Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

[I was stuck for a title until I remembered that I had taken pictures at the jam. The pics have nothing to do with the blog but they are way cool!]

Father and daughter: Boot Scootin Boogie !

Father and daughter: Boot Scootin Boogie !

I am obviously way too distracted to write coherently. (Or maybe it's just that Ben has set the bar too high!) Today we were supposed to be shooting an improvising DVD with Ned Luberecki, but he texted Monday night to say that his flights from Montana to Denver to Nashville were all screwed up so there was no way he could make it here in time to shoot the DVD and get to Boston by 9 a.m. Friday when he had to teach a banjo workshop! So we are trying to reschedule. Meanwhile, we have this Gigantic Snow Storm that is heading our way, bringing perhaps a foot of snow! Naturally I had to join everyone else in Frederick Country at the grocery store where we were all stocking up on Storm Essentials: Beer, Bread, and Bryers. (That's an old Florida Hurricane joke from our banjo-picking buddy Hig.) I skipped the bread and doubled up on the beer! ...continue reading


Murphy Henry

Well, I’ve just had the pleasure of recording my first custom guitar lesson, courtesy of Casey and her fancy MacIntosh Computer. (Not quite like Earl and his “fancy banjo” but close!) And what did I teach? “Wildwood Flower,” of course! It’s sort of the “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” of guitar picking. Except that “Wildwood Flower” is a much easier beginning-level tune.


As you may know, Casey has been offering “custom banjo lessons” for a few years now. She will teach just about any song you can think of on banjo including her latest offering, J.D. Crowe’s “Bear Tracks.” (AWESOME tune!) So, thinks I, why not offer some tunes on guitar? Especially since I currently have three excellent guitar students (Janet, Bob A., and Bob V.) who are learning to pick out the melodies for a number of songs on their own. Just hearing them do that is inspiring to me as a teacher. And gratifying, too. (And it’s made me hone my own guitar-playing skills!)


Teaching them made me realize that simple, melody- oriented guitar breaks are absolutely wonderful. They sound great and—honest to Pete—are not that hard. So, I thought, “Why not make these tunes available to other folks?” With Casey’s excellent help we are making it happen. (She pushes all the buttons on the computer and says “Go” and “Good job!” and then does the editing.) “Wildwood Flower” and “Amazing Grace” are both now available. And we are open for suggestions for other songs or tunes you want to learn to play on guitar.
Just to give you an idea, here are some of the songs Janet and Bob A. have learned and are playing:


You Are My Sunshine

Will the Circle Be Unbroken

I’ll Fly Away

I Saw the Light

This Land is Your Land

Life’s Railway to Heaven

Bury Me Beneath the Willow

When the Roll Is Called up Yonder

Two Dollar Bill

Boogie Woogie


You might notice that these selections are gospel-heavy. Well, that’s because the gospel tunes are so easy to play on guitar and sound so good. And are so well known to many of us.


Bob V., who has always done his own thing, has a slightly different list of tunes and is currently working on some of the D fiddle tunes: “Liberty,” “Soldier’s Joy,” and “Arkansas Traveler.” These make great guitar tunes (the arrangements are still simple) but are quite a bit harder than the three-chord songs in the Key of G or C. We can record those for you, too.


So, Casey and I are excited about this new venture into six-string land. Just let us know what you want to learn!


ORDER LINK: Go HERE to order them. This is a link that is only available to our blog readers (for now). It will go live to the rest of the world in a few days.


Murphy Henry

Last weekend my four sisters and I met, once again, in our old home place in Clarkesville, Ga., to finish cleaning out our parents’ house which is being sold. We had already had two divvying-ups of large furniture and some sentimental items, but there were still the precious old toys, baby clothes, books, picture albums, one-of-a-kind framed pictures, kitchenware, towels, quilts, Bibles, and Daddy’s Navy trunks to sort through and divide up. Along with boxes and boxes of papers. Mama and Daddy weren’t really pack rats, but living in the same house for over 60 years does result in quite an an accumulation of stuff.

