Tag Archives: fiddle

Red Henry

Folks, I recently participated in couple of picking sessions that showed something about what to do--and what not to do-- in a jam. Let's call them Jam Session #1 and Jam Session #2.

Jam Session #1 was the good old Thursday evening session at Linda's Mercantile fruit stand, run by David and Linda Lay on U.S. 522 a mile or so north of Winchester. Everybody's welcome, so we always have a mix of talent. There are folks who've only been playing a little while, and folks who've been playing all their (long) lives. There are folks who know just a few tunes, and folks who know lots. So when I go pick at Linda's, I know that I'll be fitting in with a dozen or fifteen other pickers of widely varying experience and musical skill.

Usually during the evening at Linda's, I'll sing two or three songs as well as backing up and taking breaks on everybody else's numbers. What's important when playing at Linda's? At least a few things, such as:

(a.) When it's your turn to sing, pick out a song that LOTS OF PEOPLE KNOW. They'll be playing along in back of you, so make sure that you sing a song they know and can play along with. And DON'T PLAY TOO FAST. Then everybody can play along together, and the music sounds good. And the pickers (as well as the audience) like it.

(b.) When you are playing lead or backup on someone else's song or tune, always remember the K.I.S.S. principle of bluegrass music: Keep It Simple, Stupid! When play your break on a number with a wide variety of pickers, that is not the time to show how hot a player you are and how many notes you can pick. It is the time to play AS PLAINLY AND CLEARLY AS POSSIBLE so that everybody can hear what you are doing and play along. That's the way to keep the picking session sounding good.

Now, let's consider Jam Session #2. This session happened to include just three people, at an old-time music gathering where the rest of the folks were taking a supper break. The instruments present were a fiddle played by a good player, a guitar played by a non-guitar specialist, and a mandolin played by me. So, as one of just two lead players it was my turn to pick out every other tune. I selected interesting but well-known numbers that sounded good even in such a small group, and were easy for the guitar player to back up even though guitar wasn't his best instrument.

BUT... when the fiddle player picked out tunes to play, they were not like that. They were some of the fiddler's favorite rare, obscure, "unsquare" tunes, which neither I nor the guitarist knew or could play well. By the time we'd gone through each tune several times I had learned the basics of it, but the effect of a learning mandolin player and a hesitant guitar player meant that the tunes sounded a lot weaker, and to me (at least) were much less satisfying to play, than the tunes I had picked out specifically to avoid that situation and help us all sound good. I thought that the fiddle player lacked good manners.

So whatever session you're in, YOU use good manners. Pick tunes that the other musicians can play, and play them in such a way as to make it easy for the others to play along. Sometimes in advanced sessions, this means that you can play about anything you want any way you want to, even without announcing the name of the tune. But in other sessions, it means that you have to pay attention to the other musicians and help make everybody sound good. Think about it.

Red

Murphy Henry

You’ve probably noticed that I don’t blog much anymore. Standard excuses apply (grandson, book, teaching, square dancing, dealing with my dad’s estate, and cataract surgery!) But, truth to tell, now that everybody’s doing it, I don’t feel as compelled. Nevertheless, sometimes things happen that just have to be blogged about. This is one of them!

 

This past weekend Red and Casey and Dalton and I went up to Davis, West Virginia, for the wedding of my first-cousin-once-removed. (My cousin’s son. I’m from the South. I like all that “once-removed” stuff!) We played A LOT of music the night before, just jamming, at the chicken barbecue. I played mostly banjo but also some fiddle (!) because Red and Mike (my bro-in-law and banjo-neck builder) and I were playing a triple-fiddle version of “Maiden’s Prayer” at the wedding the next day. (We sounded wonderful!)

 

Anyhow, while Red was doing his grandfatherly duties and holding Dalton, Mike and I were playing fiddles as someone we had just met accompanied us on guitar. We did a couple of easy fiddle tunes, “Soldier’s Joy” and “Liberty,” and then were asked to play “Whiskey Before Breakfast” (a fairly complex fiddle tune both chord-wise and melody-wise.) Being the affable people that we are, Mike and I were game. We had a couple of false starts, but we finally got the tune off the ground. At the end of our rendition, the guitar player, bless his heart, says to me, “Have you just learned that tune?” I said, “No, I just play it badly!”

