So I’ve been learning the banjo. At the beginning of 2011, I set out to learn something new—something that had nothing to do with pixels, browser bugs, typing, or angle brackets. I’m not calling it a resolution, as I can’t think of another resolution I’ve ever followed through on completely. But I’ve fallen through on the banjo. Specifically, clawhammer banjo, which is an old time style of playing without finger picks.
I’ve been playing music most of my life, starting with drums at age 8, then later guitar, but the banjo has always fascinated me. It’s a peculiar, misunderstood instrument. And it’s difficult to play. Or so I initially thought.
The banjo’s been around for hundreds of years and was a very popular instrument prior to World War II. A guy named Earl Scruggs came along and revolutionized the way it was played: three finger style with syncopated rolls and virtuostic finger acrobatics. It’s the style you’ll hear in most bluegrass band setups. It’s wonderful. But it’s damn hard to learn how to play—especially if you have previous experience with the guitar or other stringed instruments. That high barrier to entry arguably led to the dwindling of banjo players over the last half-century.
Clawhammer (or frailing) on the other hand, is a method I’ve found far easier to pick up. It’s the way most folks played before the Scruggs style became popular: right hand in a fixed, claw-like position with a single finger nail hammering down on the strings, while the thumb plucks the drone string. Although I’ve found it easier, more natural and simpler, there’s still an amazing variety in the sounds you can get out of the banjo, not to mention it sounds great on its own (where three-finger style sounds best accompanied by a band).
Fortunately, there’s a real clawhammer banjo master right here in Salem, Tom Collins, and I’ve been taking lessons from him once a month or so. It’s been invaluble to sit down in person in order to figure out what you’re doing right, and what you’re doing wrong.
Over the course of these lessons, it struck me that learning this wacky instrument comes down to three main stages:
I’ve been learning by being taught to play various tunes. Most of the songs are old time classics that have been passed down from generations of banjo players. When we begin learning something new, we imitate. We learn to mimic people who know what they’re doing. This is OK. We’re not stealing from them (yet) but rather learning by immersion and observation.
Another crucial part of learning the banjo (or any instrument for that matter) is repetition. You learn patterns and exercises that are mastered by repeating them over and over and over again. “Muscle memory” kicks in eventually and these patterns become second nature, developing into a vocabulary of sorts. When learning new tunes, having that vocabulary to tap into becomes essential and speeds up the retention of new songs.
Lastly, we innovate. By taking the things learned by first mimicking the songs and styles of other players, then piecing patterns together that have been mastered through repetition (Mr. Miyagi knew what he was doing), we’re then ready to add our own details and subtlty. It’s then that we’ve created something unique of our own. Many of the old time standard tunes have countless variations. A single title might sound completely different depending on who you originally learned it from, the geographic region you’re in, etc. Even though the tune is foundationally the same, the creative “top coat” makes it stand on its own, giving it character based on where and who it came from.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how you can apply this creative progression to learning just about anything. Including … wait for it … web design. I’m hoping to write a bit more about those connections in the future. Getting this post out was the first step to help me think through it all a bit more. For now, I have tunes to learn and strings to hammer.
I’ve always loved the constraint of a 4-track cassette recorder. So when I first came across FourTrack, a simple recording app for the iPhone, I figured I’d give it a whirl. I grabbed my trusty ukulele and laid down a little tune I often play to the kids. The audio records right from the iPhone’s built-in mic. The quality is impressive. Then I grabbed my three year old son Jack’s toy percussion kit, and banged along to the uke track. In literally 5 minutes, I had a finished song.
FourTrack lets you download the raw track files by temporarily creating a web server, giving you an IP address to grab the files individually via wifi. You can then drag those files into an audio editor on your desktop. I dragged mine to GarageBand, quickly added a stupid bass line, applied a British amp distortion to the uke, then exported it to an mp3.
All in total, it took about about a half hour to create the final version. With vocals by our 8-month old girl, as well as me telling Jack to “hold on” while I finished up the drums. It’s certainly not a hit — but this app might just be what I need to get back into music making.
It must be 12 years ago now. I was living in Allston “Rock City”, playing guitar in a shoe-gazing instrumental indie rock trio. My G string broke. No, not that G string (not that kind of band). Out of extra strings, I managed to find a D string lying on the rehearsal room floor. I strung it on and kept playing. See, a D string is wound steel, and thicker than a G string, which is a single strand. But winding it tighter and tighter, I was able to tune it back up to a G.
