Questions from experienced players, intermediate through advanced.
M. Ray from Greensboro, NC writes: I just feel like there is another world of banjo playing that I haven’t quite found yet. I hope to find that world at your camp. In keys like D or E or F I’m lost and end of having to just chop and chord and hit a nice sounding lick when the chance arises. It drives me nuts!
We definitely work on those keys at the camp. It’s OK to chop chords a lot. People will think you’re tasteful! You can also roll smoothly while following the chord changes, which is often the best thing to do for backup. When it’s time to solo, do the same principle as you do in G: Follow the chords and follow the melody, trying to put it into rolls. Finding melodies in an unfamiliar key is slow at first, but like learning any “new neighborhood”, you start remembering where things are. As in G, the melody notes, especially the main ones, that fall on downbeats, are usually found within the chord that’s happening at any point. For high notes that can be found on the first string, it’s usually easier to locate the same notes three frets higher on the second string, which makes them easier to work into rolls. Also, you’ll find some useful left hand formats that you can improvise out of, and those help in a jamming situation. That’s the best I can describe it in a short space, and then it’s up to the person to do the practicing.
At banjo camp we dive right into this sort of thing, by picking a typical song played in a key like D, and working through it. For a head start on this kind of material before coming to camp, check out my videos “Branching Out on the Banjo“.
Scott D. from California writes: I’ve noticed that with many players I listen to on CD their 5th-string notes (and sometimes 1st string notes) are not as prominent (loud) as mine sound to me when I play. (FWIW, I recall that your playing features more-or-less even-handed volume and timing for all strings).
Is it because:
– it’s a finesse/choice thing, and these people have so much control that they are proactively playing the 5th string softer (or the other notes harder)?
– Or, maybe they use lighter gauge on these strings or some other set-up trick to make the 5th string quieter?
It’s just a matter of aesthetics. It might even vary from song to song. As you will see in the intermediate/ advanced camp, interpretation of songs gives you a chance to play choppier, smoother, more or less accents, etc. You tailor it to the feel that would work best for each song, with the lyrics and rhythmic feel of the song showing you the way. I preach being able to play any string loud and clear, and then do what sounds best to your ear. As opposed to not having the control to accent the 1st and even the 5th when it seems called for.
Less volume on the 1st and 5th means more space for accenting the melody notes, which is certainly a good thing in many situations.
It’s good you are listening close enough to be aware and concerned about such things. But your own sound getting really good will be the result not so much of analysis, but of many hours with your banjo, trying to get a “love” relationship going, where you know just how to make it sound the way you love it to sound. And it’s all to the good if your favorite way of sounding has its own stamp of some kind, rather than just cloning someone else’s (though it’s great to learn how to imitate the sound of players you like).
Re string gage choices: These are made with an idea to how easy they make it to get the sound you like best.
One of my slogans at the Week 2 camp: “Good tone is based on caring.” Think about that one.
Wow – so it’s something these players are controlling. And at outrageous speed sometimes, too! A little humbling, but great to know.
It’s not that special, really. Consider how you speak English, your personal inflections that are not pre-meditated, but are just a habit pattern that you came up with, are satisfied with. The little directions to your lips, tongue, and jaw are not conscious, just based on what you want to hear. Yes, you are controlling it, but in only a barely conscious way. That is how musicians come up with the variations in their sounds that make them, hopefully, attractive and distinctive.
Best of luck!
“Dr. Banjo”, Pete Wernick
Scott D. from California writes: I listened to the MP3 of you with Phish – hot!! (though I could barely hear you – I think something might be wrong with my Sound control panel!
Well, I am pretty quiet on it, but you can definitely hear me when I’m featured. I was using a mic only (a Lavelier, the kind the people clip on their shirt for TV interviews), inside the banjo. Hearing the volume problem was one reason I broke down and got a plug-in banjo for such situations. Still definitely prefer a good banjo on a good mic.
Did you get a Crossfire?
Prucha, made in the Czech Republic. You can read about it in my Dr. Banjo Goes to Jam Fest article in recent BNL or on my site under Notes From The Road. Crossfire doesn’t sound enough like a banjo for me to use in these situations, when I want to be loud and still sound “like a banjo”. Though I have a Crossfire and like it for what it is.
Are there fundamental reasons why an internal mic or pick-up in an acoustic banjo shouldn’t be able to get as much gain?
It’s all about avoiding feedback. A sensitive mic is worst, a mic that only hears nearby sources is better, a pickup is better, not having a resonating cavity and banjo head would be lots better. You can fight feedback with careful eq but that is a bother and changes the sound too. In-ear monitors are gaining popularity, as is “no monitors, just stand close together and play loud”
Unfortunately, getting more of the good, banjo-like sound that I love, correlates exactly inversely with the above list of factors that make you more feedback-free.
So in sum, the Prucha is what I have found is the best combination of good banjo-like sound, volume-ability, and convenience, at least to this point in time.
Sam G. writes: When I pick at medium speed I can pick cleanly, evenly, and can accentuate any note I wish. But when I am going at fast speed, 140 BPM or more, I can’t hardly hear my middle finger picking and I seem to be tensed up a lot more, resulting in less smoothness. I also lose volume at some point by going faster. Any suggestions?
