…

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.

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…

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…

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 throug…