Dr. Lew Stern
120A Overlook Road
Staunton, VA 24401
120A Overlook Road
Staunton, VA 24401
Thursday, November 21, 2013
I walk my hounds in the wonderful park we have here in Staunton, VA, at about 0530. Can’t beat the quiet time at that hour in the morning.
This morning, as we were making out first lap around the park, we heard someone behind us calling “Chico, Chico, come back here.” Chico, a low to the ground little mutt, white with brown highlights, had seized an opportunity and bolted. He came rushing up to my hounds, and we very friendly, gracious, and enthusiastic in his greeting. My two, Maggie and Roxie (see their exploits on my Youtube webpage, http://www.youtube.com/user/brooklynbanjoboy ) embraced this newcomer to their circle, and returned his robust greetings.
By that time, the owner had caught up with us, and was profuse in his apologies. I assured him that he didn’t have anything to be sorry about, that we enjoyed meeting Chico, and would look forward to seeing him again in the park.
The owner and Chico struck out on their own, but the man stopped, turned around, and said:
“I work with Zack Deming. Aren’t you the guy who wrote the profile about Zack and the Virginia Ramblers for Banjo Newsletter?” (see https://banjonews.com/2010-07/zack_deming.html )
“I’m Jeff,” he quickly added. “I work at Huss and Dalton,” the instrument makers who have long had their business in Staunton proper.
I acknowledged that I was indeed that guy, offered up my name, and we parted with the usual “pleased to meet you” as a way of ending this encounter.
Left me wondering exactly how many people subscribe to Banjo Newsletter. This might be a much bigger fraternity than we think…
Saturday, November 9, 2013
A few days ago I notice Banjo Hangout (BHO) member David Cunningham’s ad for bridges:
I asked David to build me four 5/8 Zebra bridges with a Katalox cap, two in Crowe spacing and two standard spacing.
David noted that his bridges “have a .010 arc chord depth at the base to account for the sag of the banjo head. This helps to prevent sag at the top of the bridge over time.”
David noted that his bridges “have a .010 arc chord depth at the base to account for the sag of the banjo head. This helps to prevent sag at the top of the bridge over time.”
That’s way too technical engineering like for me, but it seemed like a good idea, and I’m a sucker for new, innovative bridges.
They arrived today and I tried them out on my Style S 10 inch Vega Little Wonder pot hooked to a Wyatt Fawley neck, built as an A scale banjo. It’s a fairly new addition to my arsenal, and I’ve spent a bit of time trying to pin down a sound using various bridges (and toying with the other customary variables).
In thelast 24 hours, before David’s bridges arrive, I had at least a half dozen custom made bridges that have accumulated in my inventory on and off that A scale banjo. They all gave me an appreciably different sound, but didn’t get me closer to what I wanted.
David’s zebra wood bridge with the Crowe spacing delivered. Gave me a great sound across the fingerboard, and helped get me the clarity I wanted with the strings stretched up to A tuning.
His bridges are sleek , nicely made, flawlessly cut and sanded, and consistent in their architecture. The Katalox cap is strong, stands up to refilling the string slots – I’m using a thicker gauge nylon string and David’s bridges were apparently slotted for steel strings. Zebra wood has a nice look. I don’t think it’s necessarily easy to work with; I’ve cut some tailpieces and other things from that wood before. But David scored big on the quality of the work using Zebra. He brands them, and labels them – height, weight, spacing – on the bottom of the bridge feet for convenience.
These are nice bridges. The remaining three are probably going to migrate to my other banjos. Looking forward to making that happen and getting the nice, clean sound that comes from this product.
Contact David at: firstname.lastname@example.org
I did my second store based banjo gig in Staunton VA on 8 November, in the evening, as part of a city-wide promotion of business – and holiday buying. It was the “Sparkles and Sweets” evening. I played for about 70-80 minutes at my friend Lynne’s store, LTD7. Here's the promotional flyer:
This time the gig was inside the store, so it was much warmer than the open air market I played at (and blogged about) a few weeks ago. The second event led me to speculate more about the whole performance thing – if sitting around and playing to shoppers intent on examining merchandise and eating free snacks can be described as performing.
