Monday, February 20, 2006

My Collection of Banjos

Over the years I've started a small instrument collection. The crazy part is I attempt to play most of these from time to time. I have very few (well none really) museum pieces. All are tools and all are fun to play!

All My Banjos - More than I can play in a day.

Ramsey Woody - An amazing Banjo - Very Loud - A blast to play!

Price Knight - Beautiful Wood, Beautiful Tone!

Stelling Gospel - My prize. #777, formerly Ralph Stanley's. See it in Master's of The Five String

Nechville Phantom - Fantastic Tone - Great Looks

Ramsey Minstrel - Big mellow sound - I Love it!

George C. Dobson Victor - A-Scale and a treat to play.

Unknown Mini/Piccolo Banjo - Wow, it's tiny!

I hope you enjoyed looking at all the banjos!


Sunday, February 19, 2006

How to Practice: A Music Lesson

Here's another lesson I wrote when I was active in #guitar on dalnet many years ago. I hope you find it helpful!

1. Goals

A. Long Range Goals

What precisely is it that you really want to accomplish? Is it your goal to be a professional performer or teacher? You need to decide. Or perhaps you'd be just as happy as an amateur musician, for there's nothing embarrassing about that. Many people have enjoyed music for years just playing for their own pleasure.

B. Weekly Goals

Regardless of your long range goals you'll need some weekly goals. Having a goal to work toward reduces boredom as well as gives purpose to all the practicing. I'd recommend no more than 3 goals per week - examples could include: memorizing a piece of music, smoothing left hand movements in a difficult passage of music, etc. If you meet your goals before the week is up you can always modify or choose another goal.

C. Daily Goals

What do I plan to accomplish today? This is VERY important. It's the one thing that keeps you from sitting and "noodling." Too many people spend too much practice time not practicing. An example of a daily goal could be as simple as: I will learn the first eight measures of the piece I've chosen. (tip: When practicing don't criticize! That's why you are practicing. Negative comments to yourself only distract you from your goal - comments like: "This is awful" or "I'll never learn this". Rather - identify what you think is giving you the problem this will help you reach your goal.)

2. Practice Schedule

A. How much time will I spend today?

Only you can decide this. But let me help. Time is very important in the overall scheme of things; regardless of how efficient your practice time is time will come into play. Let's just make some comparisons, then some simple math. First, you are good at what you do a lot. When was the last time you fell down while just simply walking? Probably not in a long time, why? Because you've spent a great deal of your life walking. So let's assume it takes you 2500 hours to be a "good" guitar player (I'm not sure if 2500 is correct and I won't define "good"). If you are practicing a half hour a day it will take you approximately 13.7 years to be a "good" guitar player. So if you want to speed that up a bit, simply bump your practice up to an hour a day. Voila, seven years. Not happy with that? What about 3 hours a day? What about 6? I think you see where I'm heading?

B. Is that time consistent with the goals I have set?

Remember that very first long term goal you set? Is the practice time you've scheduled enough to meet that goal? Remember your goals!

C. When have I scheduled this practice session?

You know better than anyone when you are best at learning new things. Some musicians learn best with their practiced scheduled throughout the day; others learn well in a single session. Which ever you choose schedule a regular time to do it. Don't just say, "I need to practice 2 hours today, sometime, at least before I go to bed." Make a time slot for it, and stick by it. By doing that you can avoid interruptions.

3. Preparing to Practice

A. Relax

Without me going into it here, there are a plethora of relaxation techniques. Pick one that works for you. Being relaxed makes the learning process much easier.

B. Regular Exercise

"Whoa, exercise? You mean it?" Yes, I do. It's hard to practice when you are tired or lethargic. Light exercise on a regular basis will help you avoid being lethargic.

C. Leave your instrument on a stand or leave it's case open

If your case is sitting there open, and you can see your guitar, it's certainly a constant reminder to practice. By eliminating having to open the case may be the one thing that motivates you one those really tough days.

