Categories
Songwriting

Woe the Songwriter: Part 2

As a songwriter, a dream is one or more of my songs being recorded by a big name in the genre for which I am writing. If Del McCoury, Ricky Skaggs, or Doyle Lawson were to release an album with one of my songs, I could die with a smile on my face. It wouldn’t even have to be the single (although that would be way too cool!), but just the fact that an artist that I admire considers one of my songs good enough to record, that is a great reward.

I have been fortunate that a bluegrass artist did record one of my songs. Valerie Smith & Liberty Pike recorded my co-write “Something About A Train” a few years ago for her album Small Town Heroes. To see your name on someone’s CD cover as a writer is a great feeling. I don’t care about the royalties at this time (I will if this becomes more common, of course), but to get recognized is a great thing.

So now what? Yes, I want more, so I send out more demos and queries. Lots of them. No replies. Send follow-ups, no replies. I realize that there are a lot more bluegrass artists writing their own material these days, and even a lot more songwriters clawing for recognition in the genre as well. There are a lot of factors playing against me right now (no longer an IBMA member, Coronavirus pandemic means less live shows to network at, less recording going on in studios), but I still keep trying. I post songs new and old to my music websites ReverbNation (http://www.reverbnation.com/mitchmatthews) and Songwriting Pro (http://www.songwritingpro.com/members/profile/692), hoping for at least some feedback.

Yes, the bigger-name artists can pick and choose a lot more, and are most likely going to work with established songwriters in Nashville. Many are even stepping outside of the bluegrass fold and recording bluegrassy versions of pop/rock songs. But what about the other bluegrass artists? I am talking about bands that do not have great exposure but are striving for it. They will put out a CD with a dozen songs, but all of them are old standards that Bill Monroe or Flatt & Scruggs originally made famous. Other than aunts and uncles, who is really going to buy that CD when the original version has been available for years?

Maybe these C- and D-list bluegrass bands don’t want success – they just want to play live once in a while and put out a CD to show that they accomplished something. CDs cost money, even if you record the songs for next to nothing with your brother-in-law’s recording equipment. My advice? Save the money for strings, maybe a better PA system, or a case of beer. You won’t get anywhere in the business selling CDs for $15.00 that contain the umteenth version of “Doin’ My Time” or “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” Play them for jams, occasional live gigs, and for tryouts of new band members.

For new and wannabe successful bluegrass bands, I would like to make a few suggestions. Write some original material. If you have people in the band that just want to play the same 20 or so bluegrass standards and do not want to learn new material, then try to find someone who does want to improve. I stopped working in bluegrass bands locally because of this. I am a songwriter, and I do not want to waste my valuable practice and playing time with musicians who want to stay in the cover-band box. Try writing a good song, you will see how difficult but rewarding it can be.

If you can’t write a song to save your life, then spend some time looking for original material. Check with songwriters in your area at open mics (when they become available again after the pandemic) or surf the internet. Go to pages like ReverbNation or Songwriting Pro and scout out songwriters. Talk to them about performing and recording bluegrass versions of their songs. Most songwriters will be more than flattered that someone is interested in performing their music. I remember one of my first experiences of someone wanting to perform one of my songs. “Built To Crash” was on a compilation CD released by NPR’s show Car Talk. It was an alt-country diddy performed by my old band Gravel Train. A band on the east coast loved it and asked if they could perform and record it. I gave them my blessing. Now that band’s version was a heavy metal-meets-rockabilly, but I was loving it! Totally different, but the fact that someone respected my songwriting enough to want to record it was an absolute honor.

I work with a lot of other songwriters, either through co-writes or just networking, and the consensus we have is that we want to get out work heard. Yes, we would love to have an A-list band record a song, but there are factors such as bands putting songs “on hold” so that they have sole recording rights to the song for months, sometimes years. In the end, the song may never get released, and you are back to Start. It takes a lot of work to get top artists or their management/publishers to lend a songwriter an ear. If a start-up band wants to record your song and you know that they are definitely going to release it, it may be more beneficial in the long run. That CD may get heard by a promoter/manager/artist and think that your song would be a good choice.

In short, as a start-up or struggling bluegrass band, take a step back and see what makes the successful bluegrass bands successful. It is originality, particularly in the choice of songs. Learn, perform, record, and release songs that will make you an original band. Songwriters like me will appreciate it if you use a song of ours. It is totally beneficial for both parties. My songs are available for the picking!

