The banjo reviews database is here to help educate people before they purchase an instrument. Of course, this is not meant to be a substitute for playing the instrument yourself!
7163 reviews in the archive.
Where Purchased: On line
“Unfortunate Puppy & Other Fine Tunes”
By Hunter Robertson
It isn't often that one is present to witness a real revolution, but I feel I have seen the future of Banjo Instruction with Hunter Robertson's new video “The Unfortunate Puppy & Other Fine Tunes: Lessons in Intermediate & Advanced Clawhammer Banjo”. The work Hunter and his associate, videographer Jonathan Vanballenberghe (www.openlensproductions.com/) have done with this video has brought the standard for DVD lessons up from mostly supplemental material to a new and vastly improved method of teaching stringed and fretted instruments.
I'm not joking. The two camera widescreen videos have as much to teach banjo teachers as they have for banjo students, and it will influence All fretted and stringed instrument teaching DVDs for decades to come.
Most banjo videos, consist of a medium shot of the player/teacher with a downright dinky close-up of either the left or right hand inserted into the blank space off to his left side. Both hands come out quite small, and the actual playing is really too fast to be caught on normal video. Hunter and Vanballenberghe have dumped that format entirely and created a new one that shows off both hands large and clear while eliminating everything that is not necessary for the lessons. The view appears to be what you would see sitting in the usual student's position across from your teacher. However, instead of wasting screen space the picture has been sectioned, leaving out wasted space above the instrument and even cutting out the dull, unchanging landscape between the frailing and the fretting. Why Didn't I think of That?
While this innovation alone would be a major improvement over most videos, it is only after extended viewing that I realized each of the hands had been filmed to be seen at the best angle for catching the details of the playing. It is easy to see exactly what happens at the fingers and frets level of the left hand and to catch exactly which string is being plucked by the right.
While this alone would be revolutionary there is another big improvement in the presentation. The video was probably filmed with the camera running at double speed (60 frames per second) so that when it is slowed down to 30 there is remarkably little of that low speed video mush in the picture. You can see the hands working side by side in smooth slo-mo. Every detail is right smack in your face. You can't miss a thing.
Each of the tunes is presented in four ways – First Hunter plays the tune at full speed, complete with variations. Then there is a section at half speed using the slo-mo technique described above. Next Hunter goes over the tune in full detail, showing each melodic figure complete with spoken playing notes explaining the various techniques as Hunter demonstrates them. Finally there is a simple medium speed version designed so the student can play along with the teacher just as at a live lesson.
The tunes go from very easy (Candy Girl) to moderately difficult (The Unfortunate Puppy). Learning each tune will also add new techniques to your playing repertory. In “Lonesome John” there are several Alternate String Hammer-Ons (ASHOs), the less known brother to the world famous Alternate String Pull-Off (ASPO), While in “Boatin' Up Sandy” you will find M Skips, Double ASPOs, syncopated M Skips, and the undeservedly rare “Down Slide”. “Ducks On The Millpond” Unually is taken from Tommy Jarrell's fiddling but Hunter uses a refreshingly different version from Emmett Lundy and adds a lesson on grace notes to boot. For those who (like me) love Triple C (or Triple D) tuning there is W. M. Stepp's superlative version of “Bonaparte's Retreat” and for the straight “G” tuning set, you'll find an exceptional version of “Cripple Creek” from the playing of Hobart Smith. While you could play this with your local jam group, it that has a voice and ambiance all its own. In fact the techniques used in these ten tunes will bring sparkle to all your current and future Old Time repertoire. Every new technique you learn becomes another tool in your kit, and another voice in your musical choir. Hunter recommends listening to the original versions of these tunes, and all are available on the internet.
Along with the 10 tune videos there is also a “Techniques Video” jam packed full of extremely useful stuff. This one video alone, is well worth the price of the entire DVD. There is also an (all too brief) demonstration of Up Picked styles. The DVD cannot have much space left over. I suspect most players will return to all the lessons from time to time in order to gain new insights from them.
While Hunter describes this video as being for Intermediate to Advanced students I am going to respectfully disagree. I don't think you have to be “advanced” much beyond beginning player to get more than your money's worth from The Unfortunate Puppy. Anyone with the basic strokes down comfortably, who can play the common clawhammer rhythms and follow clearly presented examples should be able to use these videos to one degree or another, and will know more about clawhammer in general than most other Beginners or Intermediate or even Advanced players. Furthermore you will be learning from a master player and a master instructor – these aren't always one and the same person. The banjo world is extremely lucky to have Hunter Robertson. He is a great banjo player and The Unfortunate Puppy, sets the Gold Standard for teaching videos.
