Clawhammer Banjo Tunes, Tips and Jamming

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I’ve gotten a couple of music books in the mail recently and springtime (and really, any time) is a great time to learn a new instrument or build your skills on whatever you’re currently playing, sitting out on the porch enjoying the longer days and later sunsets.  I’ll start by taking a look at Wayne Erbsen’s book on clawhammer banjo.  Like most players of “an age” I grew up learning tunes from various instruction books going all the way back to Pete Seeger’s classic “How to Play the 5 String Banjo”.  This was of course before the days of the internet or even video cassette players, which lead me to ask the following question as I cracked open this book.   “Are music instruction books obsolete in this day and age?” and if not, what place do they occupy in the world of music instruction or how best can they be used? 

I believe the answer to my first question is “No” and I’ll endeavor to share my answers to the follow up questions by looking at this instruction book.  The book is laid out in a thoughtful way, the print is large enough to read easily, and that’s not just a factor for some of us more senior members of the community, the layout is easy to follow or scan – one of the benefits of a book like this is that you can easily peruse the pages to find something that interests you, skip back and forth between songs or stories and easily find what you’re looking for.  Another word about the layout – I appreciate the fact that the songs, with that large easy-to-read tab and lyrics appear on one page.  With the spiral binding you can flip open the book to the song you’re working on and even play outside on a windy day without the pages flapping and flying around.

One of the great joys of Wayne Erbsen’s books is the wealth of stories and background information on the songs.  His books read like an old friend in casual conversation.   The book opens with background information on the banjo and it’s place in old time music.  The basic vocabulary, from songs versus tunes to pull-offs, hammer-ons and such are all covered succinctly.   There’s plenty of tips on getting the proper sound and making the playing experience more enjoyable.  A CD is included with mp3 recordings of all the techniques as well as the songs.  You could easily load the 78 tracks onto your iPod for practice, or choose a few to work on at a time which is what I did.  The songs are played slowly and then a little faster.   The melodies are tabbed out in a very straightforward manner, you get the melody loud and clear. Erbsen describes it as teaching the “Naked skeleton of the songs”. I appreciate this kind of arrangement because any player, myself included, is going to add their own touches to the song and for a beginner being able to clearly hear the melody is essential.  While this books is oriented towards a total beginner on the banjo, a more seasoned player might pick it up for the songs. 

Once you’ve mastered the basic techniques you’re invited by the author to play the songs in any order you like.  For a total beginner this book gives you in a few pages a solid foundation on clawhammer banjo techniques and song structures that you can expand upon.  Toward the end of the book there’s information on jamming and playing with others.  Again, Erbsen does a great job of condensing the vital information into a few enjoyable pages.  I’ve been playing for decades and teaching for a long time as well and I enjoyed reading his comments on “Jamology” as well as the stories about all the songs.   I’ve been a fan of Wayne Erbsen’s books for some time now, his Rural Roots of Bluegrass book is one I recommend to anyone getting into the genre as a player or just a fan.  Clawhammer Banjo, Tunes, Tips and Jamming is a excellent addition to any music library, if you’re a beginner this is a friendly place to start and if you’ve been playing for a while, here’s a set of songs to enjoy plus some wonderful stories and background information you might have missed along the way.

-Kevin Slick

Happy Little Trees by KC Groves

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This review ran a while back but I thought it might be nice to reprint it here as we're updating our website and some of you might have missed it the first time around. 

Some albums sound as if the artist labored over every nuance, every second of sound, polishing each note to a perfect sheen while others sound like a spontaneous, passionate, intimate letter written to a close friend. Both extremes on the spectrum have their qualities and charms and there are many examples of either end of that continuum, but to find a recording that combines the best of the precise and the passionate to a rare thing indeed.

Happy Little Trees by KC Groves is such an album, one that brings a smile of recognition from shared emotions and familiar sounds as well as admiration for the unique arrangements.

