Category

Learning Tips

Less Is More

By Inspiration, Learning Tips, Uncategorized No Comments

I think the fundamental problem is this. The more confident I get with my playing, the more I want show off. I have this narcissistic need to make some kind of grand personal statement when I’m playing. The result generally winds up sounding like crap! Recently I was practicing for a gig with a really talented singer songwriter. Her music is intelligent, powerful and well crafted. When I got home and listened to a recording of our session, I was horrified. I wasn’t playing to her singing at all. I was stomping all over the music. Instead of listening, I was trying to prove that I could play the fiddle. I spent the next two days carefully studying her CDs. I made notes on where to play and more importantly, where not to play. I stuck close to the melody and tried to focused on supporting the singer and song. In great big block letters at the top of the page I wrote “DON’T OVER PLAY”! The result worked. The gig went well. I could tell she was more relaxed, I allowed her talent to really shine and she made us both look good!

“Don’t Over Play”: I think I might just tattoo that to the back of my right hand so every time I bring my bow arm up it’s right in my face.

Learning Fiddle Tunes

By Learning Tips, Resources No Comments

As I’ve written in the How To Learn blog, learning and practicing fiddle tunes is a great way to improve your technique, plus, they are really fun to play. A lot of fiddle tunes are similar in structure and melody so once you learn one, it gets easier to learn others. You’ll start to recognize similar patterns and chord structures. Everybody plays fiddle tunes a little differently. They can be really simple or full of flourishes and fills. You want to find a version that seems manageable. That is usually the one that’s close to the “old-time” version where you get the skeleton of the tune or basic melody. If you listen to a few different versions, you’ll begin to understand what’s important and what is added color. Don’t get overwhelmed when you hear a ripping version with lots of notes. Just cut out the notes you can’t handle. As long as you keep the basic framework of the tune, that’s fine.

I mostly learn fiddle tunes by ear. Or, I’ll use a chart along with a recording so I can hear the correct timing. The Amazing Slow Downer app is an essential tool for me when it comes to learning fiddle tunes or licks from recordings. Youtube is also a really great resource. Any tune you want to find, you will most likely be able to find somewhere on the internet.

About The Capo

Fiddle tunes are generally played using a lot of open strings so that means you will often be using a capo on usually on the second fret. So a G shape chord becomes an A. The C shape chord becomes a D, etc. If you play with a capo, learn what key you’re REALLY in. Don’t say things like, “I’m in C capoed on 2.” The bass player, fiddler, mandolinist, may not know what you’re talking about. Just say, “I’m in D” and everybody will be on the same page.

Here are a few links below to help you get stared learning fiddle tunes.

Old Joe Clark

This is a great place to start. Old Joe Clark is a popular jam tune. It’s in A but it’s got this great old-time, modal quality to it which makes it really fun to jam on.

Here’s a pretty good lesson on how to play back up 

Note for Note. This will give you the basic melody of the song.  

Here’s the definitive version by Doc and Merle  Watson. It does not get much better then this . Players will often combine similar fiddle tunes. In this case they start with Bill Cheatum and go into Old Joe Clark. Listen how they harmonize toward the end. That is super cool.  

Cripple Creek

Here’s a nice, simple version of Cripple Creek. Another classic jam tune.  

Whiskey Before Breakfast

This is a very good lesson on flat picking technique and timing . It’s a note by not run through.  ( He also includes the Lyrics in the comments section which you don’t often hear. The lyrics to Whiskey are really fun )

Whiskey Lesson Note for Note 

Here’s Bryan Sutton playing a very pretty version of Whiskey. This is the kind of video I would convert into an MP3 and import into the Amazing Slow Downer  to learn. ( or pay the dough and sign up for his Academy Of Bluegrass course )

Bryan Sutton on Academy of Bluegrass 

Red Haird Boy

Nice Clean Version 

This funny Banjo Ben dude gives a pretty good analysis of how to approach “attack”. He demonstrates  adding what I call “color”. 

