Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A Goldmine of Tune Transcriptions – Tater Joe’s Old-Time Musical Mercantile

Last week I happened upon a site I had never noticed before:  Tater Joe’s Old-Time Musical Mercantile, described as A Collection of Transcriptions and Recordings From Workshops, Lessons, and Personal Efforts.
Tater Joe’s site primarily consists of over 200 clawhammer banjo tabs by Ken Torke and almost 150 fiddle transcriptions by Mark Wardenburg.  The fiddle tune pdf’s also contain chords, making them especially helpful to mandolin, guitar and bass players.  Torke and Wardenburg both play in the Pig’s Foot String Band, and I believe Ken Torke is the one who maintains the Tater Joe's site.   

Pig's Foot String Band
Some of these tunes are ones I haven't seen the notes for anywhere else, and it looks as though new transcriptions are being added all the time – with a few as recently as this month.  The site also features recordings and transcriptions from mandolin player Caleb Klauder’s (Foghorn Stringband) Walker Creek Music Camp Old-Time Mandolin Workshop from October 2013.  Very cool!

Tater Joe’s is a site worth checking out and checking back in on often. 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Custom Made Left-Handed Electric Mandolin For Sale

Buy now - $400 or best offer!!!  US buyers preferred.

Still available - a custom lefty Blue Star Mandoblaster electric mandolin made by Bruce Herron in Michigan.  Excellent condition.
the LH Blue Star Mandoblaster I'm selling
Natural satin finish
Rosewood fretboard
Upgraded hum-canceling Dimarzio pickup
TKL gig bag included
Back of electric mandolin - notice the nice grain seen in the natural finish

Closeup of the lefty Blue Star Mandoblaster headstock
Below is an audio sample:

Let me know if you have any questions.  If you’re interested in buying this one-of-a-kind electric mandolin make an offer ASAP!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Keeping Music Simple: All You’re Really Doing Is Whistling

It’s no wonder that one of the primary instruments in Irish traditional music is called the tin whistle (emphasis on the word “whistle”).  Because, when it comes down to it, all one is really doing when playing traditional music is using a musical instrument to “whistle” the tune.  You don’t have to make it any more highbrowed than that.

All it takes is one instrument whistling the tune to make it musically complete.  Multiple melody instruments might get together to whistle the same tune in unison and although it could become more vibrant as a result, it would be no more complete. 

Using an instrument may give you more options than you’d encounter just from whistling – different fingerings, ornaments, embellishments and other accoutrements are at the gifted instrumentalist’s disposal – but there’s no real reason to get flashy with it.  Music is music and the tune is the tune. 

You can carry this concept over to other genres to a certain extent.  Almost anything you’d whistle out of your mouth can be played for enjoyment on an instrument.  You may not be able to whistle all of the Trey, Mike, Page, and Fishman parts to Bathtub Gin, but you still might find yourself whistling the melody to that Phish song, for example.

So, the next time you’re getting overwhelmed or frustrated with music, just whistle…it’ll set your mind at ease.  And by “whistle” I mean play your instrument!

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Beyond Scales and Arpeggios: Some Tune-Based Practice Exercises

Liz Carroll
In a recent All Things Strings interview with Irish-American fiddler Liz Carroll, she was asked if she practices scales and arpeggios.  She responded that the tunes themselves are the practice:  “there are lots of nice runs within tunes, so I feel I get to practice arpeggios there”.

It was refreshing and encouraging to read this from an expert in traditional music because I have been trying to formulate a practice routine centered around tune-based exercises.  I believe an intellectual understanding of scales and arpeggios can be helpful when placed within the context of tunes.  The transition to mandolin is helping me flesh out this concept. 

Here are some tune based practice techniques that I am in the process of implementing:

Play the same phrase or lick in all keys using both open and closed strings.  Note how the same phrase is made in different ways.  Expand up on this by playing the whole tune in all keys using open and closed shapes.

Play the tune in a higher or lower octave if possible.

Play a tune or phrase in the same key but in at least 4 different positions on the neck:  1st position (pinky on 7th fret), 2nd position (ring finger on 7th fret), 3rd position (middle finger on 7th fret), 4th position (index finger on 7th fret) and so on.  The beginning phrase of the B-part of Arkansas Traveler is a good one to work with.

Be mindful of each where each note in the melody is in relation to the scale as well as the chord of the moment.  For example, a G note in the key of D is the 4th note of the scale, but could also be the root note of the IV chord.  A C# note in the key of D is the 7th note of the scale but might also be the 3rd note of the A chord.

Harmonize each note in the melody with what mandolin player Carl Jones calls a slant or reach (AKA a double stop).  This exercise puts the practice of harmonizing a scale to use within a tune.

Fill in quarter notes and other holes in the melody with arpeggios.

