Thursday, July 3, 2014

Fun With The 6-String Banjo

What do artists Kacey Musgraves, Eric Church, Keith Urban and Taylor Swift have in common?  They all play a Deering Boston 6-string banjo!  It gives their songs a distinctive sound, notably on Keith Urban''s song Who Wouldn't Want To Be Me? and Taylor Swift's Mean.  She recorded the song and video with a Deering B-6 banjo; it's now on display in the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Made for guitarists who want to begin playing the banjo immediately, the 6-string banjo has the same standard tuning as a guitar (E-A-D-G-B-E).  The chord patterns are also the same as a guitar so there's no learning curve.  It can be strummed with a flatpick, played Chet Atkins-style with a thumbpick, or played with fingerpicks.

Those who enjoy alternate tuning will find a whole new sound with "open" tuning (D-A-D-G-A-D), or open-G tuning (D-B-G-D-G-D).  Drop-D tuning (simply changing the 6th string from E to D) gives a 6-string banjo much more depth and bottom-end.  Deering installs extra light gauge strings so they're easy on the fingertips.  Most of all, it's fun!  Watch as Tom Gardner demonstrates in the video above.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Day Earl Came To

Legendary banjoist Earl Scruggs visited our store mid-summer 2008, when we were located in a shopping mall.  He was touring with Lizzy Long and they were traveling back to Nashville.  I was in the storage area in the back, packing boxes for the UPS pickup.  In walks Lizzy and Earl followed her.  “I brought someone to see you guys,” she said.  I turned around and saw the man who was bigger than life to me, smiling.  Made my day for a week!

At the same time, one of our employees spotted another employee entering the store.  “Hey Harper,” Barry called out.  “Earl’s here.”

“Earl who?”

“Earl Scruggs.  Back of the store.”

Harper was familiar with Barry’s practical jokes.  He was not about to be taken in.  “Well who’s he talking to, Abraham Lincoln?”

After a brief visit, Lizzy and Earl followed me into the main showroom where we intersected with Harper.  The look on his face, when he saw Earl, was priceless.  Total surprise.  “Barry wasn’t kidding!”
Jim “Duck” Adkins was giving a banjo lesson.  Even his student realized how lucky he was to be in the store at that moment.  We all did.  Earl and Lizzy stayed for about 30 minutes.  We asked questions and he responded with his heavy North Carolina accent.  He reminisced about The Beverly Hillbillies’ TV show, where he and Lester Flatt were frequent guests.  Buddy Ebsen, the patriarchal character named “Jed” on that show, he remembered as a “great man.”  He said that the huge motion-picture cameras were so expensive back then, the studio had only one.  They had to shoot each scene multiple times and move the camera to each person, one-at-a-time.
I showed him the “Earl Scruggs shrine” wall I’d set up to honor him, with photos and posters.  He was 84 at the time, gracious and generous with compliments, and said we had a nice store.  He had injured his hand so unfortunately we didn't get to hear him play.

And it was all over too soon.  I walked Earl and Lizzy to their car, thanked them for stopping by, and they were gone.
Louise Scruggs, Earl’s late wife, penned a brief history of the banjo in her husband’s book, Earl Scruggs and the 5-String Banjo book with CD.  She quotes music critic Walter Carter: “The most profound measure of Earl Scruggs’ influence is the simple fact that the five-string banjo is the only instrument on which the overwhelming majority of players copy the style of just one man.”

Monday, February 24, 2014

Economy of Motion, Part Three by Greg Earnest

We’ve looked at ways in which our left-hand movements can be made more economical—now what about the right hand?  A compact right hand technique is essential for the bluegrass banjo player; watch videos of Earl Scruggs and you’ll see that even on the fastest tunes, the fingers of his right hand barely appear to be moving.  This is because he had mastered the art of moving his fingers as much as necessary, but not ONE BIT more.  

While it may seem like an obvious statement to make, the only time any sound is produced on your banjo is when your picks are in contact with the strings.  Three inches to the sides of your strings, or three inches above them, are places where nothing happens and where your fingers have no business being.  Experiment just a little and see how little of a “running start” is really needed to get all the volume you need when picking a string; strive to make your finger’s attack on the string less like swatting at a fly and more like pulling a trigger.  While you’re at it, take a look at how much of your picks are contacting the strings; ease of playing and quality of tone are both improved by using just the tips of your picks.

I can tell by glancing at a student’s banjo if he is not being as precise and economical with his thumb as he should be; there will be a telltale black mark on the banjo head where the student’s thumb pick hits it every time he plays the fifth string.  The thumping noise caused by the pick on the head can be distracting, but what worries me more is what it says about the compactness of the student’s right-hand technique.  

Concentrate on letting no more than a quarter of an inch of your thumb pick contact the fifth string.  This may take some concentrated effort until it becomes a habit or second-nature.  Give yourself a couple of weeks, at the very least, to perfect it.  Slow down the tempo and focus on accuracy.  If you’re thumping the head with your thumb pick now, that noise will disappear.  Your playing will be better, and more enjoyable, for it.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Economy of Motion, Part Two by Greg Earnest

In our last installment on economy of motion, we looked at the problem of the “flyaway slide”.  Another left-hand problem I often see in my students is what I call the “hot string” syndrome—the student frets a note and then lifts the fretting finger up off the string as quickly as possible, as if the string were a hot stovetop.  In many cases, the very same note is needed again just two or three notes later, so the student has to relocate and fret the string again—only to lift it off again.