Here’s the definitive lesson. This is the great Tony Rice. 

Billy In the Low Ground

Here’s Tony Rice teaching Billy in The Low Ground. This is a great tune.I love how he finishes this and says, “that was a rather crude version”.   

Soldiers Joy

Here’s that Whacky Banjo Ben again. He’s actually a pretty good teacher. He offers tabs if go to his site. 

This is a pretty notey version but it’s shot really well to show the fingering and he plays it fast then slow.  

Here is a really pretty version by the great David Grier

Angeline the Baker

Here’s a note for note, more beginner version 

Here’s a very cool but technical version from Scott Nygaard

Another very technical and masterful version by David Grier

 

Guitar Resources

By Learning Tips, Resources No Comments

I once attended a song writing workshop with Darrell Scott and he said something that I found really interesting. He grew up playing in a working, family band. From a very young age he was playing back up guitar on stage every weekend and later, more nights every week. He said that becoming a strong, backup player would later become his most valuable asset as a song writer.

Knowing how to hold the rhythm and support singers is just as important, if not more important, then being able to rip out hot leads. My advice is to spend time on becoming a competent backup player first.

Here are a few helpful places to go to pick up tips for learning good strumming and flat picking technique. I’ll keep adding to this list as I discover new resources and if you find anything you think would be helpful to share, be sure and pass it along to me.

 

Bryan Sutton  G Run 

Here’s Bryan Sutton’s Academy of Bluegrass course. 

Work On Your Guitar Rhythm

Classic Rhythm Guitar Boom Chicka pattern

Peghead course focusing on flat picking.  Great place to learn technique and tunes 

Basic Flat Pick patterns. This is a nice no-nonsense lesson showing a few basic, very handy patterns.  

 

About Music Camps

By Inspiration, Learning Tips, Resources No Comments

In the last decade, music camps have sprung up all over the place. From Balkan to Bluegrass, whatever style or instrument you want to pursue, chances are good there’s a camp dedicated to learning it. A lot of music festivals host music camps the week before the festival. Camps can be a blast and a great learning experience. Here are four reasons why I think music camps are worth the time and money.

1. You get to fully immerse yourself in music

Many years ago, after I started playing banjo, I went to The American Banjo camp. I was really nervous about going. I hadn’t played much with other people. Most of my playing was done late at night, with nobody around (my family had banished the banjo from the house by that point). I wasn’t even sure if I could call myself “a real banjo player”. The camp  fixed that in a hurry. I got a lot of great instruction and positive feedback that boosted my confidence level significantly. When I was catching my flight home, I happen to go through security with the legendary Eddie Adcock, who had been teaching at the camp. It was so cool to be hoofing it through the airport, joking with Eddie and both of us packing our banjos. I came home finally feeling like real a banjo player.

2. You get to hang out with real musicians.

To me, people who have spent their whole lives dedicated to learning a craft are wizards. They have magic abilities. They can do things that are impossible for us average mortals to do. To be in close proximity to that magic I find amazing. When you attend a music camp you get to be up close an personal with real masters. You can watch what they do, ask them questions and you get to see what they are like when they are not on-stage; a glimpse of the person who lives behind the wizardry. This really fascinates me. To hear their stories and to learn what it’s like to be a working musician. You also experience how they relate to each other. One of the coolest things for me about the Targhee Music Camp was seeing how much love there was between the musicians. Most of them had worked together for decades. The brilliant, young  fiddle player, Brittany Hass described it to me this way. “I literally grew up with a lot of these people. We are like family and this camp is our reunion”. To be part of that family reunion was pretty special.

Having lunch with Sierra Hull

3. You get to meet your heroes.

I signed up for the Targhee Music Camp for three reasons: Darol Anger, Brittney Hass and Danny Barns. Just to spend a week hanging out with my heroes and meeting the likes of Darrell Scott and Sierra Hull was worth the price of admission. Sierra Hull sang harmony with me on the song Another Night. It never sounded so good, before or since.

