Tag Archives: banjo

Chris Henry

We knew that if we were going to get a good seat for Earl's service at the Ryman Auditorium, getting there early was going to be a good idea. My girlfriend Sarah and I got there a little over an hour before 2pm, when it was scheduled to begin. I saw many bluegrass folks in a line for the friends and family entrance, and so we got in line behind our buddy David Grier and his father, Lamar, who was a banjo picker with Bill Monroe in the 60s. I had never met Lamar, but I have been hanging out a lot with David in the last year, picking and recording, so it was good to meet his dad.

About fifteen minutes later, the doors opened and we filed in and signed the guestbook. The floor was just starting to be filled with the people who were closer to Earl, and the balcony was open to the general public. After saying hello to Pete and Kitsy Kuykendall, and to Dan Hays, we got a seat right in front of the Griers. It was great because we had about an hour to wait, and between the Griers and Barbara Lamb (a great fiddler), there was enough levity to allow the time to pass quickly amongst the excellent people watching. The Griers were really funny to listen to. My favorite exchange was when banjo player Lamar kidded to his son David, "You're probably going to like this today, it'll be mostly banjo music." Guitar-player David fired back, "But when that G-Run comes in it's going to be like heaven!" On the pew next to the left, was Shawn Camp, and to the right on the next row was Alan O'Bryant and Sam Bush. It was good to see so many musicians there to honor the creator of the Big Twang. There were about ten very nice flower arrangements on the stage and Earl's banjo was standing up in the middle of the front of the stage while his closed casket was on the floor out front.

Eddie Stubbs was presiding and did a great job of setting the dignified tone of the event. He was playing the parts of MC, preacher, and reminiscer. Earl's regular preacher had not been able to attend because he was sick, so Eddie had the job of reading some Bible verses on comfort and talking about what a wonderful gift from God Earl was. Since so many of Earl's career highlights had come at the Ryman, the family thought it would be the perfect place to have his memorial, and they wanted it to be broadcast live on WSM 650, the radio station that had catapulted Earl into international stardom in the middle and late 40s.

Del McCoury and his band were the first folks to come out and sing. He was the first to talk about what an inspiration Earl was to him. They went into Take me in a Lifeboat, and you could really tell the were putting their whole hearts into the music. As Del's high tenor reverberated into the rafters of the Ryman, we were all beginning to realize the show was going to be special in that all the artists would be wanting to do their very best for Earl. All of the performances received standing ovations.

The next song was sung by Ricky Skaggs and the Whites. Ricky, who is so comfortable talking to an audience, told about when he was eight years old, and picking backstage at the Opry, how Earl had listened to him play and sing, and then invited his dad to bring him down to the television station for an audition to be on one of the Martha White Flatt and Scruggs shows. Ricky said "He didn't have to do that, but he did." One great example of a kind gesture that impacted country music in a large way with the beginning of Ricky's professional career. Ricky asked for a show of hands to see how many banjo pickers were in the audience. As so many hands went up he commented about how God had planted so many seeds with the gift of Earl's music. They sang Gone Home and I could definitely feel the spirit of the music all over when they sang the harmonies.

Bela Fleck came out after the Whites and did a solo banjo number. It was in a minor key and made use of the tuners in an interesting way. Afterwords, Bela read from his IPad some words he had written about Earl's influence on him. He talked about "hearing the truth" for the first time as a young kid in Queens. He told a couple of great stories. The first was about Earl driving at night through Atlanta back in the day that there were exactly 90 stoplights going through the city. The rest of the band was asleep when Earl started seeing sparks coming off of a dragging tailpipe. He pulled over and got a tow truck to come. After the tow truck driver asked Earl to get in and steer the car as it was towed backwards, the rest of the band started to wake up. Earl took the opportunity to pretend he was sleeping, and slumped over the wheel! The second was about himself speeding through Nashville one day and getting pulled over. The officer came up to the window and recognized Bela. After a brief exchange, the officer asked Bela who the greatest banjo player in the world was. He answered Earl Scruggs. The officer said, "That's right, now drive a little slower around here from now on." The audience roared with laughter.