First, I wondered how other banjo players plan out their tune list. I’ve ended up keeping a notebook with the names of tunes, organized according to tunings, as my set list. I sort of calculated that I need 20 tunes played for about three minutes each, and proceeded from there. But I know some real musicians simply work this stuff through once they are seated in front of an audience. Dwight Diller just plays, fluently and effectively, with one tune leading to the next, sometimes retuning – so he doesn’t play all his Open G Tunes in one lump the way I have tended to do. Others, perhaps such as David Holt, have a long experience and group the tunes by themes or focus on playing in a way that lets them unfurl a story about the music or the old times. But so far I’m tethered to this little book, largely because I fear that I’d falter and wonder what to play next if I did not have some way of guiding me through a program/
Second, I thought about preparing or practicing the morning and the afternoon of the show – I’d been playing through my list, and adding tunes to that list, for most of this week. Playing the sets out in the hours before the event struck me in much the same way as studying for a test on the day of the test, cramming as it were, and I never had a good feeling about that. I focused on relaxing, playing with the hounds, cleaning up the banjo workshop, and so forth. But I wondered how real live musicians do it. I know some talk about warming up, and I agree that is important, but do genuine players run through their sets and fuss over the tune lineup and so forth just before a show? Maybe the difference is doing this for pay. I’m still working for cupcakes. (The owner of the store has an agreement with a local baker who stocks her store with these very imaginative bakery products. I’ve got to learn to resist the lure of fructose…)
Third, I gave consideration to my son’s recommendation that I put out a tip jar. My son plays uke. His wife played in a high school girls band that toured for a while, made some CDS, so she knows music, plays guitar, and joined my son in that recommendation. The last time, the storeowner put out a sign that read “Musicians Will Play for Tips or Cupcakes,” picking up on my remark that I’d gladly take her friend’s delicious looking pastries in return for my tunes. I confess I don’t feel comfortable putting out a jar or an upturned hat or anything that suggests I’m looking for pocket change. I had a conversation with the store owner’s husband last time I played for her, and recall remarking that I wouldn’t feel right, and I might end up being mortified if my coin jar came up empty at the end of the event. Last time, I opened my case in front of me feet, propped my tune book in front of me, and put out my business cards for Little Bear Banjo Hospital “Rescuing Vintage Banjos From Modernity for 20 Years.”) I did the same this time. I wondered how other players feel about this issue. Might not be an “issue” for anyone but me. I guess the fact that I said “yes” to the request to play as an agreement to do a favor for a friend, and I’m not feeling right about trying to accumulate silver for such an act.
Fourth, I also, oddly enough, worried about the “dress code.” I wanted to feel comfortable, but I wanted to look neat, and I wanted to avoid the proverbial question from my wife Mary: “Are you going to wear that?” In the end, I decided that a nicely cleaned and pressed pair of dress jeans and a sports shirt – and of course the ubiquitous cowboy boots. I know some musicians take the stage in relatively “relaxed” dress, and I wanted to avoid anything that might suggest a line of local discussion about my personal sanitary standards. I also wanted to avoid showing up in my business suit body armor – tie, sports coat, dress slacks, etc. And, yeah, I do sport a baseball cap – usually one with a “banjo theme” on it. Helps shield me from the light, gives me a little control over who might be looking at me and wondering who allowed the “round guitar” into the event.
Fifth, I thought about the choice of weapon – which banjo to haul along. I ended up, a half an hour before go time, swapping out bridges on 3 or 4 banjos, testing about 4 or 5 bridges on at least two of my banjos, eventually re-installing the one that I originally had in place just before it was time to get into the car and head to the gig. I think I was probably getting into the obsessive/compulsive realm there.
I spent a good bit of time while playing wondering whether I shouldn’t have brought another banjo, thinking that I should have arrived earlier and allowed the banjo to “defrost” and acclimate to the warmer inside, and concerned that the weapon of choice wasn’t pushing the sound out at all. I later learned that the banjo reached every corner of the store, even parts where customers didn’t really know (because they did not have “eyes on”) that there was a “live musician” (or, more accurately, a semi-conscious banjo player) pounding on an instrument. Next time I’ll try and relax more.