4. You get to hear “the secret music”.

One of the amazing instructor jams in the Targhee Bar

I left before the festival started but did not care one bit. I felt like the music I heard at the camp was as good, if not better than what I would have heard at the show. Every night the instructors played together in this little bar. They did solo performances or, they  would assemble different configuration and play whatever they wanted to play in that moment. It was spontaneous, exciting and at times, very moving, ( Glen Cambell past away that week of the camp so they played a wrenchingly beautiful version of Gentle On My Mind). Danny Barns calls this “the secret music”. The stuff that happens between musicians when they are off stage. He says it’s his favorite part of going to festivals:

” The “secret music.” this is really my favorite part. see, there’s all this stuff that artists jam and play around on when no audience is there. it’s a really cool repertoire. that’s the funnest bit for me, the jamming.”

 

Here are links to some cool camps you might want to check out.

 

Rocky Grass Academy – End of July

For the week before the RockyGrass festival begins, immerse yourself as an active participant in the world of bluegrass. From small classes with world-class professional musicians, to sessions on group jamming, vocal coaching, songwriting, one-on-one instruction, and a variety of electives including practice techniques, writing instrumentals, accompaniment, improvisation, and music history. Evenings feature band scrambles, BBQs, and plenty of jamming for novice through advanced ability levels. Many Academy students return year after year, creating long-term relationships with fellow musicians from all over the world.

 

Targhee Music Camp – Mid August

Imagine an afternoon in the Tetons. A head full of new tunes, rubbing elbows with your musical heroes, a community of new friends, outstanding views and great food. Free time to jam, rehearse or hike. Sounds like the prescription for sanity in this crazy world. Sounds like the syllabus for the annual Targhee Music Camp!

 

Happens in November near Petaluma CA

 

This camp is for people who like traditional American music: largely bluegrass and oldtime, also often including swing, Celtic, Cajun, and country. All ages are welcome, and core classes are offered in instrume

 

Spend an inspiring, challenging, and thrilling week with others who share your passion for bluegrass and old-time music! Each August we’re proud to host NimbleFingers Bluegrass and Old-Time Music Workshop in Sorrento, BC—about 5 hours from Vancouver and 7 hours by car from Calgary. Now in our 26th year, we provide a fun, friendly and non-competitive environment for everyone from beginners to advanced players, with ample opportunity for group learning, electives, organized jam sessions, and tons of other spontaneous activities.

 

This is Joe Craven’s camp that happens end of July in the Sierras. It’s really popular. Fun for families and fills up fast.

RiverTunes ~ Roots Music & Creativity Camp ~ honors traditions and celebrates innovations in Acoustic Roots Music and Creative Living through individual growth and community spirit. Whether you aspire to perform, want to jam with friends, or simply and comfortably share songs with a loved one, our mission and passion is to help you do it!

 

 

Lark Camp is legendary. It happens in Mendocino in Late July. It’s a wildly eclectic mix of music and dance workshops.

Imagine idyllic days & nights in the magical redwood forest filled with all the music, dance, and good times you could possibly stand, and that’s kind of close to what Lark Camp World Music & Dance Celebration is like. You are free to take as many or as few of the workshops offered as you like; jam sessions 24 hours a day, big dances every evening. Plenty of good food, new friends, and musical stimulation. Truly a unique total immersion into the joys of nature, music, song and dance. Many workshops for the professional as well as the beginner! An adult and family event.

 

 

Spend a long weekend away from everyday life’s toil and cares with nothing to do but learn about the 5-string banjo or fiddle or guitar or . . . from world-famous teachers! ABC features four levels of instruction in bluegrass banjo and four levels of instruction in old-time banjo, as well as a full-time guitar track and a full-time fiddle track!

