Friday, January 15, 2010

MLK birthday bash

Man, that was fun.

Tonight was the debut of the duet with Steve Bambakidis, and I think it went really well. Got lots of compliments and inquiries, met a few new musicians, and learned a little about the Homer music scene.

It was a pretty last-minute affair. I met Jenny Martin at an adjunct orientation meeting for the college just over a week ago, and took her up on the offer to play at an open-mic type deal celebrating Dr. King's birthday, after meeting with Steve and floating the idea with him just this Wednesday. We garnered the second slot, 7.15-7.30, which meant that Cathy and Sabre could be there, and (as you'll see) that made me really happy. The venue was Alice's Champagne Palace, apparently a staple in Homer (it was my first time there) with a nice corner stage and an affable sound guy who was easy to work with. I was set up in no time and Steve even faster.

Instrumentation was Steve on 4-string bass guitar, straight into the board, and me on mandolin through an old DOD AcousTEC unit, which applied a smidge of delay, chorus and (most importantly) a notch filter for feedback. The AcousTEC then went straight into the board as well.

We came prepared to play three tunes, all substantially improvised. The first was John Coltrane's "Alabama", which is a C-minor vehicle featuring some very rubato, slow brooding statements followed by a beautiful and haunting chord sequence. (Cm9 - Cm7/G - Cm/D - Abmaj7 - Gm7 - Cm ... Abmaj7 - Bb - Cm) This is the tune I first thought of when I thought of doing something for Dr. King's birthday, and introduced the tune and its context with the statement, "this is for those who will not go to the back of the bus". Given that we had covered the tune together perhaps four times previously, I thought it came off rather well, and we were even reasonably together on the ending chord sequence, which has a lot of blank space in it.

The next tune was based on a really neat bass riff Steve started playing the first time I met with him. The riff (which dresses up alternating C and G chords, with a turnaround of D-E-C) is busy enough, and sounds good enough on its own, that my task as decorator is to make sure that what I do does not detract from what he's doing. We developed a cool unison line for one of his thematic statements, and then I improvised chord decorations (mostly light brushes) a couple of countermelodies, and some scattered note-cluster decorations. I hope we continue using it as a staple, as it's really pretty (a nice contrast to my typical gravitation toward minor modes) and I continue to learn about what to do with it the more we play it. It seemed to go over well, although I definitely had some hesitations that I want to work through.

The third "prepared" tune was another Bambakidis bass riff, this one moving from an alternating Dm - G cadence up to a surprise D major, which sounds really good with a back-cycled A7 immediately preceding the D. (Think I remembered that at speed? Ha! I remembered it just about as we finished up.) I did a lot of chord brushing interspersed with some single-note decoration and even a couple of double stops that were mostly intentional. (One harmony that worked particularly well, against the Dm - G sequence, was Bm7 - G/B.) The audience, bless 'em, seemed to be right with us--watching some of the later acts I think that we held their attention more directly than anyone I saw tonight, so there appears to be hope for improvised music in Homer!

At this point we still had some time left and they encouraged us to play something else, so I warned folks we were going to make this one up on the spot, turned to Steve and said, "what about G minor?" He grinned and came up with an ostinato on the spot, and we were off. Cathy later told me that there was more energy in the last "piece" than in the entire rest of our set, and I'm not surprised. (I had just joked with her not two days previously that I seem to have much more confidence in my own playing when I'm not trying to make it sound like anything scripted, and you can hear it.) I started interacting with what Steve was doing and then ranged all over G minor and harmonic minor (love that major seventh), with lots of different phrasings...Steve was right there with me, even coming up into lead a couple times when I would throw in some chords to contrast the single-note stuff.

It was about at this point that I noticed that Sabre was walking (with only a little of Mom's help) right up to the front of the stage to see Dad.

As far as I remember, Steve and I never broke stride as I knelt down and engaged my 13-month old daughter with the same sort of improv that I've done for her since she was born. (No way I could have done that trying to play a scripted tune. No way. But I was fine, improvising. Weird.) Talk about making my day!

We finished up and the audience really seemed to dig it. That was a charge. (Got a lot of approving comments about hearing some "different" music in Homer. This encourages me greatly.)

Subsequent acts included more traditional stuff; my own favorite act of the night was the tap-dancer. She actually gave a little history of tap as she demonstrated it; both Steve and I were really impressed with her presentation, and when I went to congratulate her afterward I jokingly told her that I'd suggested to Steve that we recruit her to work with us as a "drummer"...

...and she was into the idea.

She had not seen us perform, and I made sure she understood that we were doing mostly improv and possibly odd time signatures, so this really surprised me. Steve was floored when I told him this and showed him her card. (I ran into her while she was talking to the director of the Homer campus, who was discussing her teaching tap as an adjunct.) We'll see what happens of course, but I think it might be really cool to have an act featuring mandolin, bass and tap percussion. Improvised.