Chew on it and comment.

Categories
Musical Instruments

Lutherie: My Coronavirus Stay-At-Home Therapy

Last week a buddy asked me to check out a mandolin online that he was considering buying. I gave him the pros and cons, and he eventually passed on the deal due to the asking price for its condition. That got me motivated back into one of my old hobbies – basic lutherie, or stringed musical instrument repair, building and maintenance. Ever since my first bass guitar (a Magnum short-scale Jazz copy that I re-wired with a 3-band EQ), I’ve always loved working on guitars and other stringed instruments.

I could kick myself that I did not pursue that interest when I was younger. I always saw myself with a small guitar shop that people would come to try out my work and perhaps have jam sessions on a Friday night. But alas, I went the college route, got a degree that proved useless, and have bounced around at various white-collar jobs ever since.

However, I continued my love on a small scale throughout my life, repairing electric guitar electronics, minor amplifier jobs, building effects pedals, and stringed instrument setups/maintenance. After the above talk with my buddy, I got to thinking that, because of this stay-at-home virus situation, I should do some basic lutherie work again. All of my current instruments are in good shape, and as I have mostly acoustic instruments, there’s not a lot of electronic work to do.

I went on eBay and found a Rogue A-model mandolin that needed some work done on the back of the body. I bid on it, my highest price being something that I thought no one would come near as the mandolin’s shipping cost was pretty high. I won the auction, and the total cost came out to about what would be average – $41.95 – not a bargain, but not killing the wallet either.

The mandolin arrived a few days later via FedEx, and when opened, I got to see the actual damage. About 1/3 of the back had snapped out of its joining with the side, which made it look like either the back or the side was shaped wrong. Inspection showed that the glue joint was bad, very little glue was used, and the wood joints were dry. At first I thought that I would have to re-cut that part of the back and glue in a 2nd piece, making it look like something the Three Stooges would have built.

Fortunately, before I pulled out the tools, I wedged my fingers into the soundhole, flexed the back a bit, and it snapped back into place. I carefully removed that part of the back again, put in some hide glue, re-snapped it in, clamped it, and let it dry overnight. Voila! It held, and all that I have left is to clean off some glue residue, check for any rough spots on the finish around the repair site (it may need some sanding and re-laquering in spots), and re-install the bridge for set-up.

This has motivated me to go back to eBay, and the internet in general, to start looking for repairable guitars, mandolins, and violins. It’s not that I want to have an arsenal of low-end stringed instruments, no way! What I would like to do is repair them and make them available to kids that want to learn bluegrass and folk music on the cheap. Making a non-playable guitar playable again is an emotional reward. I don’t see me making even a part-time wage from this. And even this simple repair and maintenance stuff takes time and some money.

It has got me to thinking that perhaps I could help start some form of non-profit group that repairs string instruments and donates them to a charitable music organization such as Junior Appalachian Musicians, which helps teach music to kids (if you haven’t heard of this group, you need to check them out at www.jamkids.org). Or perhaps starting a JAM type group in my area (I have discussed this idea with the Southeast Michigan Bluegrass Music Association, as well as local multi-instrumentalist Aaron Jonah Lewis). Or at least do it on my own one instrument at a time. Hopefully some of the free time I have now can be used to research such an idea.

I would love to see young people in my area spend a lot less time by themselves in the basement playing XBox and more time with others (hopefully with a lot less social distancing) creating art and music. With technology taking over our everyday lives, now more than ever, I would hate to see creativity and socializing become a thing of the past.

Chew on it and comment.

Categories
Bluegrass Music

Why Won’t the IBMA Recognize Jerry Garcia?

There are a number of reasons why I am no longer a member of the International Bluegrass Music Association. I won’t get into the full story here; it would take five or six blogs, at the very least. However, one of the reasons I had become disenchanted with the organization is its lack of recognition of those outside the “norm” of the bluegrass community that have helped promote the genre in so many ways.

While I was a member, as well as a serving member of Leadership Bluegrass, there were a few of us who worked hard to get Hazel Dickens inducted into the IBMA Hall of Fame. She had already been presented the Merit Award in 1994 (the first female to receive it), but finally, in 2017, she was admitted to the HOF (after a lot of hard work on many members’ behalf) along with Alice Gerrard.