How To Learn

By Learning Tips No Comments

Here are a few ideas for how to approach and think about learning an instrument well enough to play music with other people. If you are a younger player who has the time and energy to dedicate more serious study, I’d approach the conversation a little differently. Not to say that the basic ideas I’m suggesting here aren’t relevant, I would just put more emphasis on technical exercises and learning theory. The ideas outlined below aim more toward us somewhat worn out adult learners who need to economize our time and energy when it comes to practice. So let’s start with the one thing that you really can’t do with out.

The Bare Minimum Required .

If you are taking the time to read this, I’m guessing you are already there. In other words, you’ve met the bare minimum required to be able to learn how to play well enough to jam with other people. If you want to learn to jam, you have to have a real interest in learning to play music. It helps if this interest is to a degree one might call a passion or, even better, an obsession. Why? Because becoming a competent musician requires some work. Just like becoming a good golfer or staying in good shape or learning Spanish, if you don’t put in the time, it will never happen. That is the sad truth for us grown-ups. Between job and family duties, who has the time? Late starters like us need to approach music differently than kids or somebody who intends to seriously study music or do what it takes to make it a profession. We need to have a strategy and an attitude toward learning that keeps it accessible and fun.  

Strategies For Keeping It Fun and Staying Motivated

Focus on one thing at a time. 

The process can be frustrating and demoralizing if you feel like you aren’t getting anywhere. If you focus on one goal at a time, you get to experience the feeling of mastery – getting better and growing as a musician. If you choose songs that are too challenging or lessons that are really technical, and playing becomes a drag, you’ll quit. And why shouldn’t you? Why keep doing something if it sucks? You need to keep the process interesting and fulfilling. Here are a couple of suggestions to help with that.  

Learn songs 

Dave B and Doug Dirt on a whale watching boat jam.

Exercises and lessons are great but to what end?  We want to jam, right? If you want to jam you have to know songs. So practice technique by practicing songs. Simple is good, three chords and not so many lyrics you can’t keep them memorized. (That’s why I love Jimmy Martin tunes ). Focus on one song at a time. Play that damn song over and over until it’s ingrained at the cellular level. Even if you don’t feel like you are much of a singer, do it. Make yourself sing it loud and proud. Own it ! The more comfortable and confident you are, the better it sounds. And that confidence will help you grow as a musician. Plus, here’s the really wonderful thing about learning a song. Songs have a beginning middle and end. When you learn a song, you feel like you are getting somewhere and that is essential to keeping the process fun. Finally, when you learn a song, you are building your repertoire for when that time comes and it’s your turn to lead the jam circle. You want to come to the jam armed with songs you have down pat. 

A little everyday goes a long way.   

Just like exercise, you need to do a little everyday to stay in shape. Playing an instrument is a physical endeavor. It requires mind body coordination. Guitar, mandolin, fiddle, banjo, bass, tuba, it doesn’t matter what you play, the process is the same. Repetition is key to learning, clean, smooth, fast, rhythmically strong playing. There are endless resources to help build technique. So much so that it can be overwhelming to figure out where to start. It’s hard to know how and what to practice and if you pick the wrong exercise, it can feel impossible. So here’s my advice for figuring out a practice routine to help build technique and keep the process fun.

