Bluegrass Music

Review of 2022 Resolutions

I decided to use this final day of 2022 to look back on how much I followed/missed on my resolutions for the year (

As for getting my house cleaned and sold, that hasn’t moved too far along. Mom is now 90, and I am literally at her house taking care of her when I am not at my job. I have been able to sell a few things on Craigslist, but there is a ton more. Every time I think that I have something big accomplished with that house, I turn my head and see something bigger that needs to be done. My getting that new job then quitting two days later did not help, as I could have been taking some PTO (that I lost when I returned to my old job) to get in there for a day or two to make a dent.

The guitar and fiddle practice has also slipped. I picked up the guitar for a bit around Christmas, but the fiddle has been dry since around Thanksgiving. Well, this weekend I should grab both of them for some refresher. The arthritis is starting to kick in more with the fretting hand as well as the first finger of the picking hand, so I may need a bit of aspirin or put something on them before diving in to a regimen with the two instruments.

The Songwriters Anonymous group has been getting together in-person since the spring, and I have been able to attend a few meetings. However, because of mom’s care, as well as getting up early for work, I have missed the past few months. I hope to be able to hit a few more over 2023.

Songwriting itself is still lukewarm at best. I have jotted down a lot of ideas, and even bought myself a little pocket recorder to record some lyric ideas just in case a pen and paper are not around. However, no complete song for 2022. God, I hope something inspires me enough for a full song or two in 2023!

Attending SPBGMA last year fell through, but not this year! In a few weeks, I will be in Nashville! Everything is set – hotel, registration, and a rough itinerary. This is my first vacation in over three years, so I won’t let anything screw it up!

As for lutherie, that was also slow. I did some minor work on one of the Yamaha guitars that I bought specifically to clean up and make more playable. But again, I wish that I could have done more.

I was able to get to two days of the Milan Music Festival this past August. Unfortunately, the festival has been retired for good, so I am hoping that something else will take its place, at least for that weekend or near it. Other than that, Bela Fleck’s show, a few indoor shows at the Kentuckians of Michigan Hall and the Michigan Old-Time Fiddle Contest, I really didn’t get to see much live music. I’m not interested in large concerts at all, and The Ark still has high COVID restrictions, so I don’t plan on attending that venue soon. I do find myself scanning the internet for live music in the area, especially bluegrass shows, a lot more than I used to.

So for 2023, it seems that I am on Repeat from 2022. More songwriting, more guitar/fiddle practice, more cleaning of the house, and more searching out live music.

One thing that I did do this past year was video myself performing one of my old songs in my Kitchen Koncert series.

Chew on it and comment.

Folk Music Musical Instruments

Hillsdale Fiddlers’ Convention/World’s Longest Garage Sale

Saturday I made my yearly trek to Hillsdale, about a two-hour drive from Detroit due west, to attend the annual Michigan Fiddlers Convention & Traditional Music Festival. Hillsdale has no interstate near by, so to get there, most of the travel is done on US-12/Michigan Avenue. That actually works out for the better, as this same day is the World’s Longest Garage Sale, in which there are hundreds of garage/yard/rummage sales along the two-lane highway from Saline to New Buffalo.

The weather was terrible to say the least at the festival. Previous day’s forecasts stated rain would come in the late afternoon. Well, the rain started as soon as I got to the fairgrounds. And it did not let up. The morning workshops were held in some of the outbuildings, but other events for the day were cancelled. Thus, I was only at the festival for a few hours.

Roger Plaxton teaches fingerstyle guitar at Hillsdale
Mike Gleason instructing fiddle improvisation at Hillsdale
Dave Langdon performing Michigan old-time fiddle tunes at Hillsdale

The rain let up a bit as I hit the road back home, which was to my benefit. I was able to stop at a few of the garage sales to see what junk was available. If I had the time and money, I would probably hunt at these sales every weekend and end up like Mike Wolfe on American Pickers. However, I pretty much narrow my scope to music-related items. This includes records/CDs, musical instruments, vintage stereo equipment, and music books/videos. Even so, I have to remember that space is limited at my mom’s house (I’m still moving stuff out of my house for eventual selling of the place).

It seemed that all of the guitars, violins, amplifiers, and stereo equipment was priced way out of touch. There were a lot of no-name electric guitars that were way overpriced. A Fender Squier Affinity Strat in an obvious used condition that the owner was asking $125.00 was passed on by me and a few others, since I know that a new version can be had at Guitar Center for a few bucks more. As I expected, there were no albums or CD that I was interested in.