In conclusion: While I think Hunter's technique video alone is worth the price of the DVD, everyone has to make their own decision as to when they are ready for this material. Still I would recommend it to my students on the early side rather than wait. This DVD costs less than a movie for two with popcorn. I think that most people will get their money's worth time and time again. Obviously the quality you get out will depend upon the work you put into it. Nothing actually “teaches” you the banjo – you still gotta do the work.
That said, this is the best instructional video I've ever seen. It is not only worth your money, more importantly, it is worth your time.
Overall Rating: 10
Where Purchased: From The Artists
“If You Want To Go To Sleep, Go To Bed”. Is the title of the new cd by banjoist Hunter Robertson and fiddler Casey Joe Abair. And it is obviously a work that involved a lot of late nights for a long time before any recording equipment was ever set up. When the players know each other well, and have put in many hours together, fiddle and banjo duets can catch fire, producing an event that is more than the sum of the two instruments. Abiar and Robertson obviously know each other well and know how to throw ideas back and forth in a way that brings the listener a new insight into the music. If that all sounds a bit “classical”, well perhaps it is. The banjo fiddle combination is does not have the full sound of a string band, it is more like a chamber group, where the communication between instruments and players is more important than a full group sound. Listeners can really hear the two instruments because they differ in range, timbre, attack, sustain, and so many other ways. It is almost as if the fiddle and banjo go so well together because they have so little in common.
Banjo and fiddle is also one of the most exacting and dangerous combinations to record. Unlike a full band, fiddle and banjo will not cover mistakes for each other. Each player is fully responsible for every note he produces. This is not music for players who need the safety net of guitar and bass.
The selection of tunes is heavily weighted toward the old tunes played with the fire and enthusiasm they really deserve but seldom get these days, but there are some less common tunes that work beautifully in the duet setting. their “The Devil’s Dream” is from Hobart Smith and very different than the one I play. It is actually considerably more “band” friendly and the tune is closer to John Brown’s Dream.
“Fort Smith Breakdown” doesn’t show up on many jam lists but is a super tune from a 1920s recording by Luke Highnight’s Ozark Strutters. Here Robertson is playing a fretless Harmony ResoTone in Old G (gDGDE) tuning. “Run Slave Run” uses the same tuning and probably the same banjo.
“Hog Eye Man” aka “Sally In The Garden” is frequently played crooked, but Abair and Thompson seem to have found a whole new crooked way to do it. I’m going to try it out, but I won’t attempt to show it to my jam groups.
Some of the selections are great “trance” tunes where the two instruments seem to float around the melody passing it back and forth until you feel it has been the background music to your entire life. I was very surprised to read that “Tater Patch” and “Sandy River Belle” were each only about four minutes, as was their rendition of “Sail Away Ladies”
The album is Yodel-Ay-Hee number 74, and you can order it direct from Hunter Robertson’s website:
where you can also watch videos of Abair and Robertson, and even buy a copy of Robertson's solo album “Hunter Robertson Sings Songs For The Masses.”
Overall Rating: 9
Where Purchased: From Kevin
If you like your stringband music hot, but flavourful then Kevin Fore’s new album “Frolic In Round Peak” belongs in your collection. Technically the cd is by “Kevin Fore & Friends” and what a collection of friends it is. Reading the track list is like reading the Who’s Who of Round Peak Music. From Benton Flippen, Bobby Thompson, Chester McMillian, Verlin Clifton, Kirk Sutphin and Riley Baugus to the many great musicians of Kevin’s generation like Emily Schaad, Jeremy Stephens, James Burris, and Joey Burris. Even this is not a complete listing of all the musicians on the album.
Kevin and bunch are joined on several tracks by eighty nine year old master fiddler Benton Flippen, who also contributed a brand new tune to this album: “Benton’s Haystack Blues”. The Fiddle part is real slippery, slithery as befits a blues, while the banjo weaves in and out through the music. The tune would fit into a set list from the 1930s, instead of the strict confines of most post-war blues tunes, it has a modulation characteristic of the early radio era.
I was not familiar with “Red Bird” but it is going to be the next tune I add to our jam lists. I keep going back to it again and again. Bobby Patterson plays guitar on this tune and Benton Flippen once again provides stirring fiddle.
Durham’s Bull Is another new tune (to me) and it features Emily Schaad fiddling in the swinging style of Benton Flippen, her mentor
If you think there is no room for clawhammer banjo against bluegrass banjo riffs, listen to “Sally Goodin” with Kevin on the fretless and Jeremy Stephens on bluegrass banjo, working together to create an entirely novel blend of banjo textures. Now add Kirk Sutphin on fiddle and you have an Old Time & Bluegrass cross with the drive of Round Peak.
