Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Banjoversary look-ahead: Plans for the next year

We're at the point in my 2nd banjoversary blogging where I shift from looking back to looking forward. What are my plans going to be for the coming year?

Well, some of this year's plans are the same as last year's:

  • I will continue the Banjo versus TV project, making sure I spend at least as much time on my banjo as I spend watching television. I've learned that I need projects like this too keep myself on track.
  • I will keep taking banjo lessons with Dave.
  • I will work towards my 2009 resolution to get good at jamming by going to jams as often as I can. (And I will earn that free sandwich at Costello's Early County/Bluegrass Jam yet!)
  • I will continue learning guitar chords so I can follow the guitar player at jams.

But my banjoversary ruminations have put me in mind of some new plans for the coming year. I draw each of these ideas from a few different sources, including Dave, my readings and some of the sessions I took at Midwest Banjo Camp.

  • I will treat my banjo training like sports training.
  • I will create a terrific banjo practice area.
  • I will be deliberate about learning songs.

I'll blog a little more on each of these, soon.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Banjo versus TV week 68: My second banjoversary

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 6/14/2009 through 6/20/2009.
Banjo 425 hrs, TV 398 hours

It's my 2nd banjoversary, so I'm undertaking my annual two part retrospective and looking forward to how I'm going to do things in the year to come.

I am also — and this is really important — getting banjoversary presents! This year's take includes:

Also in the last week:

  • I watched a little bit of a DVD that's beyond my skill right now: Banjo Improvisation: A Master Class with Jayme Stone, which is available from Woodhall Music. Good stuff on single string, melodic style and other stuff that I'll be ready for some day. You can find Jayme at http://www.jaymestone.com.
  • My local Toastmasters group roasted me. The banjo jokes, how they did fly! Examples:
    • What do you say to a banjo player wearing a 3 piece suit? "Will the defendent please rise?"
    • Why do people take such instant hatred towards the banjo? It saves time.
    • What is the most seldom heard comment made of banjo players? "Say, isn't that the banjo player's Porsche?"

Friday, June 26, 2009

My fourth 6 months on the banjo

Welcome to the second half of my 2nd banjoversary reminiscences. In the previous post, as you'll recall, I walked through the first six months of this past year in banjo. Today I'll do the same for the rest of this past year. In a coming post I'll get all critical and will see what lessons I can learn from my past year and what I'm going to do differently moving forward.

But for now, let's roll back the clock six months. The time was late December 2008. I'd been with my new banjo teacher, Dave, for 5 months. My year-long Banjo versus TV project had just wrapped up its 50th week. I'd been preparing and preparing for the multi-family vacation for which I was preparing jug band instruments for everybody. We'd decided to call ourselves the Royal Moose Jug Band.

Month 19:
  • At my banjo lesson Dave, who is also a recording engineer, gives me advice on how to record.
  • The big day finally arrived. We did our semi-annual multi-family vacation, this time at the Royal Moose Lodge in Branson, Missouri. And the Royal Moose Jug Band...

    The Royal Moose Jug Band

    ...made its debut.
    • We played Duelin' Banjos for banjo, jugs, gutbucket (washtub bass), spoons, kazoos, xylophone and the three-headed guitar.

      (Turn on Closed Captioning to see the instruments names.)
    • We also played Wabash Cannonball and I'll Fly Away. We decided that some of our more challenging songs (Underdog, I'm Satisified with My Gal, others) will wait for the next time.
    • "What," I hear you ask, because I listen attentively to everything you say, "is a three-headed guitarist?" It's my creation for people who don't really play the guitar. It requires a little planning and three willing guitarist-wannabes.

      Three-headed guitarist 2008-12-26 Royal Moose Lodge in Branson, MO 002 2008-12-26 Royal Moose Lodge in Branson, MO 068 2008-12-26 Royal Moose Lodge in Branson, MO 156

      Take three cheap toy guitars. Tune one to open G, one to open C and one to open D. Then play. The G guitar strums when you're in G, the C guitar strums when you switch to C and the D guitar strums when you switch to D. They'll be able to strum an awful lot of bluegrass songs. Add three capos and they can do fiddle tunes, too.
    • For jugs, we filled metal Mountain Dew bottles with sand to varying level, creating a set of pitched bottles that you blow across to play.

