Saturday, May 30, 2009

Banjo versus TV week 65: Land of the Lost

A check-in on the Banjo versus TV project — J.R.'s ongoing plan to spend more time on his banjo than on TV. This post covers 5/24/2009 through 5/30/2009.
Banjo 398 hrs, TV 387 hours

I've been pretty fixated all week long with the Land of the Lost movie that came out on Friday. Maybe it's because of the banjo music in the original series.

I was wondering who played the banjo on that show. Here's where Google lead me:

When the Land of the Lost: The Complete Series DVD set came out on Tuesday I was first in line to get in (because: of couse!) and I was happy to see a DVD extra of film director Brad Silberling interviewing Sid and Marty Krofft. Here's the banjo-centric portion of the interview:

Brad: Okay, I'm going in right away with the big question. What is with the banjo? Tell me about the banjo. It's the most brilliant and interesting and odd choice for a key instrument, for a theme song, as a recurring instrument, for your underscore. I'm stealing it for my movie.

Sid: Well, I really think it was like two years before we did Land of the Lost, there was a big movie out there with Burt Reynolds.

Brad: Ah, yes, we know that movie.

All: Deliverance.

Sid: And Deliverance had a banjo all the way through it. So when we were scoring Land of the Lost, I said to the composer, "I love that sound. Let's try that to see if it works with the dinosaurs.". And Marty and myself really insisted upon... He saw the movie too and he said, "Wow, that's an incredible sound, so let's go for it." And it really, really worked.

Brad: Science fiction, adventure, banjo. Yeah. Absolutely.

Also in the last week:

  • My watch-in-the-morning DVD has been Bill & Gloria Gaither Present: Country Bluegrass Homecoming: Vol. 1, which I rented from Netflix. Good DVD, although truth in titling should have required it be called Bill & Gloria Gaither Present: A Whole Bunch of Artists Sing One Gospel Song Each, Some of Which is Bluegrass: Vol. 1.
  • All that gospel bluegrass stuff put me in mind of the Austin Lounge Lizards singing Banjo Players in Heaven. Growing up with a dad who was a church musician with a sense of humor, I developed a taste for slightly irreverent gospel music.

    Emily Kaitz also sings this song, with some additional lyrics.

  • Some stuff from my daily reading at

    The Barn

    The Buckets

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Banjo versus TV: Week 64

A check-in on the Banjo versus TV project — J.R.'s ongoing plan to spend more time on his banjo than on TV. This post covers 5/17/2009 through 5/23/2009.
Banjo 390 hrs, TV 378 hours

Y'know, for a blogger who runs something called the Banjo versus TV project, I spend way more time blogging about banjo than I do about TV. So since this is the week that the networks announce their new lineups, what say I blog about TV for a change?

ABC is bringing back V? From the '80s? Tubular!

So long, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Giving up on you was one of the first things I did in the Banjo versus TV project.

The redhead and I really enjoyed the pilot for Glee. It was kind of odd seeing a May pilot for a TV show that won't air until the fall. If you're a show biz geek (and you should be!) and you missed it, check it out some time this summer at

Curses upon NBC for cancelling My Name Is Earl. I hope the rumors about another network picking it up are true.

I occasionally wonder why I'm still watching Heroes.

Shows that have been piling up, unwatched, on my DVR: The Office, The Girls Next Door, Survivor and The Amazing Race.

I've been thinking about watching Fringe, so I hope it does well in its new timeslot. It looks like some good sci-fi.

And speaking of good sci-fi, I like Dollhouse.

Bummer about the cancellation of Samantha Who? I swear I was going to start watching that regularly.

The show I'm most excited about is So You Think You Can Dance, so I'm really happy to get both a summer and a fall season of it.

Also in the last week:

Banjo versus TV: Week 63

A check-in on the Banjo versus TV project — J.R.'s ongoing plan to spend more time on his banjo than on TV. This post covers 5/10/2009 through 5/16/2009.
Banjo 389 hrs, TV 371 hours

Remember how in week 61 I'd ordered two portable power speaker sets? Of course you remember. I only posted it about an hour and a half ago, because it's Memorial Day weekend and I'm catching up.