 

Bada bing! And, yes, I did fumble, grumble, and stumble, but in true Murphy Method fashion, I KEPT GOING!

 

And, hey, while I’m here (I know, I know, blogs are supposed to be short but...)

 

Casey and I are getting excited about our Beginning Banjo Camp, October 26-28. We are hoping for excellent weather—last year it snowed and we lost electricity for seven hours! Our camps are becoming known for the amount of time the students spend PLAYING THE BANJO! You will play and play and play! It will always be in a group setting so you will be surrounded by other beginning banjo players. We stick to three main tunes: Cripple Creek, Banjo in the Hollow, and Boil Them Cabbage Down. And we play VERY SLOWLY.

 

Once again, we are very near downtown Winchester, this time with a Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin Robbins right around the corner. Literally. (Coffee and donuts for the teachers always appreciated!)

 

We keep our camps small so you get lots of individual attention from Casey and me. And we do have a few more slots open [4, as of this writing]. So email Casey at themurphymethod@gmail.com if you want to join in the fun!

 

Bonus activities: There is that concert Friday night by Casey’s new band, the Gooseneck Rockers, with Tom Adams on guitar and Marshall Wilborn (2012 IBMA Bass Player of the Year!!) on bass. They are tight!

 

Then Saturday night Murphy’s Misfits (current crop!) will perform and then they will all join together for a “demo” jam session. We want you to see that “real” jamming can happen even at the beginner level. These are all students--just like you--who have learned to play the Murphy Method way and are now enjoying the pleasures of jamming!

 

Hope to see you there!

Red Henry

Folks, what's the easiest and most enjoyable kind of practice? Naturally, it's the kind that doesn't seem like practice at all: PLAYING music. So I got a lot of easy practice last weekend.

Friday night, there was Old-Time picking at the Cabin. That's the "Cabin" with a capital C, the one where the Old-Time pickers play. And how do you get there? Well, it's way out in the woods on little crooked roads. In fact, in order to find it, you need to already know how to get there. (That sounds like circular reasoning, doesn't it? Well, we do play around with the tunes. Stop it, Red.)

The Old-Time pickers (call them OTP's for short) generally like to play a lot in one key before changing. When we started Friday night, we were in the key of A-- all three of us. In fact, I wondered if I'd come there on the wrong night. But people kept drifting in and in an hour or so, we had ten players-- all pretty good players, too-- three or four each of fiddle and banjo, plus guitar, bass, and two mandolins: a good mix. And what did we play in the key of A? Good stuff-- not only the familiar tunes, but also some oldie goodies like Old Mother Flanagan, Pretty Little Dog, and June Apple. After a couple of hours, we got into the key of D and played some there too-- more good stuff.

On Saturday the music was a hair more serious because I was playing a party gig, with a three-piece band including my friends Scott and Cousin David. We played a mix of bluegrass songs and old-time tunes for a delightful outdoor event in Clarke County, Virginia. Scott played guitar and sang, and David switched off from banjo to lead guitar, while I picked a little mandolin. Everybody had a good time.

Cousin David is a very versatile musician. Between sets, he was playing some new-age music on his old-age guitar. A mischievous band member said, "Play 'Wipeout'! and he did. Then the same person said, "Now play 'Hey, You, Get Off of My Cloud!'", but David wouldn't play that. Spoilsport.

Sunday afternoon's music was back in the traditional groove, playing with the OTP's at a country church in West Virginia. There were  eight of us there, again a well-matched ensemble, with three fiddles, three banjos, bass, guitar, and mandolin. We played in the key of D: Cowboy's Dream. Yellow Rose of Texas (not the one you know). Bonaparte Crossing the Rhine. Mississippi Sawyer. Hard Times Come Again No More. More good stuff.

When the Sunday music was finished, it was time to go home and collapse for a while. As one of the OTP's said as we packed up, "Now I've got to go to work this week to rest up for the weekend!"  But you know what? I was in practice.

It was easy.