One of the things we found was a “story” Mama wrote back in 1986, right before youngest sister Laurie was graduating from Medical School. I guess that event moved Mama to write down some of her “fav-o-rite” memories (as Merle Haggard said). The writing itself was so good, that I wanted to share the first part with you. If there is interest, perhaps I will post some more. Thanks for letting me share this with you.

Basic family outline: Five sisters, born two years apart. No brothers. I’m the oldest. Daddy was a small-town doctor, Mama was a stay-at-home Mom.

. . . . .


I Sat in the Garden

I sat in the garden
that has changed from dirt to grass to pebbles to flagstone
but still retains THE TREE
And saw the old picnic table
where so many food feasts occurred
from watermelon to cool aid and cookies
to real planned picnics with all the trimmings
The table grew old and deteriorated
But you grew strong and bright and beautiful
The treasured plants in the Hicks garden

Closing my eyes and letting memory run rampant
I saw other young plants that we loved and,
I hope, helped to nurture; Sharon, Melba, Bill,
Linda, Claudia, Becky, Mike, Danny, and another
Mike, Barbara, Bucky, Brad, Mark, Brian, Anne, Joe. And others like Gail and Martha, not often in this garden, because they were older....and Machelle and James, not often here because they were younger. They and their parents helped us nurture you. GOOD NEIGHBORS.

I wanted to write this down, so I went into the house for pen and paper.
I found them easily....exactly where I’d left them.
There are few pluses to a big empty house –and
I intend to accentuate the positive. Finding things where you left them is one of the pluses.

I have just finished setting out some plants.
I don’t have to find a plant apiece and a shovel apiece because this activity had suddenly become the focus of activity of five lively persons. I didn’t
have to guide the digging of five holes, the introduction of five plants into those holes, nor the putting and patting of soil back into the five plant beds.
I just planted and watered my plants.

I looked around the garden and it was littered with sticks, a few leaves, and a lot of those oak tree droppings that we refer to as “worms.”
and I suddenly envisioned a scene that was repeated so many times.
I am sweeping the garden and MANY decide to help.
I stop and find brooms: one toy broom that nobody really wants, two or three brooms that I cut off and make short from old brooms (and these will be kept and used later). Because my broom sweeps so well everybody wants it. I explain that we will take turns with my broom, and suddenly everybody is busy. I try to designate places and directions for sweeping, but everyone has her own idea about how to sweep a garden. There is much fun and flurry and excitement – and no progress! And soon you wander off and I am left to sweep the garden.
And if I occasionally get aggravated and yell, more times I acknowledge and affirm within my own heart that every effort and ounce of energy it take to organize and oversee and have fizzle out a job of this kind, it is worth it, and that I am, literally, enjoying every minute of it.



Murphy Henry

So, Cody, who is now taking banjo, comes in for his lesson last night. I ask Bob Van to stay and play some guitar, so I can play banjo and Cody and I can trade breaks. Well, Bob and I haven’t been in tune for the whole hour of his lesson. My fault, not his. His tuner is off from mine, and I was just too lazy to ask him to retune. And it wasn’t off that much.

But by the time Cody came in, I was ready to be in tune. And since Cody’s banjo wasn’t quite in tune, I asked him to tune it. He didn’t have his tuner with him so I handed him mine. Then, I asked Bob to go ahead and use that tuner to tune, so we’d all be in tune together. No big deal, right? All I wanted (for Christmas) was for them to get in tune...

So Cody looks at Bob and says, “ I think I’m gonna buy her a T-shirt that says, ‘Please be in tune WITH ME.’ ”

And Bob says, “Yeah. And the operative words are WITH ME.”

Hmmm....somehow I never thought of it like that!


Murphy Henry

I know we mostly write about banjo playing here, but I thought a word or two about Bob Van and his guitar playing was in order. Since he’s doing SO WELL.

As you may recall, Bobby has been taking guitar lessons from me forever. One of my favorite stories about him is when he came in for his first lesson, lo these many years ago, before either of us were wearing glasses! He’d been learning to pick the lead on some songs from our CASSETTE series, Carter Family Guitar. Songs like Will The Circle Be Unbroken and Worried Man. He said he’d gone through all the songs in the series. I was impressed.