Sixth, since I’m speaking of relaxing, I thought about the war face I end up having as I play, a picture of concentration. I’ve tried to relax, to make eye contact – at least with the little kids in the few (actually, two) playing venues I have experience. I end up with a momentary smile that reverts to the grimace of focused banjo playing. I wish I could have Bill Evans’ ability to smile, to look as though he’s really having a good time – and yet, turning out incredible bluegrass banjo work flawlessly, effortlessly, and professionally. I might just have to fabricate a latex Bill Evans mask and wear that to gigs.
I probably had a bunch of other thoughts flashing through my mind before I got to the gig, while I was playing, and in the aftermath. Following the event, the most important idea for a “next time” was this: put together a tune list for a performance, print that up on an index card that can be consulted discreetly, instead of relying on a notebook with tunes, tunings, and hints (in the form of snatches of tab in case I forget how to kick off the tune). Leave the book at home, and find something else to obsess about.
Gotta get more “play” into that “play banjo” thing, I suppose.
P.S: The woman in the first photo came by, started clapping in time to whatever I was playing, and moving her feet in a way that suggested she was a real honest to goodness first rate clogger. But then she melted into the crowd before she really turned on the dance. Too bad. Maybe next time.
 Years ago, in Lafayette High School in Brooklyn, NY, I did a feature article for the school newspaper about a student who was making the rounds of coffee houses in lower Manhattan (including I seem to recall the Bitter End) with his guitar and developing quite a following in the process. I remember the name he went by was “Lenny Hat.” He wore a Pete Seeger-like fisherman’s cap and a peacoat that he kept bundled around him, hat brim tucked low over his eyes. I seem to recall he was shy, but he was an incredible finger style guitar player. I was inspired to learn Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant after listening to Lenny, who wasn’t inclined to slow down what he was doing so I might catch his playing, or to offer me advice and guidance on getting the tune other than to suggest in firm terms that I’d be far better off trying to get at the tune note by note from my own intensive listening to the records. Took me months but I did get it down – and played it incessantly to the distress of my younger brother. My predilection to use the baseball cap as part of my body armor in such situations reminded me of Lenny, an accomplished musician with great range on the guitar – jazz, popular tunes, rock and roll, folky stuff. I wonder whether he made it. (A quick and dirty search on Google suggests he may have: https://myspace.com/lennyhatmusic/music/songs I need to track this to ground.)
Saturday, October 26, 2013
I played at a friend’s Vintage Holiday Market weekend event this morning in Staunton, VA. I had one of the three hour-long slots for local musicians.
I really haven’t done much of this, and it has been a good long while since I coffee housed it. Last time was about 15 years ago in northern VA in a church-hosted coffee house type setting.
I’d forgotten so much about standing up in front of a crowd. Actually, the first thing that slipped my mind was the issue of pre-performance jitters. I remember clearly, from that long ago coffee house gig, feeling those butterflies onstage, and being distracted enough while at the microphone as to loose my place in the tune. But in this instance today I sort of forgot how to be jittery, and what I should worry about. I eventually figured it out, and went on to worry about nearly everything. The chair. The weather. The dress code. The “audience.” The venue (my friend’s store).
Mary, my wife, seeing I was preoccupied about the gig, asked me, rhetorically, what I had to worry about. Performance anxiety? I had, she said, spent the last 20 years in the Pentagon, performing on a daily basis before our country’s highest level defense and security leaders. Why would playing the banjo be nearly as unnerving as briefing Donald Rumsfeld?
That sort of put it in context.
But there were clearly things that I should have thought about more, or be more thoughtful (or wise) about in my planning.
First, this was an open air market, and Staunton is beginning to see the first bit of winter. Morning started out at 28 degrees, and by the time I took the catbird seat it had warmed up to 33 degrees. I should have hauled along my warmer banjo. Dressing in layers keeps the body warm. Wearing a hat cuts down on the consequences for one’s scalp in a wind tunnel-like open market area. But there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of clever articles of clothing that will keep the fingers warm and flexible. Biker’s gloves are fine if one is concerned with keeping one’s palms warm. But my fingers were cold enough to start walking off the stage before I’d finished each tune.