My general approach is, when you determine the dividing line between what you can do well and what you become clumsy with, assume there’s a need for muscle training for the problem finger. Once the essence of the problem is clear (middle finger loses strength when going fast), you need to work the responsible muscle, regularly, like building biceps at the gym.
You might start by hitting just the first string with the middle finger repeatedly, at a fairly fast, but comfortable clip. Make sure it always sounds good, and just keep doing it till the muscle fatigues. That shows you gave it a good workout, and it likely resulted in a strengthening of the muscle. In time, the strengthening will show. You might vary the exercise by doing just a simple roll at 130 for a while (no left hand to distract), and make sure every note sounds good and strong, then inch the metronome up to 140 and beyond if possible. A minute or two of that, done regularly (2-3 times per practice session would be quite helpful) and you should start seeing results.
The watchword throughout the above is: Make sure you are always sounding good and playing in time. If you don’t sound good, slow down until you are sounding good. In sum: “Play as slow as you need to to sound perfect. Increase speed as you’re able. Be patient.”
I have a bad habit of allowing my thumb to “pop” up away from the head as much as 2-3 inches away from it, especially noticeable if I am picking the index finger immediately following the thumb. It is not as likely if I am picking the middle finger next. I have tried various hand positioning with no help, I have also asked several other people what to do and no-one has had any suggestions. I find this hinders my smoothness at faster speeds as well as creates a swiping motion at the string instead of a short stroke which would be normal. This causes me to strike the wrong string at times or sometimes to hit 2 strings at once unintentionally.
With a problem like you’ve described, again, I try to focus on the essence of the problem, and construct an exercise dealing specifically, and only, with re-establishing a “correct” habit. As in the other answer: Play as slowly as you need to to play perfectly, and watch your thumb carefully while you go TITITITITI. Don’t let yourself do it wrong. Make sure every note sounds good. As you get used to that, “raise the bar” by adding speed, or doing it as part of a roll. Do not start playing a piece or doing licks. That would distract too much while you’re trying to establish a new habit. Over a number of practice sessions, stay steadfast, literally watching your right hand as you do very easy moves, gradually increasing the speed or difficulty of the moves. If you revert to your bad habit, “lower the bar” by doing something easier/slower so that you “always play correctly”. Again, play “as slow as you need to to play correctly”. In time, you’ll be able to add more and more different moves/speed/distractions, and retain your good new habit.
As with the other problem you asked about, changing a long-term habit requires persistence and patience. It is not the most fun part of practicing, and certainly not the reason you took up banjo. As you slave away at creating the good new habits, go ahead and give yourself a break once in a while and just have some fun with the instrument, then after a while, get back to work. The method I’ve suggested definitely works, but it does take some discipline over a period of time. So hang in there!
Good luck, Sam. Let me know how it goes.
Don R., Springfield, IL writes: I heard a cut of a song called Ruthie that I think is off one of your albums. I would love to play it. do you have the song tabbed out or can you give me the chord changes so I can figure it out?
It’s in Bb, and the chords are just 1, 4, and 5. I use C tuning for the tune, but to accommodate Alan O’Bryant’s vocal range we lowered it two half-steps to Bb. So I just tuned the banjo two frets lower on each string and played “as if” in C tuning. First left hand position is middle and ring fingers at the 5th fret of the first two strings. This song is tabbed in the book of AcuTab transcriptions of the On a Roll record, all four breaks. Available from me. Glad you like the tune. Good luck learning it.
Paul Houck writes: My name is Paul Houck, and I play banjo with the bluegrass band ”The Orchard Boys” based in Maryland. We are in the process of recording our first CD, and our mandolin player/lead singer John Rosenwald, feels that a song he wrote could be enhanced by using a phase shifter on the banjo to “get that type of sound Pete Wernick used to get.” I was wondering if you had any tips as to using one, settings to use, etc.
The sound I’ve been getting all these years is from an early 70s MXR Phase 90, a little orange box that is still marketed, but with updated circuitry that is noticeably different to me and not as appealing. It’s very unlikely you’ll find a box just like what I have, as the circuitry got changed in 1976, and most models that were sold were the later kinds.
There are many effects devices nowadays that are versatile and can create phaser-type sounds. It’s similar to “chorusing”, but there is a warble whose speed you can control on the Phase 90, and I got used to a particular speed (“1:30” on the knob) which I always used.
Boss used to put out a device called the SE-70 (earlier the SE-50) effects processor, that had a setting called “vintage phaser” which with some tweaks was a very close match to the Phase 90 sound I like. If you happen to get hold of a device like that, check back with me and I’ll give you the settings. There is probably a current version, but I don’t know the model number.
You can always take a recording of the sound you want, to play for a sound guru who knows about sound processing devices, and he/she might be able to steer you toward a good device and appropriate settings. But it’s hard to find the right guru who’s not merely into selling you something that “can do everything”. It would be great if they’d take the time to actually get it working the way you want it, on your instrument.
