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
Bluegrass Music

Music and the Coronavirus

The Coronavirus is hitting the US as of this writing (March 21) with a vengeance. Thousands of people are infected, and about 150 have died in the country from it. Compared to other countries, especially in Europe and the Middle East, we are relatively tame. Only a few states and cities are declaring mandatory stay-at-home. Most of the country is doing it on a volunteer basis, with many non-essential businesses closing and restaurants doing only carry-out.

Bars and concert venues are closed until further notice. This puts a lot of musicians out of work. Bluegrass artists are especially hit hard, as most of their income as bands come from touring and festivals. With each day passing, there is an announcement that another festival is being cancelled or postponed until later in the year. During this time of the year, many bluegrass bands hit small venues for weekend two-set shows in the north and midwest areas. Now that those are cancelled, the tour buses and vans stand idle.

However, musical artists, managers, agents and promoters are resilient, and are making lemonade out of lemons. It was heartwarming to see that The Grand Ole Opry, which hasn’t cancelled a show ever in its near-century run, will continue to perform on Saturday nights (sans audience) and broadcast it on the radio and through various channels on the internet. The world-famous Station Inn in Nashville is keeping some of its music schedule going by webcasting on its site and having a virtual “tip jar” for onlookers to pay the band. Hundreds of artists are taking to the internet to webcast solo or small combos on StageIt or other concert websites, as well as on Facebook. I urge you to check with your favorite bluegrass artists on their websites to see if they are performing online. As AT&T used to say, it is the next best thing to being there.

Some of the most touching musical moments that I have seen lately on YouTube are the number of videos showing apartment complexes in Europe, which are under lock-down, with musicians performing on balconies for the other residents to enjoy. Some even show multiple musicians trading licks and accompanying each other from different balconies. Music knows no barriers.

With my regular job office closed until further notice, I am working at home (actually my mom’s house, as there is heavy construction going on in front of my house at this time). Yes, I am going batty occasionally, it is confining and stressful to be in the same place for work and after work. It has, however, made me work more on my guitar and fiddle playing, along with songwriting. What little spare time I have in my life I can use it to improve on my musical skills.

This self-quarantine situation is not going to end soon, but it will end eventually. There is promise a few months down the road. The two big roots-music conferences from the Americana Music Association and the International Bluegrass Music Association are still planning to go in September. Little-by-little, we are learning to cope, and music is one of the medicines for the soul.

Now is a good time. If you never picked up a guitar or banjo, do it now. If you already play an instrument, play it some more. Go on YouTube and learn a new lick. Get one of Pete Wernick’s Jam videos (www.drbanjo.com) and play with the virtual band. Record yourself and see how you have improved over the time. When this is all over, you will be a better person for it.

Support music in any way that you can, be it watching and tipping a band on the internet, buying a guitar for yourself that you never thought you would, or just singing. Music supports us in our down-spirited times in so many ways.

Chew on it and comment.

Categories
Bluegrass Music

Bluegrass Unsung Hero: Andy Griffith

Every year at the World of Bluegrass conference sponsored by the International Bluegrass Music Association, they present Momentum Awards for musicians and people in the industry that have had an impact on the progress of the music format. One person who definitely deserves an award (albeit posthumously) is television star Andy Griffith.

Andy Griffith was a legend. He was a great actor who could do both comedy and drama, serve as both the hero and villain, and made all of his characters believable. Of course, what he is best remembered for is the role of Sheriff Andy Taylor on The Andy Griffith Show. While he continually helped keep the peace in Mayberry along with a number of comedic characters, he also had a charm that could put anyone at ease. A good friend and I will continually text each other to say that we are in one of those moods that only an episode or two of The Andy Griffith Show can cure.

What I respect Griffith the most for, and what so many people seem to forget about him, is his love for music, particularly roots-based music like bluegrass and Gospel. Throughout the series of the television show, there was hardly an episode where at the very least Andy could be found strumming a guitar on the porch in the evening.

Griffith was seeped in music as much as in acting. He graduated from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill with a Bachelor of Music and was the president of the glee club. One of his first great roles in film was as the guitar-slinging bum turned political influencer “Lonesome” Larry Rhodes. Previous to that, he had released a comedy album and appeared on Broadway. Then came the role of Sheriff Andy Taylor. It seemed he had a guitar to his side more than a pistol. He brought forth a persona that made everyone wish that he was the sheriff of their town.

But the love of music went beyond strumming a guitar. Early episodes included appearances of the West Coast bluegrass group The Country Boys, which included brothers Clarence and Roland White and would eventually become The Kentucky Colonels. One of these shows revolved around a city-slicker record executive coming to Mayberry to record local bands, which included Griffith performing a few tunes with the band. Other episodes included Gospel singing by fellow Broadway actor Jack Prince (who portrayed moonshiner Rafe Hollister), and Andy promoting a rockabilly guitar player named Jim Lindsey (portrayed by James Best, better known later as Sheriff Rosco Coltrane on The Dukes of Hazzard). Even the show’s theme song was a catchy tune, still with us today in a Lincoln SUV commercial with Matthew McConaughey.