The IBMA has been promoting itself as a diverse community, but as for as recognizing musicians from outside of the fold that have promoted bluegrass, they turn a deaf ear.

So how about this person – Jerry Garcia? Yes, he was the founder and guitarist/singer for the legendary Grateful Dead, the group that gave us the moniker “jam band.” Those who know rock-n-roll history are aware of Garcia’s demons, most notably heroin and cocaine, and mixing that with his diabetes condition, his body could only take so much. He slipped into a diabetic coma for five days in 1986, had a few relapses, and eventually passed away in 1995 at the age of 53 – way too soon. However, his musical career and scope cannot be ignored by the bluegrass community.

Years before he started the Dead, his main musical interest was bluegrass music. He learned guitar and banjo (playing Scruggs style despite missing a finger on his right hand), and formed the Hart Valley Drifters in 1962 with future Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. While the band never released a commercial recording, a tape from a college radio performance was recently discovered and released in 2016 on Rounder Records as Folk Time. While the performance at times stumbles, one cannot deny that Jerry’s singing and his playing has a true respect for the music.

Jerry was also passionate about promoting other bluegrass bands in the area, such as The Kentucky Colonels. In 1964 he was playing in The Black Mountain Boys on banjo. But while Jerry’s musical tastes turned more toward electric rock within a few years, he never lost touch with bluegrass. Around 1969 he played banjo in an offshoot band called High Country. In the early 1970s, the Dead began adding an acoustic set to its shows, which continued throughout the band’s tenure. Songs like “Uncle John’s Band” and “Ripple” have heavy bluegrass influence, and one can hear that sound influencing today’s young, progressive grass bands such as Hawktail, Mile Twelve and Steep Canyon Rangers just as much as Bill Monroe or The Stanley Brothers had influenced them. One also has to think about the numerous jam-grass bands that were impacted by Jerry, such as String Cheese Incident, Salamander Crossing and Yonder Mountain String Band.

Garcia had a number of side projects besides the Dead, such as The Jerry Garcia Band and New Riders of the Purple Sage. However, the one project that bluegrass afficionados pay attention to is Old & In The Way. Jerry played banjo and sang, along with mandolinist David Grisman, guitarist/vocalist Peter Rowan, bassist John Kahn and fiddler Vassar Clements. Rowan and Clements were former Blue Grass Boys, and Grisman had worked with Hazel & Alice among other bluegrass/roots projects. The band didn’t last long, only a few months, but a live recording released as Old & In The Way in 1975 would become the best selling bluegrass album of all time (until 2000 with the release of the soundtrack to O Brother Where Art Thou?). Garcia and Grisman would continue to put out acoustic albums until Jerry’s passing.

Garcia never let bluegrass leave his heart. In an interview that appears in the 1993 documentary Bill Monroe: The Father of Bluegrass Music, Jerry talks about a time in the mid-1960s of approaching Monroe to possibly audition to be a Blue Grass Boy, but chickening out and going back to California. While he would pass away a few years later in 1995, Jerry left an impact on his fans. Many learned about bluegrass music and the magic of Monroe, The Stanley Brothers, and Flatt & Scruggs through Garcia’s praises. Bluegrass mandolinist/pioneer Jesse McReynolds respected him enough to release a Grateful Dead tribute album a few years back.

So why can’t the IBMA pay him some respect with some award? Of course, Jerry’s in the Rock and Roll HOF with the Dead, and received the President’s Award in 2008 from the Americana Music Association. Is it because he’s a rock icon? His issues with drugs? Because he’s from California and not an Appalachian? He’s done more to promote bluegrass to the younger generation than almost anyone.

In 2018 the IBMA restructured its award distribution. Gone are the Merit Awards (at least as far as I can see, it’s not listed on the IBMA website), replaced with more Industry Awards. Thus, anyone who had a previous impact on the bluegrass industry (more than a year ago) and is not a full-time bluegrass professional has very little chance of being recognized by the IBMA. If that person has passed away, the chance is even more scarce. Someone like Jerry will most likely never be recognized for his influence on bluegrass unless there is a big change in the powers-that-be at IBMA. Totally sad, since Garcia will not be the only one forgotten for his bluegrass work (except by me, I refuse to, as well as a few others). If the IBMA is so concerned with the diversity of its fan base and membership, maybe it should look at who it recognizes as those pioneers of diversity in the music itself.