My favourite banjo track was “Grey Eagle” Where Kevin’s fretless banjo slides around Jeremy Stephen’s fiddle and Kirk Sutphin’s Demonstration of the late Paul Sutphin’s Camp Creek Boys guitar style
Kevin’s regular band, the award winning “Southern Pride” only shows up as a unit on a single track “Lost Indian”. I hope there is a full cd by the group soon, but for now you can find some tracks on youtube and watch the group in action.
Kevin Fore’s first cd (Round Peak - The Tradition Continues) has been out for about a year now, and if you haven’t bought it yet, add it to your order. It is equally consistent high level Round Peak excitement.
Overall Rating: 9
Where Purchased: From Artist
The title of Kevin Fore’s new cd is “Round Peak The Tradition Continues” and never has an album title been more accurate. Kevin is a native of Lowgap, and is related to some of the best known Round Peak musicians. Although he is still a young man he has devoted the last decade or so of his life to playing the banjo in the tradition of Charlie Lowe, Tommy Jarrell, Dix Freeman, Fred Cockerham, and most importantly Kyle Creed.
Kevin has of course integrated the playing of these and other Round Peak masters into his own style which is quick, solid and clean. His banjo dances around the fiddle line as sure as any mountain goat. I’m not the only one who has noticed the quality of Kevin’s playing. He has taken home a bunch of prizes at banjo and old time band contests. In fact, although I have known him on line for quite a while my first in-person meeting with him was at the 2008 Hoppin' John Fiddlers Convention in Shakori Hills, where Kevin took first prize in the Old Time Banjo contest. Here is a youtube video of his band playing Old Bunch Of Keys at that convention:
These are just some of his other awards
2005-2007 1st place banjo Alleghany County Fiddlers Convention
6 year 1st place Laurel Bloomery Tenn. Fiddlers Convention
1st place 2008 Blue Ridge Banjo Shoot Out Galax, Va.
1st place 2007 Old Time Band Galax Old fiddlers convention
1st place 2008 Old Time Band Laurel Bloomery Tenn. Fiddlers Convention
1st place 2008 Old Time Band Sparta Fiddlers Convention with Benton Flippen's Smokey Valley Boys
Of course prizes aren’t important when it comes to listening and Kevin has put out a solidly entertaining album. He knows that an hour of straight instrumentals can end up sounding a bit monochromatic and has added enough vocals into the mix to keep up audience interest. Kevin sing, like he plays - completely in the tradition but also his own man.
Each track on the album has also been carefully notated giving his original sources (like Creed, Freeman, and Jarrell) and noting the many Round Peak musicians who participated in making this cd. Benton Flippin, Mac Snow, Bobby Patterson, Verlin Clifton, Chester McMillian and Kirk Sutphin are names familiar to most of us who collect old time music, but there are also many younger generation players like James and Joey Burris, grandsons of Otis Burris, William Flippen, grandson of Benton. The cd is a snapshot of Round Peak today.
Many of the tunes are well known and loved Round Peak favourites like “Sally Anne” and “Rockingham Cindy” but there are a few surprises like “Head Over Heels” a Fred Cockerham song, unavailable on any commercial recordings and the lesser known “Otis Burris’s Fortune” (sometimes called Up The Mountain Fortune). Kevin acknowledges his spiritual mentor Kyle Creed with “Roustabout” and even has Bobby Patterson, a frequent Creed sideman, do the guitar accompaniment.
If you have any interest in the Round Peak Style this is an album you need to own. Even if your interest in RP is only marginal, this is a solid set of 19 great tunes and songs played by inspired musicians – it could change you mind and your playing. I don’t review everything, preferring to save my efforts for exceptional recordings – and this is one of those exceptional recordings you need to hear.
Kevin also builds banjos – in the style of Kyle Creed, of course. He informs me that on his website he is slowly adding pictures and stories about the Round Peakers who have now passed on. Visit his website at:
Overall Rating: 9
Where Purchased: Elderly Instruments
Martin Fox & Jeff Winegar - The Way It Was
I find fiddle/banjo duets more fun than playing in a full stringband, but they are also considerably more stressful in front of an audience - and recording brings it to a whole new level of tension. Without a guitar to broaden the sound, every note from both instruments can be clearly heard. The smallest mistake will stand out like a gorilla at a cocktail party. There is simply no place to hide.
Duets are also harder than soloing. Playing alone, you can slip in a couple extra beats if you need them or cover a goof by adjusting something else it all comes out right in the end. Playing with another musician you must to stay with the program or you Both end up falling flat on your faces.