I guess that qualifies as another "Homer moment".

In all, a highly satisfying evening. Lots of smiles, fewer nerves than I'm accustomed to, that priceless moment with Sabre, and the possibility of working with another improviser. Nice!

I really enjoy working with Steve. He's very gracious with musical space, easy to communicate with, responds well to what I seem to do and enjoys taking ri
sks. He's got the same sort of aesthetic and aspirations, which is a real plus with work and family considerations. And he's a great player too--I think I'm only seeing the tip of the iceberg thus far.

In short, he'd fit in really well with the group of fantastic folks I miss so much back in Colorado. (Dave C, when you get a chance to come visit, I can now say I've found someone here who would be more than happy to work with "those weird Crafty guys". He even seems keen to work with me on Chlorinated Duck! :-)

Here's to as much more of this as I can manage.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Training with diatonic sevenths

Let's face it: training yourself to ingrain a chord library is a bit of a chore. A chore that pays worthwhile dividends, to be sure, but a chore nonetheless. Today, somewhat out of the blue, I realized that I have to add another item to the practice regimen. It came out of trying to re-familiarize myself with diatonic sevenths from the Western major scale on the Guitar Craft tuning's top four strings. I've got a lot less time in these shapes than I do with the shapes of all-fifth-intervals, and that's probably what brought this thought out: I need this skill now, because my constraint of the NST intervals on the banjo means that I don't have four strings in fifths to lean back on. This is exactly what I was hoping to force myself to do here.

My basic chord library--what I try to train myself in as a basic competence--follows a few key constraints:
  • Closed shapes only, available to any key.
  • One shape per chord inversion (so, if I want to master Cmaj7, I construct four shapes, so that I can put any desired note in that chord--C, E, G, or B--in the bass or in the treble position)
  • Inner chord tones may be swapped around if fingerings become superhuman (some of 'em are pretty tough!)
  • All chord tones represented if at all possible (and in all but a couple of cases, it is!)
  • Use of a four-string group to cover the chord (three-string chords introduce the structural complexity of "which tone to omit?" which I think will be a useful thing to address after I've cemented the basics)
Yep, they're arbitrary constraints, but building a library this way has helped me immensely with comfort with chords, and it's given me a vehicle to alter them methodically. I can recommend it with enthusiasm.

So! When practicing these inversions, I like to walk up the scale playing the diatonic chords (that is, Cmaj7 - Dm7 - Em7 - Fmaj7 - G7 - Am7 - Bm7b5) according to these rules:
  • First: Play each inversion of a chord before moving to the next chord. That is, play Cmaj7/C, Cmaj7/E, Cmaj7/G, and Cmaj7/B before moving to the Dm7. I like doing it both starting with the root inversion of each chord, and then starting with whatever inversion is closest to the nut. This builds a sense of how to move from one inversion to another within the same chord, at different spots on the neck (when I use keys other than C major).
  • Second: Play the I chord of the key (whatever inversion you choose to start with), then the closest II chord, then the closest III chord, etc. When moving from VII to the root, play the next highest I chord inversion. Again, I like to do it both starting on the root inversion of the I chord, and then again with the lowest available inversion of the I chord. This exercise gives you a sense of the chords closest to your original hand position, and it also teaches you how the different inversions interrelate to each other over the entire fingerboard. This is really eye-opening, to watch yourself go through four passes through the key, playing seven chords at a time, and only occasionally needing to move your hand position more than a couple of frets at a time.
I started to do this second exercise today, in a different key than C, and realized that I froze up because I had started to internalize the key of C, rather than the abstract shapes determined from inversion and scale tone. Which inversion was I looking for again? Well, drat. More work to do.

So: I am now going to add to that this exercise:
  • Third: Play the chords of the scale, ascending, all in the same inversion. This should accomplish two things: first, it should cement how the chords alter the basic shape common to the chord inversion (i.e., which tone goes flat to turn a M3 into a m3); second, it should help you to understand where your next chord should be, ascending or descending, in the same inversion...this may help to develop a sense of where the other chords overlap (in theory, one should always be able to play the chord a diatonic third up in almost exactly the same hand position as the chord you're you can develop a cadence: I chord in root inversion, shift up a whole tone to II chord in root inversion, back down a whole tone to III chord in a different inversion, then up a whole tone to the IV chord in that same inversion, back down for the V chord, back up for the VI chord, back down for the VII chord and then up to the next available I chord...). It's an oversimplification, but only barely. It works in all but a couple of special cases such as "do I alter the chord in order to play it at the nut rather than at the octave, because one of the chord tones would be 'just below' the nut?"
Time to put that into practice. I expect it to be a great skill-builder, and will report back here with a little work.

