Cajon Track

Recently I acquired a Gon Bops Mixto cajon.  There are basically two types of cajons: the traditional Peruvian type and the Flamenco cajon with internal snare wires.  I couldn’t make up my mind so I got the Mixto, which has two playing surfaces, one traditional and one Flamenco style.  They are both very warm and fat.  The snare side has more snap. Here it is:

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I am just figuring out how to transfer some of my drum kit skills to this new instrument.  Here is a slow jam with cajon, bass, and two guitars:

This is the traditional side of the cajon.  The rhythm guitar is my Casino, straight into the interface, with a bit of reverb and heavy use of the Bigsby.  The lead is my Telecaster through the Brown model on the Katana 50.  This is the first time I have recorded with that amp.

 

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Old Rehearsal Tape

I have been cleaning out my old house and I came across a cassette of a rehearsal tape that Craig and I made for a funeral. Our friend and band mate John Lee had been killed in an automobile accident.  John and I had actually played together a couple of years earlier for the funeral of one of his friends, so this was the second time I had played at a funeral. Ironically and sadly, it was his.

John was an amazing friend.  I first met him at a church group meeting when I was in high school.  He brought his classical guitar to the meeting.  I had a guitar too, but I wasn’t very good. He taught me a lot of chords and songs.  Eventually we started a band with Craig.  John was kind, generous, and actively tried to help people around him who were struggling with coolness, self esteem, or other aspects of life.  He made you feel important.  He always seemed like he was the coolest one in the room, even though his jokes were quite silly and he was always self-deprecating.  He had the driest sense of humor I have ever known.  He was also extremely attractive to women for reasons none of us could discern.

John’s father wanted him to be a lawyer, but he just couldn’t take the law seriously, so he quit law school and started working for an insurance company.  He couldn’t really take that seriously either, but he tried.

I don’t think Craig was too comfortable with playing at John’s funeral, but the family asked me and I had decided to do it.  Craig decided to help me.  The songs we chose were songs by James Taylor and Jackson Browne that we had played together a lot.  John and I went to see Jackson Browne many times–at Ledbetters in Westwood and at McCabe’s in Santa Monica.  We even saw him open for Laura Nyro at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in L.A.

The first song on the tape is an instrumental, a sort of slow march.  I am not sure what it is called (it might be “Such as It Is,” since both Craig and I say that on the tape before we play it) or who wrote it.

This next song is “These Days” by Jackson Browne.  I think we actually learned this from a cassette tape we made of Jackson at Ledbetters.  When he arrived at the venue, we showed him our brand new Sony cassette recorder and asked him if we could tape his set.  He treated us mock seriously and said, “That depends on who you are.”  We said we were just kids who wanted to learn his guitar parts.  He let us tape.  I think this is one of the first songs Jackson Browne wrote.

The next song is “Fire and Rain” by James Taylor.  We were big fans.  I probably learned this song from John.  He was always figuring out songs from the record.

And finally, “Song for Adam,” also by Jackson Browne.

This tape was made at about 2:00 am the night before the funeral, sometime in the early 1980’s.

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Reaper in Linux and a New Track

Reaper, the recording software I have been using for years, now has a native Linux version.  It is still in beta, but it works pretty well in Linux Mint.  My computer is still dual boot, Win 7 and Linux, but I rarely go into Windows.  I have lots of great amps sims and drum software in Windows, but Reaper comes with a lot of usable plugins and there are a number of free ones that work in Linux that I have been learning about.  There is a learning curve, however.

Here is a track done in Reaper with Reaper’s amp simulator, Dragonfly reverb, and Drumgizmo playing a midi drum loop.  The two guitar tracks were done with my new Casino, direct into the Steinberg UR44, my audio interface.

This was done quickly, but I kind of like it.