Second, being out of practice, I fretted a lot about how to fill up an hour with tunes. When I play for the Banjo Hangout Tune of the week, the Youtube Videos I cobble together generally run about 90 seconds. How does one fill an hour without drawing some of these tunes out so that they’re being played too long, or jamming so many tunes into the mix at the risk of taking on too much of a program. I decided to make up a list of about 15 G tunes, and 5 Modal or Double C tunes, and play them each for about three minutes – the average time of each tune on some of my favorite Dwight Diller CDs. That worked out well – in theory.
In practice, things were a bit different. The Third point is that once you list a tune on your program, you have to go about remembering that tune. Between the hubbub of the market, the impact of the cold weather on my mind and body, and the distraction of seeing so many lovely little kids decked out in inventive Halloween costumes I found myself loosing altitude on some tunes even though I jotted down a snippet or two in “tab” on my list alongside of the tunes I thought I might forget how to kick off. When that happened, I found myself drifting to an unscripted moment, noodling around quickly until I came to a tune more deeply rooted in my memory bank than the one I had selected for my list. While I would not say my performance was seamless, I would say that not many people noticed these few moments of hesitation.
And that brings me to the Fourth point. Playing in front of an audience at a concert, or a coffee house, is far different than being the “background noise” in a market-like setting. My friend the market owner seated me in the midst of about 8 tents for the various vendors, in the foot traffic pattern of customers milling about the large open parking lot in which the event played out, but I ended up being (very comfortably) invisible in spite of being at Ground Zero for this little event. Playing as background noise allows the protection of anonymity, and the only slight disadvantage is when a gaggle of shoppers decide to stop and chat with another clutch of market visitors right in front of the banjo player’s lonesome little chair. The up side is that it is sort of like playing comfortably on one’s front porch, protected by hanging vines and foliage – and one’s aggressively protective hounds. The down side is that one can drift toward playing in that quiet, intimate way – low, slow, tuned down and under the radar scope to the point that not many will hear the banjo. I had to keep all this in mind sand periodically adjust my projection power to match the decibels of the market goers.
I’d say “yes” to a return performance, but I’ll spend a lot of time hoping that such an event might take place in the warmer weather of spring.
Wednesday, October 16, 2013
A while back I blogged about “Rescuing Simple Heirloom Banjos.”
These are basic, generally old banjos of low to middle level value that come out of people’s attics and represent something intrinsically important to a family, perhaps because of the original owner or perhaps just because the instrument was roosting in the home’s upper deck for so long and therefore must have some lineage in the family.
I’ve been getting more and more of these, especially around spring cleaning and also about the time of the customary sprucing up that comes before the winter holidays. When Little Bear Banjo Hospital was operating in northern Virginia, I’d generally turn such jobs away with the polite suggestion that the owner save his or her money. However, since we moved to Staunton, VA, four years ago, I’ve seen as ratcheting up of the number of such banjos that people haul to my shop for work. I’ve come to recognize that people are serious about having the instrument as a family artifact, so I’ve been inclined to work on them, either to make them playable or displayable.
Often, such banjos come with an interesting cargo. Tucked away in the recesses of the old case it’s possible to discover “relics” of old family history: I.D. cards, music school” homework assignments,” sheet music, picks, banjo tools for the road, and other items that end up having as much importance to the client as the banjo itself.
I recently took in a simple Stella tenor from the 1930s or so for a young family that wanted Grandma’s banjo preserved, and were inclined to reserve the possibility that their young son might some day take an interest in learning the banjo – an instance where the client is seeking both playability and displayability.
The case’s interior compartment revealed a music store card, the kind that a student would carry along to lessons. The music store’s staff would punch a hole on the card’s perimeter marking the number of lessons taken. The case also contained a screw driver, a pencil stub, a banjo wrench and a box – from an old and distinguished company that manufactured class rings and other family collectibles.