“Play one,” I said. So he did. And, yes indeed, he had all the notes exactly right. But he was leaving out all the strums! And thus began our long-term battle over timing. Which happened again yesterday as he was working on the lead break to the Stanley Brothers song Could You Love Me One More Time. (His choice.)

“Bobby,” I said, “would you do me a favor and play again, this time using the correct timing?”

“Hell,” he says, “I’m having enough trouble remembering the notes. I can’t worry about the timing.”

My response?

“If you can’t play it in time, then you can’t play it.”

His response?

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. What else is new?”

It has always been thus. Fortunately we’ve always been able to laugh (and cuss!) at whatever is going on in the lesson.

But lately Bob’s lead guitar playing has taken quantum leap, due, in part I think, to his learning to pick Salt Creek. Note by tedious note. Let me be quick to say he didn’t do it without a monstrous amount of complaining. “I hate this song. It doesn’t have a melody.”

My response?

“Yeah, yeah. Try it again and this time get the pick strokes right.”

We latched on to Salt Creek only because he’d tried to pick the lead to Ashoken Farewell in the key of D. It’s a hard song on guitar to start with, and the key of open D is not an easy key to pick in. And did I mention he’s pretty bullheaded? So we went around and around with Ashoken Farewell for several months. Frankly, I think we lost.

So I said, “Next time, let ME choose the tune.”

Amazingly, he said, “Okay.”

So I chose Salt Creek. Why? Mainly because the banjo pickers that he plays with somewhat regularly (Ruth, Susan, Logan) all know this tune and he’d actually get a chance to perform it in a jam. And it has become sort of a flatpicking standard.

I taught him the old-fashioned way, by recording it onto a cassette! Explaining it note-by-note, including the directions of the pick strokes. And yes, it took a while, but, by Jove, he finally got it! And while he still professes to hate it, he can play it, chord it, and come back in for his break after the banjo plays. At least he could do that yesterday. Marty is coming for a marathon lesson on Saturday and I’ve arranged for some students to come jam with him. Bob is one of them. We’ll see how he does on Salt Creek then. Pressure’s on, Bobby! Step up to the plate!

Red Henry

Yesterday I was stringing up a mandolin for Murphy's student Zac, and got to thinking about how it's a challenge, at first, for students to change strings on their instruments. Changing banjo and guitar strings is enough of a hassle, the first few times, and changing mandolin strings can be an amazing challenge. Fortunately, though, most students don't need to change their strings very often.

But this leads into another question: "What kinds of strings are best?" --and this has many different answers. For banjos and especially for guitars and mandolins, there are a bewildering number of choices in strings: light gauge, medium gauge, or heavy gauge; nickel-wound; bright bronze; phospher bronze; "bluegrass" alloys; and the modern high-priced, long-lasting string sets. Which do you need?

If you like your old set of strings, I'd recommend sticking with the same kind when you change them. But if you'd like to try something new, there are a few general guidelines you can go by when choosing strings. Usually, medium-gauge strings provide more volume but are not quite as easy to play, but there are exceptions to that. And very old (pre-war) Gibson mandolins or Martin guitars may really need light-gauge strings, to avoid putting too much string-tension on a fragile instrument. In any case, on banjos, light-gauge strings often sound and play best.

On guitars and mandolins, phosphor-bronze strings may provide the most volume and bassy tone, but also may have the shortest life before they go dead. Nickel-wound strings may give less bass, but may last the longest. "Bright" bronze strings, my personal favorites, may be somewhere in the middle. The new "long-life" string brands seem related to bright bronze, and they do last a long time, but they sometimes seem stiff and difficult to play. And you'll find instruments, and different string brands, and individual string-sets, which will surprise you on all these counts!

If you have the time and energy, try different kinds and brands of strings until you find the ones you like best. If you don't want to be changing strings lots of times to find the right ones, ask around, especially among folks who have been playing a while, to see what kind of strings you might like. (Be aware that usually the answer will be the strings THEY like, not the ones YOU might like, but you can filter the answers and figure out what to try.) Good luck!