Groves has assembled a veritable Who’s Who of contemporary acoustic musicians, many of whom are either based currently or who have roots in the dynamic and diverse Colorado Front Range music scene. While I wouldn’t necessarily claim that Colorado has influenced Groves as a writer, I think it’s fair to say that the album showcases what is best about the music scene here in the Rocky Mountains – a deep respect and soul drawn from traditions that grows from the cross-pollination of various music forms, expressions and directions.

On the opening track “Northern Lights” the band creates an atmospheric glow that combines familiar chord changes with reverb heavy pedal steel and vocals that seem lighter than air. That feeling returns on “Annabelle”, both songs play out like a little movie, the images created as much by the words as the soundscapes. On tracks like ”Bluebird”, “Little Rain” or “Electric Peak” the sound is much more traditional old time music where the contributions of players like Riley Baugus, Oliver Craven and Steve Smith really shine. “I Can’t Quit You” is pure country, or to be more precise, country music as it used to sound.

This is an album to listen to, which may seem obvious, but some recordings are used to document a particular performance or provide merchandise for sale at gigs and while there’s nothing wrong with either of those approaches, a recording that is presented in sequence to be enjoyed as a whole package is something special. While the songs are all written, co-written or adapted by Groves, she seems to be as much the producer or invisible guiding hand to this project as a star in the spotlight. This is not unexpected of course. Looking at the career of KC Groves you’ll notice plenty of brilliant work from projects like Uncle Earl or Jeff Scroggins and Colorado, in each case Groves was contributing integral elements to the overall sound but always as a part of band, one of the team and her solo album is very much the same, the assembly of a fantastic team of musicians who, together craft something special.

At the risk of reading too much into the title “Happy Little Trees” which references the public television artist Bob Ross, I’ll suggest that there are a few possible connections. This album flows together like a well selected art show, where each work compliments the others and yet each is unique. Also, the TV show sought to make beautiful art accessible to a wider audience and this album is equally inviting and accessible, providing many opportunities to connect to and discover beauty.

-Kevin Slick

Bluegrass at the Audi to feature Sally Van Meter

Bluegrass at the Audi to feature Sally Van Meter

The Colorado bluegrass community will enjoy a rare treat when Lyons local Sally Van Meter takes the stage to headline the February 24 "Bluegrass at the Audi" concert. Sally is widely known for her slide talent on the steel and resonator guitars, and for her expertise in the recording studio. She earned a GRAMMY for her work on The Great Dobro Sessions and can boast quite an impressive resume as a performer, studio musician and producer. She’s also known as quite a private, humble person, and one who generally doesn’t seek the limelight for herself. We certainly feel privileged to host her at the Audi.

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On the Northern Beat

The rhythm of art

By Jan Peterson

In this electronic age everything, it seems, is digital. Bluegrass instruments are a wonderful exception to that particular rule, allowing the nuanced resonances of “wooden box” amplification (pioneered centuries ago) to produce the sweet sounds we have been conditioned to expect from our wood and metal instruments. 

We have given a nod to electrification by adding microphones, in order to pick up the subtleties of natural over-tones produced by vibrating strings and less-strenuously project that music to a listening audience. And what a godsend it is to be able to vocally project throughout an auditorium, or an outdoor field full of people, without having to over-strain our vocal chords: ain’t mics wonderful? 

With digitalization comes precision: for example, in the Olympic Games, contests between athletes can be decided by one-hundredths of a second! But in a musical presentation, on the other hand, absolute timing accuracy is not necessarily a good thing:  it can, in fact, make a musical composition come off as overly machine-like and un-human. But not keeping a reasonably regular rhythm is at least equally disturbing. This question of how to balance repetitive precision with artistic freedom, pitting accuracy against interpretation, has been around for as long as there has been music.