I’ve seen such treasures in instruments brought to Little Bear Banjo Hospital. They usually end up being placed back in the interior compartment of a chipboard or hard shell or the front pocket of a soft case, with little concern for their fate.
But since such artifacts sometimes have as much meaning for the client as the banjo itself, I thought I’d try my hand at cobbling together a banjo “shadow box.” Here’s a photo of the first effort.
Looks as though it’s time to start keeping a supply of oak picture frames around the shop.
Thursday, October 3, 2013
A year ago I hauled my banjo over to a neighbor Steve’s home. He’s an accomplished jazz guitarist in a small local band that is always working.
His wife sings. He’s joined by a vibratone player -- an incredible instrument (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vibraphone) -- and a bass guitarist who together tackle jazz standards, ballads and bossa-nova favorites from Duke Ellington, Cole Porter, George Gershwin and Nat "King" Cole.
We thought it might be fun to try and run the banjo through some jazz paces. I don’t know much about jazz at all. I play Old Time clawhammer banjo, and I know enough bluegrass basics to get me into trouble anywhere I go.
We tried to find some common ground, and started with “Summertime, And The Livin’ Is Easy” a tune I learned off of Doc Watson records while I was playing some guitar in the 1970s. That might have exhausted my overlap into his musical world, though I had just learned “Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” in up-picking style, and we managed to pair up his guitar and my five string with some reasonable success.
After two or three sessions it became clear to me that (1) I lacked the chordal sense that Steve brought to the music (2) I did not have much of a grounding in the basic musical structures that differed appreciably from the bluegrass I/IV,V patterns, and (3) my rudimentary capabilities at bluegrass backup (which I was just beginning to focus on at the time) did not really serve me well in a jazz context – or, more accurately, I did not know enough to be able to translate those backup skills to jazz applications.
Steve, however, was accomplished enough on the guitar that he was comfortable trying his hand at old time music, and we’d end up spending as much time banging away at jazz standards as we did trying to find common ground on “Cripple Creek” and “Barlow’s Knife” and other standard G tuning OT festival favorites.
A few months later, Steve and his band became very busy playing at a new local restaurant that was committed to becoming a jazz venue, so we drifted away from an early bilateral agreement to meet once a week.
During our time together, I compiled a loose leaf binder full of jazz chord patterns, annotated music and makeshift tabs of tunes we tried, and some exercises he suggested I try to become more flexible and capable of figuring out his musical world. After a while, I shelved that book and returned to The Dark Side, immersing myself once again in exclusively old time sounds.
Then, about four months ago, I stumbled into this Youtube video:
And, in its September issue, Banjo Newsletter ran a fine article and a challenging tab of the tune “Georgia on my Mind” by Fred Geiger, a real jazz banjoist:
I thought I’d take a crack at the tune again, and spent an inordinate amount of time trying to read Duck Adkins left hand work. With some heroic assistance from Doub Pearce, a Banjo Hangout musician with incredible musical capabilities and a true teaching streak, I struggled to come up with a reasonable facsimile of the tune by cribbing bits and pieces from these three musicians – Duck, Doub and Fred.
Here’s what I came up with:
It’s far from right. It’s probably pretty far from the musical goal I set for myself. The entire exercise thrust me back to a way of learning tunes that characterized my attempt to get guitar music down in the sixties and seventies. Now, I basically listen to a fiddle tune, figure out a comfortable tuning for the banjo, and find my way to most Old Time tunes -- with effort but not with the backbreaking work that I had to put into deciphering Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant back in the day. Georgia on my Mind was another Alice’s Restaurant-like exercise, a labor intensive drill that compelled me to think about odd, esoteric chord paths that just don’t show up in Old Time, and that showed me the utility of those years of working through three finger rolls with the Earl Scruggs book perched in front of me.
It’s a stretch, and feels very much like what learning a foreign language did – very hard on the brain, draining in an intensive, total-immersion learning environment, but oddly pleasing in the end result.
Until you get your face slapped by someone who is a native speaker of the language.