    1. Learn to pick a few good fiddle tunes.Why learn fiddle tunes? One, because playing fiddle tunes is fun and two, learning fiddle tunes is a fantastic way to practice. Fiddle tunes function like etudes in classical music. An etude, to quote Wikipedia,  is an “instrumental composition, usually short, of considerable difficulty, and designed to provide practice material for perfecting a particular musical skill”. When you get a fiddle tune ingrained in your fingers and head you begin to instinctively understand chord changes and note intervals as they relate to melody. You learn cool phrases and licks and classic patterns that show up over and over again in countless songs. I have a set series of fiddle tunes that try to  play everyday. If I only have a few minutes to practice, I run through that series of fiddle tunes. First slow and precise and then faster. If I have more time, I play the tune, then play around with improvising around the melody and the chords. If you are a guitar player and you are feeling like you just don’t want to work that hard and you aren’t really interested in learning to pick out solos, you still should practice playing the chords and getting the rhythm down for classic fiddle tunes. Just like learning the melodies, learning the chord changes teaches you classic progressions and turn arounds that are important to know.
    2. Learn to pick out the melody of the song. Remember that song you worked so hard to get down? You now have the melody ingrained in your head so it should be pretty easy to find those notes on your instrument. Play that melody over and over. Once you get it down, try playing around with that melody. Add some notes to it, figure out how to make it sound a little bluesy or rhythmically cool by hammering on or pulling off. Hey, look at you! You are now working out your break. This is what the process of improvising is all about. You are taking the melody and reworking it to make things interesting. Even the fastest, hottest most sophisticated solo, whether it’s Mark O’Connor, Tony Rice or Miles Davis, starts with the melody and moves out from there. So practice picking by finding and playing melodies.
    3. A few notes goes a long way. A one note solo is great as long as it is the right note. It is amazing what you can do with just three or four notes. Try finding four notes in the melody of the song and arrange and rearrange those into different patterns or “licks”. Play around with the rhythm too. Use easily fingered notes: open strings, first and second finger. Keep it comfortable and easy. Anything goes as long as you like the sound you’re getting. If you land on something you really like, remember it and store it in your bag of tricks.

Keep It Simple 

I could keep going and tell you to learn triads and scale patterns and modes all the other stuff which you’ve probably run across online and in books and lessons but my experience is that too much information can just be overwhelming and discouraging if you are are not ready for it. If some aspect of theory is interesting to you and you want to chase it down, fantastic but don’t feel like you need to understand theory and know how to read music in order to become a competent player. The last thing you want to do is have the process of playing be unfulfilling and demoralizing. Use the precious time you have to focus on the basics and stuff you find fun to play.

How To Practice

One man’s car is another man’s practice studio

The more you do it, the better you get. It’s that simple. I’m one of those guys who really loves to practice. It’s a meditation for me. The problem is time. When one is practicing one is generally not spending quality time with others. You know, like wives and children for example. If I find myself alone and free, I can play for hours. ( It is possible to play too much. You can hurt yourself with repetitive motion injuries so be careful )  It’s great to get those long, uninterrupted sessions of practice but you shouldn’t just rely on getting the perfect time and place to make it happen. A little discipline goes a long way. Set up a schedule like you would going to the gym. Even just 15 minutes everyday dedicated to working on your current project, whatever that might be, like attacking a fiddle tune or practicing that song you’ve chosen to work on. “Just do it”.  And what if you can’t ” just do it” ?

Learn By Listening 

If you find yourself having to take off on a business trip without an instrument or your schedule is such that you can’t even get that 15 minutes in, practice by listening. Put a song you want to learn on your phone and listen to it while driving/traveling. I find it really cool to hum a fiddle tune or quietly sing to myself  while looking out a plane window. If I tune the song close to the key of the droning jet engines it gets trippy. Listen carefully to great players and pay attention to their approach to rhythm, how they back up singers, cool breaks they may do in a song. Play when you can play and when you can’t learn by listening.   

How To Sing With Others

By Inspiration, Learning Tips No Comments

Here is an incredibly entertaining and instructive lesson in harmony singing from three masters who have been singing together for a long time.  Singer-song writers Aoife O’Donovan and Sarah Jarosz join virtuoso mandolinist, singer, and composer Chris Thile of Punch Brothers for How to Sing with Others, an open master class and workshop on vocal and string performance.

