Banjo Confessions

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7 String Banjo

7String02Somehow I got the notion to build a 7 string banjo, really a 6 string (5 strings with a 6th drone) banjo but with 2 bass strings tuned in unison.  I actually came up with the idea in an erroneous way, I was watching a movie called “Fado”, in the movie there were some Portuguese guitar players, and one of the guitars had, to my eye, a double bass string, I thought that was probably to give the bass string some extra oomph, once I was part way through making the banjo neck, I looked on line but could only find the Portuguese guitars with all strings doubled up, like a 12 string guitar. So I looked closer at the video and found that the image quality made it appear that only the bass string was doubled, but by then I was too far along.  But I do like the sound, check out the you tube clip below.7String01


Marion Thede and old time fiddle

One of the first tune books I got in the early 70’s was Marion Thede’s book “the Fiddle Book”, it really influenced my take on old time music.

She was a music teacher who ended up in Oklahoma in the late 20’s, she was a classical violinist who suddenly found herself surrounded by fiddlers who opened to her a whole new way to approach music, like playing by ear, using different tunings etc.

I really liked her observations and how she explained how the music that was being played would be different for each fiddler, in her own words;

” I am inclined to the belief that fiddlers pick up a tune by hearing the general structure and then supplying a whole set of notes to their own fancy…finally emerges a fixed version only used by this one fiddler…”

Which explains the multiple versions of tunes that are out there.

I also read one person’s observation about the difference in fiddling and playing the violin, the violinist is expected to play all the correct notes in the correct order where the fiddler plays it like he like to hear it.

Sometimes I notice that some who play old time fiddle will approach it like a violinist, play a Clyde Davenport tune exactly like Clyde played it and frown on anyone switching notes around.

Another observation by Marion was that when the fiddlers played together they all played the tune their way and would comment on so and so’s coarse part being awfully nice, but would never think of playing it that way themselves.

I have to admit that this is how I try to approach learning a tune, I usually find the skeleton of the tune and then how I play the rhythmic part of the banjo is how I fill it out.

Here is a link to more info on her book…

Depending on the kindness of strangers

If you read my earlier posts you will see that I took the long road to learning how to play, when traveling overland to India and Nepal I would often ask those who played music already if they would help me get in tune, during that year long trip I did not meet one other banjo players, but I got plenty advice from guitar players.

Once back in the states my first wife and I moved up to the Napa Valley in California, I had a rough and unusual style of playing and when I met other actual banjo players I think they didn’t know what to make of me and my playing.  After my wife divorced me, in 1973, I went up to Weiser Idaho to the Old Time Fiddle Contest, and was blown away by all the music, suddenly becoming aware that there was a large following of traditional music that was alive and flourishing.

I tried to jam along with others but got some strange looks, but what did I know?? After Weiser I headed up to the Northern part of Montana I stopped at a rest stop and plunked away on the banjo, trying to make sense of what heard of other banjo players where doing at Weiser, when a couple of guys stopped at the rest stop as well, and asked me what style I was playing, I told them I was trying to do frailing or clawhammer, one of the guys took my banjo and commenced to show me how the right hand actually should be used.  And because of him I was able to actually get the sounds and rhythms that I was hearing others do.

Thank God!

Modal Tunes

Here are some of my attempts to play some of  Henry Reed’s Modal tunes

Besty Liken

Shady Grove

Ducks on the Pond

Some of those D tunes

Here are some tunes done in D:

Big Liza From Kyle Creed

Angeline the Baker As played by Norman Edmonds 

Trader Boatman   From Pug Allen 

Sugar Hill Round Peak Style  

Cumberland Gap From the Bing Brothers  

Some A Tunes

As a break from my babbling here are some A tunes on the Banjo:

Big Hoedown From Edden Hammons

Jenny Get Around As Played by John Salyer 

Little Rabbit-Rabbit where’s your Mammy From the Crockett Family, played as two tunes, as a medley, like it was recorded, not as a 5 part tune.

Wrassled with a Wildcat Out of the Marion Thede Book

The Clueless Fool on the Road

Old Case

My traveling case back in 1971

Sometimes I think I have spent my whole life going from one embarrassing and humiliating experience to another.

The trip to India and Nepal was not planned but came about when I was in Greece, I kept meeting people traveling back from there,saying that one could make the trip for around $30.00. So with a backpack and my banjo in a canvas bag we started hitchhiking, then taking trains and buses for what turned out to be about a year long trip dragging an instrument I not only couldn’t play, but I couldn’t even tune it.

