Another likeable YouTube channel is the one set up by bassist Billy Sheehan. While I’m not big on “bass guitar as lead instrument,” I do know that Billy is one of the top bass players out there, and if he says something about bass playing, YOU LISTEN! His channel has only been up for a few months, but the videos up are worth watching. There are a few performance videos, but there are also some great videos on what he does to work on his basses to make them play better. Like me, he likes to get his hands dirty by working on things like setting up his guitars, setting intonation, and adjusting parts for better playability. He’s personable, humble, and appreciative of his success. Definitely check out his channel at https://www.youtube.com/user/BassPlayerBilly.
MerleFest is back on for 2021! Although the festivals is usually slated for the month of April, this year it has been moved to September 16-19. Unfortunately, anyone planning to attend AmericanaFest will have to either choose between the two, or hope that his/her boss will give them two weeks vacation. The Chris Austin Songwriting Contest is also on, with entries being accepted April 15-June 15. For more information, go to http://merfest.org/.
A few days ago, I was interviewing fiddler Tom Morley for an upcoming article. We got onto the topic of what he and other musicians that he knows are doing to keep the sanity during all of these pandemic lockdowns. He told me about a creative idea that his friend’s daughter thought of that consisted of purchasing a few small plastic greenhouses, pushing them together, and with one musician in each house, the band was able to perform together and hear each other while still keeping social distance.
The more that I watch the video, the more that I am amazed at the creativity some people have shown during these strange times. Yes, music can be performed alone, but the idea of two or more musicians creating music together is part of human nature’s bonding. The Coronavirus tries so hard to dishearten people by separating us, but we as humans are smarter than that.
As I still look for a job, I have been trying to keep my sanity by doing some lutherie work. Actually, more repairs are being done on guitar amplifiers than on actual instruments, but it is all good, right? One thing that I have noticed in my search for repairable beginner stringed instruments is that people think that the damaged guitars, basses, mandolins and such are really buried treasures. Sure, a 1959 Fender Stratocaster that has structural and wiring concerns can still fetch over $1,000 because of its pedigree, but there is no reason that an acoustic guitar with a brand name of Magnum, Lotus, Rogue, or no name whatsoever should demand a high price.
I scan Craigslist ads as well as check eBay and other sources, and I am puzzled when I see a 30-year-old Magnum acoustic guitar that has seen better days with a price tag of $100.00! Seriously, a guitar like this did not sell for much more than that when it was new, probably has loads of nicks and scratches, even a crack or two, and the neck is most likely bowing like a hill. One thing that shows like “American Pickers” and “Antiques Roadshow” have done is get people to think that all of the junk they have in their garage is worth something. If I am going to spend 60 or 70 dollars on an acoustic guitar, I would rather go through a company like Glarry, where the guitar is new and has some type of warranty or guarantee with the manufacturer/distributor.
Advice: If you have one of these old acoustic guitars that you bought for your kid decades ago and he never took an interest, and it sat in the closet for 20 or more years, and it does NOT have the name of Martin, Gibson, or Guild on the headstock, it is most likely not worth more than 10 bucks. Go ahead and get it appraised, but there is a slim chance that it is worth something. Instead, sell it at a garage sale for a few bucks, so that either some other kid may try to play it, someone like me might be able to salvage it as playable and give to someone, or let someone else hang it on the wall.
With the COVID thing going on, most musicians and bands have had to cancel live performances. To make up for the lost income, the more industrious performers are either doing virtual concerts, stepping up to online teaching, or being creative on sellable swag.
So most of you know that I am a contributing writer for Fiddler. In my years of writing for the magazine, as well as my involvement with the bluegrass music scene, I have become friends with a lot of bluegrass fiddlers.
Two fiddlers that stand out in my friendship are Brittany Haas of Hawktail, and Bronwyn Keith-Hynes of Mile Twelve. Both are amazingly talented, as well as absolute sweethearts. They can call me any time if there is something that I can do for them, and are always there if I need a quick quote for an article. Something both of them have done (apart from each other) that I absolutely applaud can prove to be a great gift for the holidays.
