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Are You Playing the Song Together? Or Just at the Same Time?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


Red Henry

The title for this blog may seem strange, but it’s pretty important. As I mentioned before, Christopher and I played a party Saturday night before last, and we had two fine musicians with us– Mike Mumford and Ira Gitlin. All four of us fit together perfectly, and our band dynamics– making the instrument leads stand out, putting the vocals out front, adapting the backup every moment to make the lead sound its best– were excellent.

During our first set break, Ira commented on this. He knew how rare it is for everybody in a band to be paying attention and always playing so as to make the lead instrument or vocal sound its best. He knew how very often, even with good musicians, the guitar player will be showing off his fancy bass runs, or the harmony singers will pay little attention to the lead singer, or the lead singer will be drowned out by a banjo player who’s playing lead all the time, all over everybody else’s vocals and instruments. But the four of us were playing TOGETHER– not just playing the same song at the same time, but listening to each other and playing together. And it was good.

You can pay attention to this too, whenever you’re playing music with other people. It's especially important if you're playing a banjo. Is someone else singing a song? Make sure you’re not the one drowning him (or her) out. Is somebody else playing a lead break? Listen to that person, and play some gentle backup as appropriate to make the lead sound good. LISTEN all the time, and do whatever your ears tell you to, to make the music always sound as good as it can. That way, you won’t be just playing the song at the same time– you’ll be playing it together.


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Playing Since: 1969
[Teaching] [Jamming] [Socializing] [Helping]

Occupation: Musician

My Instruments:
Past banjos:
S.S. Stewart Thoroughbred open-back, 1969-1973;
Epiphone Alhambra with Mike Johnson neck, 1970-1981;
Gibson ball-bearing Granada with Mike Johnson neck, 1973-75;
Fender Concertone, 1973-76; (Yes, I wish I had them all back);
Present banjos:
1937 TB-11 which I converted in 1978 with a Ryan ring and my first H&F 5-string neck (my daughter Casey has this one now, and she put
a Huber ring in it);
H&F Mastertone copy I made in 1984;
H&F Mastertone copy I put together in 2005

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Created 11/14/2007
Last Visit 10/11/2020

I started playing mandolin in 1967 and banjo in 1969. Spent 4+ years 1970-75 in the Air Force, flying C-141's.

Much of my career since then was with our Red and Murphy bluegrass band, led by myself and my wife, the talented picker, teacher, and writer Murphy Henry. From 1975 to 1986 we performed music full time, touring extensively in the United States and in Canada. Murphy and I have produced seven LPs and four CDs. These include my first mandolin CD, "Bluegrass Mandolin and Other Trouble", a father-and-son CD with my son Christopher, entitled "Red and Chris", and a new mandolin CD, "Helton Creek." All three CDs received excellent reviews in the bluegrass trade publications, and "Helton Creek" made the 'Best of 2007' list in "Bluegrass Now" magazine, as well as receiving excellent reviews in "Bluegrass Unlimited," "Bluegrass Breakdown," and "Vintage Guitar."

During our full-time Bluegrass years we appeared at bluegrass festivals from Florida to Winfield, Kansas, to Nova Scotia, on many TV shows including TNN’s "Fire on the Mountain", NBC’s "Today Show", and the PBS "Natural Bluegrass Jam", and also on numerous radio shows including "The Liberty Flyer".

I also built 10 banjos, 1978-85, all Mastertone-style with Steve Ryan or Bill Sullivan tone rings, and all on Bill Sullivan rims except for three conversions (a TB-11, a TB-2, and a TB-3). In 2007 Murphy brought the last one I made home again when she contacted the owner, bought the banjo back, and gave it to me for Father's Day (walnut neck with H&F inlay, Bill Sullivan rim and tone ring, chrome-plated hardware with Presto tailpiece) .

In the last five years I've been making one-piece maple mandolin bridges (see the bridge page at and am marketing them on line. I'm experimenting with banjo bridges as well, but have not produced a marketable model because all banjos seem to like a slightly different bridge for their very best sound.

Since 1987, Murphy and I have concentrated on running our family business, the Murphy Method, offering by-ear bluegrass instruction. We started out in 1982 with tapes for banjo, but have since expanded to cover all the bluegrass instruments. Check our site at .

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