Red

Casey Henry

We’ve spent the last two days filming a new DVD, which you all are going to be pretty excited about, I think. It’s on banjo backup for fiddle tunes, that is, banjo/fiddle duet style. Think Earl Scruggs and Paul Warren. Funnily enough, this is not the first time we’ve taped this particular video. About eight years ago Murphy got together with the great Chattanooga fiddle player Fletcher Bright and recorded almost all of a project on banjo backup for fiddle tunes, but we never released it. When last year’s Fancy Banjo Backup DVD sold so well and got such good reactions I had a hankering to go back and revisit this project and see if we could resurrect it.

Red pulled the footage that they had taped way back when off of the VHS tape backup, which was apparently the only surviving copy. He burned me DVDs and I watched it through, taking copious notes. Since this was the backup copy (no telling what happened to the first camera tapes…), it had run continuously, so not only did it have all the playing and teaching, it also had Murphy and Fletcher sitting and watching the playback of what they had just played and commenting on how good they sounded! Totally cute.

Although the content of that footage was great, the quality wasn’t quite up to modern-day standards, especially since it was filmed onto VHS and now everything is digital. For that reason we decided to re-record it rather than editing the older tape.

We called in my great friend and most excellent fiddle player and teacher Megan Lynch, who kindly consented to drive up to Winchester from Nashville (ten hours) to film with us. In two days we got the whole project in the can, and for the most part filming went really smoothly. Before we even got started we had some banjo technical difficulties (I’ll leave those to Murphy to relate…) but once we got rolling (no pun intended there) the material went down really easily.

We teach backup for four songs: "Sally Goodwin," "Turkey in the Straw," "Old Joe Clark," and "Leather Britches." Then we demonstrate (NOT teach) a few more, just to give you a chance to hear some more free-form backup (not necessarily using just the licks that we teach): "Sugar in the Gourd," "Grey Eagle," "Cherokee Shuffle," and "Paddy on the Turnpike."

We’re looking at a fall release for this one, so it will be a little while before you can get your hands on it, but I think you’ll really, really like it when you do!

Red Henry

For those who haven't seen the announcements on various music lists, the great bluegrass fiddler Kenny Baker died yesterday in Nashville. Kenny was probably the most influential bluegrass fiddler of our time, having played with Bill Monroe for over 15 years (in itself a record for Bill's sidemen). He played fiddle on all of Bill's classic albums from the late 1960s to the mid-'80s, a nearly-indescribable wealth of bluegrass music which included Bill's great "Uncle Pen" and "Master of Bluegrass" LPs. Kenny's tone, timing, and note choice were the best anywhere, proven not only on his performances and recordings with Bill, but also by the six or seven LPs he recorded on the County label.

Kenny was a grand gentleman, and he loved to pick. He said he learned from other musicians all the time. During his tenure with Bill Monroe's band, he often got out in the parking lot at festivals and played for hours with people like you and me. He said that sometimes people gave him trouble for that, saying "That's not professional!" -- and that got his dander up. He would reply to them, "Who's tellin' WHO here, what's professional?"

The first time I picked with Kenny was at the Lavonia, Georgia festival in July, 1970. I've forgotten just how the session started, but suddenly Mike and Polly Johnson and I were picking in a circle with Kenny. I think we'd just played Bill Cheatham when Kenny, always encouraging to young players, said his first words to me: "That's good mandolin pickin', buddy."

Top: me, Polly Johnson, Mike Johnson. Lower left: Kenny Baker.

I often picked with Kenny after that. I lived on the East Coast from 1972-74, attending as many festivals as I could, and during that time Kenny and I often closed out festivals on Sunday night by picking for hours at my campsite. He was a terrific inspiration for this young picker, and I learned a great deal from him. His talent was amazingly diversified--he could play jazz as well as bluegrass and old time tunes, and occasionally groused in private about being restricted to playing "this MON-roe stuff" for a living. On one occasion, Mike Johnson and I and some friends got Kenny away from a festival at Brasstown Bald, Georgia, and brought him to Mike's cabin nearby to pick. We played for a long time that night, and away from the bluegrass crowd Kenny played some real hot fiddle before we had to take him back to the show.

Kenny Baker left a huge legacy of music both on record albums and in our memories. Thanks, Kenny! Keep on fiddling.

