Tip Jar Jam #14: What’s A Fret Among Friends?

Murphy Henry

Today’s blog title is courtesy of Bob Van, who, IMHO, should follow his own advice and use more duct tape. On his mouth!


We were playing John Hardy last night in the jam, and Bob Van, having heard Bob A. take his guitar break on the higher strings ( 1, 2, 3 or E, B, G; still in first position), was trying to play his break there also. He and I had worked on that break in his lesson last week and he was having trouble finding and remembering that one of the important melody notes was on the first fret of the first string. That is not a note we use very often so it doesn’t come naturally to his hands. (Bob Van learns his breaks the same way I do: hunt and peck. It’s a pretty good system!) He had left the lesson having some familiarity with that note. Last night, however, that note had evaporated as sure as a sprinkle of rain on a hot Georgia sidewalk. And since it occurs THREE TIMES in the first three phrases of the song and he was missing it every time, I was getting tired of hearing that wrong note. So, I leaned over to him and whispered, “FIRST FRET!” Which, to his everlasting credit, he was able to find and put in at the appropriate place.


After the song was over, I said, “Thank you, Bobby, for putting that first fret note in there. I really appreciate it.” And he said, just as cavalier as he could be, “What’s a fret among friends?” I thought I’d die laughing.


Aside: Part of what I was laughing at was a memory. Short version: Dalton Brill, who owned the barber shop and music store where I taught for years, once loaned a new guitar that he had for sale to a musician friend of his who was down on his luck. Well, months went by, maybe even years, and Dalton saw neither hide nor hair of friend or guitar. Finally he ran into him one day, walking on the Old Town Mall in front of the shop. He says to him, “Donnie, what happened to my guitar?” Donnie says, “I sold it.” Dalton says, “You sold it?” Donnie says, “Yeah, I needed the money. I didn’t think you’d mind because what’s a guitar between friends?” Dalton, I believe, was speechless!
Meanwhile back at the jam.....


We had our core crew with us last night: Bob Van,  Janet, Scott, Bob Mc, Kenney, Suzi, Kasey (looking, again, like a fashion model), Ben, and me. (Hey, remember that book Ben and Me? I was about Ben Franklin and a mouse, I think...) And we did our core material with the addition of a couple of new songs.


Before the jam started, Scott was practicing The Old Home Place (from Casey’s Easy Songs DVD). I thought that would be a good one to introduce to the now-seasoned jammers, so I went over the chords with Bob Van on the bass. The chord pattern is a little tricky, since it uses both a B chord and an A chord. (In the key of G.) When we later played it in the jam, I thought it went off well.


Suzi and her fiddle also arrived early so she and I played twin fiddles on Victory in Jesus with Bob on guitar and Scott and Bob Mc vamping. We first did in the key of D, then we jumped over the key of G. That is one of my all-time favorite songs,  and I thought we sounded pretty good.
By then everyone had arrived and we started the jam in earnest. Since Suzi was there I initially chose songs that I knew she could play—Cripple Creek and Blue Ridge Cabin Home, which she had just learned. I helped her get oriented by playing fiddle with her. She pointed out that playing in the jam is hard for her because she can’t hear herself play. And it’s not that the four banjos (!) were too loud. Really! Everyone vamps as quietly as possible and no one plays lead while Suzi is playing lead. It’s just that when you first start jamming, you don’t have jamming ears. You develop these when you learn to tune out (for the most part) the other instruments and listen only to yourself. If you don’t learn this, then all is cacophony in your head and playing is unnecessarily difficult. It’s also hard for Suzi (who is just beginning to uncover her “hillbilly bone” as the song says) to “hear” the melody in what the banjos are playing, since it’s buried in the roll. But she’s hanging in there. And, lest you forget, she is 75 years old and has been playing fiddle now for about 5 years! She is amazing.


We moved on down the line with our songs, doing our Key of A selections:


Somebody Touched Me

Old Joe Clark

Boil Them Cabbage Down

Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms

Daybreak in Dixie

I’ll Fly Away


We talked a little bit about the chords to Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms, which is a song that nowadays offers a choice in how to chord it. (You’ll have to be able to “hear” the last line of the chorus in your head to understand what follows.) The operative words are “and roll in my sweet baby’s arms.” Flatt and Scruggs played those four beats (that measure—those words in red italics) as all D chord, changing back to G on the word “arms.” Today, most people play that measure as 2 beats of G and then 2 beats of D before going back to the G chord. Both sound fine, but I LOVE the sound of Earl’s classic “roll in my sweet baby’s arms lick” played against that D chord on the end. So, naturally, I play the song using 4 beats of D. But, when someone else has called for the song and plays 2 beats of G and then 2 beats of D, then, of course, I do it their way. Both ways are “right.” So, as I told the jammers, you have to pay attention to what the song sounds like in the jam, watch the rhythm guitar player and see what she (or he) is doing and then follow her in the selection of which chords to use. The important thing is that everyone do it the same way.


After that excursion into what was almost dangerous theory territory, Kenney reminded me that Ben wanted to hear my Square Dance Song (Save Me a Square on the Floor) so Kenney and Janet and I played that in the key of E. Bob Van surprised me by capoing up four frets and playing out of C position and adding some nice guitar runs. Janet is now singing tenor to my lead and I love the way our duet sounds.


Bob Mc kicked off our last song, Keeper of the Door, to which Scott improvised a break. I was ready to close up shop but then Scott says, “Can we just do Midnight Train?” OF COURSE WE COULD. It’s one of my favorite songs, and Scott has just learned it and is playing it great. Right in the middle of the song I broke a guitar string, so, still singing, I put down the guitar, picked up the banjo, and, of course, took the next banjo break! Then I thought we were done for sure, but Kenney said, “Why don’t you rip off a little Foggy?” (Meaning, naturally, Foggy Mountain Breakdown.) Well, I know Kenney loves to play that one fast, and he had done a fantastic job as our one and only bass player, so what could I do? I played Foggy! Scott jumped in for a break and we finished off by playing it together. Then I said, “No more! We are done. Kasey is ready to go home!”


As were we all! But we’re already looking forward to next Wednesday! If you’re in the area, come jam with us!