      2008-12-26 Royal Moose Lodge in Branson, MO 053 2008-12-26 Royal Moose Lodge in Branson, MO 054 2008-12-26 Royal Moose Lodge in Branson, MO 055 2008-12-26 Royal Moose Lodge in Branson, MO 056 2008-12-26 Royal Moose Lodge in Branson, MO 057
  • My brother gave me a sorta-banjo-themed comic for Christmas:

  • 2009 came to a close and I wrapped up the Banjo versus TV project with the banjo ahead, 319 hours versus 305 hours.
  • I joined the Hump Night Thumpers, which is to say that I start taking jug band classes at the Wednesday night jug band class at the Old Town School of Folk Music.
  • The redhead and I started an 8-week class together at the Old Town School of Folk Music: Vocal Techniques I. I found that my singing was somehow both better than I expected and worse than I expected.
  • Combining TV and banjo: I watched Pete Seeger play This Land is Your Land at the concert before Obama's inauguration. Who says there's nothing good on TV?

Month 20: The Lost Month
  • In jug band class I learned to play kazoo, spoons and jaw harp. I play just a little banjo in the classes, but mostly this session is about learning the non-store-bought jug band instruments.

    2009-01-14 Jug Band Ensemble class at Old Town School 001 2009-01-14 Jug Band Ensemble class at Old Town School 002
  • Overall, though, not much happened this month, banjo-wise. I was slow to realize it, but without a project (Banjo versus TV, Royal Moose Jug Band, recital, banjo camp, etcetera) to keep me going I was neglecting my banjo. You should probably imagine the sounds of crickets chirping for this entire month, until...

Month 21:
  • At a banjo lesson I talked with Dave about how my banjo playing had slacked off since I ended the Banjo versus TV project. Dave asked the obvious: Then why not start it again? Why not indeed! So I start it up again. Thanks, Dave!
  • Instruments we learned to play at jug band class: jug, washboard and washtub.
  • Hump Night Thumpers founder Arlo Leach announced that he's moving to Portland, Oregon, and that the jug band class session starting in May would be his last at the Old Town School of Folk Music. As part of his farewell to Chicago, Arlo highlighted a different Chicago-based (or Chicago-connected) jug band each week of the class. (Arlo drew much of this material from the book Today's Chicago Blues.) This month's highlighted jug band artists: Washboard Sam, Kansas Joe McCoy, and Memphis Minnie.
  • For the last day of vocal class we had to sing a solo. I picked Wabash Cannonball and had the rest of the class join in on the chorus. I also played along with the banjo as I sang. It went very well. I signed up for Vocal Techniques II for the next 8-week session.
  • I played again at the Costello's Early County/Bluegrass Jam
  • . Remember how I took guitar lessons in the fall and had been practicing with Pete Wernick's jam DVDs, all so I could learn to recognize guitar chords at a jam? Well it all paid off when I played along and didn't miss a single chord of a song that I'd never heard before, just from following the guitar. Seven more stamps until my free sandwich.
  • I had my banjo professionally set up by Tom Nechville (for free!) and it sounded oh so much brighter.
  • Among the changes Tom made: he replaced my 1/4" bridge with a 5/8" bridge' something I've been thinking about doing for a while. I like the change and it doesn't take me long to adjust to it.
  • I returned to Shorty's Strickly Bluegrass Festival in East Peoria, Illinois. My jamming skills had really improved since last year.

  • I picked up another cheap banjo for experimentation. Counting the sawed-off, that makes three-and-a-half.
  • Some other topics from my banjo lessons: finding the melody and finding a solo for a song, selecting a roll, stage moms, letting your notes ring, 5th string capo placement and those damned pull-offs.

Month 22:
  • Arlo's highlighted Chicago jug band artists this month: Georgia Tom & Tampa Red, Daddy Stovepipe & Mississippi Sarah and Butterbeans & Susie.
  • I went to my first First Friday at the Old Town School of Folk Music.
  • One more time at Costello's Early County/Bluegrass Jam
  • . Six more stamps until my free sandwich.
  • My friends (and fellow Hump Night Thumpers) Fran and Skip threw a jug band Seder. It was SO! MUCH! FUN!

