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My fourth 6 months on the banjo

Posted by jrjenks on Friday, June 26, 2009

Welcome to the second half of my 2nd banjoversary reminiscences. In the previous post, as you'll recall, I walked through the first six months of this past year in banjo. Today I'll do the same for the rest of this past year. In a coming post I'll get all critical and will see what lessons I can learn from my past year and what I'm going to do differently moving forward.

But for now, let's roll back the clock six months. The time was late December 2008. I'd been with my new banjo teacher, Dave, for 5 months. My year-long Banjo versus TV project had just wrapped up its 50th week. I'd been preparing and preparing for the multi-family vacation for which I was preparing jug band instruments for everybody. We'd decided to call ourselves the Royal Moose Jug Band.

Month 19:
  • At my banjo lesson Dave, who is also a recording engineer, gives me advice on how to record.
  • The big day finally arrived. We did our semi-annual multi-family vacation, this time at the Royal Moose Lodge in Branson, Missouri. And the Royal Moose Jug Band...

    The Royal Moose Jug Band

    ...made its debut.
    • We played Duelin' Banjos for banjo, jugs, gutbucket (washtub bass), spoons, kazoos, xylophone and the three-headed guitar.

      (Turn on Closed Captioning to see the instruments names.)
    • We also played Wabash Cannonball and I'll Fly Away. We decided that some of our more challenging songs (Underdog, I'm Satisified with My Gal, others) will wait for the next time.
    • "What," I hear you ask, because I listen attentively to everything you say, "is a three-headed guitarist?" It's my creation for people who don't really play the guitar. It requires a little planning and three willing guitarist-wannabes.

      Three-headed guitarist 2008-12-26 Royal Moose Lodge in Branson, MO 002 2008-12-26 Royal Moose Lodge in Branson, MO 068 2008-12-26 Royal Moose Lodge in Branson, MO 156

      Take three cheap toy guitars. Tune one to open G, one to open C and one to open D. Then play. The G guitar strums when you're in G, the C guitar strums when you switch to C and the D guitar strums when you switch to D. They'll be able to strum an awful lot of bluegrass songs. Add three capos and they can do fiddle tunes, too.
    • For jugs, we filled metal Mountain Dew bottles with sand to varying level, creating a set of pitched bottles that you blow across to play.

      2008-12-26 Royal Moose Lodge in Branson, MO 053 2008-12-26 Royal Moose Lodge in Branson, MO 054 2008-12-26 Royal Moose Lodge in Branson, MO 055 2008-12-26 Royal Moose Lodge in Branson, MO 056 2008-12-26 Royal Moose Lodge in Branson, MO 057
  • My brother gave me a sorta-banjo-themed comic for Christmas:

  • 2009 came to a close and I wrapped up the Banjo versus TV project with the banjo ahead, 319 hours versus 305 hours.
  • I joined the Hump Night Thumpers, which is to say that I start taking jug band classes at the Wednesday night jug band class at the Old Town School of Folk Music.
  • The redhead and I started an 8-week class together at the Old Town School of Folk Music: Vocal Techniques I. I found that my singing was somehow both better than I expected and worse than I expected.
  • Combining TV and banjo: I watched Pete Seeger play This Land is Your Land at the concert before Obama's inauguration. Who says there's nothing good on TV?

Month 20: The Lost Month
  • In jug band class I learned to play kazoo, spoons and jaw harp. I play just a little banjo in the classes, but mostly this session is about learning the non-store-bought jug band instruments.

    2009-01-14 Jug Band Ensemble class at Old Town School 001 2009-01-14 Jug Band Ensemble class at Old Town School 002
  • Overall, though, not much happened this month, banjo-wise. I was slow to realize it, but without a project (Banjo versus TV, Royal Moose Jug Band, recital, banjo camp, etcetera) to keep me going I was neglecting my banjo. You should probably imagine the sounds of crickets chirping for this entire month, until...

Month 21:
  • At a banjo lesson I talked with Dave about how my banjo playing had slacked off since I ended the Banjo versus TV project. Dave asked the obvious: Then why not start it again? Why not indeed! So I start it up again. Thanks, Dave!
  • Instruments we learned to play at jug band class: jug, washboard and washtub.
  • Hump Night Thumpers founder Arlo Leach announced that he's moving to Portland, Oregon, and that the jug band class session starting in May would be his last at the Old Town School of Folk Music. As part of his farewell to Chicago, Arlo highlighted a different Chicago-based (or Chicago-connected) jug band each week of the class. (Arlo drew much of this material from the book Today's Chicago Blues.) This month's highlighted jug band artists: Washboard Sam, Kansas Joe McCoy, and Memphis Minnie.
  • For the last day of vocal class we had to sing a solo. I picked Wabash Cannonball and had the rest of the class join in on the chorus. I also played along with the banjo as I sang. It went very well. I signed up for Vocal Techniques II for the next 8-week session.
  • I played again at the Costello's Early County/Bluegrass Jam
  • . Remember how I took guitar lessons in the fall and had been practicing with Pete Wernick's jam DVDs, all so I could learn to recognize guitar chords at a jam? Well it all paid off when I played along and didn't miss a single chord of a song that I'd never heard before, just from following the guitar. Seven more stamps until my free sandwich.
  • I had my banjo professionally set up by Tom Nechville (for free!) and it sounded oh so much brighter.
  • Among the changes Tom made: he replaced my 1/4" bridge with a 5/8" bridge' something I've been thinking about doing for a while. I like the change and it doesn't take me long to adjust to it.
  • I returned to Shorty's Strickly Bluegrass Festival in East Peoria, Illinois. My jamming skills had really improved since last year.