So far, I’m not venturing outside with this tune, so I don’t anticipate being beaten up by any local jazz musicians.
But I am going to select another tune of this sort and try and work my way through it.
Tuesday, September 10, 2013
Yesterday, 09 September 2013, I posted a Youtube video of me playing Lee Hammons’ Calloway on an A scale banjo. I learned the tune in the early 1990s from Dwight Diller, and was prompted to revisit this great tune when I saw an 8 September 2013 video posted on Youtube of Dwight doing the tune:
I sent an email to Dwight with the link to my video.
Late Monday night I got an email from Dwight. He had seen the video, and told me that it’s time to go back to the woodshed for some remedial banjo work. “I think I can really help you now. Probably a couple of days is what is needed.”
Nice to be reminded that in this music, one is always a student.
Today I played the tune on my Cloverlick banjo, by Jeff Kramer, much like the one Dwight is playing in his 8 September video.
Monday, September 9, 2013
During one of the workshops Dwight Diller held at our what was then our home in Arlington, VA, sometime in the early 1990s, he decided that I should tackle Lee Hammon's Calloway while the rest of the class, mostly newcomers to the blood sport of clawhammer banjo, drilled the rhythms that Dwight was always focused on communicating to students.
He played the tune for me and for another student, a young lady who was a very accomplished banjo player, and then sent us to a back room to listen closely to a track of Hammons playing the tune, and to play away at parts and pieces of Calloway until we could put it all together.
We'd emerge after an hour, sit down again, and he'd take either fiddle or banjo in hand, play it again, and send us back to the rear room. He did this repeatedly, without really listening to whatever we had managed to catch of the tunes, making the case in his laconic way that we ought to be listening to the tune, not to what we were playing.
Dwight posted a video of him playing this tune on 8 September 2013, (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A1sn3U26bzI) and I thought I ought to take the opportunity revisit that great tune.
Using an A scale banjo (Fawley neck, Vega Little Wonder Style S pot) tuned to gEBEF -- two frets up from eCGCD, just because that was the first banjo I grabbed.
I hope Dwight sees this, I hope he understands that even 20 years later he's still an inspiration, and I hope he might offer as he always does "some pointers" to make my playing right.
Friday, September 6, 2013
I’ve just uploaded my first Tune of the Week essay on the Banjo Hangout website:
The Banjo Hangout “Tune of the Week” (TOTW) Group and its weekly thread was organized as a way to get clawhammer players involved in sharing their knowledge of the linages of old time tunes, and providing video examples of how these tunes are played in a way that shows the unique regional twists to old time instrumentals.
I’ve been finding the TOTW exercise an interesting way to learn a new banjo tune. I usually hunt through the various versions until I find one that sounds as though I can find it on my fingerboard.
I tape that version on my iPhone – using the “Voice Memo” function – creating a 10 to 20 minute loop, and then play it while I’m jogging with my hounds the next morning at about 0500.
I keep the volume soft, and the iPhone sits in my pocket, so it’s low enough to hear but not loud enough to disturb anyone else who might be out at that hour.
That digs the tune into my brain, and I’m pretty much able to find at least some artifacts of the core tune once I pick up the banjo later in the day.
While not necessarily as satisfying as sitting at the feet of an accomplished old time Master and learning the tune the traditional way, for those of us who live in areas deprived or archaic banjo and fiddle music, it is a good internet-driven substitute.
Take a detour in your day and explore the index of these great TOTW “lessons:”
Tuesday, September 3, 2013
My first lesson about playing with a fiddler came from Dwight Diller. Probably about 20 years ago he came to what was then my home in northern Virginia to teach a workshop at my place. He got to us early, a day before the workshop, and we had some “quality time” together. At one point Dwight arranged two chairs so that we’d be facing each other. He put his banjo down, and took up his fiddle. He had me sit down armed with my banjo, and then pulled in tight so that our knees were just touching. Dwight locked eyes with me, told me to keep facing him, made sure I didn’t drift off to look at my right or left hand, and told me to follow him in some tunes. He started off with Cluck Old Hen, and played that until I could do so without gazing away from his eyes. He told me that the hardest thing about playing with a fiddler is listening to the fiddler without listening to one’s own banjo. The next hardest thing is to figure out what to play on the banjo so that one isn’t getting ahead of the fiddler, which to him meant – as he put it – playing so that the banjo music is putting its hand at the small of the fiddler’s back and gently nudging things forward. He called it “playing under the fiddler,” and of course his percussive playing serves precisely that purpose. I’ve tried to approach playing with a fiddler with all that in mind. I still find it hard to stop listening to what I’m playing and focus on the fiddler. And, of course, most fiddlers don’t want the banjo guy’s knees crowding them so I’ve had to regroup on that.