The phasing is more noticeable and attractive on the lower tones, so as you play, work the 4th string a lot, with slides. To hear it well, you’ll need headphones, preferably the kind that block out some or most of the acoustic sound.
Best of luck. Let me know what you come up with.
Larry from central Virginia writes: Hi Pete, I know that in past years you have been on the judging panel for many banjo contests. I would like to enter some contests within the next 3 or 4 years. Do you have any suggestions regarding type of selections, speed level, where to get info on upcoming contests, etc?
Other than judging the Merle Watson Banjo Contest every year, I’m kind of out of the banjo contest loop nowadays. There are major ones at Winfield, Kansas in mid-September and Topanga Canyon in southern California. Other than that, a lot of festivals do have contests, and will often list them in their ads. Most of those don’t have big prizes such as famous brand banjos, but there may be a few hundred dollars in prize money. I don’t know of any central source of information for banjo contests. One problem would be that they come and go, prizes change, etc.
As for how to increase your chances of winning, that may vary from place to place. In my judging I give a lot of credit to people with good command of Earl Scruggs’ (or other masters’) material, having obviously studied the originals. Then I listen for originality and interest value. I really like hearing good original tunes (and in fact, the contest rules for the Merlefest contests all give credit for that). Blistering speed is not important, but if the tune is well-executed and sounds good at high speed, that’s impressive. Since you get to play more than one tune, having one that is a bit different, but sounds great, would have to be helpful.
When I had the opportunity to create the rules for a contest (Merle Watson Banjo Contest), I made sure to include an idea I’d never seen incorporated before: Having to play a song of someone else’s choice and do all the breaks and backup, with almost no time to prepare. This tests a person’s musicianship beyond being able to memorize and execute an exact pre-planned arrangement. Every year this contest pairs the finalists with a famous bluegrass singer/guitar player (like Del McCoury or Tim Stafford), and that is part of the judging, along with a tune of choice. It’s the only contest I know of like that, but I hope it catches on.
Good luck with the contests, and be sure to pick it solid!
Jim from Alabama writes: Pete, I am a pastor of a Baptist church and have been playing the banjo for a few years but I have reached a place where I don’t know where to go on the banjo. I was shot while working in law enforcement and I can’t use my middle finger on my right hand so I have had to learn with my index and ring finger. I don’t know much about moving up the neck. I can play using all the basic rolls and play songs such as Foggy Mountain Breakdown, I’ll Fly Away, and others, but I want to advance and become more proficient with solos and playing up the neck. What do you suggest?
First of all, I’m glad to hear that you are moving ahead with the banjo despite your serious injury. You may know that Jerry Garcia (of Grateful Dead fame), was a fine banjo picker who was missing the end of his right middle finger. He used his ring finger instead, as you do, and sounded just fine.
As for the suggestions you requested, two things:
First, as a starting point for learning more solos, you can just make a list of songs that you would like to learn, and start working out the solos on your own, based just on your knowledge of the melody and chords to each song. I’m guessing you can do this, but if you’ve only learned from tab thus far, it will take a bit of effort to get that up and running. You can let me know whether you think you can do this easily or not, and if not, I can make other recommendations.
Knowing how to create simple solos based on the melody is a very important, often overlooked (by teachers) skill. Once a person figures out how that’s done (trial and error style), it’s time to embellish.
Second, when it comes to embellishments, they can be ideas you borrow from what you already know how to do in other songs (such as FMB), or from instructional materials showing new ideas, whether in tab or in other forms.
I have created a 2-video series called Branching Out on the Banjo, which shows a great many ideas all over the neck, in easy-to-learn form starting with chord positions, and then showing various lick and backup ideas that sprout from the chord positions and various rolls. The videos come with booklets with chord diagrams and tab of everything I play in the video. It’s a powerful way of showing a lot of information, and will keep you busy a long time. The ideas sound good, and are generally reasonably easy to play for a person who’s been playing a while.
The videos can be ordered from my web site, www.drbanjo.com, by going to the “store” section. There is also a lot of other, free, instructional material on the site that you might find of interest and value. You may also want to check out this winter’s banjo camps (one is for intermediate only) under “workshops/camps“.
I wish you luck with your music!
Scott from Wichita, KS writes: I’m thinking about entering the Winfield banjo competition next summer, and I’m thinking about what that involves. Any thoughts or advise you might have on that subject will be greatly appreciated, including recommendations on possible songs I might use. I’ve thought I might polish up “Blackjack” and maybe “Black Mountain Rag” but also have some pretty good tab for “Welcome to New York” and “C G (Country Gentlemen?) Express” both Bill Emerson songs, right?
Dear Scott [a former basic-skills and then intermediate Banjo Camper, by the way, now performing regularly],
I’m not the best one to ask about contest playing, but here are a few pointers:
The pieces themselves are not so important, though it’s good to stay away from hackneyed ones (on your list, only Blackjack might possibly be near that category). The material is usually used as a vehicle for your interpretation, hot licks or whatever.
Contests are judged partly on content, but I think it’s great to stress execution: smoothness, clarity, tone, accuracy, as well as liveliness and comfort level. That all amounts to practice, and practicing into a tape recorder followed by listening (especially later, say, in your car) will help a great deal.