  • I picked up another cheap banjo for experimentation. Counting the sawed-off, that makes three-and-a-half.
  • Some other topics from my banjo lessons: finding the melody and finding a solo for a song, selecting a roll, stage moms, letting your notes ring, 5th string capo placement and those damned pull-offs.

Month 22:
  • Arlo's highlighted Chicago jug band artists this month: Georgia Tom & Tampa Red, Daddy Stovepipe & Mississippi Sarah and Butterbeans & Susie.
  • I went to my first First Friday at the Old Town School of Folk Music.
  • One more time at Costello's Early County/Bluegrass Jam
  • . Six more stamps until my free sandwich.
  • My friends (and fellow Hump Night Thumpers) Fran and Skip threw a jug band Seder. It was SO! MUCH! FUN!

    2009-04-11 Jug band Seder 018 2009-04-11 Jug band Seder 020 2009-04-11 Jug band Seder 002

    I played the banjo (regular and sawed-off), jug and kazoo. We changed the lyrics to a bunch of classic jug band songs to tell the Passover story. My contribution was a modification of Good Old Mountain Dew to Good Ol' Seder Plate. Some sample lyrics:
    Some herbs are bitter, you bet,
    Like maror and chazeret.
    They really do not taste great.
    But dont be a quitter
    Recall that slavery was bitter
    So these herbs are on the Seder plate.

    My stage name for the performance was The Bluegrass Goy.
  • The Thumpers helped out with a Chicago artist's Bau Graves' "One City/One Song" video project.
  • I picked up an iPhone and found two handy, free apps: OmniTuner and Metronome.
  • Some other topics from my banjo lessons: playing with a mandolin, fiddle tunes, Cripple Creek, why a song is played in the key it's played in, finding the I-IV-V for a chord, string bending, how I'm too timid to string bend properly, cheap tricks to spice up a song for a performance, microphone technique, how I'm too genteel and how I need to "let my jazz out."

Month 23:
  • For Arlo Leach' last week in Chicago there were all kinds of Hump-Night-Thumpers-related events:
    • The Thumpers opened for the Barehand Jug Band (Jonas Friddle's band). I sing and solo for Good Old Mountain Dew and I play banjo, jug and kazoo for various other songs:

      Since this was my inaugural stage performance with the Thumpers I was assigned my jug band name: Admiral Dewy.
    • The Thumpers performed at the nursing home where Arlo's wife Sally worked.
    • The Thumpers had a graduation concert.
    • Several Thumpers from times past visited our last class with Arlo as an instructor.
    • Arlo and Sally hosted a going-away jug-band party. Good luck in Portland, you two crazy kids!
  • I ordered a couple of sets of portable amplified speakers, compared them and found I like the Panasonic RPSPT70 Folding Travel Speakers best.
  • My little sister invited me back to her annual jam and I was much better at jamming than I was last year. How much better? So much better I made a chart about it.
  • I learned that the iPhone is a lean, mean lyrics-finding machine at a jam.
  • I played again at Costello's Early County/Bluegrass Jam
  • . Five more stamps until my free sandwich.
  • Some other topics from my banjo lessons: more microphone technique, Bill Evans, the banjo as percussion, planetary tuners, simple variations and how I learn.

Month 24:
  • After so many months of blogging about banjos, I finally wrote an a TV-centric post.
  • Ever wonder why the 1970s TV series Land of the Lost featured the banjo so heavily in its soundtrack?

    I learned the reason.
  • I returned to Midwest Banjo Camp, learned a lot, saw a great faculty concert and had my picture taken with a whole mess of other banjo players.

So that bring us right up to this week, my banjoversary week.

What's next? Introspection, of course. I'm going to think about what all of this has meant and what I'm going to be doing next. And you, lucky you, get to come along for the ride.

Cross-posted at J.R. Jenks' blog

1 comment on “My fourth 6 months on the banjo”

Keith Madison Says:
Friday, June 26, 2009 @6:23:31 PM

You get the trophy for the most descriptive blog - sounds like you're having a ball.

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