However, the most popular musical episodes involved the arrival of the Darling family to town. Denver Pyle was the father figure and did the talking, while his four silent sons were the members of the bluegrass band The Dillards. Every episode they appeared usually had two songs, with either Rodney Dillard, Griffith, or sister Charlene (played by Maggie Peterson) singing lead. While Pyle playing a jug with the band was laughable, those appearances helped not only The Dillards, but folk and bluegrass music in general at a time when bluegrass was found mostly on college campuses.

Yes, one can say that The Beverly Hillbillies show, with its theme song “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” and appearances by Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs was more prominent. The theme song was a hit on the Billboard charts and, along with “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” appearing in the movie Bonnie & Clyde, got Lester & Earl back into the spotlight. However, those appearances on The Beverly Hillbillies seemed much more comical and hokey compared to the music on The Andy Griffith Show. Both shows were comedy, but music performances on TAGS seemed much more part of the storyline, and never seemed like it was promoting something else.

Even after that show went off the air, and Griffith went on to Matlock as well as a number of film roles, he still had a passion for music. He put out a number of Gospel and folk-style albums in the 80s and 90s. He also made appearance on a number of variety shows singing folk and Gospel songs. In 2003, Martin Guitar Company showed its appreciation for him by issuing a limited-edition Martin D-18 Andy Griffith Acoustic Guitar. If a company like Martin can see how important Griffith was for roots music, then a whole lot of other people and organizations should as well.

Andy Griffith was as American as apple pie and baseball. If a fifth face was to go on Mount Rushmore, it should be his.

Categories
Bluegrass Music

Bluegrass Bass: Part 2

So you thought about what I said last month. You went and got yourself a beginner electric bass to start off practicing bluegrass bass. Good for you! If you got the bass at a really cheap price because it was all that you could afford, and are ready to buy a small amp, let’s hold off on that for a while. I would hate to see you buy an amp that turns out to be not what you needed. Save your money and get a good 20-watt bass amp made by a reputable company.

So what do you do in the meantime? Well, you could buy one of those headphone amps. Since you want to practice a bit on your own before trying out with a group. However, many of these headphone amps are about as much in cost as a small regular amp, so consider that. I wouldn’t spend more than $20.00 on one of these, since the money that you save can be put into the regular amp. If you check on eBay, there are a few out there by NUX and Lisheng that can do the job. The Lisheng LH-380 comes with a built-in speaker, but I would advise not using it at all and go straight for the headphones. The speaker is cheap and will blow out at the first plucked note. NOTE: Make sure that you are using over-the-ear headphones (you can probably get a decent pair at a Five Below stores) and not earbuds. Earbuds will not handle the low frequencies of a bass guitar. Also, make sure that your volume control on the bass is not maxed out at 10. In order to cut out distortion, bring it down to 8 or 9, then adjust the volume on your headphone amp.

If you want to save that money for the amp, there is a way to play your bass and hear it at no cost at all. While playing the bass, take the headstock (where the string tuning gears are) and lean it gently up against a wall or large piece of hardwood furniture (like a large chair or bed frame). Voila! You just boosted the sound of the bass to twice as much. The low frequencies of the bass can reverberate better than high frequencies. This is sort of like when a low-flying airplane rattles your house or when some schmuck driver has his bass speakers loud enough to vibrate his whole car. It won’t be THAT loud, but you will be able to hear it much better than the bass alone. And this amplifications didn’t cost you a cent!

Now let’s talk about your first lessons. I won’t talk about getting a teacher here. If you feel that is the route you want to go, then make sure you let him/her know that you are looking to learn bluegrass bass. Otherwise, you may be paying for lessons into jazz and rock that you may not want.

As for books, Mel Bay (the patron saint of beginning musicians) puts out a number of quality choices. Probably the most popular book is Electric Bass Method Volume 1 by Roger Filiberto (ISBN 1-6097-4843-3). While the photos may look dated, the information is still relevant, and it shows the very basics of playing bass as well as introduces the player to a number of genres and the basics of music theory. There are a number of other books from Mel Bay (www.melbay.com) as well as Hal Leonard (www.halleonard.com). You can probably find these at Guitar Center or any local musical instrument store. There are also bass guitar books in the Dummies and Idiot’s Guide series, but these usually lean more towards learning rock and beginner jazz styles.

The same goes for videos. Mel Bay and Hal Leonard both put out some quality beginner bass guitar vids (most of these are online, although you still may find some DVDs available). There are also some good videos from Watch & Learn Inc. as well as Alfred Books. Just make sure that you are getting one that teaches the basics and not going into Rock or Jazz (you really do not need to work on slapping and popping at this time). For the cheapest route, there are always a bunch of beginner bass videos on YouTube. Go ahead and search until you find one that you actually like and can learn from.