From that day on, I exclusively played with two D strings (one tuned to G) instead of a normal set of guitar strings. It changed the way I played, changed the sound and timbre of my setup. It became a part of the DNA that made up whatever it was we were creating.
It’s been happening throughout history, of course. Beautiful accidents. Unintentional intentions. We can’t plan these mistakes, but wish we could. What seems like disaster, turns into the spark that ignites what we perceive later as “rightly so”.
And it happens all the time when I’m designing. Oops, I dumped a white paint can where color used to be. Wait. That’s nice. It’s become a part of my process. A part I can’t anticipate, or account for, but a part nonetheless.
I’ve been thinking about ways to facilitate these accidents. Make them happen more often. I haven’t come up with anything yet. Too much coffee, not enough coffee, time of day, etc.—are they really accidents, or our subconscious guiding the way?
Until I figure out, I’ll keep adapting, accepting and discovering.
I rarely find new music these days. I’ll blame it on time and general lameness. But here’s two new (to me) bands that are worthy of spreading the word on. Midlake: “Head Home”. My pal Jeff turned me on these guys. Pure 70s smoothness. No one does vocal harmonies like this anymore. Their album, The Trials of Van Occupanther is an absolute gem.
MGMT: “Time to Pretend”. Could this be the Summer 2008 Anthem™? It’d probably need different lyrics. But regardless, this is one catchy tune, with an ABBA-esque quality (again, vocal harmonies) that’s damn infectious.
What are you listening to these days?
Esteemed readers that haven’t left while I’ve found little to write about lately, may remember the time that I listed out the Reasons I’ve Purchased a Ukulele. I can report that it’s still the best $39.99 I’ve ever spent. Little Jack goes into a hypnotic trance whenever I bust it out, and it’s so light and portable, it’s easy to juggle it with whatever else you’re doing.
But the main reason I return to this fascinating topic, is that I’ve found the one and only song you need to learn in order to sound like a soprano ukulele pro. One song only: I’ll Follow the Sun by the Beatles (perhaps you’ve heard of them).
Once you learn C – C7, D7 – G7, and F – Fm transitions. You can start mixing and matching these to instantly sound like a Hawaiian ragtime virtuoso. Seriously! Also, by learning this one song, you can play others, like Proud Mary, Ring of Fire or Puff the Magic Dragon (I know, I know… but Jack loves ‘em).
So that’s it. If you’re a recent or future ukulele owner, learn this one song, and off you go into 4-string stardom. Update: I’ve recorded a little tune I like to call “Jackulele” over at Odeo. My first podcast, and hopefully not my last. The song uses all the chords from the aforementioned Beatles selection, with a few other experimentations. It’s a bit rough, but is always a crowd pleaser (to a crowd of one. One that is 5 months old).
I rarely listen to commerical radio (usually in the car), but I’ve noticed a new(ish) radio station here in the Boston area, 93.7 Mike FM. Their motto is “we play everything”. This means you’ll hear Loverboy, then Jim Croce, then Ashlee Simpson. I’m guessing the new format has something to do with the rise of shuffling on the iPod and other similar devices (are there other devices?).
I have two reactions to this: a) well, that’s sort of cool. At least they’ve broken out of the commercial radio mold of playing the same 12 songs a day. And b) is this just background sound for people that don’t like music? A sort of “Russian Roulette”, where the station bets on playing something that you’ll like… eventually? What’s the demographic they’re going after?
Another observation is that this particular station has no DJs (from what I gather). Just pre-recorded station bumpers, commercials and random songs. I imagine this keeps the cost of running a station like this to a minimum. Just hit shuffle and go.
I also wonder: are there similar “shuffle style” stations popping up in other parts of the world?
It appears that Bulletproof Web Design is now available, and I’ve received a few reports that copies are starting to be spotted in stores and received via various online booksellers. To celebrate, I’m launching a little contest where you can win two books, a t-shirt, and some icons.
Observered while watching a televised Duran Duran concert on high definition television: During the retro ballad “Save a Prayer”, instead of holding up the customary lighter, much of the crowd at Wembley Arena raised glowing mobile phones to the air to create the intimate atmosphere that is the “power ballad lighter thing”.
Does this mean that Duran Duran fans are now non-smokers? Or maybe Wembley doesn’t allow smoking. Or maybe everyone was bored and already talking on the phone when the song came on, and it was more convenient to lift that in that in the air, rather than dig out their lighter. And then again, this could mean that the average person is now more likely to have a mobile phone, than a lighter on them (while watching Duran Duran–an extremely scientific metric).
Whatever it means, Duran Duran is still touring–and people with mobile phones like it.