Banjo revelation: strap height compromise

Viz the posture of holding the banjo, I find that I have competing interests: the banjo three-finger style is ideal with the instrument a little too low for a preferred flatpicking attitude, and so I think I'm going to keep things comfortable for flatpicking and learn my three-finger style (which is bound to be a bastardized hybrid anyway, no matter what I do) with a higher hold. I really like the percussive sound of the instrument with palm-on-bridge muting.

Onward then!

Banjo revelation: training the hand for arpeggios

An unexpected revelation (maybe) about the banjo's picking hand. The first basic "forward-roll" exercise that you find in books is pretty straightforward, focusing on the first three strings, thus:

A little weird to someone trained in flatpicking, but I do find it "physiologically logical" and just need to train myself. some point you get to an exercise involving the fifth string, and that's where things started to get interesting for me. Note this exercise:

(all open strings...
T means to play with thumb,
I with index finger,
and M with middle finger)

This plays havoc with something I have taken for granted: that strings constantly ascend as they get farther away from you. My thumb wants to be "responsible" for the bass note in the arpeggio, and while the thumb does play the first note in the arpeggio (which is the bass note), it does not play that note again in the same measure. Amazing how hardwired that concept can be! I suspect I must now be feeling like all those sweep-picking guitarists who have such a hard time learning alternate picking in odd time signatures. (Since I learned alternate picking from the beginning--thank you Guitar Craft--that never bothered me.)

Of interest here, though, is how that fifth-string exercise relates to this one:

Aside from trying to decouple my brain from what it already "knows", I found myself wondering why the second note in the second exercise is picked by the index finger, but the same note in the third exercise is picked by the middle finger. There's got to be a reason for that!

That reason occurred to me when I tried alternating between the two patterns. Ding! I think it's a way of signalling to your hand how it's going to spread for the arpeggio, at least initially. In the first fifth string exercise, your thumb and index finger maintain a constant distance from one another; the whole hand simply moves from "thumb-over-third-string" to "thumb-over-fifth-string" and the middle finger picks up on the first. The three fingers are equidistant from one another, and the whole hand could stay locked that way if desired. In the second fifth-string exercise, the hand spreads after the first note, with the middle finger "staying" on the first string and the index finger picking up the second while the thumb travels all the way out to the fifth. Here the fingers are not equidistant from one another. Does the first upstroke note signal to the hand what to do next?

I'm not claiming to "know" here--among other things it's quite possible that different permutations of the exercise might nullify this concept--but I do know that when I started thinking of it in this way, I immediately got both faster and cleaner. Call it a working theory, and something to pay attention to!

Today's work seemed to confirm as well that the "logic" of the right hand includes assigning the thumb the task of the "1" count. Most banjo music I suppose uses enough notes that this is not ever really a problem, but I am at least theoretically interested in high-speed odd time signatures, and it will be interesting to see how the logic applies. (With flatpicking, the subject of the 1-count always being a downstroke can get contentious, and in Guitar Craft we learn--conspicuously--not to assume that the 1 will automatically be a downstroke. Apparently this was instilled so well that I am scanning the horizon early to see it coming with the banjo!)

Okay, let's try that again later and see if it holds...

Monday, January 11, 2010

Needed: banjo action work

Spent a little time with the banjo at lunch today and came to a few conclusions.

I really like the basic sound of this instrument. Going to have to find ways to incorporate it into the things I'm doing. And, I suspect I'm going to have to learn to play both fingerstyle and traditional banjo picking as well as flat picking, as the sounds are all different and all worth using! Sigh. Now, to find a
practice discipline...

It has become clear that I can
either keep the design feature allowing for the replaceable fingerboard insert for the first three frets (the replacement insert is fretless), or I can glue one of them down and try to get the action I'm looking for. It's a really cool concept and I give major marks to the innovator that came up with it, but--at least on the banjo I built with the skills I had at the time and now--I am not going to get the quality of action I'm looking for without at least gluing the insert down, and probably thickness-sanding it just slightly as well. Between a slight upbow in the neck (the truss rod is nonadjustable), the extra height of the fretted insert at the first two frets within the tolerances of its tension screw, the disparity in height of the fifth-string nut, and the jut of the body ring, I just don't see a way to get the primary four strings any lower than they are now, and they're too high at the octave and above. (I'm pretty sure I like a lower action than most people, and it's becoming worse the more I realize how much I like how the fretless turned out!)

So! When I can get around to it (no snickering, now), I'll thickness-sand the fretted insert to compensate for the upbow and glue it in place, true that neck up to dead-flat, and dehorn the snot out of it. (Now that things have settled from the original construction, I definitely notice some sharp spots that can be corrected.) Then, I'll re-set the neck to the optimum angle, and will reserve the right to relieve the curve of the body ring if that remains an obstacle. I'll bring the bridge down to the right height so that I've got the action I'm looking for, and I suspect that at that point I will also have corrected the disparity problem of the fifth-string nut height.