Click Here to Watch The Video 

Advice on Lessons

By Learning Tips No Comments

Taking  Lessons

A good teacher can very quickly correct bad habits and get you focusing on the right stuff. Having somebody watch what you’re doing, correct mistakes as they happen and show you, in the moment, the correct form and phrasing, can be well worth the fee. I took weekly lessons for about three months when I first started playing the fiddle. My teacher Laurie insisted on the correct intonation. She showed me what it felt like when I was in tune vs. when I was not and she made it clear that there were certain things I simply had to get right if I wanted to be a decent fiddle player. Once I felt I had the basic technique, I stopped going for weekly lessons. I found it was more efficient to learn fiddle tunes by ear and work from a book. But every so often, I will seek out a good teacher to help get me to the next level.

How To Work With A Teacher

If you want to get the most out of an in-person lesson, it pays to have a specific goal in mind. I took a few lessons with Phil Salazar who is a great fiddle player in Southern California. I asked  Phil to help start playing in higher positions up the neck. That was my only request and Phil delivered. He gave me some great exercises and good songs with high notes to challenge me. Plus, he invited me to this really great local jam session! Music camps can be a wonderful place to learn, but in the group setting, the lessons can be more general and often focused on learning songs. At a camp, you really need to take the initiative with the teachers if you want to get specific advice. Don’t be shy. Ask for what you need. The last day of the Targhee Camp, I pulled Darol Anger aside and asked him to just watch me play and give one thing to work on for the next year. ( He took me into the mens’ room for my private lesson. We had a big laugh about that). The camp was great, but that one moment was the icing on the cake. He immediately saw the problem. “You aren’t getting enough sound out of the fiddle. Raise your elbow up. Get a little more weight on the bow from your whole arm. Practice songs that have big long bows, like Tennessee Waltz.” Ok, now any kid taking Suzuki violin lessons probably would have had his elbow in the right place but my weird technique was largely based on watching Vassar Clemments videos. I told this to Darol and he cracked up. He said, “ Oh my god, don’t study Vassar’s technique. Only Vassar can do it the way Vassar does.” That one slight correction made a huge difference. Darol gave me one more great tip which I talk about in the How To Learn post . He said, “work on one thing at a time or you’ll drive yourself crazy. You need to feel like you are improving”. This was sage advice coming from a real sage. I’ve taken it to heart. The point here is this. It can be incredibly valuable to sit down, in person, with a teacher. However, the more specific you can be about what you want to learn and where your want to improve, the better. 

On-Line Video Classes

This is what I love most about the internet. The Online learning resources for music are fantastic. There are a lot of options but the two big players in the acoustic/bluegrass world are Peghead Nation and Artistworks. They are both great. Whatever you play, even if you just sing, you’ll find a phenomenal teacher. The instruction is brilliant and both sites are loaded with all kinds of fantastic videos, play along tracks and relevant info. I tend to gravitate back to Peghead because for  $25 a month, I don’t feel too bad if I’m not using it regularly and I mainly use it to learn specific tunes. Artistworks is a little more spendy because you have the option of actually submitting videos for the instructor to view. It is pretty cool and daunting to have a pro you idolize see you play and respond directly. It’s the best of both worlds: individual instruction and videos. For Fiddle players, I recommend spending some time on Darol Anger’s Academy of Bluegrass class simply because he offers up a wealth of incredible content. He has spent a lifetime playing and teaching all levels. Darol’s class is great for both beginners as well as more advanced players. He starts from the beginning and goes really deep in variety of styles. If you are a real beginner, it’s great because you can submit a video and he’ll watch it and correct your technique. As I said above, you really want to get the the fundamentals right early on in your process. Every so often I join back up and spend a month checking out whats new and downloading charts. Here are links if you want to check them out. 

 

Youtube Lessons

It is incredible what you can get for free on Youtube. I’ve learned a lot from very generous teachers who post  lessons. If you want to learn a song, chances are pretty good somebody has posted a lesson on Youtube or you can find a bunch of different versions of bands playing it to look at. If I find a fiddle solo I like, I’ll use an on-line mp3 converter to download the track and use Amazing Slow Downer to learn it. 

