Tag Archives: banjo

Red Henry

Red Henry


A friend of ours has left a mandolin with us, just for a visit. It's a very nice mandolin but he hasn't been playing it much, so he wanted me to "play it in" and bring it back to sounding its best. I play it most of the time for my daily practice, and its sound is indeed improving. This is something that happens with most instruments. If you play them regularly, they sound better than if you don't.

Some folks don't believe this happens, and say there's no such thing as an instrument's sound improving from being played. But I believe that they ought to say, "I haven't heard this happen myself." Maybe they've never heard an instrument improve, but it sure happens, and folks all over the stringed instrument world are aware of it.

It's well known in the violin world that instruments sound better if they're played. A friend of ours was in a group which played a concert in Cremona, Italy, where many of the old master violins were made, long ago. He and his friends visited a violin museum there. Among all the beautiful old violins there was a little old man whose job it was to play them, each of them, every day, in order to keep them sounding their best. What a job, to play millions of dollars worth of violins every day of the week. Life is hard! But it did keep the instruments sounding great.

So why am I telling you all this? Because it applies to the instrument you play, whether it's a mandolin, fiddle, guitar, or banjo. Play it every day, and keep it sounding good. You'll have your own million-dollar sound.

Red Henry

Red Henry

How many instruments do you need to make a band? Not many. Lester Flatt once said that in the old days, "Somebody'd mention a band, and one of 'em would reach and get a fiddle, and the other a banjo, and they'd have it all ready to go." And a banjo goes not only with a fiddle, but also with a mandolin. Murphy and I explored that possibility last Saturday by playing a party gig with just the two of us, on mandolin and banjo.

How do you keep a good sound with just two people, and both of them playing lead instruments? For one thing, you play as solidly and steadily as you can when you're playing lead. For another, when you're playing backup, you LISTEN to the other instrument and play what sounds best for backup. Most of the time it's pretty simple backup, always keeping in mind that you need to be as supportive and non-distracting as possible when the other person is playing lead.

At the gig, Murphy and I played a pretty full gamut of bluegrass instrumentals, including quite a few of the old tunes we used to do as fiddle-and-banjo duets (Old Joe Clark, Sally Goodwin, Little Rabbit, and so forth). It all worked fine, and in spite of our being just background music at the party, we often got applause after we'd play a number.

The key to a good sound is LISTENING, whether you have five people in the band or just two. If you have your music together and use your ears, you can play a job quite well with banjo and mandolin!

Red HenryFolks, we're happy to announce that we have TWO great Murphy Method videos now available on DVD. The first one is "Great Banjo Tunes" (the old video was called "Advanced Banjo"), and it lives up to its name. These are the great lessons included on it:

Great Banjo Tunes cover

Great Banjo Tunes cover

The Gold Rush
Shenandoah Breakdown
Bill Cheatham
Dixie Breakdown
Kansas City Railroad Blues  (taught by Casey)
Limehouse Blues

--as you can see, these are some of the very most popular numbers that come up in jam sessions around the whole country! As always, the tunes are taught note-by-note by ear, the Murphy Method way. We've had a lot of requests for this DVD, and now it is here!

. . . . .

Bluegrass Rhythm Guitar Vol 2 cover

Bluegrass Rhythm Guitar Vol 2 cover

Our second new DVD is called "Bluegrass Rhythm Guitar Volume 2" (the old videotape was titled "Basic Bluegrass Runs Vol.2"). We've also had many, many requests to make this available on DVD, and we've begun sending them out already. This follows on our very popular Volume 1, which we released last year.

Both of these new DVDs are IN STOCK and READY TO SHIP! Just order through our website for prompt shipping and good picking!

Casey HenryOne of my students has been having right hand trouble lately. At first she thought it was a right hand position problem, so for months she worked on changing her hand position to one that would enable her to play smoothly. As the problem continued, though, we gradually realized it was not a position problem but a physiological one. She went to a chiropractor who discovered she had a pinched nerve in her neck that was causing the lack of control she was experiencing in her right hand. Since it takes months for that kind of thing to be treated, we were looking for alternative things to do until she sees physical improvement.

One of the ideas she had was to use a flatpick instead of fingerpicks. I was heartily in support of this idea. I have heard a banjo flatpicked Scruggs-style (by none other than David McLaughlin) and it sounds strangely cool. Two weeks ago I gave her a flatpick and we went through the rolls and a few of the beginning tunes ("Banjo in the Hollow", "Cripple Creek", "Foggy Mtn. Breakdown"). When she came back the next week she was playing with ease, albeit slowly. The strings on a banjo are pretty far apart compared to other instruments regularly played with a flatpick.