So never mind that question. The point is, I've compared the two and decided that I prefer the Panasonic RPSPT70 Folding Travel Speakers to the Sentry Clamshell Folding Amplified Speakers. The RPSPT70 sounds much better. Also, if your batteries are dead or the unit is switched off the RPSPT70 can still be used as a non-amplified speaker set. The Sentry model only works when it's got power.

The Sentry isn't without its advantages. Its smaller size and its rounded design is a better fit for a gig bag. And its power switch is kept inside when folded. That's important because the RPSPT70's outside-facing switch tends to get accidentally flipped when I travel. But still, good sound is good sound so I like the RPSPT70.

Things I learned at this week's banjo lesson:

  • I'm thinking of getting better tuners. Dave recommends planetary tuners.
  • I've been putting some thought into how I learn.
    • Most of the (few) licks that I know I learned by playing from tablature, memorizing the piece note-for-note.
    • Once the lick has entered my brain this way I can use it in another piece.
    • But I find it very hard to learn a lick simply by repeating the lick itself over and over, as I did when I struggled to learn the first lick of Bill Knopf's Hot Licks & Fiddle Tunes for the Bluegrass Banjo Player:

    • My conclusion: I need to start picking up some books again and learning their tabs, note-for-note. But I need to be very direct about why I want to learn a particular tab, to avoid the trap of just planing things that sound nice. I want to play things that will teach me the stuff I need to know.
  • We explore some ways to create simple variations, like changing some open notes in a song to other notes.

Also in the last week:

Banjo versus TV: Week 62

A check-in on the Banjo versus TV project — J.R.'s ongoing plan to spend more time on his banjo than on TV. This post covers 5/3/2009 through 5/9/2009.
Banjo 384 hrs, TV 367 hours

This was the week of my little sister's annual jam. She invites all of her musician friends to come together at her condo and play together for the evening. Lots of fun!

I was very pleased with my progress as a banjo player since last year. What was different?

Last year's jamThis year's jam
I'd been playing the banjo for 11 months (really seriously for 5).I'd been playing the banjo for 23 months (really seriously for 17).
I'd only been to one jam previously.I've been to a couple dozen jams, had played along quite a bit with Pete Wernick's jam DVDs and had made it my 2009 resolution to get good at jamming.
I could only play along with songs for which I had the written chords.I knew how to read the chords from the guitarist's left hand.
The only chords I could play at speed were G, C and D7 in the first position, so every song had to be in G or I couldn't play along.I knew a bunch of chords, some of them in the second or third positions and was comfortable playing in the keys of A, D, G and C without a capo.
I could sing or play, but not both at the same time.I could sing and roll at the same time (though I couldn't play anything complicated like the melody).
When a song was too complicated for me to play on my banjo I banged on some pots.When a song was too complicated for me to play on my banjo I could turn to the jug band instruments I'd learned in class at the Old Town School: washboard, kazoo, spoons

An important thing I learned at the jam: If you've got an iPhone, you've got pretty much any lyrics you need.

Using an iPhone at a jam

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Banjo versus TV: Week 61

A check-in on the Banjo versus TV project — J.R.'s ongoing plan to spend more time on his banjo than on TV. This post covers 4/26/2009 through 5/2/2009.
Banjo 378 hrs, TV 361 hours

I've been looking for some portable speakers to use with my iPhone during practice. I really like the Sony SRS-T55 speakers that Arlo Leach uses when he teaches jug band. They have a nice sound and they're lound enough that the whole class was able to hear his jug band samples. Here's Arlo, using them in class.

2009-04-22 Jug band class 028

The problem is that they're discontinued and I couldn't find 'em for sale anywhere. So I've ordered up the Panasonic RPSPT70 Folding Travel Speakers and the Sentry Clamshell Folding Amplified Speakers to see how they work for me. My criteria are:

  • Loud enough to play along with during jam sessions and practice
  • Compact enough to carry in my banjo gig bag
  • 4 hours or more of battery life
More about these speakers when they arrive.