Red

Red Henry

In the last week or so, I've participated in three really different kinds of picking sessions. All three were enjoyable, all three were beneficial (read: good practice), and all three might have hints for Murphy Method students who like to pick.

The first jam, on Thursday evening, was the weekly event at Linda's Mercantile and Fruit Stand, a mile or two north of Winchester, VA on U.S. 522. As usual, by 7:00 p.m. we had a full crowd of listeners and a dozen or so pickers, and things got under way. Now, you need to understand that at this Thursday night event, the music is not just for the musicians. It's for the listeners too. And the musicians are not all experts (plus, we don't often have a bass player) so you need to hold the music together the best you can and let the audience enjoy the show.

There were about 9 guitar players, 3 fiddle players, 3 banjo players, two mandolin pickers, and a gentleman who alternated between harmonica and spoons. In this situation, holding the music together generally means finding the solidest guitar picker and putting my rhythm 'chunks" right between his down-beats, so that everybody can hear the rhythm. I have a mandolin which will be heard, and so that clear off-beat sound helps all the other musicians stay in time with each other. And then we have to play music for the audience. What do we do? Well, for one thing, before launching into a number it's good to check around to see if some of the other musicians know it. In fact, it's best to stick with well-known tunes and songs altogether, so that nobody's getting lost and everybody can play. Then, when playing or singing lead, you need to get to the front of the group and make sure that the audience can hear what you're playing and singing-- this is pretty important-- and take turns, so that everybody gets a chance to sing or play their favorite numbers, even if they aren't forward enough about it to say they want to. As many musicians and singers as possible, even the shy ones, need to be invited to play. And we did a whole lot of bluegrass and old country songs. It was a good session, and the audience liked it.

The second session was on Friday night. This was an old-time session, playing all traditional or traditional-style tunes, held in a primitive cabin over in West Virginia. We had about 12 or 13 players there: 3 or 4 each on banjo and fiddle, plus a couple each of guitars and mandolins, and a bass. We had a wide range of proficiencies in the group, but the players were all involved and paying attention, and knew what to do in a jam. This meant that we all knew many of the same tunes, and nobody was trying to show off, and nobody was holding the group back. We hit comfortable tempos right off on tunes we all knew, and the music was fun and comfortable to play. I had to quit early, but the group went on to a late hour, partly just because the music was going so well.

On Sunday night Murphy and I were invited to another old-time session, but this time the situation was different. There were about 9 people there. The majority of them had played bluegrass or old-time music for a living at one time or another, and they were mighty fine pickers. (The few "amateurs" were real good players, too.) Since we were playing old-time instead of bluegrass, though, some of the well-known bluegrass pickers switched off from their regular instruments. Murphy, for example, played fiddle instead of banjo. Cousin David played banjo instead of mandolin. And our friend Marshall was there, but he stuck with his usual instrument and played amazing-as-always bass. And two real pros at old-time music were there to inspire the rest of us.

So what did we play? At a session like this, along with familiar tunes, we could bring out a good many fine but interesting and obscure numbers to play. And everybody there listened really well all the time, and kept their rhythm "tight" with the other players. It was a mighty enjoyable time, one of the best old-time sessions I've ever played in, in spite of the fact that the majority of the musicians were not old-time, but bluegrass players!

So what does this musical peregrination show? It shows that you can enjoy a lot of different musical situations. It doesn't have to be all bluegrass. You can have a great experience playing many different kinds of music. Just relax, keep your ears open, "play together" with everybody else, and have a good time!

Red

Last Saturday some old-time pickers and I had a good old-time session playing at North River Mills, West Virginia for their annual town festival. And just where is North River Mills? Well, when you first drive there, it seems like a long way from anywhere, but it's only about 8 miles from Capon Bridge. (That's METROPOLITAN Capon Bridge, WV.)

The musicians numbered about 15 at various times during the day, playing an assortment of instruments which included fiddle, 5-string viola, banjos, mandolins, pennywhistle, guitars, bass, a harmonica, and an accordian. No kidding, the accordian player played very well and unobtrusively, so he was welcome. Here's a photo of this relaxed session:

(Photo from the North River Mills Historical Society site-- thanks folks!)

