Friday, March 27, 2015

North Carolina’s Cedar Mountain Banjos now offering custom 17 and 19-fret tenor banjo options

Cedar Mountain Banjos in North Carolina has been building heirloom-quality open back banjos since 1996. They typically make 5-string banjos and banjo ukes for old-time players. The owner, Tim Gardner, has been wanting to build tenor banjos for several years, mainly out of personal interest. Tim is a multi-instrumentalist who enjoys playing around with different types of instruments.
Tim took over ownership of Cedar Mountain in 2013. One of his goals is to be able to offer various options so that someone can order almost any type of instrument or neck that has a banjo head (6-string, 5-string, 4-string, banjo guitars, ukes, mandolins, etc.). He finally had an opportunity to build a tenor banjo for a client in Chicago recently and it turned out so well that he decided to add 4-string tenors to the product line.
“It seems like there are currently not many builders in the US who offer quality customized handmade tenor banjos to order,” said Tim Gardner, “so I thought it might be a good way to expand into new markets and musical genres.”
Cedar Mountain Banjos is now offering highly-customizable 17 and 19-fret tenor neck options on any of its handmade models. You can find more info at The Cedar Mountain tenor banjo pictured here is based on the Bungalow model which uses all domestic woods (cherry and curly maple with a locust fingerboard). Tenor necks can be made for any Cedar Mountain model.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Bob Gramann – guitar and banjo luthier, instrument setup and repair

Last year when my banjo was buzzing I took it to someone on the southside of Richmond who looked at it and suggested I get a taller bridge.  Not satisfied with that solution, I researched other instrument setup and repair persons and found Bob Gramann in Fredericksburg, a city about 40 miles north of where I live.  I took the banjo to Bob who removed the neck, made an adjustment to the truss rod and did a few other tweaks while I waited.  The banjo has been great ever since! 

Similarly, my wife recently took her tenor guitar to Bob Gramann to have it setup in the Irish GDAD tuning.  While doing so, Bob noticed some intonation issues and made corrections to those, thus improving the overall sound of the guitar.  During that same visit I brought in a right-handed tenor banjo that had been sent to me as a vintage Gibson neck paired with a Recording King RK-R35 bluegrass rim.  Bob switched it around to lefty by making a new nut, reversing the armrest and making sure that the action and neck angle were properly set.  Now it's a regulation left-handed 19-fret Irish Tenor Banjo with resonator, wink wink!
The Deep Run
Since I’m not much of a tinkerer, I am happy to have found Bob Gramann for our instrument setup needs.  His prices are very reasonable.  It’s also fun to see his shop and check out the guitars and banjos he has made or is currently working on.  Bob makes some fine instruments.  Instead of churning them out one after another, he really puts a lot of care into building each individual guitar or banjo.  I especially like his small body/travel-size Deep Run model which would make an awesome tenor guitar.  He is making a new one of these right now, to be finished this summer.  
The Rappahannock
Bob is also a folksinger and songwriter.  If you are in the Richmond/Fredericksburg/Northern VA general area, I strongly recommend Bob Gramann for instrument setup and repair.  And for those in the market for a handmade guitar, his instruments, which are named after different rivers in Virginia, are well worth considering.  (Gramann sounds like "GRAH-min").  

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Tenor Guitar Backup Comparison - Ibanez Artwood Vintage AVT1 vs. Blueridge BR-40T

The Ibanez Artwood Vintage AVT1 and the Blueridge BR-40T are both modern tenor guitars modeled after vintage styles.  Below is a video (audio only) comparing the sounds of these two guitars in GDAD tuning in a backup role on the tune The High Reel.  The Ibanez is first and the Blueridge starts at about 01:09.  The same tenor banjo was used for the melody in each case.  Do you hear any differences in the sound between the two guitars?  (Note in the image on the video that's the Blueridge on the left and the Ibanez on the right).

The Ibanez AVT1 sells for about $299.00
The Blueridge sells for about $399.99

The Ibanez has a slightly thin, tinny sound.
The Blueridge has a warmer, fuller, rich sound.

The Ibanez is fairly quiet.
The Blueridge is louder.  Similar in volume to a six-string acoustic.

Neck Shape
The Ibanez's neck is thinner.  Almost too skinny.
The Blueridge's neck is more round, like on a tenor banjo. It feels more ergonomic.