There was some video played of the Foggy Mountain Boys, demonstrating Earl's unsurpassed creative and technical ability. It was good to see some clips of those old Martha White shows.

Charlie Daniels came out and spoke very nicely about getting his start in Nashville with the Earl Scruggs Revue. The reverence and respect with which he spoke was delivered with dignity and eloquence.

EmmyLou Harris sang a song and payed her respects.

John McEuen came out and spoke about his experiences with Earl. He said after he got the nerve to ask Earl to record on what would become the Circle album, he couldn't sleep the whole night because he was so excited. John played a clawhammer version of Soldiers Joy, and then Jim Mills and Mike Bub joined him on the instrumental Carolina Traveler.

Eddie Stubbs delivered a wonderful eulogy that included talking about his love of family; how he attended his son's baseball games; his religious commitment to Christianity; a wonderful personal memory of Earl telling Eddie he loved Lester; tidbits about Earl's love for food; and how many medical problems Earl had had, including two bad automobile accidents and a plane crash. Eddie said that one time Earl asked him if he had been playing his fiddle, and Eddie replied that he had not been and was so out of practice he would be embarrassed to play it in Earl's company. Earl replied "Well I'm the same way, why don't you come over and we'll practice!" Just another example of his humility and friendly good nature. After a quadruple bypass, Earl's diet needed to change, but one time at a party he found some good salty peanuts on the table and he told Eddie as he was in between Louise's line of sight to the table, "You stay right there, I don't want Louise to see!" Eddie also related another time at a party that Earl said to him "I better get a piece of that pie just in case someone might ask me my opinion about it."

Marty Stuart came out and played a little of You are my Flower on the guitar. For my money, there's no more beautiful piece of music in bluegrass than that tune. Marty talked with his usual good humor and candor about going to do a soundtrack for a movie with Johnny Cash. Johnny asked him who would be a good fit for the banjo, and Marty suggested Earl. The movie company was from out west and so there was some disparity between the two styles of production, in that the westerners weren't familiar with the Tennessee way and pace of doing things, and vice-versa. At one point while Earl was standing in front of a vending machine with a milk in one hand and a honey-bun in the other, the director flew out of the studio in an extremely agitated manner saying "The banjo player! The banjo player! We need the banjo player!" To which Earl calmly replied "If I see 'im, I'll tell 'im you're looking." Again the audience rolled with laughter.

Marty had a great trio singing with him, as well as Del McCoury adding some powerful G-runs on his rhythm guitar. Who Will Sing for Me was the number that Marty led using some classic vintage Lester Flatt style intonation in his voice. He was placing the notes slightly flat in a way that brings out a captivating and dynamic energy - a technique seldom heard in today's world of auto tune and American Idol. It was great.

The final song was introduced by Vince Gill. He was accompanied by Patty Loveless, Ricky Skaggs, and a piano player. In a very emotional way that brought tears welling up in his eyes, Vince spoke about how he had come to write the song and how the circumstances were similar in that his mom had to "lay down" a son as did the Scruggs family. He was able to pull through his emotions and sing very well.

At this point some closing words were spoken by Eddie, who did a wonderful job with the ceremony. On the ends of the middle pews was a banjo guard: Kristin Scott Benson, Bela, Trishka, O'Banyon, Sam Bush, Vince Gill, Noam Pikelny, Ned Lubereki, Dave Talbot, Charlie Cushman, Mike Bub, Tim O'Brien, and many others held their banjos in front of their faces like bluegrass marines as Earl's casket was moved outside. As the casket passed, the adjacent rows of guards crossed the necks of the their banjos. It was a beautiful and perfect way for Earl to make his farewell. His banjo was then carried out of the mother church - from the place where Earl had changed the world and brought the five string banjo with "lightning in a bottle" to millions of listeners. It was a true celebration and fitting memorial for a person who picked and sang with grace, brought joy to millions, lived with humility, and was well loved.