Fans can only purchase so many CDs and T-shirts to keep bands afloat. A few months back, Hawktail made available 12-by-18-inch prints showing musical notation of songs from the albums Unless and Formations. Printed on parchment style paper, it looks as if it was taken from sheet music printed over a hundred years ago.
As for Bronwyn, she has recently released her solo album Fiddler’s Pastime. One of the more clever items available on her website is a handwritten page of musical notation from one of the songs on the album. Viewing it, you actually see what Bronwyn sees, hears, and thinks as the pen meets the paper.
Why do I bring up these two visual items up? Because they are awesome to say the least! Frame them, and you have a fantastic gift for someone into either or both artists. If you cannot find a fan, them get them for yourself!
Hanging a painting of a portrait or landscape on your wall is so typical. As I am a music aficionado, what hangs on my walls is mostly music-related, such as concert photographs and posters. Now, I will include framed music notation. There are a number of reasons why putting this on your wall is a plus. Here are just a few:
It is a lot more eye-catching than the typical painting.
As you look at it, you tend to create the shown melody in your head.
If you are not so competent on a musical instrument, you can at least follow what is written when you listen to the song.
You are getting inside the performers’ heads.
While some people do frame and hang old piano music, it is usually done as more of a historic representation, or perhaps enjoyment of the cover illustration. That type of printed music was meant to be read and performed, not framed. However, in the case of Hawktail and Bronwyn (and perhaps any other musician/band doing the same thing that I am not aware of), the music has already been presented in a listenable format. Now, these artists want to show you what the music looks like, perhaps even why they took it in a certain direction.
The most heartwarming thing about these printed notations to me is that the artists wanted the listener to be a part of their process and outcome. It makes the music more encompassing, just like reading liner notes of an album WHILE you are listening to it. There is so much more to soak in from the music as you look at the notation. I hope that others appreciate these personal connections like I do.
Eddie Van Halen RIP – There wasn’t a lot of coverage in the news of his death, but anyone that grew up in the 80s or was a big music fan took notice. I was never a big fan of Van Halen, but I did know that Eddie was an amazing guitarist. He is LITERALLY up there with Hendrix, Clapton and Page. He may have not been the first to try out double-tapping on the guitar fretboard, but he perfected it and made it an art form. There was not a lead guitarist in any hair metal band that did not emulate Eddie. He had his demons with drugs and alcohol, but had a great demeanor. I have never seen an interview with someone that, when asked about Eddie, that person talked about how humble of a guy he was. I remember seeing a cable television tribute to Les Paul many years ago, and all of these guitarists came on stage to laud over Les. Eddie went one step further and hugged and kissed the man. His last years in life were fighting throat cancer, which eventually took his life. He will be missed by many, especially other musicians, but his guitar work on Van Halen recordings as well as others (that was his magic playing lead guitar on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”) will never be forgotten. Rest easy, Eddie, you have definitely changed the music world for the better.
Finger contraption – My fretting/fingering hand for guitar, bass, mandolin, and fiddle has never had great dexterity. I could never get that pinky finger to stretch out for that illusive fourth fret, or have enough strength to form a true barre chord. I relegated my fingerings to a lot of open chords and lead playing rarely went past the ring finger. So a few weeks ago, while ordering some music stuff off of the Wish website, there was a deal that if you purchased a certain amount of items (which I did), you get a huge discount on a few other related items. There wasn’t much to choose from, so I ordered a finger stretcher. It is four plastic rings spaced apart in a straight line. You slip your fingers through the rings, and press down on the contraption as far as your finger spread will allow. Yeah, it looks like something from the Spanish Inquisition and was painful the first few times, but I have been doing this every day for about 20 minutes, and I have noticed that the pinky on my left hand does have a little better stretch. Playing the fiddle lately, I find it easier to finger those high notes. I’m not sure if this thing is doing the job, but I got it for next to nothing, and if anything, I feel like it is helping. If you can get one of these things for under a few bucks, and you have trouble stretching the fretting fingers, you might consider trying one of these gigamadoos.