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Epiphone Casino and a New Amp

It’s been a while since the guitarsophist blog has had an update.  I have been busy with my other blog, Teaching Text Rhetorically.  But I have a new/used guitar–an Epiphone Casino.  Here it is in all its cherry red glory:

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2006 Made in China Epiphone Casino

I also have a new amp, a Boss Katana 50.  More on the new amp later.  However, because of the new amp, I happened to tell my friend Craig that I might be looking for an archtop with humbucking pickups, maybe an ES 339.  Well, Craig is retired and he loves looking for guitars, so unbeknownst to me, he went on a search.  I was at a luncheon with some of my wife’s colleagues when he called me from the Guitar Center in Oxnard.  He said he had found a guitar and had sent me a video.  I said I was busy and I would look at it when I got home.  He said, “Don’t you want me to put something down on it or something?”  At that point I knew that he thought it was magical and didn’t want it to get away.  Craig is really picky about guitars.  If he thinks its magical, it is.  So I told him to buy it.  It turned out to be this Casino.  I was really looking for a smaller guitar with humbuckers that was not a Les Paul.  This is a big ES 335 style guitar with single coil P-90 pickups.  But I fell in love with it the first time I played it.  Craig was right.

Casinos are famous because all the Beatles except Ringo had one, and Ringo is a drummer.  The Casino sound is all over Revolver and Sgt. Pepper.

Today we got together to jam.  Craig is playing his Epiphone ES 175, a big box jazz guitar, through a Fender Pro Junior III.  I am playing the Casino through the Katana 50.  Craig is playing all the big jazz chords and the walking bass and all that good stuff.  I am playing an improvised lead.  Here is a version of “It’s Just My Imagination.”  I am playing with both pickups and with a little boost on the clean model in the amp.

We didn’t have a vocal mic, so you have to just imagine some of the vocals.  This next track is a quick improvisation just before we packed up.  No rehearsal, everything made up on the fly:

This is the neck pickup with a little boost on the clean model.  We were having fun.  Everything is recorded in Reaper for Linux with two mismatched cheapo mics aimed vaguely in the direction of the amps.

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New Banjo Bridge

I have only been playing banjo since December, but I am already changing out the parts! Today I installed a new bridge, handmade by Tim Purcell. I ordered it from his site.

Tim makes bridges out of many different types of wood, some of it reclaimed from old buildings and sunken logs. Because I am playing clawhammer, Tim recommended a bridge made of Black Locust.

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I installed the bridge on my Deering Goodtime Americana.  Deering makes a new bridge that they call a “smile” bridge that has the outside feet shorter than the center to compensate for the concave nature of the banjo head.  Reviews of this bridge are very positive, but it costs $45.  Tim Purcell’s handmade bridges are only $22, and as you can see in the picture, they also have the curve on the feet.

Does it sound better?  Well, the difference is subtle, but I think so.  I hesitate to post audio files of my banjo playing because I am such a beginner, but remember that I have only been playing for four months.  I will upload two versions of my shaky rendition of Old Joe Clark recorded with my iPhone 5 SE.

Original Stock Deering Goodtime Bridge:

New Tim Purcell Black Locust Bridge:

As you can tell from the clips, I am not yet anywhere good enough to justify swapping out bridges.  However, I would say that the Purcell bridge has a bit more old timey “chong” than the Deering bridge.  What is “chong” you ask?  I’m not really sure.  It is a technical banjo term I just made up.

Update: After playing a few more tunes I can definitely say that this Black Locust bridge gives a richer sound with more bass and better note definition.  Notes up the neck, which sounded a bit muffled before, now have more clarity and punch.  It’s a keeper! Now I just have to keep practicing and learn to play better.

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Clawhammer Banjo

During winter break, I was suddenly struck with the idea of learning to play the five-string banjo.  I had never had a banjo, except for one I borrowed briefly about 20 years ago.  I wasn’t particularly interested in bluegrass.  I had just always like the sound of banjos.  There was something sweet, yet melancholic about the way the notes sounded and decayed.  I don’t know.  It was just out of the blue.  It was an impulse that may have had something to do with the 2016 election.

I know some people will say, “How lame!  How uncool!”   Well, I think there is the potential for something very cool.  I was in kind of a musical rut with guitar.  I wanted something very different.