My rule for left-hand fingering is simple—once you have fretted a note, leave your fretting finger in place until it is needed somewhere else, or until that string needs to be noted at a different fret.  Given the nature of bluegrass banjo playing, one or the other of those things is going to happen quite soon, but that little extra bit of follow-through saves a lot of wasted motion and also improves the overall sound of your playing by letting notes ring out until they decay naturally, rather than being cut off prematurely by a lifted finger. 

When hammering on to the second fret of the fourth string at the end of the A part of Cripple Creek, for example, try leaving your left-hand middle finger in place until it’s needed to do a first-string slide, to start the A part over or a third-string slide to start the B part.  Do it slowly and listen to the subtle effect as the fretted fourth string continues to ring out until the end of the measure, producing just a hint of a G6 chord; pull your fretting finger away too quickly and that little bit of harmonic subtlety is lost.

As I said in the last installment, making good music on the five-string banjo is about doing a lot of little things well.  Next time, we’ll look at this idea of economy of motion as it applies to the right hand.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Economy of Motion, Part One by Greg Earnest

I’m sure my students get tired of hearing me preach about the importance of “economy of motion” in bluegrass banjo playing, but it’s really something I feel can’t be overemphasized.  In tackling this instrument, our hands have plenty to do as it is—the last thing we need to do is to stack the deck against ourselves by engaging in a bunch of unnecessary movement.  

Failure to keep both your left-hand and right-hand movements as economical as possible not only makes it harder to play, but also negatively affects  the sound of your playing.  In the next few installments, we’ll take a look at some of the concrete ways in which the principle of economy of motion can be applied in your playing.

One of the most common examples of wasted motion that I encounter in my beginning students is what I call the “flyaway slide”; when the student renders, say, a slide from the second to the fourth fret on the third string, the fretting finger never really arrives at the fourth fret but flies off the string somewhere along the way.  The result is that instead of hearing one full, ringing note sliding to another full, ringing note, the listener hears a beginning note and then a PFFFT as the fretting finger leaves the string and the note abruptly dies.  It might seem like a small thing, but expert playing of the five-string banjo (or any other stringed instrument) is made up of a lot of such small things done well.  

Make a concerted effort to keep your finger in full contact with the string from right behind your starting fret to right behind your ending fret, and you’ll be on your way to a cleaner, fuller, more professional sound.  Next time: the “hot string syndrome”.

Monday, February 3, 2014

September 13, 2006: and Atlanta Braves host "A Tribute to Earl Scruggs", Part 2

The Atlanta Braves organization is first-class.  They're always interested in any community events that might entertain baseball fans.  Our event would entertain and bring more attendees to the Braves' game.  On the schedule for September 13, 2006 was a double-header with the Phillies.  We would take the field between the two games and hopefully set a world record for the largest banjo ensemble.

Jim called a few days later with another great idea.  Why not invite the living banjo legend, Earl Scruggs, and name the event in his honor?  He literally reinvented the banjo for bluegrass music and wrote the book that we now call the Banjo Bible.  Jim's idea to invite him was keeping me up during the nights.  I had already met Earl Scruggs in 2003 when he played a concert at The Tabernacle in Atlanta.  He was a bluegrass "rock star", and I was impressed that he was so accessible to fans. Louise Scruggs, his wife and manager, was there with him, overseeing the crowd.  I wanted to hear him talk, so as I shook his hand I asked, "Do you ever practice?"  He replied with a smile, "No, but I probably should."  Then I cringed at what I'd just done.  I asked that of Earl Scruggs!

The name Earl Scruggs is held in such high esteem by banjo players, his attendance would bring fans who were anxious to see him, and it would increase attendance for our record-setting event.  But would he attend?  How would we get in touch with him?  More in the next installment...

Friday, January 10, 2014

Learning To Practice by Greg Earnest

Emphasizing the importance of practice for the student of the banjo, or any musical instrument, is hardly novel.  But exactly how do you practice?  

I find it useful, both in teaching my students how to practice and in my own ongoing efforts to improve as a player, to think of practice in three parts.  The first part might be thought of as “just playing”—going over tunes you know extremely well.  This type of practice serves to keep your hands working well, to help you remember things you have already learned, and to concentrate on the fine points of phrasing, dynamics, and articulation.  

The second type of practice is where the student tackles “works in progress”—this is the time spent cleaning up tunes or licks that are still sloppy, memorizing a new tune, or (slowly) increasing the tempo of a given piece.  

The third type of practice is what I think of as the “input” phase of the operation—this is the time spent tackling brand-new material, whether from tablature or an audio or video recording or (for more advanced students) doing your own transcriptions from recordings of accomplished players.  For those working with a teacher, this would also be the time to buckle down and study whatever you were given at your last lesson (which hopefully was no more than one day before or, preferably, earlier the same day).  

I strive to give roughly equal time to each of these three types of practice in my own learning; the temptation is always to spend too much time on the first type of practice, since it’s naturally more fun to play something you can already play well.  The old music-teachers’ admonition to “practice what you can’t play” is one I have to continually repeat to myself and my students; too much time spent “just playing” can get the student in a rut of doing just a handful of tunes over and over.  Keep a mental (or an actual) list of tunes that come up at jam that you would like to learn—put these in your “practice queue” and get them in your learning pipeline!