Then, of course, I'll have no excuses for how badly I play the instrument, so I'll need to get on
that problem too. :-)

Finally, I am
still out on the tuning I want to use here. I just went through a re-introduction of diatonic triads and sevenths on these intervals (I'm ignoring the fifth string for now), and while some of these chords are really nice, I don't know if it is worth not having three adjacent fifth intervals for melodic/improv purposes. On an instrument with six strings, like the Guitar Craft guitar for which the tuning was designed, having the m3 at the top of the range while still having two other all-fifth-interval four-string groups to work with, works out well. With only four main strings on the banjo, though, melodic runs that work great on the guitar or mandolin start to feel cramped; you have to shift hand position to complete the second octave. (One of the best features of tuning in fifths is that you have an octave available on two strings within one hand position, and two octaves over four strings within one hand position.)

It's still too early to make a permanent call; first, I do not yet understand the Tao of the banjo, so to speak, and that may suggest a decision by itself. As well, I will have to be careful with tension on the neck
viz string gauges. If I go all fifths, I'll have to be careful how tight I try to wind the first string and how big a gauge I use for the fourth. If I do go all fifths, I'll probably try either for G2-D3-A3-E4 (the same as a mandocello, and that's low for a banjo...a traditional banjo usually tunes its fourth string to D3) or possibly a minor third up from that (Bb2-F3-C4-G4) with a really tiny first string. And then the fifth string should be appropriate to that. I kinda like the fifth string a whole tone above the first, and in theory it should be quite possible to do that even with A4, with a suitably small gauge. But that may sound really weird against the open Bb, I dunno. Hey, it's that way with experiments.

Anyway, I'll keep working with the NST intervals for now, and as I learn more about the banjo itself, I'll listen for direction on where all this should go. If nothing else I'll keep confounding the snot out of anyone trying to figure out what I'm doing by watching my left hand, which is always a conversation starter with standard-tuning guitarists. (I decided to keep the mandolin tuning at standard just to throw a monkey-wrench into the works, you know. :-)

Sunday, January 3, 2010

String gauge notes

A housekeeping post here--some string-gauge notes on different pieces of paper, in danger of being lost, will instead end up out in cyberspace for the truly geeky to stumble across. :-)

For the Ovation (acoustic steel roundwound)
  1. 6th C2: 59-60 wound
  2. 5th G2: 45-50 wound
  3. 4th D3: 30-36 wound
  4. 3rd A3: 20-22 wound
  5. 2nd E4: 11-13 plain
  6. 1st G4: 9-11 plain

For the fretless acoustic (acoustic steel roundwound)
  1. 6th Bb1: 59-60 wound
  2. 5th F2: 45-50 wound
  3. 4th C3: 35-38 wound
  4. 3rd G3: 22-25 wound
  5. 2nd D4: 11-15 plain
  6. 1st F4: 11-13 plain

For the fretless acoustic (electric steel flatwound)
  1. 6th C2: 54-60 flatwound
  2. 5th G2: 42-48 flatwound
  3. 4th D3: 30-36 flatwound
  4. 3rd A3: 18-21 wound or plain
  5. 2nd E4: 11-13 plain
  6. 1st G4: 10-12 plain

For the banjo (acoustic steel roundwound)

  1. 5th G4: 9-11 plain
  2. 4th C3: 20-26 wound
  3. 3rd G3: 13-18 plain or wound
  4. 2nd D4: 9-11 plain
  5. 1st F4: 8-10 plain

For the SoloEtte (acoustic steel roundwound)
  1. 6th C2: 59-60 wound
  2. 5th G2: 45-50 wound
  3. 4th D3: 30-36 wound
  4. 3rd A3: 20-22 wound
  5. 2nd E4: 11-13 plain
  6. 1st G4: 9-11 plain

For the SoloEtte (electric steel flatwound)
  1. 6th C2: 56-60 flatwound
  2. 5th G2: 42-48 flatwound
  3. 4th D3: 30-36 flatwound
  4. 3rd A3: 16-20 plain
  5. 2nd E4: 11-13 plain
  6. 1st G4: 8-10 plain

For the Strat (electric steel flatwound)
  1. 6th C2: 54-60 wound
  2. 5th G2: 42-50 wound
  3. 4th D3: 26-36 wound
  4. 3rd A3: 16-20 plain
  5. 2nd E4: 11-13 plain
  6. 1st G4: 8-10 plain

For the Strat (electric steel roundwound)
  1. 6th C2: 54-60 flatwound
  2. 5th G2: 42-50 flatwound
  3. 4th D3: 26-36 flatwound
  4. 3rd A3: 16-20 plain
  5. 2nd E4: 11-13 plain
  6. 1st G4: 8-10 plain