    2009-04-11 Jug band Seder 018 2009-04-11 Jug band Seder 020 2009-04-11 Jug band Seder 002

    I played the banjo (regular and sawed-off), jug and kazoo. We changed the lyrics to a bunch of classic jug band songs to tell the Passover story. My contribution was a modification of Good Old Mountain Dew to Good Ol' Seder Plate. Some sample lyrics:
    Some herbs are bitter, you bet,
    Like maror and chazeret.
    They really do not taste great.
    But don’t be a quitter
    Recall that slavery was bitter
    So these herbs are on the Seder plate.

    My stage name for the performance was The Bluegrass Goy.
  • The Thumpers helped out with a Chicago artist's Bau Graves' "One City/One Song" video project.
  • I picked up an iPhone and found two handy, free apps: OmniTuner and Metronome.
  • Some other topics from my banjo lessons: playing with a mandolin, fiddle tunes, Cripple Creek, why a song is played in the key it's played in, finding the I-IV-V for a chord, string bending, how I'm too timid to string bend properly, cheap tricks to spice up a song for a performance, microphone technique, how I'm too genteel and how I need to "let my jazz out."

Month 23:
  • For Arlo Leach' last week in Chicago there were all kinds of Hump-Night-Thumpers-related events:
    • The Thumpers opened for the Barehand Jug Band (Jonas Friddle's band). I sing and solo for Good Old Mountain Dew and I play banjo, jug and kazoo for various other songs:

      Since this was my inaugural stage performance with the Thumpers I was assigned my jug band name: Admiral Dewy.
    • The Thumpers performed at the nursing home where Arlo's wife Sally worked.
    • The Thumpers had a graduation concert.
    • Several Thumpers from times past visited our last class with Arlo as an instructor.
    • Arlo and Sally hosted a going-away jug-band party. Good luck in Portland, you two crazy kids!
  • I ordered a couple of sets of portable amplified speakers, compared them and found I like the Panasonic RPSPT70 Folding Travel Speakers best.
  • My little sister invited me back to her annual jam and I was much better at jamming than I was last year. How much better? So much better I made a chart about it.
  • I learned that the iPhone is a lean, mean lyrics-finding machine at a jam.
  • I played again at Costello's Early County/Bluegrass Jam
  • . Five more stamps until my free sandwich.
  • Some other topics from my banjo lessons: more microphone technique, Bill Evans, the banjo as percussion, planetary tuners, simple variations and how I learn.

Month 24:
  • After so many months of blogging about banjos, I finally wrote an a TV-centric post.
  • Ever wonder why the 1970s TV series Land of the Lost featured the banjo so heavily in its soundtrack?

    I learned the reason.
  • I returned to Midwest Banjo Camp, learned a lot, saw a great faculty concert and had my picture taken with a whole mess of other banjo players.

So that bring us right up to this week, my banjoversary week.

What's next? Introspection, of course. I'm going to think about what all of this has meant and what I'm going to be doing next. And you, lucky you, get to come along for the ride.

Trischka banjo practice techniques DVD

I'm trying to work out my banjo practice routine. Some of the exercises I'm considering come from the DVD Tony Trischka's Essential Practice Techniques for Bluegrass Banjo. The exercises on the DVD (plus the ones on the included tablature that aren't on the DVD) are:

  • Play between beats exercise
  • Leave a note out exercise
  • Forward Rolls, easyish
  • Tom Dooley
  • Forward Rolls, trickier
  • Forward March — an étude (not on video)
  • Backward Roll, easyish,
  • Backward Étude (not on video)
  • Backward Roll, harder
  • Étude (backward roll)
  • Square Rolls, easyish
  • Square Rolls, tricker
  • The MI boogaloo
  • MI dicey
  • MI Étude
  • Hammer-Ons
  • Cripple Creek
  • One finger per fret
  • Lay Lady chordal hammers
  • Pseduo-classical in G minor
  • Fretted note to fretted note (hammer-ons)
  • One finger per fret
  • Pull-Offs
  • Rice Pull-off
  • Crystal Breakdown
  • Fretted note to fretted note (pull-offs)
  • Étude (pull-offs)
  • Have Fun! One finger per fret
  • Strengthening the Middle Finger: Easier (not on video)
  • Strengthening the Middle Finger: Easy Exercise (not on video)
  • Strengthening the Middle Finger: Trickier exercises
  • Ear Training: Ode to Joy
  • Ear Training: Noodling
  • Ear Training: Move a finger down

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Steve Martin on Prairie Home Companion this weekend

We interrupt the 2nd banjoversary blogging for this important announcement.