Somewhere in Afghanistan, someone heard my feeble attempts and thought I was doing some jazz improvisation, and started telling other musicians that there was this banjo player travelling on the same route, and when other musicians would invite me to jam with them, I tried to explain I knew nothing about music, and they would tell me not to be so humble, until I played about three or four notes, then they would usually say something like, “Oh yeah, you don’t know anything do you”

How to end a relationship…learn the banjo

Teaching yourself an instrument can be tricky, especially if you have no experience in playing any instrument, and not being around those that do.  On top of that, learning to correctly play a style like clawhammer by oneself from a book is even more insane. When I first started teaching myself the banjo I found some tab books, but soon found out that if I never heard the tune before how was I gonna play it correctly.  So I started looking for records that included tunes I wanted to learn, which in 1971 wasn’t that easy. Nowadays there are plenty of teachers, videos, youtube, etc where you can actually get the concept.

Framus Banjo circa 1971

In 1970/71 I traveled the “Hippy Trail” from Europe to Kathmandu, by bus and train, a year long trip, where I carried an inexpensive Framus banjo that I bought in Berlin, and Pete Seeger’s book. I depended on the kindness of strangers (fellow travelers) to help me tune it, but during that whole trip I never met anyone who knew anything about banjos, especially the clawhammer, or frailing style. Plus Pete’s book had examples of many styles and diverse tunes, like “Ode to Joy” which kinda kept me unfocused on any one style.

I had some encounters at various borders where they were concerned that I was going to sell the banjo in their country and if I was then I should pay some sort of duty, when they wanted proof that it was my personal instrument I had to pull it out of my case and play it, well, since I couldn’t really tune it myself, or even play the durn thing it was kind interesting to see their expression when I tried.

In Afghanistan the people loved it, the chrome parts especially, and I was offered semi precious gems, like Lapis Lazuli  and Turquoise, as well as globs of Opium, all which I declined. But in India the land of the Sitar, they just acted surprised at how much I payed for this 5 string instrument, ($30.00) as compared to what a Sitar cost. Read the rest of this entry »

My First Banjo

My First banjo…built in 3dsMax from my memory

Here is my take on Frank Proffitt‘s Sourwood Mountain:

It was in Cleveland, 1970, my first wife, Diane, and I were cruising the junk shops, when I came across an interesting old instrument in pieces, with what looked liked a porthole from a ship holding a skin head.
I bought it for, what I think was $20.00, but it could have been a bit cheaper.  My dad worked at a tool and die company and asked one of the machinist there if they could fabricate some of the missing brackets, they were a brass tube that acted as the nut to a brass bolt, with a thick wall that was machined down so that it created a head that helped to press the top and bottem pieces together, tightening the head.

I replaced the torn head with a new skin one, and added strings, I used steel strings, but gut or nylon probably would have sounded better. The tuners were old style geared ones that fitted into the slotted head, the 5th string also was slotted. And the worked fine.

It was pretty nice looking but the actual rim that the head rested on was a thin piece of brass sheeting that was rolled, looking like a tin can. The tone was pretty crappy. But I loved it nonetheless.

Mine did not have the hindge

So now I had a banjo, but I knew nothing about the banjo or the music, yes I had seen Pete Seeger, Earl Scruggs (on the Beverly Hillbillies) and watched the Hootenanny shows, but I never really noticed the banjo, or was drawn to it until I found this odd looking one. I was also not musically educated, so I found Pete Seeger‘s book on How to Play the 5 String Banjo and went to the library and picked up old LPs of players like Frank ProffittHobart Smith other esoteric and wonderful players, and the simpicity of their playing really touched something inside me.

Flat Foot in the Ashes

I first heard this tune, about 10 or so years ago,  from my friend Kenny’s daughter Corrina, who had learned it from her teacher.

I really enjoyed the tune and did some searching on the web and found that there was a cassette put out by the Augusta Heritage Center of a Harvey Sampson and his band the Big Possum String Band, which I then ordered the cassette from the Augusta Heritage Web Site.  (Elkins, W. Va. : Augusta Heritage Records, [1986?]  AHR-004 Augusta Heritage Records)

Unfortunately they do not seem to carry it anymore, but there are some other good Old Time Music recordings and videos that can be found there.

Here is some info I found on the Fiddler’s Companion:

Old-Time. USA, central West Virginia. DGDG tuning. The tune appears to have been common in Braxton County and other areas of central West Virginia. It was mentioned by William Byrne who described a chance encounter with West Virginia fiddler ‘Old Sol’ Nelson during a fishing trip on the Elk River. The year was around 1880, and Sol, whom Byrne said was famous for his playing “throughout the Elk Valley from Clay Courthouse to Sutton as…the Fiddler of the Wilderness,” had brought out his fiddle after supper to entertain (Milnes, 1999). Augusta Heritage Records AHR 004C, Harvey Sampson & Big Possum String Band – “Flat Foot in the Ashes” (1986/1994. Learned from Noah Cottrell, Calhoun County, W.Va.).