Due to nervousness that’s bound to occur, it will help a lot to get your arrangement started, start practicing it early (like this month), working out every bug you hear. Finalize it a month before the contest, so you can practice it in its entirety and get it deep into muscle memory. That will be a great safety net if your mind should falter. Of course, breathing deeply, and all the other stage fright tips from Banjo Camp will apply!
Phil, a banjo camper from Massachusetts writes: Hi Pete, Well, it had to happen sometime I guess — Someone’s actually going to pay me to play the banjo! I’ll be playing in a parade on July 5 – riding in a horse-drawn haywagon. I’ve put together a pick-up band consisting of a pretty strong rhythm guitarist (whom I’ve played with a bit before), a mandolin player and a bass player (neither of whom I’ve met before). We’ll have one rehearsal and that’s about it!
My plan is to have chord charts handy, and work up six fairly easy tunes that we can play in a loop. Since we’re playing to a “rolling” crowd, I thought this would be enough material (except perhaps for the people riding on the wagon with us). I wonder if you have any advice for this – my first paying gig? I’m pretty new to this and I’d like it to be a success for everyone involved.
This is excellent, Phil. I’m very happy for you! Your plan sounds good. But I bet you’ll soon figure out that it wouldn’t hurt to play something else easy instead of the 5th repeat of one or more of the selected tunes. You might also surmise after a time that almost anything you all know would work in this situation, and you will have more fun playing for your own satisfaction than as if the crowd really needs to hear only the best of the best. They might hear 15 seconds at a time, and most of that time will be covered by the novelty to them of the fact they’re hearing the refreshing sound of bluegrass. Otherwise, it’s mainly important that the instruments are together and sound good.
I’ve picked these six tunes for their jammability, recognition factor, and their “country” feel.
* Lonesome Road Blues — These 3 can be filled out with a vocal verse or two
* Salty Dog Blues
* John Hardy
* Dear Old Dixie — More complex harmony, but a great country feel
* Turkey in the Straw — who hasn’t heard these two
* Foggy Mtn Breakdown
* (Cripple Creek) — Standby’s
* (Ballad of Jed Clampett)
Good choices. I think you’ll find that Jed (familiar) and Foggy (fast and with “hooks”) will do the best. Also, Cripple Creek is catchy, Dear Old Dixie has good chords and the hook on the “stop”. Lonesome Road will sound more generic (not bad necessarily), but John Hardy, as a “lick vehicle”, can easily lose out as a way to engage listeners, who need more in the way of catchy melodic elements. If you and the mando can play clear and strong on Turkey, that will be some nice variety.
If it’s not too late to round up a decent fiddler, that would not only sound good, but look good. After an hour of nothing but picked instruments, it’s really nice to hear a bowed one. And think of a slow piece to do now and again, just for variety for you all.
How you all look while playing is a pretty big element for this type of gig. I don’t know exactly what “the part” is, but you should all make at least some effort to try to look it. Probably denim, maybe boots, maybe some kind of nice but not too flashy western shirt, and a decent hat of almost any kind for those who have them, would do nicely. Part of your value is scenic, and don’t forget to really have some fun, or at least try to look like it. Those who can, should try to make some eye contact with, and relate to, the crowd in any way that works.
As a performer, especially in a somewhat symbolic, and visual situation, I recommend trying to stretch beyond the usual blank look that people have when jamming. Look at each other, be somewhat animated, encourage each other verbally, smile if there’s “anything” worth smiling about. Not a bad idea to go Yeehah once in a while which if done in various ways will make you all grin. In short, get a bit into the heads of the audience people, kids and grownups alike, and think of what you enjoy doing that they would like too. It should come out just fine, and if it is, they just might hire you every year.
Have a blast!
P.S. I’m also in the process of getting a twice monthly bluegrass jam started out here in western Mass. I’ve even got some radio advertisement on a local bluegrass program, but unfortunately, it’s rained each of the scheduled days and their rain dates. There’s nothing like this in my area, so I figured a public park and a handful of well-placed Flyers might be worth a shot.
Rain, go away! This is bound to work out if you stay with it for a while. Be sure to get it on any radio program that will announce it.
Joel from Boston writes: I wonder if you have any suggestions for finding a band. What I’m really looking for is a good bandleader. I’d like to be in a semi-professional band with fully professional people — like Hit & Run — if I could meet someone like Rebecca, male or female, I’d join that band right away. I feel like I could be a better player to be under the guidance of somebody invested in making a band_ sound good. I’ve been going to jams, but that doesn’t seem to be turning up very much. What other ways would you suggest to get my name out? Is this covered in your book, “How to Make a Band Work”?
Well, this is a good question, and I think it’s a great focus for you. This is not covered in How to Make a Band Work (it assumes the band is already together, and it talks to the band or band leader).
To get your name out, go to lots of jams and play great, seem like an agreeable guy, and keep gravitating to the best singers and players. Hint: Many of the best jams, with the best musicians, happen quite late at bluegrass festivals. At some point you’ll start getting to know them, especially if you’ve shown yourself to be an excellent player and nice guy. Sooner or later, you’ll get in a good band that way, whether they ask you or you ask them to start a band with you.