Steve Martin, one of my banjo heroes, will appear on A Prairie Home Companion this weekend.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled 2nd banjoversary blogging.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

My third 6 months on the banjo

Continuing the celebration of my 2nd banjoversary, I'm taking a look back at the past year in banjo. I'll do this in two parts, so here's a look at mid-June through mid-December 2008. I'll hit the remaining six months in my next post.

So enjoy — if this is your kind of thing — a story of banjos, guitars, jug bands, Earl Scruggs (or not), penguins and one even shorter banjo.

We begin where last year's banjoversary summaries (parts one and two) left off. The Banjo versus TV project was going strong, with the banjo ahead 188 hours to 146 hours after 24 weeks. I'd just gone to Midwest Banjo Camp 2008 and was ready to try some of the things I'd learned there.

Month 13:
  • I started off the year by doing something big: I switched banjo teachers from Mike, who I love, to Dave, who I also love but who is more experienced in the bluegrass style that I was pursuing (and still am).
  • Prior to our first lesson:
    • Dave and I talked high-level goals. My answer to "Where do you want to be a year from now?" was "Participate well in jams. Play comfortably solo."
    • I came up with six songs that I'd like to learn to play well at jams.
  • Saw some great zydeco from New Orleans: Chubby Carrier and The Bayou Swamp Band.
  • I learned a thing or two about flying with my banjo.
  • Earlier in the summer I'd heard James McKinney (at Midwest Banjo Camp) strongly recommending that we Scruggs-style players should bend our index- and middle-finger picks so they're snug against our fingers. The idea is that the brain will better respond to signals that go through the bone; an idea that McKinney says is supported by recent research in sports medicine. Besides, Earl bends his picks like that. So I decided to bend my picks up and get used to it that way. It took a couple of weeks, but I adjusted to the new pick style and I like the feeling.

Month 14:
  • I had my first lesson with Dave, who was happy (encouraging, even) to let me record lessons and review them on my blog.
  • I began work on a solo for one of my six chosen songs: Good Old Mountain Dew.
  • I found some terrific swabs for banjo cleaning.

  • I completed that solo for Good Old Mountain Dew. The solo sounds much better when I'm warmed up.
  • Although I didn't know the fancy name of it at the time, I got into Mixolydian mode by playing along with a Sam Bush recording of Ol' Joe Clark.
  • Dave shows me an easier and often-better-sounding version of the D chord at the second fret:

  • I started to learn a lick from Bill Knopf's Hot Licks & Fiddle Tunes for the Bluegrass Banjo Player
  • :

  • I played my banjo for the neighbors who live across the street from the home I grew up in. They said my father would be proud, which is just about the best thing that anyone could say to me.
  • Some other topics from my banjo lessons: playing and singing at the same time, playing along with and learning from recordings, warming up before a lesson, recovering from wrong notes, left-hand positioning and muting.

Month 15:
  • I'm really starting to like Dave's play-along-with-recordings approach.
  • I made a pilgrimage to the Four Corners Folk Festival in Pagosa Springs, CO so I could see Earl in person.

    If you listen closely, you can hear me singing 'This Land is Your Land.'

    But it turned out to be one of the very rare occasions where Earl cancels at the last minute.
  • On the up side, I got to know Warren Kennison, Jr., the guy who filled in for Earl at the festival. Warren's a great guy who would later invite me to go with him to the July 2009 RockyGrass festival.
  • At 4CFF I met the members of Crooked Still and really got to like their "new time old time" style of music. Their banjo player, Greg Liszt, plays with four picks!

  • I brought together two things I'd been working by incorporating that Bill Knopf lick #1 into my solo of Good Old Mountain Dew.
  • Everyone (Mike, Dave, Pete Wernick) tells me that I should learn how to recognize a few simple guitar chords so I can follow the guitar at a jam. I figured that the best way to learn those chords is to take a few guitar lessons. So I started guitar lessons, which cut into my banjo time a bit.
  • I had a wow-I-can-really-do-this moment when I decide to try out my playing-along-with-the-recording skills on some random bluegrass tracks over lunch. Yay me!
  • Some other topics from my banjo lessons: a balanced practicce routine, using a metronome and stronger pull-offs.