Transcriptions:  Practice transcribing unfamiliar tunes from Book/CD sets containing both the audio and notation.  Compare your transcription to the actual sheet music or tab.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Flatpicking Guitar Tabs for 4 Standard Fiddle Tunes

A few weeks back I got an acoustic guitar:  a pre-owned lefty Larrivee P-03 parlor guitar.  It’s a nice instrument and I’m lucky to have it.  I’m also lucky if I get in 15 minutes at the end of every other day for a little bit of flat-picking after I’m done with all my mandolin and tenor banjo playing.  Things are moving along slowly.  Coming from 4-stringed instruments and having never played guitar before, it’s pretty easy to get lost among the 6 strings.

Even on the guitar, melody is still king for me so I’m more concerned with playing tunes than strumming chords.  I’ve chosen 4 standard fiddle tunes as the first ones to learn on guitar:  Girl I Left Behind Me, Over the Waterfall, Redhaired Boy and St. Anne’s Reel.  Surprisingly, none of these tunes ever struck me as being particularly exciting to play on mandolin or tenor banjo, but the switch to guitar has brought new life to these familiar melodies.

I’ve been using the flat-picking guitar arrangements below to help memorize the tunes.  In each case I like the simple clean lines and the patterns these result in on guitar.  Perhaps there is something to these old favorites after all!

What do you think?!

The Murphy Beds to perform live web concert, Wed. April 2, 8pm EST

The Murphy Beds - photo by Jesse Daniel Smith
Tomorrow at 8:00 PM EST (Wednesday, April 2) the Murphy Beds (Eamon O'Leary and Jefferson Hamer) will be playing a live web concert, streaming courtesy of Concert Window. Here's a link:

This is the second installment in Concert Window's Songs from the Couch series, which is a new curated series of web shows, hosted and performed before a live studio audience. 
Log in now to reserve a seat. This is an interactive event, with chat, requests, virtual heckling, virtual tips – virtually anything!

The Murphy Beds perform traditional and original folk songs with close harmonies and deft instrumental arrangements on bouzouki, guitar, and mandolin.  Their self-titled 2012 debut was Six Water Grog's best of album from that year and now resides near the top of my all-time favorites.  This will be worth checking out if you are able to.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Any Tune's A Good Tune: My Interview With Old Time Mandolin Player Curtis Buckhannon

In the ongoing search for albums that capture that old time mandolin sound, I came across the Buckhannon Brothers' 1993 CD Little River Stomp.  On that collection of old time mandolin instrumentals, mandolinist Curtis Buckhannon, with his brother Dennis on guitar, run through 25 tunes ranging from rags and Celtic, to Scandinavian and Southwestern, and of course a healthy sampling of tunes from their home state of Missouri.

Rather than sounding like crossover music or a jumping across styles, there's a consistency to the album as Curtis and Dennis impart the modest qualities of the old time folk musician regardless of a tune's origin.  Upon hearing this broad, well chosen selection of melodies I just had to find out more about mandolin player Curtis Buckhannon and learn how and why he draws from these far reaching sources.  So I interviewed him!  Below is a transcript in Curtis' words.  I hope you enjoy reading.
L to R: Curtis Buckhannon, Vince Corkery and Dennis Buckhannon
Definition of Old Time
(CB) The type of tunes I play are all pretty much fiddle-based tunes either from different cultures or American based tunes.  Pretty much everything I do has been played on the fiddle.  I like to interpret it on the mandolin.  

Any tune's a good tune.  I even do some Tex-Mex things.  There's some neat stuff going on in the Southwest with the tunes.  Cleoffes Ortiz knew so many unusual tunes - stuff I had never heard before.

I've always had a wide taste in music.  All my life I've listened to classical, to jazz, to blues.  More or less (my repertoire) might just be an expression of my likes in music, rather than standard old time music.  It all seems to fit on the mandolin. Then I get my brother playing on it and it's like wow this is fun!

Musical Influences
(CB) My earliest influence is Kenny Hall and the Sweets Mill String Band.  I fell in love with the way he played.  He didn't just play old time music. He did a variety of things.  

I've always loved ragtime from the get go.  It's fun to play rags on the mandolin.  The Etcetera Stringband were so scholarly about the music - so knowledgeable about it.  That very first Etcetera Stringand record was one of my best finds ever.  It was a running joke between me and a friend that we have to learn all those tunes on that record and I think we came pretty close to learning all of them.  

Blues - I've always liked Martin, Bogan and Armstrong (Carl Martin, Ted Bogan, Howard Armstrong), the black stringband from Tennessee.  Those guys came to St. Louis one time and I was just blown away by them.  They were amazing.

Fiddlers Chirps Smith (Volo Bogtrotters), Gary Harrison (Indian Creek Delta Boys) and Geoff Seitz (Ill-Mo Boys) are the source for a lot of my tunes.  And Marc Rennard.