Most great bluegrass bands have had a powerful lead singer and at least one standout instrumentalist. (Pause while you think of exa-mples. There are almost no exceptions.) If you want to be in a band that does well, find your way to the best lead singer you can. That is the critical element (this and the need for great material are discussed in the How to Make…. book). You can imagine how I felt when Tim O’Brien agreed to start a band with me! Great lead singers are not easy to find. A really good tenor singer is tough to find too. When you have both, that’s paydirt.
You are also in need of an organized and aggressive band leader — someone who can get gigs and guide the band musically. Those are in really short supply too, especially among people who are skilled musicians.
To get in a group with people like that, you have to have something significant to offer. I haven’t heard you in quite some time, but I bet you’ve been improving steadily. Consider whether what you have to offer is so good that the people you want to be in a band with would think they were lucky to get you.
What this leads to is: to add to your value as a prospective band member, various non-banjo skills can be pivotal:
- Good at and willing to work hard to get GIGS. Bands thrive on gigs, and die without them. This skill is discussed at some length in How to Make… along with how to keep the band organized in everything from travel (road managing) to rehearsals to sound checks to interpersonal issues. This person can and often does get extra pay for their work (as these are “band leader” functions.
- Good baritone singer (not an awful lot of those). (Note: #s 1 and 2 are what I offered Hot Rize, and one or the other has figured in in every band I’ve been in.)
- Own and can do well running a good sound system, including a big enough vehicle to transport it. This is a biggie, both asset-to-the-band-wise and work-wise. Like #1, it often can get extra money for the one who does it. At first, though, it’s probably better to offer it free except on fat gigs.
- Write good material that the lead singer likes to sing (though you don’t have to be in a band to write for a band). This one has been another asset in my “portfolio”.
- Less of a critical factor, but it’s great to offer: a convenient, comfortable, and hospitable place to practice.
So those are some really good band oriented assets you can offer. If you are only equipped to play banjo, you’d have to be a mighty good picker to beat the “competition” of other good banjo players who might have other assets to offer a good band.
I’ll stop there. I feel this is solid, realistic advice, and you can figure out how you stand with respect to these skills, and which ones you may want to cultivate. You are young enough to embark on any of these, learn as you go, and within a year or two, be really good at them.
Best of luck, Joel!
Former banjo camper Paul asks (on the Intermediate Banjo Camper discussion list):
Is the tab in “Bluegrass Banjo” a completely accurate transcription of what PW plays on the record? I’m hearing quite a few differences.
Here’s a story that sums up my recent experience with this instrument.
A year ago, in the absurd hubris of a complete rookie, I decided I was going to learn Bela Fleck’s “Snakes Alive” from the Dreadful Snakes album. I hammered away at it for weeks, only making enough progress to drive my wife insane. In the end I was able to play the whole 3-part first break at about 80bpm. I put it aside.
A week ago, I decided to come back to it and make some progress. After a week of practice, I was able to play it clean at 120bpm. Plenty pleased, I was (as Yoda might say, if he played the banjo). Then, just to show how mightily I was nipping at Bela’s heels, I loaded up the original recording on the Amazing Slowdowner at 73% of real speed so I could play along with the guys.
I couldn’t play it. I couldn’t play at 73% of what Bela plays it at. I think I set a world record for how quickly you can go from beaming pride to cringing humility. (At least I’m fast at something!)
But that’s not the end of the story. The end of the story is I went upstairs to where my wife was watching a movie and told her the whole sad story. She turned to me and said, “It sounds really good at 120.”
Then she went back to her movie.
I’m figuring there’s a lesson in there somewhere
Well, I did the Armadillo Breakdown tab in 1973. Maybe the recording has changed since then. Maybe not.
In cases like this, which of course come up with some regularity, it’s just fine with me to fall back on the “if it sounds good it must be good” adage.
Let’s not forget, if I had played another take on that tune, the break would have been different. Why not fill in the blanks as you see fit, and just make it sound good when you play it.
It is possible to get a bit too focused on exactly duplicating something. There is value in taking a solo you really like, and make sure to learn every single note that a player played (even the mistakes, which can be informative), but it gets kind of abstract when the important thing is to sound good and basically know the tune. If I had played some thing that you think is so cool, you want to know every note in the correct order, well, go for it. (You can use your slow downer to slow the solo down and find the notes on your own (time honored practice described in my book’s chapter Using Records to Learn) But I kind of doubt that it’s that important.
Likewise, though speed is important at times, I think you should adopt appropriate goals, and listen to your wife. She already told you it sounds good (big improvement over driving her insane with the same tune). Of course, if it sounds good it must be good. You’re already playing 8 notes a second if you’re at 120. That’s pretty fast! It’s good to be a certain amount dissatisfied with your playing, but your reactions make it sound like you’re too hard on yourself. Make friends a little better with your instrument and see how much you can just LOVE Snakes Alive at 120. I promise if you play it a bunch, it will get faster all by itself. And keep sounding good or better.