And what did we play? We played tunes in the Key of D. We played Liberty, and Soldier's Joy, and Cowboy's Dream, and Yellow Rose of Texas, and Dubuque. We played several tunes I hadn't heard before but picked up (as everybody did) as we played them over and over-- that's what you do. Then we played lots more, including Forked Deer-- and here's a video of that tune, complete with the floor show, a gentleman who was quite a dancer:

(A note on old-time session etiquette: I started this tune, so I was the one who called "One more time!" near the end, so we'd all know when to quit.)

. . . . .

...I expect that we'll play there again next year. So if you're ever in this part of the country and would like to visit a place where (as far as I can see) not much ever happens, and it's good that way, drive through North River Mills. But don't blink-- you'll miss it!

http://www.historichampshire.org/nrm/nrm-home.htm

Come next year. Bring an instrument. You don't have to be an expert. If you don't know the tune, just play rhythm. You just have to like to play!

Red.

Red Henry

Today we'll talk about what may be an unpleasant subject: PRACTICE. While some learners find it easy to play one or two or six or seven hours a day, some can't get the energy or time for 20 minutes. But it's important.

I can talk from my own experience. As I get older it's harder to get up the energy to practice, but sometimes there are special events coming up that make it easy. Right now, I'm practicing mandolin and singing every day, to get ready for a CD which Christopher and I plan to record in a couple of weeks. And you know what? Practice helps, even if you've been playing a long time. I'm playing and singing a whole lot better than I could a month ago. I was pretty rusty, but now I'm getting back into shape.

Is it hard for you to practice? Remember that it's a lot easier to start practicing and sound good after just a day or two off, than it is if you haven't played for a week. That by itself is a good reason to play a little every day-- you'll sound better when you play again. In fact, play every day if you can, even if it's just for 20 minutes. Or 15 minutes. Or 10 minutes. Then when you get a chance to practice for a longer time, it'll be easier to play and sound better!

As I've said before in these pages, 20 minutes a day is better than 2 hours on Saturday. If you go from one weekend to another without practicing in between, it can be hard to even pick up your instrument and play! So even if your schedule is rushed, when you have a few minutes in the morning or evening, play a tune or two. Your fingers will be glad you did.

Red

Red Henry

Friday was a good day. First, in the morning, I packed a lot of DVDs to send out for our Murphy Method telephone sale. Then, in the afternoon, we (Murphy, myself, Christopher, and Cousin David) played music at a party for some nice folks here in Winchester. People listened to us, we played lots of requests, and a good time was had by all.

In the evening Murphy went out to square dance, but for Christopher and myself, it was time for an old-time jam at Cousin David's place, the Potato Hill Tavern. Chris and I arrived in the middle of the jam's second tune, which means that we'd only missed about 15 or 20 minutes of the jam.

A tune and a half? 15 or 20 minutes? Well, you know, old-time jams are pretty different from bluegrass sessions. For one thing, everybody's playing at once, and sometimes there are a lot of "everybody." (In this case, "everybody" was 7 fiddle players, 4 banjo pickers, 4 mandolin pickers, and 3 guitar players, with people coming and going all the time.) For another thing, the old-time players really enjoy the tunes and play them for a long time, sometimes as long as 10 minutes or more. That may sound strange from a bluegrass standpoint, but it has advantages.

One advantage is that if you don't know the tune (and there are hundreds of them) you can often learn it as you play, and then play it some more, for a long time, to get it into your head. Another thing is that when everybody's playing together, it creates a whole different atmosphere from a bluegrass session. Instead of the spotlight focusing on people individually (and putting pressure on every individual to play well when their time comes and everybody else is looking at them), in an old-time session everybody can just relax and PLAY. Everybody pulls together, and it's a group effort, and a strong sound.

The players often take turns suggesting tunes. Whenever this session threatened to hit a slow spell, I'd suggest one of my old-time favorites, not much known in bluegrass: "Cowboy's Dream", "Old Mother Flanagan", and others. But most of the time I just sat there and played and enjoyed learning new tunes. Ten minutes at a time. It was good, and I went for about three hours before calling it a long day.

If you ever have a chance to participate in an old-time session, go and have yourself a good time in a different atmosphere. It's a great chance to learn.

Now, back to our Murphy Method telephone sale! I'm packing DVDs as fast as I can!

Red

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.