Playing Style and Technique
(CB) I play without a lot of flashiness and just let the instrument try to shine through standard old styles of playing.  The style that I play falls into the category of old time mandolin - I don't know what else you could call it.

Kenny Hall played a lot of open chords and I tend to do that sometimes, but I'll also go up the neck and maybe do some crosspicking things to back up a tune or song.  You've got the option of tremolo.  I do a lot of double stops.  I try to be as creative with it as I can.  I try not to play the same tune the same way every time.

It's not that I'm doing it just to stretch me.  I just do it to keep my interest in the tune and to make it fresh every time.  I might embellish something more one time than I did the last time I played it.  I'm constantly finding things out about music each time I play it. There's always so much to learn.  I like to do a lot of the fun things with the rhythms - getting the syncopation, playing on the off beat.

I don't use my pinky that often - I mostly play with three fingers.  I do use the pinky once in a while, but it's not employed as much as most people use it.  I'm thinking about cutting it off - I don't really need it!

Process of Learning A Tune
(CB) I feel like if a tune strikes me as memorable then it has some quality of staying power, if not at least with me then maybe others.  So, when I hear a tune I become fond of I'll stew it over in my mind a few days or weeks and then try to figure it out.  And lo and behold it seems that the groundwork done in my head is sufficient for me to work it out.  I'll get on the mandolin and 9 times out of 10 the fingering just comes right to mind.  That's how I learn tunes usually. 

If a tune really sticks with me it'll be going around in my head and I'll be whistling it to myself.  I have a friend who plays fife and drum music.  His mother plays fiddle and he plays fife. They have a tune Hell on the Wabash.  It's like a march.  A hypnotic modal tune. I just had to work it out.  It fell right into place and has become one of my favorites here lately.

If you've been playing long enough it'll come to you easier.  The more you play the more similarities there are in a lot of the positions and nuances.

Playing with his Brother, guitarist Dennis Buckhannon
(CB) When Dennis and I are working on tunes I'll come to him with a tune I've learned and he'll figure out the chords from me just playing it.  He ends up coming up with some brilliant stuff and 6 out of 10 times he hasn't heard the recording or who I learned it from and he'll just get right onto it.

Dennis accents me.  Without him I wouldn't be half as good as some people like to say.  I can play somewhere without him and it doesn't sound near as good.  He knows where to put everything - note wise, chord wise and rhythm.

He's a year older.  Growing up we played together all the time, and then we just discovered old time thanks to County records.  They were putting out a lot of good stuff.  My dad had a collection of old bluegrass records.  We've always had some rural roots in our family and it just felt like the kind of music we should be playing anyway.  It just seemed natural.  It seemed to fit.  

Playing with a Fiddler
(CB) A lot of times I just do what the fiddle is doing.  Sometimes I accent what the fiddle is doing, maybe do a harmony or just back off and play some chords.  In some ways playing with a fiddler gives you more freedom because you're not the lead instrument - you can do little things here or there and the fiddle is still carrying the melody.  But for the most part I just play the melody.

Playing By Ear
(CB) There's something to be said about playing by ear.  There's also something to be said about those that can read music - their repertoire is bigger.  I've always played by ear so I am limited to what I can learn when others that can read are not.  

When I first met the Etcetera Stringband they were playing downtown at the old Lafayette Park Bandstand where Sousa played one time.   I played some of their tunes for them.  They read music and were mystified by how we did it by ear.  It's just how we did it.  We didn't have a choice!

Being Self Taught
(CB) I'm self taught.  My brother started playing guitar when he was younger than I and then I started playing guitar.  In the early 70's during summer vacation from high school me and my brother and a friend went on a trip to the Smoky Mountains.  We went to this little amphitheater concert and there was a guy there playing mandolin - doing fiddle tunes on it and it just enthralled me.  I asked for a mandolin for my birthday that fall and ended up getting one.  Been playing it ever since.  That would have been 1973.

I still like to play guitar. I like the old finger picking stuff - just noodling around on it. I listen to more guitar music than mandolin music.  I stumbled upon Mike Dowling - he plays Delta style guitar and has a record called Bottomlands. I could listen to that 24 hours a day.  I never get tired of listening to it.  I love the old blues players like Lightning Hopkins, Mississippi John Hurt, Fred McDowell.  I love classical guitar, Django Reinhardt.  I could listen to him forever too.

It seems like I'm always finding out something different about music every time I sit down to play.  With that in mind it could be encouraging or discouraging.  I'll never know everything I want to know about music, but I like to think that it's encouraging.

Curtis Buckhannon is available for lessons to those in the St. Louis area. To learn more about the Buckhannon Brothers, visit or write to P.O. Box 6165, St. Charles, MO  63302-6165.  Their CDs are also available from County Sales.