Chew on it and comment.

Categories
Bluegrass Music

Who’s a Better Musician? None of the Above (and a brief Glarry note)

So I recently read another WordPress blog by another bluegrass fan. His moniker is “Why Evolution is True,” and the blog centered on the great flatpick guitar abilities of Molly Tuttle and Billy Strings (https://wordpress.com/read/blogs/6177163/posts/293181). Now I have been a fan of both of these kids (they are both 27, but they could still be my kids age-wise) since first seeing them, and after learning that Billy is from my home state of Michigan, I take interest in him even more. The two of them have done a number of performances together, and have a great chemistry. I would LOVE to see the two of them record an album together, particularly a song-for-song remake of one of the legendary (yet underappreciated by a lot of bluegrass and guitar fans) Blake & Rice albums.

I was taken aback when the author stated “I think both are even better than the flat-picker par excellence of my generation, Doc Watson.” Now, with the statement “I think,” it becomes his opinion, and opinions are like belly buttons – everybody’s got one. However, I would never in a million years make such a statement. Billy and Molly are fantastic, but occasionally their picking is flashy, sometimes over the top. Doc never did that. They are playing to a different kind of bluegrass audience than what Doc had. They are excellent at their craft, different by far, but I would not say “better.”

My favorite banjo player of all time is Don Reno. He introduced a lot of techniques back in the late 1950s that were innovative to say the least. I love his style on the Reno & Smiley songs. But I would never say he is the best, because there are so many the have done other innovations, yet those players may not have some of Reno’s style down pat. Look at Bela Fleck, who literally took the banjo to a different planet, let alone a different level. Same with Jerry Douglas on the dobro, Chris Thile on the mandolin, and Michael Cleveland on the fiddle. But are they “better” than everyone else?

B.B. King was not the fastest or most melodic blues guitarist. But one of his notes could say more than 20 notes from some up-and-comer. When B.B. played a note, you listened!

It all comes with the times. There may be some younger people that follow Billy and Molly but have never heard of Doc. They could listen to Doc now and think that he couldn’t hold a candle to Billy or Molly. Yet Doc was way ahead of his time back in the 60s, and he had an amazing impact of Clarence White, Tony Rice, and Dan Crary, who in turn influenced Josh Williams, Chris Eldridge and Bryan Sutton, who in turn influenced Billy and Molly. Who knows what will come in the next flatpicking generation?

What I appreciate most about Billy and Molly is that they are getting young people to listen to and enjoy bluegrass. Bluegrass has changed, not in style or set-up, but in sound. There is a lot less high lonesome vocals and more instrumental solos. It is the evolution of the genre. Rock music doesn’t sound like it did in the 50s and 60s. However, the importance is to respect and learn from the elders. While there will always be a piece of the fan base that will thumb its nose at the progressive artists. However, if they are not allowed to grow, then the whole genre will die. There will never be another Bill Monroe, but that is the way it should be – appreciate the person for what he/she has done, and allow the next generation to blossom and not be compared.

Now, as for fiddlers, my favorite of all time is Kenny Baker. However, if you want to see some amazing work by my friend Patrick McAvinue with Michael Cleveland, something that will make you have to catch your breath when it’s over, check this out:

Chew on it and comment.

Glarry Addendum: Glarry has re-stocked much of its musical instrument lineup, however, some models are selling out just as fast as the re-stocks! NOTE: The GT-502 model that I reviewed here (https://luegra.design.blog/2020/03/02/glarry-gt502-good-first-acoustic/) went up in price to $59.99. I’m not sure if it’s due to demand, tariffs, or workers’ pay raise, but just be aware that it is not longer available at the price I previously announced.

Categories
Musicians

Violin vs. Fiddle: It’s All About Attitude

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.

Chew on it and comment.

Categories
Americana Music

John Hartford: Pay Attention, Kids!

I’ll try to make this as brief as possible, but it seems to be important to me and should be to you as well.