Haven’t you heard that old expression, stop and smell the snakes?
One last word: The best thing for you would be to get out and play with some people on a regular basis. It can change your attitude and help you really get into the essence of music making.
Best of luck, Paul. I’m rooting for you. So are the other listers, right gang?
Phil from Massachusetts writes: I am using a Shure SM57 to record myself I’ve plugged it into a Fishman pre-amp with some EQ controls to warm it up a bit, then that goes straight into the PC’s soundcard. In conversations with other Sonar users on various list servers, I hear that the SM57 will not bring me “total joy” when mic’ing acoustic instruments. What can you recommend for that purpose? It doesn’t sound bad to me, but maybe you know of a better choice? I’ll be doing a lot of recording of acoustic instruments and want to get the best results I can.
You know, its funny-you recommended doing this sort of thing to me at camp, and here it is happening. I guess that’s why you’re the doctor! I believe recording myself in context like this is going to make a huge difference in my playing. It’s a big help to hear your mistakes played back at you.
Thanks for any ideas you can offer.
The 57 is not normally thought of as a recording mic since it doesn’t give a truly “flat” (accurate) reproduction of the original sound. In particular, it won’t get the high end the way a condenser mic can. Most any mic will add some coloring, and most agree that the 57 does a good job smoothing the banjo sound, giving it a bit of warmth while keeping it punchy. In general, that’s what I use on stage with Hot Rize. In Masters of the Five String, it was one of the top favorites mentioned by players.
I’ve been using an AKG 414 for recording for probably about 20 years now. It’s a large-diaphragm condenser, which is a class often recommended for a banjo, where getting the low end is somehow helped by the large diaphragm. There are other, newer models that are a lot less expensive than a 414, that seem to do a very good job as well. I don’t know which are recommended for recording.
To make your own decision re micing, see if you can work a deal with a music store where you can borrow different mics, and try them on your home setup. Or you could rent them, or promise to buy one of the ones you test.
When you test, try to play a variety of sounds, as well as you can, and record them. Do something up the neck, something down the neck, something capoed, something soft, something fast and louder. If you can play the same stuff every time you test a mic, the differences will show up so that you can evaluate. If you play different content for each recorded test, the content will distract you a bit and make it hard to evaluate the mic as opposed to your playing.
Of course, the age of your strings, where you place the mic, how well you’re playing on a given day, etc., have a way of confusing the “data”. The best way to test mics is to do it all in the same time period, possibly at a recording studio. You can reserve an hour or two and check out a variety of mics. At a studio, you can even set various mics up at the same time, and record them onto separate tracks while you play a minute or two of different sounds. Listening to them back on multitrack, able to quickly compare different mics back and forth on the same piece of recorded music, is a great way to test them.
Since mic placement is definitely a factor in sound quality, some experiments with different placements is another step to try once you’ve narrowed the field of mics to one or two. Each time you record, verbally state where the mic is placed, so that you’ll be able to compare more easily. Some favorite places to put a mic are by the flange holes near the neck, pointing straight at the center from 8 or more inches away, on the side of the right hand away from the strings, and my favorite, pointed at the strings, somewhat near the neck, from about 6 inches away. Some people even use two mics (or differently-positioned mics) at the same time, and blend them in the mix.
Ultimately it’s up to your ears (try not to go by price tags) to tell you what works best. Then of course, if you practice enough and really focus on good sound, your playing will sound good through any mic!
Rolf in NJ writes: Pete, So that’s the most typical way I play in D: G tuning but the 5th string raised to A.
I am steering myself this way, mostly because I find the A-D-F#-A-D tuning too confusing. I am constantly trying to build my ability to play in D/E/F as you describe above … it’s easier than retuning!
I assume you have tab books out 🙂 Can you recommend any of your tab books that has a higher than average number of tunes played the way you described in your post?
I know you know what’s below … just to be clear in what I am looking for:
* Tunes in D: open G tuning, fifth string to A
* Tunes in E: open G, capo 2, fifth string to B
* Tunes in F: open G, capo 3, fifth string to C
P.S. I was listening to one of your CDs this morning! Great stuff!
I do indeed have tab books out. A total of two in print right now and available on my web site, and both have a fair amount of what you are interested in. Hot Rize had quite a few songs like that, Nellie Kane, Colleen Malone, Walk the Way the Wind Blows (whoops, I play that open, in F), Midnight on the Highway, Wild Ride, Frank’s Blues, Life’s Too Short, Untold Stories, quite a few. A fair number are in my tab book for the first two Hot Rize albums, and another bunch are in my AcuTab book, based on my On a Roll album (with a few from Hot Rize). On a Roll has Spring Break, Down in the Valley to Pray, Birdsong Creek, When the Snow Falls On My Foggy Mt. Home, Man of the Mountain… I hope that’s enough, though I think there must be more.