IBMA Awards – The awards were handed out last week, and here is a list of the winners: https://bluegrasstoday.com/2020-winners-of-the-international-bluegrass-music-awards/ . I would have taken the list off of the official IBMA website, but they still have not posted it yet. I’m glad to see my friends Mile Twelve winning Best New Artist, and another good friend Becky Buller winning Song of the Year (“Chicago Barn Dance”) and Collaborative Recording of the Year (“The Barber’s Fiddle”). Talk about a Who’s Who of bluegrass fiddling, check out the video.
Glarry: I picked up another fiddle, this time from Glarry. This is the model GV306, the most expensive violin they carry. At $89.99, that is really not expensive. I based the purchase on a review from my hero, Jerry Rosa at Rosa String Works. I am relatively satisfied with it. There were a lot accessories included (shoulder rest, tuner/metronome) that it wouldn’t matter if they were there or not. One drawback is that it only has a high “E” string fine tuner, not on all four strings like the lower-priced models. I ordered and put on three more fine tuners before setting it up. Another drawback is that the bridge is really thick. I had to file down a lot of wood to make it more like a true violin bridge. I plan to get a better bridge in the future. Finally, the strings that Glarry puts on their instruments are horrible. I’ll be replacing them soon with a decent set. However, the tone of the violin is nice, very woody and low. My other violin sounded like a screech owl compared to this one. It inspires me to keep practicing. The video below is Jerry’s review. The first violin he reviews is the GV306.
When I’m asked what is the difference between a violin and a fiddle, my usual answer is, “With a violin, you drink wine; with a fiddle, you drink whiskey.” It’s a rather silly question, because they are both the same instrument. “Fiddle” is just a moniker that was given due to the slang of one playing the violin was sometimes referred to as “fiddling” with it.
However, there is generally a big difference between violinists and fiddlers:
Violinists want perfection
Fiddlers work with what they have
I won’t get into the performance of music. There are tons of videos on YouTube showing classical violinists being exact with their playing, while bluegrass and country fiddlers are being improvisational, going where they feel like.
What I am looking at here is the choice of instrument. From what I have seen, classical violinists (as well as other classical musicians) feel the need to have the most perfect instrument in order to do their job. Now granted, their careers depend on having the right equipment, just as a carpenter needs the best tools to build a house. But I have seen so many examples of mid-level classical performers wincing and getting frustrated about making a mistake and blaming it on the instrument. Now I have never seen someone like Itzhak Perlman do this (that man can make a Fisher-Price toy violin sound like Heaven!), but I have seen a number of other classical musicians pull this, especially string players.
I recently watched this YouTube video of violinist Rob Landes comparing five violins ranging in price from $70.00 to $10 million.
After one listen, one can easily tell which one was the $70 cheap model. It sounded boxy, like one was listening to it through a paper towel tube. Yes, the others sounded better. However, he was still able to perform the three songs on that cheap violin without difficulty. He then proceeded to talk to the shop owner, who recommended the $450 model as a starter. Sorry, but I’m sure that there are a number of kids who would love the learn the violin but cannot afford even $450, let alone millions of dollars.
On the flipside, I rarely see someone playing roots-based music blame any mistakes on the equipment (although it does happen, especially with the male and female divas). I have seen old bluesmen make a pawnshop guitar sound like the Earth shaking. I have heard beautiful sounds from instruments that look like they were pulled from the trash. Yes, a 50s-era Gibson Les Paul Goldtop plugged into a 60s-era Fender Twin Reverb is going to sound a lot better than a Hondo LP copy plugged into a solid-state practice amp when you strum that open G chord. And the same can be said about violins to be sure. But how are words like this going to motivate the kid in the inner-city who actually has an interest in playing music to pursue it when they cannot afford it?
The past few years have seen tremendous improvements on beginner instruments of all sorts – guitars, violins, drums, even some wind and brass instruments. The problem is that many professional performers look their noses down on such products without even trying them, or go in with a pessimistic attitude trying the instruments out and refuse to change. It is as if they either do not want someone to start playing an instrument because it will eventually be competition, or they enjoy belittling those people who cannot afford an expensive instrument.