I came across one tent that the man was selling a lot of music equipment. The amplifiers were about right for the price, but I am shying away from electric guitar equipment unless it is a really good bargain. I first grabbed some bluegrass-related music books for a dollar each, then saw that he had a Tascam DP-02CF 8-track digital recorder/mixer. As he didn’t have a power supply for it, I was able to negotiate to a selling price of $25.00. A power supply can be had for about $15.00 from eBay, and I already downloaded the owner’s manual from Tascam. So if this thing works, I got a great 8-track recorder for $40.00. If it doesn’t work, I am not out that much, considering that this thing sold for a few hundred bucks new.

Of course, the heavy rain in Hillsdale never made it to the Detroit area, so my garden didn’t get the watering it needed, and I am off to doing it myself. Saturday was also the Blissfield Bluegrass Festival, which is sponsored by the Southeast Michigan Bluegrass Music Association. I would have attended, but they always seem to schedule it the same weekend as the Hillsdale fiddle festival, and I am committed to attending that, taking archival photos for the Michigan Old-Time Fiddle Association. I haven’t talked to anyone about Blissfield, but from looking at Saturday’s weather radar, it looks as if that event was hit heavily with rain as well. It is the chance any organizer takes when scheduling an outdoor event.

Last week’s Milan festival and this weekend’s Hillsdale festival were the only festivals I have been able to attend this summer due to a number of factors. Right now, the only other event scheduled for the rest of the year is the old-time fiddle contest in New Boston on October 3rd. It will be difficult to get back to the larger crowds for a lot of these minor events since the pandemic lockdowns have killed attendance. I try to find out what is out there and attend what I can. I hope that 2023 will be better for me and others. I am planning to attend the SPBGMA convention in Nashville in January, I am just waiting on exact dates.

In the meantime, I am going to see what demo I can record on the Tascam 8-track.

Chew on it and comment.

Bluegrass Music Musical Instruments

My 2022 Resolution

My new year’s resolution for 2022? Pay more attention to the music, especially bluegrass music.

I’m getting rid of my house and moving back to my mom’s house to take care of her. I’ve been practically living at mom’s for the past five years, and my house is in shambles. Having to take care of an 89-year-old woman on my own, along with my day job, has been stressful to say the least. When I was laid off, it was fine, but I can hardly stay awake now that I’m working.

With that said, I have been spending an hour or so every day at my house getting rid of junk. It has now come down to getting rid of furniture, music equipment I know that I’ll never use again, and other big items. Time doing that has taken time away from practicing the fiddle and guitar, as well as concentrating on songwriting. I haven’t picked up the fiddle since well before Christmas, and I have only picked up the guitar once in the past three weeks.

So I need to get back to the music. I don’t want to lose that piece of personal enjoyment to the struggles of my life. I definitely need some inspiration as far as songwriting goes, and that has been very lacking. My one songwriting group Songwriters Anonymous has been holding Zoom meeting for nearly two years now, and I have not had the opportunity or even motivation to check one virtual meeting out.

I remember one YouTuber named FiddleHed that I wrote about a few months back telling those people that one needs to pick up the fiddle every day, even if just for a minute to pluck the strings or drag the bow across, in order to keep being motivated. Yes, I need to get back to that.

I certainly realize that the COVID thing has really killed off a lot of motivation with me and others. I was practicing the fiddle enough to want to try and hit a jam session, b ut forget that. None to be found in the area. Online jam sessions do not have the same warmth, comradery, or feedback. I was planning on going to SPBGMA in Nashville at the end of the month, but between the house, caregiving, and my job, that was cancelled.

As for songwriting, I am hoping that some camp will happen in the spring or summer. I will definitely travel to get to one, as I have very little motivation around my area right now. I’ve been checking online for some possible camps or workshops, but none seem to be popping up.

Since I dropped Sirius/XM a few years back, I have been a bit out of the loop when it comes to what is new in the bluegrass field. I try to keep up by reading Bluegrass Today online, still subscribe to Bluegrass Unlimited, and I still listen to “Daybreak in Dixie” every Sunday morning on CJAM-FM in Windsor. However, I looked at the Top 50 songs for 2020 on a Bluegrass Today chart a few days ago, and I don’t think that I recognized 10 songs. I don’t see me going back to the Sirius/XM subscription, so I will have to spend some time surfing around on the internet to get my ear back on the ground.

