Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

The question: I just purchased a metronome and trying to figure how fast Casey and you are playing “Nine Pound Hammer” on Easy Songs for Banjo. In recent jams I seem to speed up and slow down and do not hold a constant beat. I am hopeful that purchasing the metronome will assist. What are your thoughts? Feel free to use this on your blog.  -Drew

Hi Drew,

Thanks for the question. I hope I don't put you off by saying I am not a fan of the metronome. I'm sure it has its usefulness somewhere---I know Lynn Morris used to use one to sharpen her picking skills to a fine point---but for banjo students, especially beginning ones, I don't find them useful. I have never suggested that my students use a metronome. And if they tell me they are using one, I just try to pretend like I didn't hear them!

The timing problems beginning banjo students have are usually related to timing in a way that the metronome cannot address (or fix). Their timing problems tend to be related more to not hearing a lick correctly or not being able to execute it properly or just flat out not understanding how the timing is supposed to sound. (Like that “D” lick in John Hardy, the one that has timing like “In The Mood.” Once you understand that timing in your head, once you can “hear” it in your head, you can play it. Until then, it’s just a series of notes. But the metronome cannot help with that.) Or their timing problems are the result of simply being a new student who doesn’t yet have the small-muscle motor skills to play smoothly or fast.

Sometimes, even with the help of the DVDs, a student will simply get the timing wrong. And easy example is the E minor lick in “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” Some students have been known to play those eighth notes too fast initially. We can usually straighten that out quickly by me playing along with them and/or playing guitar. But if you’re doing it wrong and don’t know it, that will sure throw you off in a jam!

Without hearing you play, it’s hard to know what the speeding up and slowing down in jams is all about. My guess it’s more likely a result of nervousness, being a new jammer, and/or having rhythm players who are not too solid. And a metronome can't help with that.

My guess is that you probably just need to play each song many, many, times over in a row (without stopping) until you can develop some solidity. And of course there’s nothing like jamming to help you learn to jam. Metronomes cannot help with jamming—that’s a whole different kettle of fish.

Again, I think metronomes are for fine-tuning your timing, something a professional player might want to do. I’ve heard that Ron Block uses a metronome a lot.

And, lest you think this is a case of me telling you one thing and doing another, I confess that I have never used a metronome for more than the few seconds I needed to find out that I didn’t like them. They simply would not stay in time with me!

Hope this helps!

Murphy (Do you think you could get a refund on that metronome??? )

Red Henry

Red Henry

As you may know, if you look around at a festival or browse through the pages of Bluegrass Unlimited, or especially if you're a member of Banjo Hangout, there are a lot of banjo bridges on the market. And they're a wide variety of sizes and shapes. The traditional Grover-style bridge now has many competitors. Some are compensated, some are curved as seen from above, some are lighter, some are heavier, and some have radically innovative designs. Several modern bridgemakers put a great deal of craftsmanship into each bridge, and are rewarded by substantial prices. But is there a magic bullet?

I've done a lot of experimenting with banjo bridges, and I've come to the conclusion that there's no one bridge that sounds best on all banjos. Some banjos like a traditional bridge. Some like a compensated bridge (though their traditionally-minded owners may or may not). Some banjos sound best with this or that bridge. And the only way to find out which bridge a particular banjo likes, is to try bridges out and see how they sound! Bridgemakers I've spoken to generally agree with this, too.

This is not a note of pessimism, it's a note of optimism. I mean, that so many fine and well-made bridges are available now that the folks who want to experiment can do so with lots of excellent bridges, and see which one their banjo likes best. If you are not used to doing things like switching bridges, my advice is to STICK WITH WHAT YOU HAVE. But for those brave folks who like to tinker with their banjos, there's plenty of opportunity these days to see how they like the sound of different bridges!


Red Henry

Red Henry

Folks, I was just looking through some old posts, and I realized that I'd never talked about flatpicks. This is an important and interesting subject for those guitar and mandolin pickers who are learning to play.

Some new pickers try out a thin, light flatpick, and get used to it, and use it from then on. Now, everybody will have his or her own preference for picks, but I'd recommend trying out a medium pick when you get a chance. If you've gotten used to the thin pick it will take a little getting used to, but a medium pick has some advantages. A few of them are: (1) you get a more solid sound from the instrument; (2) the pick doesn't bend as much, so you hit the strings with it more accurately; and (3) your motion and energy go less into bending the pick, and more into making the note.

. . . . .

On the other extreme, there's been sort of a fad in the last several years for using really heavy picks. Some of these are made of exotic materials, such as caribou horn, buffalo hoof, or the teeth of a Siberian timber wolf (just kidding-- a little). But these extra-heavy and rigid picks do not bend at all, and can cause clumsiness in playing and a lack of clarity. I use a fairly heavy pick, but not an extreme one -- and it's not made from fossilized Triceratops skull, either!

Try lots of picks, and Take Your Pick.