There are brands out there such as Glarry, Mendini, Paititi and Bailando that are producing decent-quality violins for the beginner. Yes, these are made in China or some other Asian country where the factories are paying terrible wages and are mass-producing these instruments to keep the costs down. However, this has been going on for decades, ever since someone figured out that every kid in America would want to play guitar just like Elvis. Fortunately, not all classical violinists and luthiers take the bad attitude toward these beginner models.
Esther Abrami is a French model/violinist who has a YT channel and often posts about product reviews. She is an absolute sweetheart to watch. Here is one where she reviews a Glarry violin:
Rosa String Works is a luthier shop in Missouri that works on all kinds of string instruments. In this video, owner Jerry Rosa reviews a Glarry violin and shows what he does to improve on its playability before donating it to a school:
This is a review of three different violins available on Amazon for under $100 (Mendini, Bailando and Paititi), which when played by a professional violinists, shows that they are great starters:
The Piano & Violin Tutor is a popular British instructor/reviewer. While I do not agree with most of what she says regarding beginner violins, she does have one good video on how to improve the sound and playability of a $100 violin:
I could go on, but I don’t want to get long-winded and start rambling. The truth is, there is very little to argue about a $100 violin not being a good beginner violin. Bluegrassers work with what they have when starting out. Not every beginner guitarist gets to start off with a Martin. Not every beginner banjo player can afford a Gibson or Huber. And not every beginner fiddler can have an Amati or Stradivarius at his/her disposal. Those of us already performing with quality instruments need to be as supportive as possible to those who are just starting out. Whether it is assisting with modifications, lessons, or just some advice, it should not be tolerated to lose a young person interested in music from discouraging words from an elder.
Coronavirus – the US death toll is over 2,000 as of this writing (March 29). It is going to double for sure, most likely way more than that. We have to remain vigilant and stay to ourselves as much as possible. It is sad that even when we need to turn to God, the churches are closed indefinitely.
Internet concerts are popping up like crocuses on the lawn. That can be bittersweet. Many of the potential viewers are in the same situation as the performers – no job and needing money. Add to that every musical artist is doing this, which means most will be pushed by the wayside. That’s showbiz. It was a positive thing to see that Congress passed a bill providing some financial relief to performers of the arts. However, one idea that artists must realize is that they chose this career, no one pointed a gun at them to do it. It is a freelance type of employment, and it moves the way the wind blows. Whether it is a school district budget, a city or municipal budget, or a pandemic, the arts and entertainment funds are usually the first to get cut during hard times. Please accept the fact that you may have to forego any reliance on playing guitar or singing, and this may be a situation for a long time. I also see these virtual concerts being more of a norm in the future, with live performance venues suffering once the virus threat has subsided.
Michigan Bluegrass – While I complained about how little attention is paid to the history of bluegrass music that happened in Michigan, I must say that part of the blame lays on the media in Michigan, particularly in Detroit. On March 22, Eric Weissberg passed away in a nursing home located in suburban Detroit. He was a multi-instrumentalist who performed and recorded with Bob Dylan, Judy Collins and The Talking Heads. His most famous work was playing the banjo part on the hit recording of “Dueling Banjos,” which was on the soundtrack to the movie Deliverance. The New York Times had an obituary; Rolling Stone had an obituary; neither the Detroit News nor the Detroit Free Press had an obituary. Sad. I was motivated enough to write to the Detroit News story desk and complain. I doubt that it will go anywhere. RIP Eric, your work is appreciated.
Glarry Guitars – Well, these guitars are becoming quite popular, and my Glarry blog is the most read of all of them. Checking out the Glarry website (www.glarrymusic.com), in the Acoustic Guitars section, all of the guitars are sold out except one, which I predict will be out very soon as well. Now granted, these are made in China, and with restrictions on imports due to the virus, this may take some time to recover getting them back into the Glarry US warehouses. However, it does go to show that these guitars must be worth the money. One can read the numerous reviews and posts on the website and see that almost all respondents are satisfied with the guitars. Once I got my GT502 set up, I compared it to my Jasmine by Takamine S341 and the Glarry outshined! It won’t replace my Martin D-28, but I may try to get it into the hands of someone who will do wonders with it. I truly hope that this surge in purchasing quality but budget-priced musical instruments helps get people, especially kids, picking them up and putting down the Playstations.