The Amazing Slow Downer 

This is without a doubt, the most useful learning tool ever invented. It’s a phone ap that lets you take MP3s and slow them down. For learning fiddle tunes or studying different solos it is as advertised, “amazing”. Go here to check it out. 

All About The Groove

By Learning Tips No Comments

The great Joe Craven

When I was just starting to learn to play the fiddle I happen to bump into Joe Craven in the parking lot before one of his shows. Joe is a fantastic fiddle player and an amazing percussionist so I took the opportunity to get some pointers. “Joe, in 30 seconds what advice do you have for a new fiddle player,” I asked, and his quick reply surprised me. “Focus on the right hand, don’t worry about the left. The notes will come, but if you don’t have the rhythm, you got nothing.” What Joe was telling me was to make bowing technique my first priority in order to develop a strong, rhythmic, classic fiddle shuffle. You might be able to fake notes but you simply can’t fake rhythm. I believe this is the single most important piece of musical wisdom I’ve ever received.

The groove is everything. In a jam circle, the thrill, the fun, the fireworks all comes from a driving groove.  Even slow songs have to rest on a consistent, well defined pulse. And here is a sad but real truth. If you are that person who consistently screws up the groove, people just won’t want to play with you. Here are two ideas for how to, at the very least, not get in the way of the groove. and at best, support and build on it. 

  1. Don’t play if you can’t find it. If a tune feels too fast and too rhythmically complex, just bow out or keep it real quiet. There is honor in knowing your limitations. 
  2. Shoot for “the one” or “ the two” and “the four”  Some songs emphasize the first beat in the measure while other songs have a stronger “two” beat. A lot of country or bluegrass tunes have that “boom chuck” rhythm. The “chuck” is hard smack on the two and four beat.  Try this. First, count one, two, three, four a few time in a flat even tone. Now try it again but bark out the TWO and the FOUR. See how different emphasizing the two and the four is? That’s the secret sauce for a strong propulsive groove.  You don’t want to get in the way of that. If the song is moving too fast for you to hit every boom or chuck, don’t try. Just strum one beat every measure or just when you can really feel where it lands. The beauty of having a lot of players is that you’ve got plenty of backup helping support that rhythm. Oftentimes too many, in fact. My experience is in most jam situations, less is more. The bottom line is, “do no harm.  Listen hard and contribute what you can maintain a steady, strong groove.

All About That Bass … 

Sorry to tell you bass players, the grove is pretty much all in your hands. If you screw up, you can sink the ship. Bass players really need to have their chops down if they want to jump into a circle of strong players. It is your job to create the basic framework everybody will build on. You are signaling chord changes and creating an anchor for all those guitar players to work around. Keep it simple. Stick to that 1 and 5 until you feel confident branching out and make sure you really understand the chord changes of the song before the group launches into it. Don’t be shy about insisting on clarity from the leader before you start.  

Mando Chop Can Make Things Hop 

Mando players, get your “chop” down. That clean, woody smack that a mando puts out acts like kick drum or snare. You really want to practice getting that sound and chopping in time. I was at a jam the other day and sitting to my right was this older woman I’d never met. She was not the hottest lead player nor a great singer but she had this extraordinarily clean, precise, strong chop. There were a lot of players in the circle and it became increasingly clear to me that she was providing the anchor for the entire group. Her chop allowed the bass player to stretch out. The guitar players all locked in around it.  That jam really rocked largely because of her, which I don’t think she was even aware of, but I certainly was.

If you haven’t learned how to chop yet, here is just the guy to teach you. 

Put Rhythm Practice At The Top Of Your List 

Wondering what to focus on for daily practice? Remember Joe Craven’s advice. “You got nothing if you don’t have the groove”.  So how do you practice rhythm?  