I am currently working on an article for Fiddler Magazine (www.fiddle.com) regarding the recent release of The John Hartford Fiddle Tune Project: Volume 1. This album is a companion to the 2018 book John Hartford’s Mammoth Collection of Fiddle Tunes. The book contains 176 tunes from John Hartford that were never recorded by him – just written down in music notation and filed away in various notebooks. His daughter Katie Harford Hogue (not a misspelling, John’s real surname was Harford), fiddler Matt Combs and musicologist Greg Reish gathered up these tunes for the book, which is an enjoyable read even if you never heard of Hartford. This year, Hogue and Combs produced the album to include 17 of these songs, performed by a number of A-list bluegrass musicians, including Tim O’Brien, Alison Brown, Ronnie McCoury, Noam Pikelny, Chris Eldridge, and the band Hawktail among others. It sounds fantastic!

John Hartford was a singer/songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, writer and steamboat pilot, along with a dozen other unique hobbies. Faulkner, Hemmingway, Steinbeck, nor Anderson could have written a more distinct character into one of their novels. He loved music immensely. He would have jamming parties at his house in Tennessee that would last for days. He wrote one of the greatest country/pop standard songs of all time (“Gentle On My Mind”) that allowed him to live off of the royalties to do his own thing with studying old-time fiddle music and riverboat history.

Hartford died in 2001 of Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, which kept him from playing his fiddle and banjo in his final months. His last major appearance was in the music documentary Down From The Mountain, which highlighted the music from the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou. In 1994, I was fortunate enough to jam with him for a few minutes at Gruhn’s Guitars in Nashville. I was passing through town to attend a Civil War reenactment, and stopped into the store to try out a few guitars. From behind me, Hartford walks up, grabs a banjo, and asks me to fall in with him while he started “Cripple Creek.” That was two minutes of Heaven for me, two minutes that I will never forget in all of my life.

I bring up John Hartford because I feel he STILL has never received the recognition that he deserves with the musical audience. Sure, thousands of people know “that Glen Campbell song,” and he has been recognized for lifetime achievements by the International Bluegrass Music Association, the Americana Music Association, and the St. Louis Walk of Fame. However, do people (other than his hardcore fans) realize how much of an influence he had on today’s music? He is considered the Father of Newgrass, which had a cult following in the 1970s and 80s but has become a fixture in the Americana music genre. As most musicians progress to learn more varied styles of playing, he went in reverse, intensely studying old-time fiddling forms so that they would not disappear from history.

I promised to keep this short, so I will state this – Soak up as much as you can about John Hartford! Listen to his music, check out what he was studying, read some of his writings. The man was a cultural genius. People like him come around only once every hundred years or so. So pay attention to what he was saying and doing! Below are some recommendations to get started.
Albums: Gentle On My Mind and Other Originals; Aereo-Plain; Morning Bugle; Nobody Know What You Do; Cadillac Rag; The Speed of the Longbow; Live From Mountain Stage (some of these are out of print, but worth the hunt)
Books: John Hartford’s Mammoth Collection of Fiddle Tunes; John Hartford’s Old-Time Fiddle Favorites (songbook)
Articles: “John Hartford: A Fun and Open Discussion” (Fiddler Magazine, Spring 1997, out-of-print, can be found at www.fiddle.com/articles.page?index=40&articleid=19118)
Video: Down From The Mountain; John Hartford’s Old-Time Fiddling: Trying to Teach My Hands to Do What I Hear in My Head

Chew on it and comment.

Categories
Bluegrass Music

Bluegrass Breakfast … Sort Of.

Well all right! I finally have something to gripe about that is bluegrass related.

A few months back, WSM 650-AM out of Nashville (www.wsmonline.com) started broadcasting a program at 5:00 am Central Time weekdays called “Bluegrass Breakfast.” Now, being in the Detroit area, that is 6:00 am, and I can usually get a good signal of the station on my AM radio driving to work (ever since I was a little kid, I’ve loved tuning in far away stations on the AM radio at night). OK, so it’s really only about 20 minutes of music, due to commercials and the news at the top of the hour. But at least it’s good bluegrass music in the morning, sort of like the old Tom T. Hall song, “Bill Monroe for Breakfast.”

Well, not exactly.