Red Henry

Some of you may have entered a music contest from time to time. A few of Murphy's students enter contests as often as they can. If you live in a part of the world where there are contests, you might consider entering a few yourself.

There are several benefits from entering contests. The first reason (and maybe the biggest) lies in the preparation. This works into the "Quality" theme of Murphy's post yesterday. Your tunes need to be thoroughly learned, as smooth and good-sounding as you can get them, so that you could play them without thinking about them-- because at first, when you get on a contest stage to play, your mind may go blank and you've got to just PLAY. As well as you can. Without thinking. This simply takes a lot of practice, and practice is good for you!

At contests you get to play in front of different audiences, in different places and situations. You might be indoors in a poorly-lit school auditorium. You might be on stage in a big music hall with good lights and sound system. Or you might be playing on a flatbed trailer outdoors in 45-degree weather. If you can play your tunes well in ANY situation, its good for your music.

And why can you win some contests without being the best picker? It's because of the judging. Some local contests simply do not have musical experts available as judges. So your job at those contests is not to play the most advanced tunes you can. Your job is to play a tune that sounds good, and to look like you know what you're doing. If on stage you LOOK confident of being a winner, you'll have a better chance of actually being one.

At a lot of contests, the best player does not win. The judges may pick their favorite based on looks, facial expression, posture, gender, age, or other un-musical considerations. On the other hand, there are contests where the judges are excellent musicians and very well qualified to judge, in great and accurate detail, how well the contestants can actually play.

But no matter how the judging goes, you accept it and roll with the flow. Playing contests is not about the judging, it's its own reward. You endure the waiting and the drawing for playing-order, you go out in front of the people, and you play your tunes as well as you can. (The first one or two contests, your playing may not exactly be your best. But keep at it.) And when you've played some contests, your music is so much more solid than it was before. If you're placed a few times, your confidence is too.

So if the judging seems weird, don't take it seriously. At a contest, the judging is not the point. Winning prizes is not the point. Your music is.


Red Henry

Yesterday afternoon we had a real good picking session. The participants were what made it work. Besides Murphy, Chris, and myself, we had a teenage banjo player, a forest ranger, a deaf banjo player, a singer converted from hip-hop, and an out-of-work bass player. A well-matched group, huh?

Okay. I guess you are wondering who these people were and why they fit together so well musically. Well, the teenage banjo player was Murphy's student Logan, a good student and up-and-coming player whom she's blogged about before. And the party was for Logan's 18th birthday. The forest ranger was local guitar picker and singer Gerald C., who happens to be Logan's scoutmaster. The deaf banjo player was our Cousin David, about whom you've heard before. (Just kidding about the "deaf" part.) The convert from hip-hip was our friend Chris L., a new Stanley Brothers/Flatt & Scruggs/Reno & Smiley freak who used to be in a rock band with our Chris. (The band was called, appropriately enough, The Bends.) And the bass player was Murphy's long-time student Bob V., a fine picker and witty person.

So why did we fit together so well? Well, aside from Murphy's formidable skill at leading a jam session (as amply demonstrated on our Slow Jam and More Slow Jam DVDs), it was because everybody knew a lot of the same material or could pick up on it well. You do find jam sessions where the players all have their own favorite songs but can't really play anyone else's. In this case, everybody picked up on what everyone else was doing, and it worked out fine.

Sometimes you find the strangest combinations of folks in jam sessions... and the music still works!


Red Henry

Well, how often should you change them? I hear this question pretty frequently. The answer is, that it's up to you. How helpful is that?

Well, the reason is that everybody's strings need changing at different times. Some reasons are because (1) there are so many kinds of strings and they age differently; (2) people all play differently and their strings wear out (or corrode) faster or slower as a result; and (3) in different parts of the country (or the world) strings are just going to need changing more often.

So, what do you look for in deciding whether to change them? One thing can be obvious: buildup of corrosion or gunk on the string. This really happens a lot in warm, humid climates. If the buildup can't be removed with a little steel wool, then it'd definitely time to change strings! (When I was starting out, this happened on my mandolin strings every few days.)