The Ibanez feels smaller (because it is smaller). It's lighter weight.
The Blueridge feels bigger, but not uncomfortably so.  Well balanced.

Overall Quality
The lower cost Ibanez seems more cheaply made.
For approx. $100 more the Blueridge is a much higher quality tenor guitar. More attention to detail.

The Verdict
Hopefully, the richer, more nuanced sound of the Blueridge comes across in the recording.  If you can afford it, the extra $100 for the Blueridge is well worth it.  You get a much nicer tenor guitar.  The next step up from Blueridge would be significantly more expensive.
Blueridge BR-40T left, Ibanez AVT1 right
This seems like a "bad" review of the Ibanez Artwood Vintage, but the truth is that it's a fairly decent tenor guitar that a lot of people would be perfectly content with.  It's just that when compared head to head to the Blueridge BR-40T the differences in quality are more apparent.

The "Blue" and "Orange" Irish Session Tune Books/CDs

I have plenty of other tune-learning play-along books and CDs, so I can't believe I waited this long to get the Blue and Orange Irish Session Tunes books by Sheila Garry and Brid Cranitch.  I wish I had gotten these a long time ago because they are among the best compilations I have found designed for the purposes of learning Irish traditional music.
Between the two books there are over 180 tunes: primarily reels and jigs, but a few slides and polkas and one set of hornpipes are included.  Make sure you get the CD editions of the books (or just order the CDs and not the books) because the whole point is to listen to the tunes to get the feel of them.  The music is done by Sheila Garry who plays fiddle in the Clare style; subtly backed by Brid Cranitch on piano.  Sheet music is included in the books but no chords.  A listing of the chords being chosen by Brid on piano would have been a nice addition.

The tunes are only played once through, which is a minor nuisance that allows them to fit more on a "CD" (these were recorded in 2003).  This also means that as you listen to it a lot more tunes will fill your ears than if they were played multiple times through!  Another upside is the tunes are always put together as sets of two or three that flow together with no interruption, so you get an idea of how to smoothly transition from one tune to the next.  (This is a feature often ignored by other collections).  Just because they put certain tunes together as sets doesn't mean you have to keep them together. Once you have enough of these tunes under your belt you can make up your own sets on the fly!

Be wary of the titles of some of the tunes, or at least don't get too hung up on them.  On the Blue CD I noticed that "Dark Girl In Blue" was what we call "Denis Murphy's Slide", and "Kaiser's" was "Going to the Well for Water", and "Clare Jig" was "Mug of Brown Ale" and "Humours of Ballinafad" was "Geese in the Bog".  This is actually kind of cool because it teaches you that it's more about the tunes than the tune titles.  I suggest listening to tunes with unfamiliar titles to see if you recognize the melodies.  This is great ear training.  Sometimes a new tune is only a mild variation of a tune you already know.

Unlike other play-alongs you'll actually want to listen to these recordings over and over.  Sure, it's still scaled back a bit, but it doesn't feel stilted at all.  It feels like real music.  Sheila's fiddling is endearing and Brid's piano accompaniment is quite lovely in its minimalism.  You could randomly pick tunes to learn from these two books and the odds are pretty good that some folks at the session you are going to would be able to play them with you.

Note: The "Red" and "Green" books in this series do not feature Sheila and Brid and are therefore not as good in my opinion.  In the Red book the fiddle is played too fast and in a less pleasant, more flashy, manner.  In the Green book the tunes are played on tin whistle, which may or may not be a good source instrument for learning tunes if you are a strings player.  Start with the Blue and Orange books, and if you need more check out the Red and Green ones.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Murphy Beds and Corn Potato String Band on the same night

I wish the title of this post meant that these two bands were playing the same gig together.  It doesn't.  It means I have a dilemma coming up on Friday, April 3, 2015.