Once you have the basics and a little theory under your belt, you probably want to be a little more skilled at being a bluegrass bass player. Unfortunately, almost all books and videos dedicated to bluegrass bass deal with the upright bass. However, there are a few books and videos out there that deal with country music bass guitar that can be of use. One of the best is The Lost Art of Country Bass by Keith Rosier from Hal Leonard (ISBN 9780793569922). The thing to remember is that playing bluegrass bass is not so much knowing technique of the instrument, but to know the song itself. A bluegrass band relies on the bassist to move the song in the right direction and at the right pace/tempo. Once you have the idea of root/fifth movements and walk-ups, you need to know about the Nashville Numbering System, Circle of Fifths, and the chord structures for the most popular bluegrass songs. Don’t worry, this comes with time. You won’t get there right away, but you WILL get there with the right amount of patience and determination.

The best teacher is your ear. When you have the basics down, start playing along with bluegrass records. Listen to where the bass is going, what key the song is in, and get used to the tempo. Those recordings by Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, The Stanley Brothers and Reno & Smiley are the best teachers you could ask for when it comes to learning bluegrass music.

I will get more into getting a good bass guitar amplifier in a future blog. In the meantime, chew on it and comment.

Categories
Bluegrass Music

Why Define Bluegrass?

“There is a difference between rock and rock & roll; beware of inferior imitations (avoid contact with any musician who doesn’t know how to play Chuck Berry music).
– Cub Koda (The Book of Rock Lists)

Ask 100 bluegrass fans to define “bluegrass” and you will probably get 101 different answers. Some are reference book styled that are definitely written by someone who has never really been to a bluegrass festival (check out this computer female voice defining the music on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N9EVJOLSfhQ). California fiddler Kat Bula goes on and on in her 13+ minute video to describe bluegrass (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gCC3XPEx7D4&t=167s), of which I personally disagree with a lot of her statements. There are many other definitions out there on the internet, be it a blog, video, or excerpt from one of tons of books on music.

But why does bluegrass need a concrete definition?

Define a “house.” Four walls? Roof? Doors, windows? But if you gave a dozen people a pencil and paper, and told them to draw a house, there would be 12 different interpretations. So, it is the same for bluegrass.

What gets my goat is the fact that so many people attempt to make these concrete definitions, even in the most minute form, to state what bluegrass is:

  • It must have a banjo (and only Scruggs style)
  • It should not have an electric bass
  • No drums
  • No horns
  • Singing must be that high lonesome sound
  • (Insert your favorite bluegrass gripe here)

Yes, in 1945, Bill Monroe had “something” when he walked on stage with Lester, Earl, and the rest of the Blue Grass Boys. It would knock everyone who was listening on their butts. But he didn’t call it bluegrass at the time. It took more than a decade for the term to get established by people in the music biz so that they could market it as such. Once that happened, bands suddenly were or weren’t bluegrass, despite how audiences reacted previously.

Bluegrass isn’t baseball. It shouldn’t have a certain amount of players or use specific instruments to make it acceptable to go forward. Bluegrass, like really any musical format or genre, is based on the attitude and emotion it creates and how the listener reacts to it. Bluegrass can include guitar, banjo, mandolin and so forth, but there are plenty of instances where those “rules” are broken and the “feeling” of bluegrass is still there. How many times did Dr. Ralph Stanley sing a capella? How many times did you hear Doc Watson play solo or maybe with a second guitar? Some would argue that these instances are NOT bluegrass, but don’t these instances bring forth the same listener emotions and responses as the typical bluegrass band performance?

Bluegrass music, like any art form (be it music, painting, sculpture, architecture, or whatever) has styling, but should never be put into a concrete position. It should be allowed to continually grow and experiment. Bill Monroe tried accordion and xylophone into some of his recordings. The Osborne Brothers had drums and electric instruments throughout the 1970s. One of my favorite “bluegrass” bands of today, the Steep Canyon Rangers, has a percussionist. If it weren’t allowed to grow, the dobro would not be a part of it. Nor would lead breaks by guitars be acceptable. Pickups on instruments, even the use of separate microphones for each band member, would be prohibited. What about the songs? If the subject matter wasn’t dealing with a farm or coal mine or mama praying, it would be scrapped.

In short, the bluegrass society needs to stop putting the music into a box. It should be allowed to breathe, try different sounds, explore outside of the three chords. Who cares if there’s no banjo? As long as it still moves me the same way other bluegrass songs do, then it’s bluegrass. Try to refrain from using the words “must,” “should,” “never,” and “supposed to” when talking about bluegrass music.

Chew on it and comment.