Month 16:
  • There was this idea I'd been kicking around for a while: shortening the neck of a banjo by 12 frets. I call it my sawed-off banjo. I started work on it by drawing out plans for and creating balsa and styrofoam models of its sawed-off little neck.

  • My plan to do regular practice of right and left hand exercises is short-lived, fizzling out quickly.
  • Dave suggested that, despite the long-term goal to play without looking at my hands, I should really be watching my left hand as I play so I can work out some of its bad habits.
  • I went to Costello's Early County/Bluegrass Jam
  • .
  • The sawed-off banjo project moved from plans and models to actual construction! My business partner, Don, and I started work on the sawed-off banjo in his well-equipped wood shop.
  • Some other topics from my banjo lessons: rewriting material, mixolydian mode, open C tuning, vamping and changing the sound of the banjo.

Month 17:
  • We completed the sawed-off banjo, which looks funky and sounds really nice.

    Comparing J.R.'s sawed-off banjo to a standard 5-string banjo.

    You can see all of the details of its construction here.
  • I completed my short set of guitar lessons. The plan was that I'd learn enough to be able to recognize certain chords when the guitar played them at a jam. (G, C and D, mostly.) The lessons probably took me 75% of the way there.
  • I attended Chicago's First Annual Battle of the Jug Bands, which put me on a jug band journey that I kinda didn't expect to take, but which turned out to be a lot of fun.
  • I was a banjo-playing penguin for Halloween; a costume that nicely incorporated the sawed-off banjo.

    2008 Banjo-Playing Penguin

    I won first prize in the costume contest at a Bluegrass Legends Concert in Evanston, Illinois.
  • I purchased a jug. It's not played by blowing across it as I thought it was; it's played more like a bugle. Embouchure is very important. Jim Craig (of Hogeye Music) demonstrates.

  • I returned to the Costello's Early County/Bluegrass Jam
  • . The jam is hosted at a sandwich shop, so every time I go there I buy a sandwich and get my frequent customer card stamped. Eight more stamps until my free sandwich!
  • My jug band obsession continued with a grand plan to put together a family jug band at my our semi-annual, post-Christmas, family vacation. I asked everyone what jug band instruments they'd like and started shopping. Incidentally, I had this idea before I even saw Emmet Otter's Jug Band Christmas.

  • My jug band research led inevitably into a comparison of the two Muppet jug bands: Lubbock Lou & His Jughuggers and The Gogolala Jubilee Jug Band.
  • Some other topics from my banjo lessons: my next banjo and bridge height.

Month 18:
  • Arlo Leach, who hosted Chicago's First Annual Battle of the Jug Bands, taught the Wednesday night jug band class at the Old Town School of Folk Music. The class calls itself the Hump Night Thumpers.

    Hump Night Thumpers

    Arlo invited me to come to a class, so I did. What a lot of fun!
  • Taking those few guitar lessons took me maybe 75% of the way toward my goal of recognizing guitar chords by watching the guitarist's left hand. To help me get to 100% I began playing along with Pete Wernick's jam DVD, which feature a zoom-in on the guitarist's left hand.

  • The family jug band picked a name for itself: the Royal Moose Jug Band. We even made some art:

  • We established the Royal Moose Jug Band's lineup:
    • Mom - xylophone
    • Denise (age 16) - harmonica
    • Me - banjo
    • Brother-In-Law - slide whistle
    • Denephew (age 19) - gutbucket
    • Denise (age 9) - guitar
    • The redhead - spoons
    • Brother - washboard and jug
    • Sister-In-Law - Melody Harp
    • Big Sister - kazoo
    • Denise (age 7) - fiddle
    • Little Sister - tambourine
    • Little Sister's Boyfriend - percussion
    • Denephew (age 21) - jaw harp
  • Speaking of family, a few hours before arriving from Texas to celebrate her birthday Denise (age 7) decided that it'd be nice if Unca J.R. would play Happy Birthday for her on his banjo. So I learned it.
  • I performed in Flatts & Sharpe's annual recital, doing a medley of my two best songs: I'll Fly Away and This Land Is Your Land.

  • Some other topics from my banjo lessons: books at jams, watching the guitar player for chord prompts and key changes.

Coming up next: A look at the second half of the year. The Royal Moose Jug Band performs! The Banjo versus TV project concludes — or does it? I join another jug band! And so much more! But I still don't get to see Earl.