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!


Red Henry

Folks, the Murphy Method Beginning Banjo Camp is this weekend! We'll have students coming in from all over the country to learn from Murphy and Casey. This is our first camp specifically for beginners, so both Murphy and Casey will be teaching, demonstrating, and encouraging new banjo players for three days.

And what use, you may ask, will Murphy's husband be while all this is going on? He (that is, me, myself and I) will be chasing the family's newest banjo picker around the house. He's Casey's son, named Dalton Henry, age 8 weeks yesterday:

Morning Cheer

--and how does a person that young get to be a banjo picker? That's easy: he's already heard more banjo notes than more people. For 9 months. At close range, too. The kid can't help playing a banjo.


P.S. -- Oh, I'll get over to the camp each evening, too, to help Murphy with jam sessions and sing-alongs... with all those OTHER beginning banjo players.

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 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 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 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 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

"When should I change my strings?" That's a question we often hear. New strings usually sound better, but there are as many answers to this question as there are musicians. Some things that you can consider are:

1. There's no 'official' time to change strings. I used to change the strings on two guitars and two mandolins every day when we played bluegrass festivals, but Bill Monroe changed his strings once a year-- at New Year's-- and from then on, he just changed them when they broke (which was pretty often, by summertime).

2. Some people like the sound of old strings. Our Cousin David loves the sound (or lack of it) that old strings have, and would probably prefer never to play on new-sounding strings. I think that brand-new strings can sound a bit tinny, myself, but sometimes-- such as when I have a big stage show to play, or a noisy party gig or bar gig where there's going to be plenty of musical stress and challenge-- I'll make sure at least that my strings aren't too old.

3. Generally speaking, newer strings make your instrument get in tune (and stay in tune) better. This is because (a) a new string isn't worn from playing and is still about the same diameter from one end to the other, so it "frets" more in tune; (b) the string is not very corroded yet, so it slides through the nut-slots and bridge-slots more smoothly as you twist the tuners; and (c) the lack of rougher, corroded surfaces on the string make its vibrations more coherent so you (or your electronic tuner) can hear the string's note better. Also, new strings (or preferably a day or two old. so they're "stretched" and stable) are usually better for recording, because getting exact tuning, and having the strings stay there, is really critical if you're in a recording session.

. . . . .

So those are some things you can think about.

Editor's Note: For even more detailed info on this topic, you can see Red's previous post on this same topic.

Red Henry

You know, there are some things in early bluegrass recordings that are impossible to beat. One of our favorites is on Flatt and Scruggs's early version of Foggy Mountain Breakdown, where the whole band (except for Earl) is playing the "wrong" chord.

Let's review the chords in FMB: you start out with eight beats of G, and then you go to an E chord for a certain number of beats. Nowadays, most folks change to an E-minor chord for four beats, to match what the banjo is playing. That's how Murphy teaches it, because it's what almost everybody plays now. But on that old Flatt & Scruggs record, the band plays SIX beats of E-MAJOR! It's a wild and woolly sound. It's incredible. It's a hair-raising moment. It's lions and tigers and bears...

Murphy and I have played FMB with that 6-beat E-major chord for over 30 years. The first time we played FMB that way was at Diamond Jim's, a bar in Gainesville Florida. When we heard how the E-major sounded, we both about fell off the stage. Oh, my.

Not many other people play Foggy Mountain Breakdown that way. However, Christopher and I found a couple of people who do, when we were playing for a party in Baltimore last Saturday night. I was playing mandolin. Chris was playing guitar. Our band for the evening was a couple of outstanding area musicians, Mike Mumford on banjo and Ira Gitlin on bass. And guess what? When Mike kicked off FMB and hit that first E chord, EVERYBODY went to the E-major chord. For six beats. Automatically. It was a wild and woolly sound. It was incredible.

Listen back to that old Flatt & Scruggs record a few times, and then try it yourself. It's great. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!