Things I learned at this week's banjo lesson:

  • We discussed my recent performance of Good Old Mountain Dew as a member of the Hump Night Thumpers

    2009-04-21 Hump Night Thumpers at Horseshoe in Chicago 039 2009-04-21 Hump Night Thumpers at Horseshoe in Chicago 040 2009-04-21 Hump Night Thumpers at Horseshoe in Chicago 063
    • Although Dave and I had discussed my doing a speed-up (or two) in the middle of my performance, and despite having practiced it this was with the Thumpers, I chickened out at the performance and just played it the same speed throughout. If just didn't feel right at the time. Dave thinks that was wise. "If you're not comfortable, don't do it."
    • At one point my fifth string capo slipped and pressed the fifth string, changing its from a G to an A. I managed it pretty well, I thought, by simply avoiding the use of the fifth string until I could sort it out. Nobody seemed to notice.
    • I was pleased with my microphone work. I'm glad that Dave and I had discussed this (same link). Some other helpful advice came from Arlo, who had advised me at a Thumpers class to pay attention to the sound of my vocice coming through the speakers and to adjust the distance between my mouth and the mic until I liked what I heard.
  • This led Dave and me into a further discussion of microphones.
    • Most mics are unidirectional, cardiod microphones. They are "cardiod" because their sensitivity range is heart-shaped:

    • Lavalier microphones are usually clipped to the body and are omnidirectional.

      A recent trend is to wear a small headset that holds the lavalier mic a short distance from the mouth.

      It occurs to me that this kind of headset would make an awesome kazoo holder.
    • The can mics used in old-time radio are bidirectional.

    • A consequence of making the mic unidirectional is the proximity effect. As you get closer to the microphone the bass builds up. The cleanest sound is usually achieved by being about and inch or two away. You can take advantage of the proximity effect in your performance. Dave says to watch a good Sinatra performance to see how Frankie works the mic.

    • An advantage of unidirectional mics is that the reduce the feedback from monitors. A monitor is a set of speakers that faces toward the musicians, away from the audience, that lets the musicians hear what they sound like. Personal, in-ear monitors are frequently paired with lavalier mics.
    • When recording a choral concert, Dave will often place a hang single microphone from the ceiling, above and behind the conductor.
  • Dave went to a workshop with Bill Evans. I took a couple of sessions with Bill at last year's Midwest Banjo Camp and I look forward to seeing doing so again in a few weeks. Some of the Bill-Evans-related things we spoke about:
    • Bill plays with the interval of muting; basically he does a vamp-style thing and take longer or shorter amounts of time to dampen the strings vibrations depending on the effect he's aiming for.
    • At the workshop Dave attended, Bill showed them some 2-measure roll patterns. Dave and I work on these patterns a little.
    • I really enjoyed Bill's all-levels session, "Playing Relaxed: It All Starts with the Right Hand." I recorded that session and should review it again.
  • We discussed the array of sounds you can get from a banjo, including treating the banjo as a percussion instrument. This leads to a discussion of steel drums. I'm reminded that I've got a steel drum that my grandfather brought back from Barbados when I was around 10 years old. I should pull that out and mess with it.

    Thanks, Granddad!

    Dave says that steel drums were literally a revolutionay instrument — the powers that be had outlawed and confiscated musical instruments to prevent the spread of revolution through music and, in response, the people pounded drums out of the steel canisters.
  • I told Dave about someone I'd seen at my last Thumpers class who'd played what he called a canjo, which was just an open soup can, a wire and a stick. He put wire under his left underarm, pressing the stick against his back and creating tension between the stick and the can, which was in his left hand. Then he increased the tension by pushing the can away from his body, changing the pitch of the string, which he plucked with a guitar pick.

    2009-04-22 Jug band class 038

    I figure if this guy can get an impressive sound out of one string I ought to be able to do even more with five.
  • Two iPhone apps that I've found handy: OmniTuner and Metronome.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Banjo versus TV: Week 60

A check-in on the Banjo versus TV project — J.R.'s ongoing plan to spend more time on his banjo than on TV. This post covers 4/19/2009 through 4/25/2009.
Banjo 376 hrs, TV 353 hours

This week I reversed the trend of recent weeks by chalking up more banjo hours than TV hours, mostly because this week was a long goodbye to the founder of the Hump Night Thumpers, Arlo Leach.

Arlo (a.k.a. Holstein Slim) is moving to Portland, Oregon and is turning the reigns of the Thumpers to Jonas Friddle, who's the leader of The Barehand Jug Band.