Thanks for reading my blog.
Saturday, August 31, 2013
I’ve long liked the way the banjo and fiddle work together, with the banjo percussively nudging the fiddling forward, and the fiddle finding new and intricate detours through great old tunes.
I’ve been trying to stick to a schedule of a weekly visit my fiddler friend, Laurie Gundersen, owner/proprietor of Appalachian Piecework here in Staunton, VA.
http://www.appalachianpiecework.com/ Laurie spent a lot of time in West Virginia, knows a lot of old tunes, and is a pleasure to pair up with in a tune trading session.
Of course, life intervenes, and vacations, work schedules, family obligations have an impact on music-focused intensions. I’ve found that when I have to live without a few weeks of tune trading dates with Laurie, I can log onto the computer, and hunt down a good fiddle tune on Youtube, hit the “repeat” button and get a good workout that way. Not the same as playing with a real fiddler. Sometimes the cues that would come from sitting knee to knee while trading tunes don’t come quick enough, but it’s still a challenge.
(For example, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_KF5ms_a6W8)
And the commitment to sticking with the “Tune of the Week” drill on Banjo Hangout is another way I’ve found to stay focused on learning new things, and deriving helpful guidance and inspiration from talented players.
Yesterday Laurie and I ran through our modest list of tunes we’re trying to work through: Big Scioti, Waynesboro, Redwing, Abe’s Retreat, and expanded that list with some tunes we will probably try to chase in the near future: Greasy String, Coleman’s March, Piney Woods. We often come to the table with very different versions of these tunes. I learned my simple repertoire from Dwight Diller and Bates Littlehales. Laurie had a lot of exposure to some great fiddling partners in West Virginia, and has taken some influences from two local Staunton fiddlers of note, Bill Wellington and Walter Hojka. The challenge is to find a path in and around the tunes we take a crack at that melds our two versions, without doing harm to the core of the tune.
I usually haul two banjos with me, one to keep in standard G which I can modify to Sawmill or Double C or other tunings out of G, and the other to keep up to A so I don’t have to capo – I never liked the way capos altered the responsiveness of my banjos, and I’ve long used that as an excuse to add “just one more” banjo to my arsenal. Yesterday I was able to test drive my A scale banjo, a Vega Style S Little Wonder pot hooked to a lovely Wyatt Fawley neck and wired up with nylon strings. It really popped and Laurie responded to it enthusiastically – I was worried how the fiddler would take to it. That Vega/Fawley banjo is a bit different than the Cloverlick I have strung up with nylaguts and keep cranked up to A. My new (old) Bart Reiter Tubaphone, not yet fully dialed in -- needs new strings, might need a new bridge, head needs tightening, etc – didn’t stand up too well in the hot sun of her back porch, especially when we retreated to a shaded area. I’ve clearly got some setup work to do there. I never owned a tubaphone before. Played plenty of them, but I’ve generally preferred simple wood tone rims or plain old rolled brass tone rings. I like the Bart Reiter tuba. Works nicely in either clawhammer mode or for up picking in any of several styles. But the fiddler preferred the thumpy sound of the Fawley/Vega Hybrid.
I’ll probably show up to the store once a week and if Laurie can tear herself away from normal Appalachian Piecework duties, we’ll play together. If not, maybe I’ll sit in her back “porch” at the store, overlooking the AMTRAK station, and play for the alley cats and the squirrels that have made their home around the railway.