I realized that this would be a brilliant exercise for any student. You have to know your rolls cold in order to play all the same notes with a flatpick as you do with your fingerpicks. Try it. Play through "Banjo in the Hollow" with a flatpick (or your whatever your easiest song is) and see if you can do it. It sounds pretty neat and is a brilliant brain exercise.

Casey HenrySomeone suggested to me, as I was getting ready to film the new Easy Songs DVD, that we do a video solely on backup. Of course, vamping is the first step in any banjo backup and we do have a video on that. There are some difficulties inherent in teaching more advanced backup. For one thing, in order to move beyond vamping, you have to be able to hear your chord changes absolutely cold. You can't spend one second of time thinking about the changes if you're also going to be thinking about doing backup licks at the same time.

For another thing, backup, by its very nature, is improvisatory. There is no set order in which to use backup licks. It's more like there is a pool of licks and you have to be able to tell which one is the appropriate one to use in each situation, and you have to make that decision very quickly. But to teach the licks you have to teach them in the context of a song, so it's almost necessary to make up an artificial "backup break" to a specific song so the student can learn both the licks and how they are used. [This topic is sounding familiar. I think I wrote a Banjo Newsletter article on it last year.]

But, all those difficulties aside, that idea is rattling around in my head and I'll no doubt refine it throughout this year as I teach as workshops and camps, and with my live students. Chances are you'll eventualy see a backup DVD in our new releases.

RedNow, I know what you're going to say: that the banjo was invented a long time ago by a person nobody knows now. But I'm not talking about just any banjo, I'm talking about the 5-string banjo, with four long strings and a short one at the top: a banjo like the ones we use to play American bluegrass and traditional music on now.

According to bluegrass legend, the inventor of the 5-string (in its modern configuration) was Joel Walker Sweeney, an 1800s minstrel from near Appomattox, Virginia. Well, it so happened that I was driving along a highway in south-central Virginia one day a few years ago, and I suddenly noticed this sign at the side of the road:

Sweeny Historical marker

A light came on. I was near Appomattox! This sign must be talking about THE Joel Walker Sweeney, the man who invented the 5-string. So I got out my trusty camera and took a picture of the sign, and then followed the driveway nearby back to a small family graveyard some distance from an old house. Some of the stones in the tiny cemetery were modern, but one of them said clearly:

Joel Walker Sweeny grave

--so I stood for a few minutes in contemplation, and took a picture of the stone as well.

I have heard that Joel W. Sweeney and his minstrel troupe were tremendously popular in their day, and even crossed the Atlantic to make a European tour, and while they were there, they played for the queen of England. So the Sweeneys were real entertainment stars, way back then. Then when the Civil War came, Joel's brother Sam joined the Confederate army and was taken into the staff of cavalry General J.E.B. Stuart, who really liked Sam's playing and even had him play when riding along on cavalry raids. So the Sweeney family left its mark on American music and saw a lot of history being made.

There are some who say (and perhaps correctly) that Joel Sweeney didn't invent the 5-string banjo, but just popularized it. But whatever role he played, he's famous for it now. If you ever happen to see that historical marker, just take a few minutes off from your trip and spend them with the Inventor of the Banjo.

Murphy HenryConversation I just had on the phone.

I’d like to order the Beginning Banjo Volume 1.

Would you like DVD or video?

I guess he wants the DVD, he didn’t say.

He must have gotten a banjo for Christmas.

Yeah. I could have gotten him a gun or a banjo. I should have got the gun instead.

Much laughter on my end of the phone.

He was fooling it with it last night when I was trying to go to sleep. I even had the fan on. It was too cold for him to go outside. I finally had to go out there and tell him to quit. I need a gun now to just shoot myself.

MORE LAUGHTER FROM ME. Then I said, “I’ll send it as quick as I can.”

The End.

I write from the beautiful campus of Maryville College in Maryville, TN, where I've been fPaul Betros, Casey Henry, Phil Burnsor the past week and a half, teaching at Steve Kaufman's Acoustic Kamp. Last week we had bluegrass banjos, fingerstyle guitars, Dobros, fiddles, basses, and old-time banjos. This week is flatpicking guitars and mandolins. My Banjo 101 class last week was small but fun. My two students, Paul and Phil, learned their rolls, three chords, "Banjo in the Hollow," "Boil Them Cabbage Down," and "Cripple Creek." I told them they now have enough to practice on for about four months or so! This week I have six Mandolin 101 students. So far they have learned three chords, "Boil Them Cabbage Down" and "Skip To My Lou." We will keep learning, picking and grinning here and I'll report more later!