Early on (well before the electronic age) there were no “regular” beats available as a reference, so people got creative: they used their own pulse (heart beat rhythm) to judge “regular” timing. This idea of regular timing is especially critical for large groups of musicians attempting to play together. I think that’s why conductors were invented: to force orchestral musicians to share the same beat, as directed by the conductor’s waving wand. But orchestral musicians had to pay close attention to the conductor, because there was no such thing as a “regular” beat—except for short-duration episodes within an overall composition; there were “movements” which varied in all kinds of ways, including rhythmically.

By the eighteenth century, composers were using terms like “Andante” (which is Italian for “walking”) to invoke a somewhat shared experience of repetitiveness in order to establish a “proper” timing. Terms like “Tempo di Minuetto” made reference to an established organized dance, where the dance movements, themselves, dictated a rhythm to be shared. If they had comedy back then, I’m sure it would have included the idea of an off-tempo (up-tempo) interpretation of organized dance timing that would have left the poor dancers frazzled (think of Groucho, Larry & Moe sharing conducting responsibilities).  So, some progress was being made on the “regular” timing front, but it was all still very subjective.  

In the age of enlightenment, attempts were made to link rhythm to the movements of a clock. When someone discovered that the length of a pendulum affects the speed of its motion, instrument makers seized upon that new understanding to create the classical clock-like metronome, with a sliding weight on a thin metal bar, so that it will swing back and forth in a regular rhythm dictated by the exact placement of the weight along the length of the bar. Thus, a truly steady beat of “X” beats per minute could be established with accuracy. And now, of course, we have digital metronomes that can churn out a steady rhythm with extreme precision.

Which just gets us back to our original dilemma: rhythmic accuracy? Or artistic license?  Well, we know that going to either extreme ALL the time is problematic. I do know someone who wants to “get out ahead” of the beat. The problem is that doing that all the time means speeding up! But thinking through that issue made me realize, like many problems, what this problem needs is a solution that doesn’t buy into the “either/or” approach espoused above.

The answer is to do both, instead of trying to choose only one, turn an “either/or” into a “both/and” solution. It’s just that “coordination” needs to be added into the equation; you keep a steady beat for some period of time before you vary the rhythm, or jump around, in front of, or behind, the rhythm. And then repeat, or vary your repetition so that it doesn’t seem like repetition. Or... you come up with some idiosyncratic interpretation of how to combine these elements.

I think “mixing it up” is a good way to introduce variety—as opposed to just monotonous repetition, or just a-rhythmic/non-rhythmic exuberance—and get to experience them all, within an over-all unifying framework. No, not ALL the time, of course, it’s best to stay away from the extremes. Selections of different combinations of the musical options available to you (or invented by you), all deliberately chosen to coordinate with the emotions being evoked vocally, that’s the trick!   

And HOW you do all that is what makes “art.”

And, yes, there are always exceptions to [any] rule.

Gary Barker: In Memoriam

The Gary We Knew

By Lisa Astrella

Gary Barker was my partner in bliss and folly, as we pursued a mutual adoration for bluegrass music with our band Loose Cannon Bluegrass. What started around a kitchen table, ended up taking us all over this gorgeous state, and on to Kentucky, where we played at ROMP in honor of Bill Monroe’s 100th birthday. With Gary behind the scenes tirelessly booking, organizing and maintaining a web site, we grew the band over more than 8 years, and had the privilege of working with many talented and generous musicians.

Gary first arrived on the Colorado bluegrass scene in 2004. We all met him at the White Fence Farm Thursday night jam, back in the day. He had retired from teaching and had relocated here from Saginaw, Michigan, with his wife, Jean. They followed their daughter Molly, who was just starting her family. We soon discovered that he was a great Dobro player, and a quick study. We would later learn the full and formidable depth of this remarkable human being.  

There was not a corner of Gary’s brain that he didn’t fill with knowledge, and then share it with anyone who had the good sense to listen. He wasted not a moment on this Earth, as an educator, scientist, athlete, musician, devoted husband and father. A former Teacher of the Year, he built his own seismometer and regularly kept up with tectonic activity around the globe. Gary could and would give us updates on earth movements that hadn’t yet hit the news.  