Maybe one song every two or three shows will be a classic bluegrass cut from the likes of Monroe, the Stanley Brothers or Flatt & Scruggs. Most of the songs are of the modern variety, which you would think is at least bluegrass in sound, content, and/or structure. However, you would be wrong. Whoever is programming that half hour has little knowledge or concern about what music is going over the airwaves. There is vary little variety in the playlist, and no one at the station seems to give a squat. For example, at least three times during the week, one will hear “Gone Gone Gone” by Alison Krauss and Robert Plant. Sure, Alison started out as a bluegrass performer, but she has branched out over the past decade, and this song (which won a Grammy for Best Pop Performance) is hardly bluegrass. If you aren’t familiar with the song, here’s the YouTube link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9YVRxAX6fwg

Another song on “Repeat” throughout the week is “County Line” by Steel Blossoms. I like the song, it’s a good song, with some great visual lyrics. However, with the electric slide guitar dominating the sound, it’s hardly bluegrass. Again, here’s the YouTube link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_PyIhVyAtCY . This sort of tells me that someone at the station knows someone involved with the band and is getting them airplay when they can’t get it during the country-music hours.

These are just two recent examples that I have come across. Honestly, I have never heard either of these songs on any other radio or streaming bluegrass program, Considering that there are thousands of quality bluegrass songs out there that the bluegrass audience would appreciate more, you would think that someone involved with the programming would get his/her head out of the proverbial butt and make it look like he/she knows what he/she is doing! For Pete’s sake, it’s only about 20 minutes of programming! One would think that SOMEONE could handle six or seven songs that fit the bill each day.

I was moved enough to write the station a few days ago to file a complaint regarding the choice of music and lack of variety. I did receive an email back stating that WSM received my email and is forwarding it to the program director. Knowing haw crazy radio stations work these day, they will probably cancel the program rather than change up one or two songs.

Does this bug anyone else? Has anyone listened to the program? Tune in at 650 AM in the morning or online. Let me know. Chew on it and comment.

Categories
Bluegrass Music

Bluegrass Bass: Part 4 (Final?)

Happy Easter, everyone! It’s not as exciting of a holiday as it should be, what with the Coronavirus “stay home” situation, and there’s not much to gripe about in the bluegrass world, since we are all in the same boat. So I figured that I will talk a bit more about using the electric bass guitar in a bluegrass setting and try to finish up this topic.

I have covered the bass, amplifier, accessories, and some pointers on learning to play bluegrass-style. These few remarks will deal with getting your electric bass to sound more like an upright bass. The first two tips cost nothing or next to nothing, but the others will mean investing a little cash.

Tip #1 – Put a small piece of sponge (the cheap nylon type that you can get at the dollar store) and slip it under the strings right where the strings meet the saddles at the bridge. This will cut the sustain on the strings when plucked as well as get rid of some of the high-frequency overtones. The magnetic pickups in a guitar work off of electrical vibrations from the string movement, and in turn, allow the sound of the string to sustain longer. Muffling the strings a little will cut back a bit on that, which means the vibrations will be less, like the plucking of an upright bass string. In the 1950s and early 1960s, bass guitars from Fender and Gibson actually came equipped with a muting device at the bridge so that the sound was close to an upright, which was still in demand on recordings. A good example of a P-bass using a mute is James Jamerson’s bass playing on early Motown records. It really wasn’t until the late 1960s that the bass sound came into its own and those devices were discontinued. Be sure that the sponge is not too big as to muffle the strings completely, and as close to the bridge as possible.

Tip #2 – Where you position your plucking hand makes a difference in the sound. DON’T USE A PICK! You are going to want to pluck the strings the way a standup bass player does. They usually have the plucking hand right where the fingerboard ends at the body. The strings have much more play and less high end at this position. You can use your thumb (early electric basses had a finger rest on the pickguard for use of the thumb to pluck to get a standup bass feel, while today the rest is used by the thumb for finger plucking), or bring your hand up toward the fingerboard, bend it down at the wrist, and pluck with the index finger or index/middle fingers pressed together. Don’t play modern finger plucking, where the index and middle fingers work in tandem (John Entwhistle made it famous, Jaco Pastorius made it an art form). No, stick with the thumb or single-touch finger, the way a standup player does. You will get used to the callouses.