Red Henry

Red Henry

Some of the greatest modern gadgets helping out bluegrass pickers nowadays are electronic tuners. Some of you may not remember the times before there were such things, but I can guarantee from experience that the tuners are a huge help in getting and keeping a jam session in tune. Back in the days when maybe one person (usually a fiddler) would bring an A tuning fork to a jam and tune to it, and then everybody else tried to tune to him, the group's tuning didn't stay there long. Soon, the group's pitch ran out of control and began to climb, and you'd get home (especially after a two- or three-day festival) to find that your banjo, guitar, or mandolin was tuned a fret or more above standard! I'm serious about that---I remember clearly getting home and discovering that my mandolin, tuned to "parking-lot standard" on Sunday afternoon, was a fret and a half above regular pitch! No wonder, I thought, it had been so hard to sing-- the songs were all 'way higher than usual!

So our electronic tuners help a great deal, not only with getting our instruments in tune in the first place, but also with tuning stability. However, keep in mind that the electronic tuner shouldn't be a substitute for your ear.

By that I mean that you shouldn't get fixated on the tuner. After playing your instrument for a year or so, you'll begin to hear the tuning better than at first, and ought to be able to make some adjustments without referring to the tuner. This is something that can be practiced: develop your "tuning ear". At home, use the electronic tuner to set one or two of the strings--- the 3rd string (G) and 4th string (D) are good on a guitar or banjo--- and then practice tuning the other strings to those. It'll be difficult at first, but you'll improve as you go. And then next time you're in a jam session, don't get glued to that tuner and tune and tune and tune your instrument while everyone else is waiting to pick. That's one time when electronic tuners are NOT a help. Use your new tuning skill to get your instrument in "pretty close" tune quickly, so that the jam can go on. Then, if your instrument needs more adjustments, it can be fine-tuned a bit in the break before the next song, and the next one, and the next one, without your taking up the whole group's time by trying to get it perfect.

The tuner can be hypnotic, but remember that it's not worth trying to get your instrument PRECISELY tuned to the tuner. After all, (1) the tuner's not perfect, (2) the other musicians' ears (and yours) aren't perfect, and (3) instruments don't note perfectly either, once they're supposedly tuned! Practice tuning until you hear the notes pretty well and can use your ear to promptly get your instrument "close enough" to being right in tune. That's a musical skill that really counts!

Casey HenryEver have trouble thinking of songs at a jam session? How many times has somebody asked you to "pick one" and your mind instantly goes blank? The solution to all of these problems is here!! The Bluegrass Jamball will provide you with hours of jamming entertainment. Just shake it up and look inside to see what the magic jamball will reveal to be your next tune! Filled with titles as well as categories of songs (i.e. "dead mother songs", "murder ballads", "barn burner in G", etc.) you will never again be at a loss for what to play. Plus, its handy keychain size makes it possible to carry it with you wherever you go! Get yours today!

Mark PanfilWell, it’s getting a little cold up here in Buffalo this December but time spent with loved ones shopping and singing carols is making it “the most wonderful time of the year”.  My days are full of Christmas concerts and first grade plays at my little elementary school on the shores of Lake Erie. Most mornings, I stand at the door of my classroom with my dobro playing Christmas songs like “Joy to the World” or “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” or whatever they request as they enter the building on their way to their classrooms. The young kids that I teach know my Dobro as “the Sponge Bob guitar” because of the smooth Hawaiian flavored sounds they recognize from the sound track of the popular cartoon.

If you’re shopping for a Dobro player on your list, maybe I can make some suggestions. Andy Hall has a new CD on Sugar Hill Records, The Sound of the Slide Guitar which has been in constant rotation for me since I bought it this year IBMA convention. [Note: it won Instrumental Album of the Year]  It is a very simply produced elegant project that really does present the Dobro in the forefront without a lot of studio bells and whistles.

The new Jerry Douglas CD, Glide is also a must have for all Dobro players. His compositions are some of the most significant modern music across all genres of instrumental composition. Listen to it at Jerry's MySpace page. [Also worthy of mention is that Earl Scruggs makes an appearance on a lovely version of his classic "Home Sweet Home."]

I happened upon a very cool CD at the local bookstore last month, Charlie Haden, Family and Friends, Ramblin’ Boy. Of course, Jerry Douglas’s playing drew me right in and I sure enjoyed the place I ended up in. Needless to say, this is one of my new favorites. Listen to a sample at Charlie Haden's website.

If you are looking for a real lasting gift for that special Dobro player, how about the stainless steel Scheerhorn Dobro slide. It is a bit more than other slides, but it lasts much longer. They sell for about $80 at Elderly Instruments.

If your favorite Dobro player is just a beginner, remember the Beginning Dobro DVD that I did for the Murphy Method gets you started on the right foot. I have made some supplemental DVD lessons that you can find at my website.

Hope your Holiday Season is full of music, love and joy.


Murphy HenrySo now that you know not to share your picks, let me remind you that, generally speaking, those little pointy fingerpicks are not going to be your best choice. (And thanks to Steve for the idea for this blog!)

