Today's news is that we've extended our sale through December 22nd! Call us at 800-227-2357 and you can buy any 4 Murphy Method DVDs at the sale price of just $75.00! (This includes Casey's Custom Christmas Collection for Banjo!)
Now, this wasn't like the last session at Cousin David's. No, indeed. That time, we had 17 or 18 pickers in the Tater Hill Tavern. This time it was different. How many pickers were there? Three.
Three musicians usually make a pretty thin jam session, but this time we had a good combination of people. Cousin David played the banjo, in his own unique old-time style. Our friend Jamie played fiddle at first, switching off later to banjo-ukulele (yes, such instruments are allowed in old-time music). I played mandolin mostly, but Cousin David had suggested that I bring my fiddle, and I picked that up for the last several numbers. And anchored by Cousin David's supernatural sense of rhythm, we played for a couple of hours and had a good time. We PAID ATTENTION and PLAYED TOGETHER.
So what did we play? We played a few tunes that the bluegrass people know, such as Soldier's Joy and Red-Haired Boy. We played some old-timey classics like Cowboy's Dream and Old Mother Flanagan. And we also played some pretty obscure tunes, like Blake's March and The Squirrel Hunters. And why am I talking about all this? Because the basics of a good jam are the same in all kinds of music. You can have a good session with only two or three pickers, or with 20, as long as everybody PAYS ATTENTION and PLAYS TOGETHER.
You might see people in jam sessions who aren't paying attention to anyone but themselves. These people sometimes play too softly to be heard, not because they're shy but because, I guess, they don't care about being heard (so why are they there?), and others might be playing too loudly all the time. Either way, they're not LISTENING to everybody else and PLAYING TOGETHER. Or, you'll sometimes find people who try to crowd everybody else out of the center of the jam, or deliberately play so loud as to drown out other folks. What does that have to do with PLAYING TOGETHER? Nothing.
Most of the people reading this blog know what to do in a jam session, partly because many of you have been in jams directed by Murphy or Casey. You can also practice listening and playing at the same time with our Murphy Method Slow Jam and Picking Up the Pace DVDs. But no matter where you are or whom you're picking with, always remember to LISTEN to the jam and PLAY TOGETHER!
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!
Our band (Murphy, myself, Christopher, and Cousin David) is going out this afternoon to play the first of this year's Christmas parties. This is a large party held at a local church, and we're looking forward to playing music. A good time will be had by all!
We recently received a question from a student, asking about the head on his banjo. In this case, the banjo had had a clear head on it before he bought it, but has a white head on it now. He asked whether this affected the sound.
Well, there's no one answer. Banjo heads are like bridges or strings: Some banjos (or banjo players) sound best with one kind, some with another. But there are a few guidelines which we can glean from experience:
1. Sometimes, the clear heads are thicker than the white ones. This means that they may have a fuller sound (or, to put it another way, they may not give as much clarity on some banjos). Some banjos like one kind of head best, some like another.
2. As I recall, the Stewart-MacDonald 5-Star heads may be a bit thinner than the Remo Weather-King heads. This means, again, that a banjo might give more fullness and volume with the thicker head, but might obtain more high end and clarity with the thinner one. Does this all sound confusing? That's because it is. Every banjo is different!
3. Some banjos really like the heavier, textured, imitation-leather heads. Those heads go best on banjos that have plenty of volume and high end already, and have plenty of power to make the heavier heads sound good.
4. Some bluegrass pickers may want to experiment with real skin heads. A friend sent me a good-quality old skin head once, and I installed it on my pre-war Gibson banjo. I immediately saw why some older banjo players swear by skin heads! But I also understood why other players swear AT them. The good news is that putting a skin head on a a high-quality banjo may give you a more powerful sound, with more volume and dry tone, than any other kind of head. The bad news is that this is not true for all banjos, and even when it is, you probably need to adjust the head tension EVERY DAY to make sure the banjo will sound its best. There were good reasons why banjo players in the 1950s were really glad that plastic heads became available!