This week's events included:

  • A performance of the Hump Night Thumpers, in which we opened for The Barehand Jug Band at The Horseshoe in Chicago
  • A Thumpers performance at the nursing home where Arlo's wife Sally worked
  • A graduation concert
  • Our last class with Arlo as an instructor, with guest appearances by several Thumpers from times past.
  • A big jammin' party at Arlo and Sally's

Good luck in Portland, Arlo!

Also in the last week:

Banjo versus TV: Week 59

A check-in on the Banjo versus TV project — J.R.'s ongoing plan to spend more time on his banjo than on TV. This post covers 4/12/2009 through 4/18/2009.
Banjo 365 hrs, TV 348 hours

What a bummer! The Music Choice Bluegrass Channel has been dropped from my local cable. I was really enjoying that!

Here's what the Washington Bluegrass Association has to say about it:

On April 15th, Comcast Cable pulled (deleted) its Bluegrass Channel Broadcast. Many people are understandably upset about this. It may be possible to restore bluegrass on Comcast, if enough bluegrass fans send in a complaint. (Even if you don't listen to bluegrass on Comcast, do it for the sake of those who do!). You can make your opinion count. Take a few minutes and go to Music Choice online and register a complaint. Go to: OR to send in your comments or complaints. On the home page: scroll to the page bottom and select "leave a comment". On the comment page select in the subject line pull down "channel line-up changes" then write your message: 'bring back bluegrass!' Fill out the name info then select digital cable only (or your fav. service). Then check the No box to not receive marketing related stuff. Thanks and a tip of the hat to WBA member Sally Burtscher for reporting this story! Please pass this info on to your bluegrass friends.

Thanks, Jim C, Gazette Editor

The cancellation sparked a discussion at The Banjo Hangout. One of the forum regulars said he received this reply from Music Choice:


Despite your extremely vulgar and rude e-mail, I will try to explain.

The Bluegrass channel and Opera channel were removed from the Music Choice line up due to low listenership.

Music Choice had an outside research firm conduct a survey on which Music Choice channels were listened to the most. Unfortunately Opera and Bluegrass were listed as the least listened to channels. I know this isn't what you wanted to hear, but that is why the channels removed from the Music Choice line up.

Music Choice

Things I learned at this week's banjo lesson:

  • We played along with Dolly Parton's version of Cash on the Barrelhead from her album, The Grass is Blue. We also listened to a previous version of the song from the album Snakes Alive! by The Dreadful Snakes (a band who got their name from the Bill Monroe song, The Little Girl and the Dreadful Snake).
  • We spoke about the reasons why a song is played in the key it's played in. For songs with vocals, you consider the range of the singer(s). For all songs, you consider the keys that are best for the instruments. Then there's this: Dave once asked Frank Wakefield why he wrote and played "New Camptown Races" in Bb. Frank replied, "Because nobody else was."
  • Dave challenged me to find a I, IV and V for Eb major. And I got it! (My answer: Eb as D form between 3 and 5, Ab as barre at 1, Bb as barre at 3.)
  • My F form is still weak and my D form isn't much better. I really need to make good on my promise to play along with Pete Wernick's "Bluegrass Slow Jam for the Total Beginner DVD, using the F and D forms rather than just the first position chords.
  • We tried string bending. I stunk at it. Too timid, I think.
  • We spent a little time playing Good Old Mountain Dew very slowly, finding a groove and playing with some hammers-on and slides.
  • I'll be playing Good Old Mountain Dew with the Hump Night Thumpers next week and we talked a little about my plans for that performance. What are the cheap tricks available to me if I want to spice up a song for a performance?
    • Playing it faster or slower.
    • Speeding up the tempo in the middle of the song to add some excitement. (I could make this a little easier by starting the song a little slower.)
    • Modulate up a full step for a chorus or a verse.
    • Sing a verse a capella.
    • Play it in stop-time.
    I suggested that I might play Good Old Mountain Dew at a faster clip, or that I might speed it up partway through the performance. Dave liked this idea until he found out that the song will be the second song of our eight-song set. "Don't push it," he advised. "See, if it was the second to last song I'd push the tempo more than being at the third song. I need to warm up, you need to warm up, everybody needs to warm up. Just because you can play at a fast tempo doesn't mean you should."