I hope the COVID lockdown apathy will disappear soon for me. I really enjoyed the few times that I was able to see some live music last year. I do know that there are plans to make the Milan (Michigan) Bluegrass festival a five-day event this August. I may not make all five days, but I will certainly be there for two or three days.

Let’s hope that things get better. I need some motivation. In the meantime, here’s something I posted on YouTube a while back. Inspired by Tom T. Hall. We’ve learned some sad news about Tom’s death this past week, but I don’t love him any less.

Chew on it and comment.

Comedy Musicians

I Will Never Be a Good Fiddler / Norm McDonald

I know that I will never be a decent fiddler. Sure, I practice almost every day, but it’s usually for 15 minutes or less because of my schedule. It’s not like I’m not motivated, it just has a lot more to do with my life’s situation.

Age: I’m 57, and it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks. I’ve been practicing regularly for about two years now, but it’s hard for a lot of things to sink in when you have so many other concerns in your life.

Health: I’m overweight, a diabetic, and the arthritis is starting to kick in. Time that could be spent practicing the fiddle is spent exercising just so I don’t have a heart attack in the near future. The arthritis is affecting not only my fingering of the violin, but fretting the guitar as well. I have a tough time playing simple bluegrass leads on guitar that were easy to do just a few years ago.

Responsibilities: I’m taking care of an 89-year-old mother now, pretty much all of the time outside of my job. I squeeze in writing, music practice, and lutherie whenever the opportunity arises, but it is usually just a few minutes each day. Even doing this blog, which I commit to once per week, has to be planned out by getting up earlier than usual. My laptop is always open because, if mom decides to nap for a few minutes, I can run over and type a sentence or two.

Lessons: I thought about getting lessons from a live teacher, but COVID killed that idea a year ago, and now that the possibility exists again, my schedule will not allow for me to drive somewhere else for the help. So I resort to my instruction books and videos, but there is not that extra care that comes from a live teacher. Moreover, a lot of the videos on YouTube lack motivation. You do a search for a certain technique, say, learning the Georgia Shuffle. So you find a dozen videos, but it seems that most of them are 10 minutes long with 7 minutes of rambling talk and 3 minutes of playing without any pausing for slow learners. Oh, there are some good videos, but slushing through all of the garbage becomes defeatist.

So I am pretty much accepting that I may not be able to play much with a band, do solos, or even learn tunes that I want. I will keep doing the few minutes every day, with the hope that things will change in my life for the better.

Last week, comedian Norm McDonald passed away form cancer complications at the age of 61. The man had the most dry sense of humor I have ever witnessed from a comedian. I remember his time at Saturday Night Live, although I did not watch it that much at the time. SNL hired in comic actors for their writing capabilites, ability to impersonate famous people, and of course, ad-libbing. Norm was stuck on the show doing impersonations of Bob Dole and Burt Reynolds, but his forte was anchoring the Weekend Update News skits. He could deliver fake news and truly make you believe it while you were laughing your head off. They kicked him off the show because he let it all out. He was a comedian’s comedian. His laid-back way of telling jokes was like a good friend telling a great story. There was no obnoxious, in-your-face delivery. He just stated the schtick in a matter-of-fact way that was perfect. You sat for a second wondering if he was serious about what he just said, then he would move on and you would finally get the joke. He never lamented on his cancer, and went on with his comic lifestyle as if nothing was wrong. More people should be so humble. Norm, your sense of humor will be missed, especially during these divisive times.

Chew on it and comment.

Bluegrass Fiddle Bluegrass Music

My Favorite Beginner Fiddle Books

When I started writing for Fiddler back in 2012, after two or three articles, I figured that I better actually learn a bit about the fiddle so that I knew what questions to ask and not be confused when an artist or luthier mentioned some strange term. I played guitar, bass, and mandolin at the time, dabbled a wee bit on dobro, and looked at a banjo that I owned more than touched it.

I purchased a student model with soft case off of eBay for about $42.00, and from the stories that I later heard, I lucked out. The 4/4 model was no Strad, but the nut was properly cut, the bridge was satisfactory (I purchased a better one about a year later), and it was definitely playable. While it was able enough to kick out a jig or reel, I sure the heck was not! I picked up some books and videos, then tried my best to hack through a few old-time tunes. I was able to play about a dozen songs without too much squawks, but due to matters beyond my control, I let the fiddle practice slip away a little while after my bridge replacement.