Tip #3 – Consider using either flatwound or tapewound bass guitar strings. Roundwound strings, especially when new, give off a lot of high-frequency harmonics, sounding like the lower notes of a piano. Flatwound and tapewound strings will cut some of that high end, yet will still give a clean sound, even when using thumb and fingers instead of a pick. The downside to this is that flatwound and tapewound strings are expensive, usually running about $30 per set, which is about twice as much as a set of roundwound strings. You can check out a number of videos on YouTube where players are comparing flatwound and tapewound strings to roundwound strings, although most of them are playing rock or funk grooves to showcase. If you are using a short-scale bass (usually those with a 30-inch scale), finding flatwounds is extremely difficult, and finding tapewounds is near impossible (which is a little strange, since the Hofner 500-1 “Beatle Bass” is a 30-inch scale and was designed for flat- and tapewounds).

Tip #4 – Try an acoustic simulator guitar effect pedal. These pedals are primarily designed for electric guitar players who want to get a near-acoustic sound for a song or two at a gig without having to pull out an actual acoustic guitar. Acoustic guitarists who plugged into the PA system found that these pedals gave them a much more natural sound with a little tweaking of knobs. The first one was produced by Tom Scholz’s Rocktron company. I had one of these, and it did have some great tone control, but was a bit noisy, so forget using it in a recording situation. I also had one of Behringer’s early acoustic simulator pedals, which was also quite noisy. Pedals available today range in price from about $30 to over $150. It’s more of a gimmick than a necessity, to be honest, but if you have money to blow, go ahead.

There are a number of videos discussing similar techniques on YouTube. One technique that is covered on some of the vids that I don’t recommend is “palming” the strings, This involves muting the strings at the bridge with the side of your hand on the pinky side. While it deadens the strings, you are plucking near the bridge, which has more bite than bass.

Play with the tone controls, both on the bass and amplifier, and listen to what sounds the best. Also listen to bluegrass recordings for the upright bass, and see how you can get as close to it. It won’t sound exact, but it will be close, and a lot less money spent overall than even a cheap standup bass. The only problem will be (and continue to be) convincing the stubborn traditionalists that there is no place in bluegrass for an electric bass.

Chew on it and comment.

Categories
Bluegrass Music

Bluegrass Bass: Part 3

OK, so you’ve been practicing the bass for a while on your own and you would like to take a chance at jamming with some other bluegrassers. I haven’t gone into discussing bass guitar amplifiers yet, so let’s do that.

Before we go any further, make sure you are purchasing an amplifier for bass guitar. A regular guitar amplifier has different circuitry, and the speakers cannot handle the low end of a bass guitar, which will mean they will get blown out pretty quickly.

When purchasing a bass amp, there are three main things to consider: Power output – this means the wattage kicking out through the speaker, so to speak. You can get anything from a 5-watt practice amp to a 1,000-watt thunder-creating mammoth! Since you will be working with three or four acoustic musicians at this time, a 20- to 25-watt bass amp should be sufficient. You could probably get away with something as low as 10 watts, but you may find that you are turning up the volume to distortion levels just to be heard at times. Anything more than 50 watts, and you are paying for wattage that you don’t need at this time (unless you also plan to play in a rock band), plus you have to consider the size of the amp with that much wattage (covered later). Take a look at Guitar Center and Sweetwater websites and see what they have in that area. Remember to be looking at power output wattage. Some of the off-shoot and unfamiliar name brands of amplifiers will list an amp as a 25 watt, but the back panel of that amp will show a 25-watt “power consumption,” which is the power it is taking in, so it may be only putting out 10 watts. Buying one brand new, expect to pay about $100 for a reputable brand (Fender, Acoustic, Ampeg) 25-watt bass amp. You may find one a lot less used on eBay or Craigslist, or a lesser-known brand (be sure to test it out before buying).
Portability – Everyone at a jam will be walking in with his/her instrument in its case – except YOU! You will also be carrying in an amplifier (as well as necessary cords, more on that later), so think about that. You don’t want to be needing a hand cart to move your stuff, and others will be irritated if they have to help you with your equipment for a simple jam. A typical P-bass weighs about 10 pounds, and more depending on if you are using a gig bag or hard case. As an example, the Fender Rumble 25 bass amp weighs about 21 pounds, and that is one of the lighter 25-watt amps! This amp (and comparable ones) use an 8-inch speaker and are solid state circuitry. A bigger speaker will mean more weight, as well as tube circuitry. On the flip side, you may find a bass amp using smaller speakers, but because of the ultra-portability, you are paying extra. One thing to mention here: get a combo amp, which means the amp and the speaker are in one unit. Buying the amp and speaker cabinet as separate units (known in the rock world as a “stack”) does not make sense for a small-wattage amp. Again, shop around a bit, and if you are able to test them out at a music stores, pick the amp up to test the weight as well as plugging in to test the sound.
Features – An input jack, volume and tone controls, and a speaker are obvious. However, there are a lot of features on amps that you may or may not need.