If you know as much about banjo heads now as you did before you read this, then you're doing well. The bottom line is that you have to try different heads out on every banjo to see which kind it likes best. You can also go on the Banjo Hangout and find people who will talk about banjo heads until the cows come home. But don't even think of changing the head until you have the strings, bridge, and head tension already adjusted to sound their best! -- and that is all another chapter.
We've also had a lot of interest in our very first Murphy Method Banjo Camp, scheduled for late March. We often get inquiries saying "Where can I attend a banjo camp?", and now Murphy and Casey, two of the best banjo teachers anywhere, will be giving a camp right here in Winchester, Va. There are still some student slots remaining, so if interested, take a look at the details here.
. . . . .
On another subject entirely, last night I did an extensive interview with a researcher who may write a book about Randy Wood, the pioneer (and still currently-active) bluegrass instrument builder who began making superb mandolins, banjos, and guitars way back in the 1960s. Since I have Randy's very first mandolin as well as #3 (a Bill Monroe mandolin, which Murphy bought from Bill's estate sale in 2001 and gave me), I like Randy's instruments a lot and was able to share many stories from 35 and 40 years ago, about Randy's pioneer work in making great instruments for bluegrass pickers to play.
Everybody keep picking!
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!
We've had a few folks express concern that the Facebook page would distract us from this blog. Believe me, that won't happen. This blog is our primary way to communicate with all of you out there, and there's a lot more info about us and our DVDs on this website than Facebook would ever have room for! So if you aren't on Facebook, don't worry about missing out on anything. You can read all the Murphy Method news right here on the blog.
Speaking of getting ready for the Christmas season, we'll be running a sale for at least part of December (I'd tell you all about it now, but we haven't decided what kind of sale to run yet!) -- But don't worry, everyone who has ever contacted us or received a Murphy Method email newsletter will receive a notice about the sale right away. Never received a newsletter from us? Just drop us a line through our contact page, at:
-- and you'll be automatically added to the list and will receive our emails once or twice a month.
Now I have some DVDs to pack up and send out, so I'll sign off. See you again soon--
When you're practicing, or even when you're picking with other folks, remember to play your old tunes too. This does several good things. Among them: (1) You keep your fingers playing a wider variety of licks and melodies. (2) Your friends will enjoy the variety when you dig up a tune from the past. (3) You have the pleasure of re-discovering a great tune or song you'd almost forgotten.
But one of the best things about picking your old tunes, is that it keeps your brain working. If you play just half a dozen or so songs all the time, it's easy to get into a musical rut and stay there for years. Instead, consciously go back and find tunes and songs you used to play. Keep learning new tunes too. Go through our Slow Jam DVDs and remember some songs you used to like. Your brain will like it, and your picking friends will thank you for it!
Now, when you get into real life jams, some of them aren't as easy to play along with as (for example) on our Slow Jam or Picking Up the Pace DVDs. Sometimes, you have to work. And at first, I thought this would be one of THOSE THURSDAYS. We kicked off the jam a bit after 7:00, when five guitar players, two fiddlers, a banjo picker, and one mandopicker (me) had arrived and tuned up.
At first, it was heavy slogging. Few of the pickers besides myself wanted to take the lead in playing or singing songs, although Murphy's banjo student Zac was an exception and played a creditable version of 'Cripple Creek'. I sang a couple of songs, and it looked like it'd be a long night.
But at that point, help started arriving. Jam hosts (and excellent pickers) Linda and David brought in their bass and guitar, and joined the jam. Guitar picker and singer Gerald came in and added his talents to the mix. Fiddlers Wayne and Stormie arrived and got out their fiddles. Suddenly we really had a jam.
Right away, David and Linda wanted to sing 'Your Selfish Heart'. That's an old Stanley Brothers number that we get a good high trio on, and we always have fun singing it. Then Linda, who has one of the finest voices I've ever heard, sang 'I'll Go Stepping Too'. Things went on from there, and it was all very satisfactory.
With all that talent coming into the jam, we couldn't miss. All the songs and tunes sounded good. It was fun.
Good practice, too.