  1. Play songs with a metronome. There are lots of metronome phone apps. You can wear earbuds so you can really hear that click. Get the metronome going at the speed you want to play the song and let’er rip. Start slow!  This can be torture. I hate playing with a metronome because it immediately shows how crummy my rhythm is and I like to think rhythm is my strength! Even the best players are challenged when they play against a machine but it’s really essential practice. It forces you pay attention.
  2. Play along with songs. This is more fun than using a metronome. I spend a lot of time jamming along with my favorite CDs or Pandora. This is a great place to use The Amazing Slow Downer app. You take a song and slow it down to a manageable speed and play along. You can also find “play along” or “backing track” videos on Youtube. There’s a lot of great instructional material out there that offer play along tracks too.    

And why did I choose a shot of the Infamous String Dusters as the featured image for this post you ask? Because nobody drives a groove like The Dusters. They crowd in close, lock it in and rev it up. It is something to see.  Check it out here

Learn To Play Fast By Practicing Slow

By Learning Tips No Comments

Whether you are practicing chord changes, scale patterns or working out a lead, do not rush it. At the Targhee Bluegrass camp, Darol Anger told this story about being at a recording session with the legendary fiddle player, Stuart Duncan. He said, they spent a little time going over the part Stuart was supposed to play, Duncan said, “OK, you guys go and have lunch, give me couple of hours to work on it”. Darol came back about 45 minutes later and there was Stuart Duncan, one of the greatest fiddle players in the world, playing the notes one by one, slow and precise. Sometimes backing up and carefully trying them again, like a kid practicing his Suzuki violin lesson. Darol said this made a big impression on him. All the great players and teachers I’ve come across say the same thing. Practice slow, be precise. Don’t speed up until you really have it down at a speed you can handle. (If you are a fiddle player, you have the added challenge of correct intonation. If you practice the wrong notes – notes that are not quite in tune —  you will always play out of tune). Force yourself to be as accurate as you can be.    

Stretch your limits. 

Once you’ve spent all that time practicing slow and precise, try pushing it past your comfort zone. You’ll never learn to play fast if you don’t actually try it so spend a little time putting the pedal to the metal until you crash. Keep working at it until you can make the run without wrecking. But if you just keep wrecking don’t give up, slow down. Isolate that part that is hanging you up and just focus on that piece. Try to bring the song or lick you are practicing up to the fastest speed you can handle without crashing. Playing along with a metronome or a backing track is really helpful because it’s not enough to just play fast, you also need to be able to play rhythmically correct too.    

Can I Play My Drum?

By Learning Tips No Comments

A washboard in skilled hands can really move the groove

This can be a somewhat sensitive subject for people who love to drum. The truth is, sensitive, experienced drummers can add a lot to the jam but not-so-sensitive drummers, or drummers on the wrong kind of drum can kill it. In an acoustic setting, a cajon or djembe can out-power any stringed instrument. A washboard, a tambourin or even a shaker egg will cut through above everything else. A good percussionist understands this and knows when to lay back and when to punch it. 

Take That Shaker Egg Seriously

A lot of people consider the shaker egg as their instrument and that is cool. I totally support people participating anyway they can, but here’s the deal. That shaker egg is, indeed, a real instrument and if you are going to join in, you have to know how to support the music with it. If you are not paying attention, really listing and being sensitive to what’s happening, you will kill the groove and as I wrote in the All About The Groove blog, when the groove dies, the song dies so don’t fool around, really play that shaker egg.

A Point Of Etiquette

Shakers, spoons, tambourines cut through. Be Sensitive

Be aware. In a Bluegrass circle, drums are discouraged. If you see a banjo and fiddle and the songs people are calling are traditional tunes, ask before you jump in. If you are at a hardcore old-time or bluegrass festival, I wouldn’t even try. Traditional players can be very finicky about sticking to old school convention.

This Seems Really Crazy…

There is, apparently, this relatively new phenomenon of people bringing rhythm instruments to festivals and actually playing along with bands on stage. I heard this from my friend Warren who plays percussion with The California Honey Drops. He was astonished to look out from the stage and see, and hear, people banging away on their drums with the band during the show! There is s time and place for playing percussion. That is definitely not it!