  • Multiple inputs. Some amps have two input jacks, which is fine, but not necessary.
  • Advanced tone control. This can range from a single tone control on off-brand amps to slider graphic equalizer controls. While shaping the tone, like cutting some of the high end, is useful, a graphic EQ may not be worth to price in features, especially if you are playing live, and the room shapes the sound as much as the amp. A single tone control is sufficient, but a two- or three-knob tone control circuit is perfect.
  • Headphone out jack. If you don’t already have a headphone amp and want to hear yourself practicing, this is useful.
  • Auxiliary input jack. This is if you want to run a CD or MP3 player into the amp so you can play along to songs. Useful for some, not for others.
  • Line output jack. Used if you are using the amp as a pre-amplifier to a larger amp. This is actually a good feature if you are playing a larger venue and they are using a PA system. The soundman can tap into that jack and mix the bass into the house PA without miking your amp. These are usually 1/4-inch high impedance jacks, but some amps actually have the XLR low-impedance microphone jacks, which are better for the soundman.
  • Effect loop jacks. Meant to plug in a special effect guitar pedal or rack unit to mix it in through the amp. Definitely not needed unless the amp is a good price.
  • Fuse holder. Some amps will have a small fuse wired into the system to protect the circuitry. A good feature.


The thing to remember is that, with more features, the higher the cost. Reputable brands such as Fender and Ampeg are going to cost more than some unknown brand, and buying brand new from a reputable dealer will be a bit safer if something needs fixing.

If for some reason you decide to surf eBay or Craigslist for a bargain, be cautious. That doesn’t mean that there are no great buys there (I recently purchased a Fender BXR-100 100-watt bass amp in great shape, only two knobs missing, off the local Craigslist for $50! That’s less than half of what it is worth on the used amp market), but you are not going to have the same warranty coverage that you would get from buying at Guitar Center. As for eBay, if you don’t know much about amplifiers, stay away from anything used, even if it is a great price. Check the reputation score of the seller, then don’t be afraid to email questions. If buying from Craigslist, try to take someone with you that can at least listen to the amp with you. Make sure that the person will allow you to plug the amp in and try it out. If not, skip that person altogether! A lot of people will say that they got it in an estate sale and don’t know if it works, then skip that person as well. Make sure to take a guitar cord and power cord with you as well as the bass.

If testing a used amp, check for a few things. Turn each knob and listen for scratching noise. This means the controls are dirty. If it’s slight, a shot of contact cleaner spray can help once you get it home. However , if the scratching is loud and all over the spin, that pot will need replacing, which is costly if you don’t know how to do it yourself. Also listen for speaker distortion at higher volume. Wiggle the guitar jack at the input slightly to hear if there is any loose contact. Also, look for physical abuse, like massive duct tape patches or hot glue spots. This may mean that the amp was kicked around a lot and one more knock may do permanent damage to the inside wiring.

One final note on this matter: Make sure to invest in a good-quality guitar cable. The cables that sometimes come when purchasing a new bass guitar are poor quality, not even good in an emergency situation. A decent 25-foot cable should cost about $20, but it’s worth it. The more you pay, in all honesty, the better quality it will be. Also, get yourself a good extension cord, a heavy-duty one (not an appliance type) if you don’t have one already.

This ran longer than I thought. The next blog will be about tips to make the electric bass sound a bit more like a stand-up bass. In the meantime, chew on it and comment.

Categories
Acoustic Guitars Bluegrass Music Musicians

Addendum: Coronavirus, Michigan Bluegrass, and Glarry Guitars

Some follow-up on previous blogs …

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.

A good read is an article by Bobby Owsinski in Forbes Magazine: https://www.forbes.com/sites/bobbyowsinski/2020/03/19/music-business-after-lockdown/#1506837f7c8c

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.