When a duet works well however, the combination of old time fiddle and clawhammer banjo is pure bliss. The instruments were born to be together – especially when two consummate musicians like Jeff Winegar and Martin Fox are doing the playing. These are superbly tight duets in a very modern, yet completely old time, style. Winegar’s banjo makes elegant arabesques around Fox’s rich fiddle lines which are in turn twisting back on the banjo. The level of “interactivity” is stunning throughout the program.
Most of the tracks are tunes that have not been recorded too often, so it is not only a good listening record, but also good for the musician or band out to build repertoire. The key and fiddle tuning are given for every track. Oddly enough the banjo tunings are not, but everything I’ve tried seems to work well in the tuning I normally use for the given key.
While every track on the album is excellent there are a couple I want to point up as especially neat and/or challenging. My wife and I have been having a lot of fun with “Highlander’s Farewell”, and “Moonlight” which are both pretty straightforward but she has also learned the aptly named “Horse and Buggy-O”. The tune is very crooked and I can only catch on to it after about a dozen times through. The tune called “Rocky Road To Dublin” on this record is not the well known Irish jig but a modal melody from an Edison cylinder recording by Allen Sisson, who was a Civil War veteran. Now THAT really is “old” time music.
Overall Rating: 9
Where Purchased: Elderly Instruments
This is the review I originally posted in the forum about a year ago.
Building repertoire comes up a lot on banjo forums and for good reason – clawhammer is, for the most part, not about fantastic chops and blowing away the competition, but about having a good time, socializing and playing along with like minded others. Sort of like pre-school for adults.
Having a lot of tunes under your belt not only makes it more likely that you will know the next tune that comes up at a jam, but actually makes it easier to quickly “catch” tunes you don’t know, since many phrases show up in many tunes. There comes a point for most banjo players (other instruments too, but this is a banjo forum) where new tunes just seem to drop into place and while you might be missing a few notes, you have the general shape of the melody and can easily “fake” it almost immediately.
Over the past couple weeks I’ve been playing my way through R.D. Lunceford’s two books of banjo tabs and listening to the cds they go with and find they impress me as excellent ways to build up that repertoire. Usually I don’t recommend tab books as I find that many book arrangements are fussy, and designed to be played solo at tempos that simply will not fly in most jams, or they are based around a style that is not completely adaptable to the sort of semi-generic nature of most old time jam groups. Ron’s books don’t fall into either category.
I know the cds were made for entertainment, but other than saying he is a fine player and they are good cds I am more interested in pointing out their value for the banjo player in the stage many call “intermediate”.
The first book “Drop Thumb”, consists of 21 tabs of tunes that are all playable either as solos or in jams. There is not a lot of extraneous material cluttering the page (or the recordings) and while a couple moderately scarce techniques are occasionally used there is nothing too difficult here for anyone who has the basic drop thumb techniques down – the frail, the double thumb, drop thumb, slides, hammers, and pulls – I’ve already forgotten if there is any Galax Lick in the book but if there is, it is not excessive.
This is however, not an instruction book. Except for a page on reading the tabs, there are no lessons whatsoever, so this is not a good start for the beginner. There are several relatively simple familiar tunes like June Apple, to get acquainted with Ron’s tabs and some fairly complex but familiar tunes like Soldier’s Joy to build toward.
I found all the tabs clear and easy to read, which is very important. The arrangements are also pretty close to the way Ron plays the tunes on the cd so you have both the written form and the sound as a guide.
There are also some rare tunes (like Shaving a Dead Man – aka Protect the Innocent) in exotic tunings. A couple of these are beautiful banjo solo tunes that are probably in danger of fading away simply because no one seems to take the time to re-tune for them any more (I could write pages on that subject). Ron plays them beautifully and should inspire at least some people to start turning those buttons.
The second book, “Cotton Blossom” is a little more complicated. Many of the tunes are adaptations of minstrel tunes and, while the playing here is still modern clawhammer, several tunes have occasional bits that will take some work to get them down smooth. As Ron points out however, this is not a book of complicated solo pieces like the ones in the 19th century tutors but modern interpretations using nothing that isn’t found in current techniques. Many of these tunes are standard repertoire for clawhammer players and jam groups, and as in the Drop Thumb book they are presented in clear easy to read tab.
Ron plays the cd for this book on a fretless, but I only found two spots in the tabs where I felt I had to make a change from the written version to adjust for the fact that I was playing a fretted banjo.
Overall Rating: 9
'Epiphone Recording B' 4 hrs