    (Dave says he learned the lesson of "just because you can doesn't mean you should" from Jurassic Park. See two minutes into this scene.)
  • I didn't like my microphone work at the jug band Seder last week. I was shouting and wasn't really using the mic. I don't want to make the same mistake in next week's performance so I asked Dave for advice. Here's some excerpts of Dave's advice"
    • "Say to yourself before you do this, 'I want to sing this.'"
    • "The adrenaline can cut in but you don't have to follow it blindly."
    • "If you find yourself pushing too hard back off immediately."
    • "Think about what I lot of teachers will do. If a class gets noisy they start whispering and keep on whispering and sooner or later the class gets quiet."
    • "For me, it's observer on my shoulder. Kind of a Zen concept. It serves me as a producer and as a teacher and as a performer because I'm trying to detach from me and just look at everything and feel the Gestalt."
  • Dave says I'm doing well, although he notes that my playing is "way too genteel" and that I "need way more attitude". "What you need to do is put your jazz out there."

Also in the last week:

  • I've been trying to replace my morning turn-on-the-TV habit with a morning turn-on-the-bluegrass-DVD habit. I started with High Lonesome - The Story of Bluegrass Music, which I got from Netflix.
  • Ever take a really, really long time to catch on to something? I just recently figured out where the band Hot Rize got its name.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Banjo versus TV: Week 58

A check-in on the Banjo versus TV project — J.R.'s ongoing plan to spend more time on his banjo than on TV. This post covers 4/5/2009 through 4/11/2009.
Banjo 358 hrs, TV 338 hours

This week's big banjo event was the jug band Seder, which you can read about here.

Things I learned at this week's banjo lesson:

  • Part of the reason my Oscar Schmidt OB-5 banjo goes out of tune so often between uses (aside from the fact that it's a banjo) is that it's got tuning pegs sticking out the sides and I carry it in a cloth gig bag. I'm considering investing (a little) in some improvements. Dave says, now that I've had my banjo tweaked by Tom Nechville, the only other thing he'd do is to replace the pegs.
  • I'm still working on Tony Trischka's Blackberry Blossom from Homespun's All Star Bluegrass Jam Along series.
    • For the B7 chords, Dave usually does a forward-reverse roll between frets 4 & 7:

      Trischka does this:

    • Dave's worried about me tackling a piece in the melodic style at this point in my development, but I've got his blessing to try it.
  • Regarding melodic style:
    • "My reservation with you working on this stuff is, you're not real accurate some times on what string you're hitting. You can't afford to miss notes in this [melodic] style the way you can in Scruggs. So be aware of that."
    • The left hand middle finger will live almost exclusively on the 2nd string
    • The 1st string will be fretted by the index finger or the ring finger as follows:
      • When on the same fret as the middle finger: Middle finger
      • When down the neck: Index finger
      • When up the neck: Ring finger
    • The definitive book on melodic banjo is Tony Trischka's 1976 Melodic Banjo. (Note to self: Order up a copy.) (Reply to self: Ordered it on 5/13/2009. Also, Tony Trischka Easy Banjo Solos.)
  • I've been trying not to capo in jams. Dave agrees with this approach and says that my chords have gotten better because of this.
  • Another thing that's helped my chords in jams considerably: Having learned to recognize several guitar chords by sight. Dave says I'm one of the few people to actually take this advice. (Recall that I'd taken some guitar lessons last year just so I could learn to follow the guitar at jams.)

Also in the last week:

  • As I was researching songs for the jug band Seder I ran across the music of Theresa Andersson's one-woman shows. What fun! Examples:

  • This week's episode of The Office (on Hulu here) counts as both banjo and TV because it features a banjo performance by Ed Helms. Comedy bluegrass goodness.
  • For some time I've been playing along with Sam Bush to Ol' Joe Clark (from his Glamour & Grits album). This is a Daryl Scott update to the classic Old Joe Clark. But this week I really listened to the lyrics for the first time. What a great song! Daryl Scott has taken a song that's often treated for laughs and made something dead serious out of it.