Steve had read all this talk on Banjo Hangout about these pointy fingerpicks and how good they were, and he thought that he’d try them out. Naturally my first comment when I saw them was, “What are those?” My second comment was, “I don’t think they will give you the sound you’re looking for. They tend to produce a rather thin sound. You’re already getting a really good sound with your other picks. And you’re not having any problem with your tone or your ability to play.”

And after he played one song using those pointy picks my third comment was, “See? I told you so.” He took them off. And put his old ones back on.

Now, there may be some good reasons for using the pointy picks. Like if you want to play with a really light touch, or perhaps if you’re playing in the melodic style, or maybe if you like a tone that isn’t particularly Earlish or hard-core bluegrass. But if you’re looking for a big fat bluegrass sound, you need a fingerpick that has more area with which to strike the strings. (IMHO, of course!)

After all these years I’m still using my favorite old-style Dunlop fingerpicks, the kind with three holes and a longer blade than they are offering now. I use the heaviest gauge, 0.025. (I think that’s right....) I know old Nationals are all the rage (or at least they used to be) but those never felt good on my fingers. Ditto a lot of the newer picks, especially those made of heavier metal. They just don’t work for me.

But fingerpicks are a very personal item. Experiment around and see what you like best. Give yourself time to get used to a set and see how you like them. But then, stick with that set! Constantly changing fingerpicks in hopes that THAT will cure all your ills and make you a better banjo player is a pipe dream. And stay away from the pointy picks!

Murphy HenryShort blog today, folks. Just back from picking all afternoon with David McLaughlin (banjo), Marshall Wilborn (bass), Red Henry (mando), Chris Henry (guitar), and moi (fiddle, and a little banjo after David left). And still need to find time to watch last night’s episode of the Marty Stuart Show featuring Eddie Stubbs as the genial announcer which I videotaped (RFD channel).

Okay, so here’s my Word to the Wise: Do NOT, I repeat, do NOT let anyone borrow your fingerpicks. I’m talking about the set of fingerpicks you use all the time. Most borrowers will take the picks and, without thinking twice about it, bend them to fit their fingers. And even if they don’t bend them, their fingers could be bigger and will stretch them out. So when you get them back (IF you get them back!), they will no longer feel right on your fingers! You’ll have to go through the shaping process all over again.

If you’ve not had this happen to you yet, great! You can’t imagine how much you will notice the smallest change in your comfortable, well-fitting picks.

So, what to do? Carry a spare set of fingerpicks that will be your “loaners.” If someone asks to borrow your picks, give them these.

And, by the way, you should also be breaking in a spare set of picks for yourself. This is for when your thumb pick breaks or for when you lose your fingerpicks.

So at the very minimum you need three sets of fingerpicks in your banjo case: your regular and favorite set, a spare set, and a set that you can lend.

Thanks to Chick for suggesting this blog. Of course, the fact that he had loaned out his best set of picks and had them bent all to pieces and was having to reshape them gave him a good excuse for missed notes at his lesson!

Murphy Henry

Question: I have been a Murphy Method Student for 19 years. I have a Kyser capo. When playing in C it tends to get in the way of my fingering. Could you tell me what kind you are using in Slow Jam 1 playing "Bury me Beneath the Willow" in the key of C, and where it can be gotten? Thanks. Calvin

Hey Calvin,

First of all, many thanks for hanging in there with The Murphy Method. That's always nice to hear!

Now about capos:

After trying many capos down through the years including the Scruggs Capo, the Tom McKinney Capo, the Sabine Capo, and the Kyser, I have finally landed on the Shubb Capo, with which I am well pleased. I'm pretty sure that's what I am using in the first Slow Jam DVD. (Unless I was having a Bad Capo day and lost mine!)

The Shubb Capos are small enough to not get in the way of my left hand, they snap on and off the banjo with no trouble, can easily be carried in my pants' pocket, and don't seem to cause too many tuning problems. (Although when you use any capo you almost always have to retouch your tuning.) Also, when I'm on stage and am not using the capo at the moment, I can keep it handy by sticking the end of it into one of the holes in my Stelling flange.

And even with long term use, I've not ever had the rubber part deteriorate. (Of course that MIGHT be because I often lose my capo and have to buy a new one...That sometimes comes from lending capos at a jam session! I did have a lawyer friend who absconded---accidentally of course---with my capo replace it with a brand new one!)

And for those of us with arched fingerboards (which for some strange reason we are now called "radiused" fingerboards) on our banjos, the Shubb comes in a slightly curved version, which makes for fewer tuning problems.

I think you can find the Shubb Capo at many music stores, locally and online. I'll shout out to three of my faves: First Quality Music, Janet Davis Music, and Elderly Instruments.

Hope this helps!!!!

[Casey here...I use a Showcase capo, which handily slides up above my nut when not in use, so I never have to take it off the neck, thereby greatly reducing the chances of it being lost!]