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.


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.


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:


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.”


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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Spring Break Sort Of

I hadn’t been playing much music for a while because I was too busy with teaching.  Today I recorded something.

It’s EZDrummer 2, with a bassline recorded through Voxengo Boogex, with an Ampeg cabinet model.  The guitar parts are the MiM Tele, the rhythm through the Custom ’57 model in S-Gear, the lead through Guitar Rig 4.  I think my bass playing is getting tighter.

We have a new Cordoba C5 classical, and an interesting oddball, a Yamaha Guitalele.  More about those later.

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Changes and New Stuff

I haven’t posted here in quite a while, though I have posted to my other blogs.  Since my last post here, I got married, moved, got another computer.  The computer is a Dell from Costco.  It specs out fine for music, but I think next time I will pay more money and buy another computer from Jim Roseberry at Purrrfect Audio.  I bought a Focusrite Scarlett 18i6, which I liked a lot, but I could not get it to run without pops and clicks.  I worked for several weeks at it.  I implemented all the recommended tweaks to Windows 7 including going into the bios and turning off Intel Speedstepper.  I eliminated tons of Dell installed programs.  I worked with Focusrite techs who sent me beta drivers and stuff.  They were great, but we couldn’t get it.  I ran LatencyMon and other latency checking software.  Finally I gave up and exchanged it for a Steinberg UR44, which works just fine.  I wish the Focusrite had worked.  It’s a great product, but I guess their drivers are finicky.

I am excited about a couple of new programs.  First, S-Gear, an amp simulator.  It comes with five amps, none of which are exact copies of anything:

  • The Duke, which is pretty much a Blackface Super Reverb
  • The Stealer, which is sort of a Marshall Plexi
  • The Jackal, which is modeled on a Soldano SLO-100
  • The Custom ’57, which is modeled on a number of different Fender Tweed amps
  • The Wayfarer, which is said to be both Brown and Blackface Fenders plus some Mesa Boogie MK thrown in

This is the best amp sim I have ever played.  I favor clean and crunchy tones and this nails them.  My friend Craig, who is a die hard tube amp guy with  a boutique Princeton clone that is just excellent, loved playing through this sim. It’s $99.

I also got EZDrummer2, which I am enjoying a lot.  I had Superior 2, but it was complicated to use.  EZDrummer2 has a really easy user interface.  You can just drag and drop midi parts into the song structure.  It is great fun.

Here are a couple of clips.  This one has EZDrummer2, the S-Gear Duke model on the rhythm guitar and Guitar Rig 4 on the lead.  I think S-Gear sounds way better.

That one was done in a few minutes on Thanksgiving in between cooking turkey and other holiday dishes.

The second one is a sort of scary sounding tw0 chord minor blues.  It’s a mood piece.  It has a telecaster through S-Gear, Duke model, with EZDrummer and NubilePlus, a Hammond B3 simulator, played with the tele through MidiGuitar.

Now I am hoping to write some real songs and play some better music!

Update:  Here’s another track with S-Gear and EZDrummer2.  The lead is my Tele (which needs new strings) through The Duke.  The bass is going through the new revised Voxengo Boogex plug with an Ampeg cab sim.  Very nice.  The track is a sort of anthemic, but unfinished progression.

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Cracked Cymbal

I recently bought a Paiste black label 2002 20″ crash from a colleague.  I will probably write more about that later.  However, my friend threw in a cracked 20″ A. Zildjian & Cie Constantinople ride cymbal for free.  This cymbal apparently used to belong to USC, at least from the inscription scratched under the bell, and dates from the early 1970’s.  It has a grommet in the center hole, which probably indicates some keyholing from being played on a stand without a sleeve.  It had a network of cracks that someone had unsuccessfully tried to stop by drilling holes.  Here is a picture of the cracks:

cymbal 002-25

And here is the stamp, which unfortunately is now gone:

cymbal 001-25

The cymbal had character, but I was afraid to play it much for fear it would crack more, or even shatter.  I posted pictures of the cymbal on the Drum Forum site ( and asked what people would do about it.   Was it salvageable?

Drum Forum, otherwise known as DFO, had a lot of refugees from the Cymbalholic site on it at the time because Cymbalholic was going through massive changes and was inaccessible.   There was a lot of esoteric cymbal expertise available.  Some people said it was a lost cause.  One said to cut it down to a 16″.  Others recommended a user called “Premier Player” who did wonders with a Dremel machine.  Premier Player (Premier is a brand of drums) contacted me and offered to work on it.  I sent him the cymbal and he proposed a plan for repair, which was essentially the “Cookie Monster” repair: take a big chunk out of it.  I knew this was a gamble.  There was no way to tell what it would sound like.  He said sometimes they come out better than ever before, even magical, but other times not so much.  I decided to go forward with it.  Here is the repaired cymbal. The repairman calculated that the bite out of the edge is about 5% of the total cymbal area:

A-Zil-Cie-cymbal 009

Here is a clip of what it sounds like.  Unfortunately I don’t have a before clip to go with it, but I think it sounds very similar to what it sounded like when I got it, but perhaps slightly lower in pitch.  I am using a Vic Firth AJ2 wood tip.

It is not what I would call “magical” but I think it sounds pretty cool.  It is definitely a jazz cymbal, and I will find uses for it in recording and maybe even in coffee house gigs, where it is sure to be a conversation piece!

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Sillenium Jest

This is another track featuring the Wuhan China.  It has moments, but it is not tight.  I needed someone to hit the record button for me because it was hard to get behind the drum kit in time.

The ride is a 20″ Paiste black label 2002 crash.  It has the legendary Paiste shimmer.  I used a wood block instead of a snare.

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Wuhan 18″ China Cymbal

I recently bought some  2.3 millimeter drum hoops for the snare and the 10″ tom on my Tama kit.  To get free shipping I needed to buy something else, so I added an 18″ Wuhan China cymbal.  When the cymbal arrived, I hated it.  I thought it was the worst sounding cymbal I had ever heard.  I was going to send it back, even though it really wasn’t worth it because the shipping would cost almost as much as the cymbal.  However, others told me it was interesting.  They were right.

Here is a picture:

Wuhan 18" China Cymbal

Wuhan 18″ China Cymbal

Here is a track using the cymbal.  It is one of those long explorations I do that really set a mood, but don’t go anywhere.  The guitar is my Agile LP through a jazz guitar patch in Guitar Rig 4.  The synth is the “Dungeon” patch on Absynth 5, slightly modified.  The ride cymbal is the 20″ Wuhan, the hats are 14″ Armands, and then there is the China cymbal.

The China is trashy and loud.  It sounds different any place you hit it.  In this clip, I use it both as a crash and a ride.

Oh, I forgot to add: The synth is also played with the Agile LP using a new VST plugin from Jam Origin called Midi Guitar. This plugin allows you to play midi software synthesizers WITHOUT a midi pickup or any special hardware.  You just plug any guitar into your mixer, route the signal to the plugin, and it generates midi information to trigger any midi instrument.  Here I am just playing two note chords very slowly, but this plug tracks past passages better than my Roland GR-20.  It is completely polyphonic too.  The only thing that the GR-20 can do that this can’t, at least that I have discovered so far, is assign each string to a different instrument.  I played the demo for 30 minutes and was so impressed that I bought it for $99, even though it is still in beta.

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