I did a little bit of research, found that a lot of people recommended the Deering Goodtime open back banjo as a solid beginner’s instrument.  Then I did a little more research and decided that the Goodtime Americana, with a 12″ pot and a renaissance head, was just the thing.  The larger pot (11″ is sort of standard) and the special head was supposed to deliver a bassier, mellower sound that was appropriate for Old Time music and for accompanying singing. I found a bundle deal on Amazon that included a nice stand and a Gator case for $10 less than the banjo usually costs alone.  I ordered it.

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Deering Goodtime Americana

Once I had placed my order I began further research.  It turned out that the five-string banjo had its roots in an instrument brought from Africa by slaves.  Once on this continent, it evolved quickly through American ingenuity and technology.  I like the African origin and American evolution.  (Note: There are those who deny the African origins of what they see as a very American instrument, but there appears to be ample evidence that an African lute called the “Akonting,” a three-string banjo-like instrument  with a gourd resonator and a high drone string, is a direct precursor of the American banjo.)

I also ordered CDs of clawhammer banjo by players old and new.  I have quite a collection already.  I learned a lot.

Clawhammer has a distinctive rhythm created by hitting a melody note with a downstroke from either the index or middle finger, then brushing the strings, catching the fifth string, which serves as a high drone note, on the way down, and then releasing it on the way up again.  It is almost counter-intuitive for a guitar player.  There are also two-finger and three-finger up-picking styles.  The “Scruggs” style favored by bluegrass players is a version of the three-finger picking.  I can fingerpick a guitar, so I think those styles will come relatively easily later.  Right now I am focusing on clawhammer, which is sort of rewiring my musical brain.

Bluegrass players tend to stay in G tuning.  Old Time clawhammer players use a lot of different tunings, among them G, C, Double C, D, and “Sawmill,” which some people call “G modal.”  People tend to retune to make the melody “lay” on the fretboard in a convenient, harmonious way. It’s fascinating.  Old Time banjo players often accompany fiddlers, so the banjo tradition and the fiddle tradition are entwined.  A lot of the Old Time banjo repertoire started out as fiddle tunes.  There is some very old music here that goes back to the British Isles.  Some melodies may even go back to Africa.

I quickly found myself in full banjo obsession mode.  I have already acquired another instrument, a banjo I made from a kit I obtained from Backyard Music.  This one I will use as a practice and travel banjo.  It is extremely light, so I may take it hiking.  It has a resonator made from a resin-infused cardboard tube and a thin plywood disk, so it is not very loud.  The neck is mahogany.  The neck runs through the pot, serving as both fretboard and tailpiece.  It is a very clever and efficient design.

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Fireside Banjo Kit with hardware installed before gluing

I will post a picture of the completed Backyard Fireside Banjo when the glue dries.  I will post sound files a bit later.  Right now I don’t play well enough to share!  I am making progress, however, and having fun.

Update: Here is the finished banjo:

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It plays and sounds nice. It is quiet, however. Definitely for practice and hiking trips, not for jamming with other players.

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Yamaha Guitalele

A while ago I promised a post about my guitalele.  I am finally getting around to it.  Mine is finished in “persimmon.”

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You can also get them in natural and black. They are $99 almost anywhere. I think that Yamaha invented this thing, but there are now models made by Gretsch, Cordoba, and other manufacturers. It is essentially a six string baritone ukelele or 1/4 sized classical guitar, tuned in A instead of E.  All the guitar chords you know will work, but a fourth higher.

I put Savarez low tension classical strings on it (white card).  I ended up cutting off about 1/3 of each string.  This is the string that Yamaha recommends, but next time I might try D’Addario.

I bought this as a hiking, biking instrument.  I have had a Martin backpacker for years, one of the early ones with the small headstock, but I was tired of the sound and the somewhat tough action on it.  This is easy to pack and easy to play.  I have had hikers come by and say that it sounds beautiful.   It has a somewhat chirpy, penetrating sound, somewhat like a uke, but single notes tend to project more.  It is very cool.  I have a little trouble with the small fretboard, but it is lots of fun.

Here is a quick demo with the guitalele on lead and the Cordoba C5 as backing:

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