I should have something different to talk about next week. Until then, chew on it and comment.
Yeah, yeah, Jackson Browne gave tribute to the roadie in his song year ago. Of course, that was for the roadies that work the big shows. What about the ones that work for bands playing small dives and house concerts? Don’t they deserve some respect?
I guess that it depends. In all of my years as a musician, I’ve also done my time as a roadie for various bands. I’ve also seen thousands of shows over the years, and have always observed how the roadies operate. Recently, I went to see a touring acoustic band at a small venue, and the supposed “roadie” seemed like he was just there for the ride. The band was setting up their own equipment, and this hipster was just standing there with his hands in his pockets. Maybe he helped carry in some stuff beforehand, and maybe he helped set up the merch table, but it was the band selling stuff afterwards.
Why would a band have someone like this tag along? Is he a good driver? Is he a good luck charm? Hmmm …
Now I have also seen on many occasions small-time roadies who have gone above and beyond. Carrying equipment, tuning guitars, setting up amps and drums, getting towels and water, running the soundboard AND running the merch table all at the same time! However, I have also seen many musicians take someone like that for granted, and become deer in the headlights when Saint Roadie is not there any more.
Bands can learn a lot by being their own roadies. Respect for the worker bee is obvious, but here I will talk more about the technical side. For any project with two or more members, one person should have the basic knowledge of musical instrument maintenance. If you are touring solo, that means YOU! So take time to learn a few things about your acoustic guitar besides neat-o alternate tunings.
First off, take a look at your instrument and see what parts of it are solid versus those parts that are moving. If we are talking a guitar or other stringed instrument, this includes strings, tuning gears, bridge pins, volume/tone controls, whammy bars, string saddles and more. These are parts that can and will wear out over time. Strings break and corrode only after a few gigs. The same goes for any electronic equipments such as amps, effects, and cords/wireless transmitters. Take a look at what could easily fall under Murphy’s Law and be prepared. Know how to repair or at least temporarily fix during a gig.
There are many useful books out there on guitar maintenance. One recommendation is Guitar Setup & Maintenance by Chad Johnson (Hal Leonard Publishing ISBN 978-1-4584-1824-1). The book is smaller so that it can fit in your gig bag (if you don’t have a gig bag for accessories, GET ONE!). This information can also be used on other stringed instruments, and I am sure there are reference books on banjo, mandolin, fiddle, synthesizer, and amplifier maintenance as well that you can find with a quick internet search. There are also a bunch of YouTube vids that show some basics on maintenance of musical instruments.
But there are a few things to purchase right away:
Guitar tuner (this is a gimme)
Screwdrivers (both straight and phillips), for strap buttons and case hinges
Set of jeweler’s screwdrivers, for pickguard and gear tuner screws
Set of allen wrenches, both standard and metric (if you don’t have the ones that usually come with the guitar)
Needle-nose pliers, for grabbing, loosening, tightening stuff like jacks
Wire cutter, if you don’t have a cutter on the pliers
String winder (this is obvious, but I still know people who don’t have one)
Small flashlight (ever lose a bridge pin on a dark stage?)
Duct tape (on the eighth day, God created duct tape!)
Extra set of strings
Extra guitar and mic cord (if used)
Keep these in your newly purchased gig bag and always keep it with the guitar case. Most importantly, learn how to use them!
If there is one rule that stands out among the others, it is this: Learn to change your own strings! I have actually seen a few performers who broke strings and asked someone in the audience to help out. In addition, learn how to change strings fast (if you aren’t smart enough to have a back-up instrument). Nothing says “amateur loser musician” more than someone taking 10-15 minutes to change a string. NOTE: If you are part of the warm-up act, and you have a mishap like a broken string, the time that you take to fix the problem is on YOUR clock. If you have a 10-song/40-minute set, and it takes you five or more minutes to change the string, then YOU have to cut out one of your songs. The audience (minus your parents) is there for the headliner, and they do not need to put up with your garbage. At least they will respect you for your courtesy.