It’s really a fun format to play in, more than a lot of people realize. A great sounding D on the 4th string, and one on the first too. A pretty third (F#) on the 4th fret of the 4th string and the 1st. Just because Earl rarely had to be in those keys, people seem to think it can’t be done, or it has to mean D tuning (which I don’t especially like, plus it means relearning the fingerboard). In Hot Rize I had to do it, and it worked out just fine. Find the melody, find chord variations, experiment, keep experimenting, and choose the best stuff. It helps to have played 1500 shows with one band that does a bunch of tunes in those keys!
Female singers are here to stay in bluegrass, and with the keys they like to sing in, this kind of playing is becoming more and more necessary for a fully equipped player.
Have fun with it, and if you play in a band that does songs in those keys, be brave and jump in!
Paul S., former Intermediate banjo camper, on [email protected], writes: As we make the move into bandhood, it occurs to me that we might want to start making our breaks, backup parts and fills more predictable. Not that we play exactly the same thing every time, but that at least our breaks are the recognizable “breaks we do on this song.” This is what we seem to expect from bluegrass shows we go to — that the banjo player does the break people know and love, or some version thereof. To take the example of “Colleen Malone,” the live version of the intro banjo/mando break is virtually the same as the studio version.
Having more predictability in certain areas (without turning the whole performance into a soulless machine) seems to have a few benefits. For one thing, if you have a set break for a song, you can work on it, make it better, cleaner, more interesting, while if you’re always doing something completely different, you don’t have as much opportunity to refine a specific break. Another advantage is that if the other pickers know more or less what you’re going to do, they’re in a better position to play off you, adding fills or percussive effects or even harmony lines. And of course, if everyone knows who’s doing what fills and what kind of backup when, there’s less chance of people stepping on each other.
You’ve spelled out the advantages and disadvantages well. The planning part means everyone has to take the time and effort to remember stuff. Like other aspects of being more like a “real band”, this smacks a bit of “work”, which some hobby musicians want no part of. And some others want to see how close they can get to sounding “pro”. In bluegrass, there are few players with the improv skills to put out a really good and cleanly executed break that they’re just “faking” at the time.
I always recommend that band players (or even serious jammers) pick a song or two that they will really get down and polish to a fine sheen. Partly it can serve as an example of how good they can sound. Also, working through the technical problems to get the whole thing smooth and slick, may well force them to deal with some technical issues that, once solved, will cause a general upgrade of their playing.
To do the above means settling on exactly what the break will sound like, much like a composition. It’s a fixed thing that you can then go over with a microscope, slowly eradicating each and every difference between you and a “pro sounding player”. That can be a large job, but even when halfway done, the result will sound cleaner and better, generally, than an improv’d break.
The spontaneity factor is important though. As a member of Hot Rize, after several years of playing exactly the same breaks (quite cleanly, generally, even when nervous) I came to realize there’s a cost in predictability as well as a gain. Audiences tend to know when something is canned or made up just for them. Some energy bursts and other cool effects happen better when they occur spontaneously, thanks to everyone being responsive to each other. When it’s all planned, the effect may be a bit less delightful. Kind of the way photos of musicians taken “live” always look different from faked “live” shots. You can tell.
Re Colleen Malone, that’s an example of us wanting to do something “signature” for this song. We kind of ripped off our own arrangement of Nellie Kane (same key and tempo, another sweet love song, from the early days of the band), where the banjo and mando just unison the melody, plain Jane, just to salute it and to announce, this is a good old down home song, straight ahead. Sometimes a statement like that actually stands out. There are no licks, no flashy spots, just the melody, that’s unique to this tune. Most licks, especially common ones, have a big job to compete with a well-played good melody with minor nuances the way a singer would have.
My main recommendation is to do a “pilot project” song or two, and see what everyone thinks: Convert all the arrangements to “worked out” or leave some things to chance (assuming some general prep). Every band has that choice, and there are obviously many different outcomes, depending on personal taste, and how well the players can handle the requirements of the two choices.
Keep us posted!
Mike writes: Dear Pete, I’m a big fan of Hot Rize and have been trying to play tunes like Colleen Malone and Nellie Kane (similar in their mandolin duet style). Is that a regular g tuning you’re using or do you special tune to make things easier?
Thanks for the help!
Yes, it’s basically G tuning, but since both of those songs are in E, I put the capo on fret 2, and play as though in D. For playing in D the 5th string is normally tuned a full step above usual, so with going to E, that makes four frets to raise the 5th, or up to B. Once you get there, a lot of the sounds you hear on those arrangements will come forth pretty easily. The Colleen Malone arrangement is tricky when it gets to the 2 chord, since I was going for the melody.
Both of these solos are tabbed in books you can get from the Store on this site, Colleen in the AcuTab book, and Nellie in Dr. Banjo Plays Hot Rize.
Have fun with the tunes.
Phil writes: Pete, I have been playing for 30 years, at the advanced level. When playing at full speed, my middle picking finger tends to extend out away from the first string. This of course, causes the speed and clean picking to deteriorate. Any ideas on how to break this bad habit?
Three pathways I can think of:
Just accept the limitation. If you ever get to watch Allen Shelton, one of the all-time greats, you’ll see he extends his fingers a lot more than necessary/Earl/efficient. But it sounds good, so he just kind of chuckles about this. But you say it hurts your sound.