We spent a lot of road time, travelling from gig to gig, and there is a stretch of highway, between Colorado Springs and Cañon City, that will forever remind me of him. He explained the rock formations on either side of the road, and why one was older than the other, by so many million years. Yet another thing he knew off the top of his head. Colorado was a geologic playground for him, with boundless opportunities to learn and explore.

I remember one conversation in which he explained the statistical improbability of ever being born, and how so many things had to go right over a multitude of generations. It was part of a commencement address he used to give to the thousands of students he’d influenced along the way. He said, “Against the odds, you were born. You’ve already hit the jackpot.” The unspoken extrapolation was, “Now, what are you going to do with it?”

Self-effacing, humble, quietly doing the work, while encouraging those around him to shine, that was Gary. He dedicated his life to the betterment of others. He had a great sense of humor, a laugh that seemed to start in his bones, and quirky little habits that would spring out of him when he was particularly happy or excited, like rapidly rubbing his hands together, or raking his picks across the Dobro strings. 

Family was the world to Gary. Growing up in Middletown, Ohio, he was the baby, behind older siblings Marvin and Mary. He and Marvin had a bond that is only cultivated after a lifetime of fun-loving chicanery. They perfected the art of the “non-joke” which is something that the dismayed listener would have to experience, in order to fully understand. For them, it was a knee-slapping, howling good time.   

With Gary, we got the gift of the whole Barker clan: Jean, and their daughters Molly and Corrie, granddaughters Audrey, Annika and Layla Jean, as well as sons-in-law Eric and Adjmal. They are the silent heroes in this story. They supported us at our gigs, and were his life, his backbone, his strength, during the grueling months, his inner circle that propped him up when it all seemed too much. They will need time and healing of their own.

Gary, this is how your band mates describe you:

  • Marte Meyer: Steadfast, kind and smart
  • Eric Grace: Dependable, Professional, Gifted songwriter
  • Ernie Martinez: Warm, Humorous, Genuine
  • Jim Fischer: Engaging, Enlightening, Encouraging

Gary, my dear friend, we hit the double-jackpot; first for having been born, and again for having known you. Yes, you. See you in the starscape.

With much love,
Lisa Lombard Astrella

The Historic Stanley Hotel Rattles the Spirits 

The Historic Stanley Hotel Rattles the Spirits 

The Stanley Hotel is pleased to announce its first concert weekend dedicated to bluegrass, friends and family. Stan Jam is a two-day festival event February 23 and 24, featuring a collection of many of the best Colorado musicians set alongside some of the biggest legends, including headliners the Del McCoury Band and the Jeff Austin Band.

Individual tickets and discounted room packages are available at Stanleylive.com.

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Executive Message from CBMS

Don’t miss ‘Bluegrass at the Audi’

By Kevin Slick, CBMS President

Howdy everyone,

While the weather’s cold and we’re working on all those new tunes to pick at the festivals, remember there’s some great bluegrass happening during these cold winter months. 

Don’t miss our new season of shows at the Broomfield Audi; the first one was January 27th and featured FY5, who have a brand new album out, along with The Ginny Mules.

The next one is on February 24th with Sally Van Meter and the True Bluegrass Band.  Opening the evening will be Follow The Fox.  Tickets are on sale now.

If you've somehow missed shows at the Audi, make plans to get to one or all of the upcoming shows. You won't find a better venue to enjoy bluegrass music on the Front Range.

Hope to see you all soon.

Pickin’ in the Grand Valley and Points Beyond

Western Slope shows and jams

By Veta Gumber, aka Vetabluegrass

SAVE THE DATE

JAMS AND MORE

As jams sometimes happen without much notice, I recommend you check GVBluegrass.com for the latest schedule and to schedule your event.

NEW MUSIC AT KAFM