Another sign is when the strings get hard to tune. Often it's because they're not sliding smoothly through the string-nut (that's the little white thing with slots at the bottom of the peghead). If you put on new strings, and when you're at it, put a little graphite -- pencil-lead dust will do-- in the bottoms of the little nut-slots, then the tuning should get a lot better.

Another sign of elderly strings might be that they don't play in tune. If you're pretty sure that your bridge is in the right place, but your banjo is still "noting out" more than usual up the neck, then new strings might be what you need.

One more sign of old strings may not be as obvious. If the instrument (banjo or otherwise) just doesn't sound right, the strings may have gotten too old to sound good at all. When does this happen? Well, this is the most extreme case of old strings, since it may take several months or a year for the strings to get this old.

Some players take extreme steps to keep new strings on their instruments, especially if they break a lot of strings. Back when we were playing a lot of festivals, I used to change the strings on both mandolins and both guitars every morning before we played our first set. That was a lot of work, but it helped keep the string-breakage to a minimum. Others take a different approach. I've heard that Bill Monroe changed his mandolin strings once a year, at New Year's, and from then on just changed them as they broke (which they did, pretty often).

Now, this all applies to the fretted instruments. Fiddle strings seem to fall into a different category. I've known fiddle players who changed their strings every few months, but as for myself, if the fiddle gets new strings every five years, that's a lot. I suspect that the strings on my fiddle now have been on it for longer than that!

So the answer to the question is, that it's up to you yourself to decide when to change strings. There are a lot of reasons for changing them (better tone, volume, and tuning), and there are plenty of reasons for just leaving them on there (less hassle with awkward work, and less risk of getting your banjo or mandolin bridge out of place in the string-changing process, among other things). But if you go in for a lesson and your teacher takes one look at your strings and turns as green as they are, then it's time.

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

So, I’m down here in Georgia again, visiting my folks. My dad and I have the same birthday, May 18, so we’re doing an early birthday weekend. One of our wonderful helpers made me a birthday cake and Daddy is having a piece right now.

This morning Mama and I played a game of Scrabble and I thought you (especially Marty) would like a report, so I took notes during the game. It was the best game she’s played in years! I was SO HAPPY!

Mama went first and was absolutely fine for four turns making BEAT, DREW, attaching SUN to SHARES for a triple word score, and then making LOPE. Unfortunately she hit a snag when she put down VAZE. Here is our conversation after that play:

Me: What does that spell?

Ma: Vase.

Me: In what universe?

Ma: That doesn’t spell vase?

Me: No.

Ma: What spells vase? (Isn’t that cute?)

Me: V-A-S-E.

Ma: It was a perfectly good place to use a Z. (Pause.) And you had to mess it up.

And of course then I felt like a complete heel, because in the larger scheme of things WHO CARES? I told her that if she put it down again (which she often does, having forgotten she's already played the word), I’d just let it go. But, amazingly, she did not put it down again but put down VAGUE and later used her Z later to make DOZE. I’m telling you, she was firing on all cylinders.

After VAGUE, she was leading so I said, “You’re ahead of me! You’re ahead of me!” To which she responded, “Good, good, good!”

At another juncture she was even further ahead. I said, “That puts you 15 points ahead of me.” She said, “Some days are like that.”

Other words she made were: JANE, RAG, ANDREW (adding AN to DREW), WORMY, KIND, QUIET, MEN and ON in the same play, and TO and DO in the same play which also landed on another triple word score. But her cleverest play was adding TED to ALLOT for her third triple word score.

In spite of all her great words and excellent plays, by the end, I had finally pulled ahead. (The Force was with me!) When I told her I had won, she said, “You beat me?” I said, “Only by 13 points.” She said, “Wow. That’s ridiculous.” Which it was. Why didn’t I let her WIN??????? She’s 85 years old and I still try to beat her? What’s wrong with this picture?? On the other hand, I know me well enough to know that if I let her win all the time, I eventually wouldn’t want to play. So, all I can do is work with what I’ve got right now. And sometimes she does win. And that makes me happy too. As Kenny Rogers said, “You’ve gotta know when to hold ‘em, and know when to fold ‘em.” Okay, so that was about poker. Somehow it seemed appropriate....Go figure!