I've had the Corn Potato String Band's upcoming Ashland Coffee and Tea performance on the calendar for months. I'm a fan of Aaron Jonah Lewis from his days as the fiddler for Special Ed and the Shortbus and was totally planning on checking out this new project with Lindsay McCaw and former band mate Ben Belcher (Ben also happens to be one of my favorite musicians) when they come to town.  I mean I can literally step out the door and walk to the venue within five minutes and I love these guys.  It's just down the street!
The Corn Potato String Band
But then the other day I was glancing at the event page for the Blue Ridge Irish Music School and was psyched to see an announcement that The Murphy Beds (Jefferson Hamer and Eamon O'Leary) were coming to Charlottesville on April 3rd!  I've been hankering to see The Murphy Beds ever since I first heard their 2012 debut album, which is the only LP in recent years to bump someone else out and take up residence in my ALL TIME TOP TEN FAVORITE ALBUMS, close to number one.  I feel like I almost have to go see The Murphy Beds.  It's such a rare opportunity that I can't let it go by.
The Murphy Beds (photo by ├ôlafur ├ôlafsson)
It's very disappointing to have these fall on the same night. Ashland Coffee and Tea is a great local venue and they consistently have good live acts, even if I do not get there very often. The fact that they had Corn Potato coming made me think that I would definitely be going there again soon for something that I really would enjoy. But instead I'll be making the hour+ drive to Charlottesville to see the Murphy Beds.

The other bummer in this is that I was already kinda planning on driving to Charlottesville the day before for an Irish session (the same First-Thursday session that was canceled in March due to snow), but now I doubt that I'll want to make that drive two days in a row so I'll probably miss that session for another month.  The good news is The Murphy Beds are going to be awesome!

Music I Like To Listen To vs. Music I Like To Play

They say that variety is the spice of life but I like to simplify and pare down.  For example, things got a lot simpler when I bought 4 of the exact same black polo shirts to wear to work. Now I never have to think about what shirt I'm going to wear. The black polo exceeds minimum standards for acceptable clothing yet doesn't make me feel like I'm going out of my way to conform to any kind of style or expectation. I also have 4 pairs of the same pants to wear with the black polos. Different colors, but the colors all go with black so no problems there.
The point is I have pared down the music I like to play to just Irish music. I don't associate Irish music with any one person or band. I see it as a conglomerate of human ideas that have been washed over with time. It's very personal; not really existing at all until (I) physically pluck the notes on a tenor banjo. There's enough there to keep me occupied for the rest of my life.
Contrarily, I could limit the music I like to listen to to just Phish. Since the 1980's it's been the same four band members - Trey, Mike, Fishman and Page. Virtuosos on guitar, bass, drums and keyboards. Nobody else can make the music that these 4 guys make on stage...literally. For pure listening pleasure I've never found anything better. Phish fills the voids that I have as a music listener.
I'm OK with this distinction between music for playing and music for listening. It took me a while to get comfortable with the idea that they can be unrelated. One is like watching a great movie and one is like hitting a golf ball. Go fishing. #Phirish.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Do I Play Irish Tenor Banjo?

Today is St. Patrick's Day and I'm ready to admit that I play Irish tenor banjo, or am at least on the road toward learning how to do so.

Tenor banjo was my first instrument.  I liked playing Neil Young songs on it initially, before adopting fiddle tunes.  Due to its versatility, mandolin almost took over for a while.  There has also been a little bit of flat-picked guitar, mandola and baritone ukulele competing for instrument time.  As of late I've sidelined those other instruments and returned to tenor banjo almost entirely.

I've also benched the oldtime Appalachian tunes I was playing, as well as any other folk melodies, songs or covers I was trying to play or transcribe (OK maybe I am keeping a couple Neil Young songs around).  It is pretty much 100% Irish tunes at this point.  Oldtime just ended up feeling disingenuous.

Seeing as how I'm only playing tenor banjo and I'm only playing Irish tunes, it's only natural that those two coinciding pursuits should be merged.  If you target each of things two things (tenor banjo + Irish music) long enough then ultimately what you end up doing is playing Irish tenor banjo.  It's inevitable, isn't it?

I suppose taking ownership of that intertwining coherence is one of the more difficult parts in all this.  But, like the Amish youth who return to the fold after Rumspringa, your practice is more devout when you hone in on the optimal form.

As an instrument tenor banjo is the one for me.  No other instrument feels as good when I play it or appeals in the same way.  Similarly, Irish music is what I want to play.  If I were still just a music listener, then I'd still be drawn to Trey Anastasio, Jerry Garcia and John Medeski for my musical fix.  But as someone who sees playing music as a potential hobby, the way others enjoy playing golf, knitting or chess, I've found that Irish music fills this niche in a way no other style of music can.