Play as fast as you’re able to play without the problem happening. Note what speed the problem starts happening at. While playing at that speed, stare at the middle finger and tell it not to DARE stick out. See if you can mind-over-matter it like that. If you can increase the speed and keep the finger behaving, see if you can keep it up without having to concentrate so much. If you can do that, that’s “good new habit development”. Stay at this threshold of when the problem starts to arise, and see if the concentration helps you keep it controlled. If so, try less concentration and more speed, a little at a time. You might be able to reprogram the finger that way.
Another more physical way of reprogramming: The clarinet player in Flexigrass, Bill Pontarelli, developed an apparatus whereby if he extends his fingers, they encounter actual restraints. To avoid running into that, his fingers find a way to move within the closer limits. In time, he had developed new habits, extending his fingers less.
Hopefully one of these choices will work for you!
Richard writes: The tailpiece on my Tennessee Flathead is the original one when purchased 30 years ago. It looks to be the same as the ones Deering uses on the GDL’s. I’m not unhappy with it but are there better ones to use for sound enhancement? Or am I just asking for trouble to change it out?
I am not aware of the tailpiece having a lot of effect on banjo sound. I have no special preference about tailpieces, but have generally used the ones that came with the banjo. I used a Price Straightline for a while because I liked the appearance, but I didn’t notice a tone change.
There are some who discuss tailpieces as though they are an important part of the tone. I’m not one of them, but they might have some good insights for you.
You’re not asking for trouble to change it, but in general I think you’re better off spending your time on playing good music. Sometimes, it seems to me that people would rather think about banjo setup than actually playing the thing. Playing the thing, and putting a lot of care into your playing, is what creates good sound.
Enjoy your picking!
Drowned in Spain writes: I play with a tuba and a sax in a group. Our act is usually hired for fairs, and we walk around playing as we walk. The problem is even if I pick as hard as I can, the tuba sometimes drowns out the banjo. I am trying to find a decent sounding battery powered amp that I can carry on a strap while I walk. Have any ideas?
You might be surprised to hear how loud your banjo actually is. Banjos very typically sound much quieter to the player than to someone listening from in front of the banjo. To see what I mean, play within a few feet of a reflective surface like a flat wall. The volume may surprise you.
As to your specific question, I don’t have any recommendation. I would go to a music store where they sell such things, and try them out. Battery powered amps are typically not very loud.
Stelling Banjos tend to be pretty loud compared to most. You might try one of them.
Best of luck!
David writes: I’ve started using the banjo in my recordings. I’m a multi-instrumentalist and know many of the “sweet spots” in those instruments in regards to EQ and allowing them to lay in the mix rather than squash it. The banjo has been one of the hardest for me to get a handle on.
I know for instance the acoustic guitar can often benefit from a good boost or cut in certain frequencies in the aural spectrum when laying in a mix. Often times I can remove the “cheap” sound of a lower quality guitar by cutting around -3db at 800 mhz for instance. Or a boost of around +3-6 db around the 200 mhz range can add some fullness to the bottom, etc.
What about the banjo? Any sweet spots or trouble spots when mixing? I want the instrument to lay in the mix more than stand out like a sore thumb. Any help would be greatly appreciated.
This is a reasonable enough question, but I don’t know of any across-the-board EQ tricks for banjo. When I record my own banjo (1988 Gibson Granada, using AKG 414 large diaphragm condenser mic), a small cut between 200-400 mhz helps make things sound a bit clearer. But this is specific to my banjo and that mic, when I’m playing in a full band context.
Note that you said you like to boost the 200 range for a guitar, and I said I like to cut it for my setup. What if we both liked to boost 200? It would overload that part of the listener’s ear, you could say. It’s sometimes helpful to think of equalization as shelves. Best not to load up one shelf too much and leave others relatively empty. Good mixers try to distribute frequencies for the listener to enable each instrument to be heard clearly without being in competetion for the “same shelf” in the ear, if you follow the analogy.
Choice of mic is quite important. The banjo’s quick response and strong high end, plus definite voice in the low-mids, is a combination not all mics handle well. For stage, the SM-57 Shure, an inexpensive dynamic mic, seems to do about as well as any. In the studio, a lot of people recommend large diaphragm condensers, to make sure to get a sweet low end, while still getting a good high end.
I recommend experimenting with mics: Record several tracks simultaneously on different mics, and compare the tracks on playback. Once you know what mic you like, mic placement is another factor. I place the 414 about 8 inches from the center of the banjo head. Other people prefer other placements. As with mic selection, the way to arrive at the best placement is to position identical mics in different places, record some playing on separate tracks simultaneously, and decide which track sounds best (make sure you keep track of which recorded track is which placement!).
As with a lot of music, art, or cooking, “season to taste”. The key word here is “taste”, which of course may vary from person to person. In this case, it’s your taste which should dictate. That underscores why I wouldn’t offer a suggestion as though “this is what works” but more: “Here’s what I like, with my banjo and my particular taste.”
As with many questions of “how to sound good”, it’s important to be aware that each person has their own taste, and you can arrive at your favorite choice by experimentation.