Fast forward to about a year ago. I haven’t been living in my own house due to caregiving my elderly mother. Little by little, I found that I had time on my hands, though not enough to drive back to my house to make use. So among the items I brought over to mom’s place was the fiddle and books. I also started following some YouTube videos for instruction, and found one gent who calls himself Fiddlehed ( that was quite entertaining with his instruction. One suggestion he made a few months ago stuck with me – pick up your fiddle every day, even if it is just for a minute or two to drag the bow across an open string. That regimen stuck with me, as before I would play for an hour or so once a week. Now, I found myself doing 20 minutes or so every day, and it is part of my daily schedule just as morning exercise or evening dinner is. Plus, it has made me love playing the fiddle!

I pulled out the old lesson books and started from scratch. Lots of rust in many spots, but a few bright spots as well. I want to talk about the four instruction books that I have used for my lessons, which I recommend (in no particular order). I got them years ago when they came with play-along CDs. I believe all are still available, but you have to download the audio tracks from the websites on three of them.

My First Fiddle Picking Songs by Steve Kaufman and Conny Ottway ( – Very easy to follow. It does not take too long until you start diving into easy songs. The accompanying CD has all of the songs played at a slow speed. Unfortunately, while there are short instructions on the musical notes and where they appear on the fingerboard and music staff, once the songs start appearing, you have to know where to finger as well as the notes on the staff. Also, there is no guitar chord markings on the songs for someone to follow along.

The American Fiddle Method Volumes 1 and 2 by Brian Wicklund ( – This is probably my favorite of the lot! Wicklund has a good sense of humor, supplementing the lessons with cartoon drawings and witty thoughts. Like the other basic books, it covers the parts of the fiddle and how to position the hands. His instruction mirrors Mark O’Connor’s teaching philosophy, where you jump right into a popular fiddle tune that makes people dance (“Boil ‘em Cabbage Down”). With each new song comes a new technique, and all of the songs are fun (you can conjure up only minimal smiles for perfecting “Twinkle, Twinkle” taught through the Suzuki method). He also covers slides, drones and double stops, which is what makes this style of fiddling unique. Volume 2 continues with even more old-time and bluegrass fiddle tunes for intermediate players. There are also videos available for both books.

Fiddle Primer for Beginners by Jim Tolles ( – This one is probably the most basic of the books listed. A lot more coverage of the rudiments on bowing and hand positions. It also moves slower, so if you are complete beginner that has no musical experience whatsoever, this may prove to be a good starter. There is also a companion video, and a very similar book (about 90% in content) entitled Violin Primer for Beginners by Tolles as well.

Bluegrass Jamming on Fiddle by Wayne Erbsen ( – This is a lot less of a beginner instructional book and more of a fiddle tune compendium and a simple way to play them (it even states in the introduction that this book is for those who have their feet wet, or at least “moist”) . Erbsen is laid back in his presentation, and gives some great information on bluegrass history. The music staff and tablature are a bit confusing compared to other books, so it takes some time to figure out. However, the songs are more bluegrass jam-centric than the other books, and he includes chord charts for the popular fiddle tunes. Erbsen is old school, so he still includes a CD with the book. He does have a beginner book called Old-Time Fiddle for the Complete Ignoramus.

The first three books listed have a lot of the same songs (“Soldier’s Joy,” “Old Joe Clark,” “Cripple Creek”), but it is interesting to see the variants of them. As I have all three books, I like to pull ideas from each one (i.e., whichever looks easiest) and work out my own version. What all of them do have in common is that they shy away from teaching via the Suzuki method, which may be fine for a three-year old but is monotonous to an older student.

I have enjoyed getting back to the fiddle, and still keep in touch with a few former co-workers that were also beginner fiddlers. In many ways, I could kick myself for thinking that the violin was a sissy instrument back in grade school, taking up saxophone instead and failing miserably. Perhaps by the time I was a teen, along with playing in high school orchestra, I would have been skilled at “Jerusalem Ridge” and found a great bluegrass band to work with.

Here’s “Forked Deer,” performed by Brian Wicklund. The music staff and notations appear in The American Fiddler Method Volume 2.

Chew on it and comment.

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 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.


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.