D. Listen to recordings of your favorite artist.

This will certainly get you motivated. It works for me as well as many other musicians, as it can be inspiring. It also makes you feel good!

4. Mental Practice

A. Study the piece you are learning

Always read through and try to memorize as much as possible of any new piece you are learning. Decide what fingerings might be best. Look for things that might give you trouble.

B. Try to hear the piece mentally

Play the tune through in your head. This is a good time to visualize what you'll have to do to get through the tune.

C. Sing or hum the piece

Can you sing or hum the tune? This is important, as it will help you when you actually sit down with your instrument and try to work it out. You can have a mental reference to the notes you are trying to play.

D. If available, listen to recording of the piece

This can really help with phrasing, timing, and countless other problems you may encounter. Remember, you are not trying to copy the recording, but merely listening to see how another musician worked through problem areas.

5. Technique

A. Daily and Weekly Goals

Are the goals you are setting including technique related goals?

B. Focus on coordination

Yes, you should think about coordination when you are practicing. Practicing slowly, thinking about what you are doing, and listening closely to what is being played will help with your coordination.

C. Work on Reflexes

Work on "letting go" of your control, playing at fast tempos and strive for fluid movements.

D. Endurance

Problems with endurance are usually indicative of insufficient coordination.

E. Focus on various physical aspects of playing

Are you holding your instrument properly? How's you posture? Is your right hand where it should be? Is you left hand where it should be? Does anything hurt? The old adage "No Pain, No Gain" does not apply here. I know an Upright Bass player who is very good; he uses a number of slides and various techniques in his playing and was asked, "How long did it take to develop callouses to do the things he was doing?" His response was basically that he didn't have calluses and as long as his technique was correct there wouldn't be any, as it didn't really take that much pressure to move the strings. (tip: Don't practice mistakes. They will be come habits. If you find yourself repeating a mistake stop, and identify the problem and work slowly "without" the mistake until you get it to speed.)

6. Problem Solving

As you practice you will certainly encounter many problems and difficulties learning, but most of these can be separated into two categories:

A. Mechanical

Is the problem you are having a physical challenge? This is perhaps the easiest to fix. Analyze your right and left hand movements and focus on your coordination, reflexes, and endurance.

B. Musical

A lot of things can go wrong here. Check your phrasing, fingerings and rhythm. These are the first things that you want to check; in many cases it's one of these things that is causing the problem. Next what about the dynamics, tone, and articulation? These are a bit more difficult to identify but if it's not one of the first three then it's like to be one of these. I have a couple more that I'd like to mention. First, are you really hearing the piece? And have you checked your transcription? Listening once again comes into play. Always Listen.

7. Listening

Learn to hear. Just do it. It's important. Nothing will help you playing more than improving your ear. From my own experience I know that the things I have learned "by ear" have been the tools I've used since. Pieces simply memorized from tab or notation really mean little to me if I don't take time to listen.

What, you ask, do I listen for? Here's a list:

1. Musical Direction
2. Harmony and Harmonic Direction
3. Tone
4. Structure
5. Musical Tension and Release
6. Phrasing
7. Accuracy
8. Style
9. Rhythm

Practice listening for these things. Not only when you are listening to others but also and especially when listening to yourself.

8. Reading Practice

Remember your goals? Is this important? Most likely it is. This should take no more than 30 minutes of your daily practice schedule. Also remember that your reading skills will probably always be behind your actual technical skill, that's okay. But remember when you are choosing music to practice your reading be sure to choose something that is suitable.

There are two approaches. The first is to choose something that is just below your actual playing level.. With this piece look for where the piece would be most likely played. Find the difficult sections and workout a solution. Count the rhythms out loud. Mentally practice the piece. And finally set a metronome at a moderate tempo and play the piece.

The second approach: use a piece that is at your current playing level, or one you will be learning in the near future. Mark phrases and harmonic groups. Study the rhythmic structure. Play through the piece (slowly) keep track of trouble spots. Select fingerings and try to read at least two beats ahead.

The second method certainly is more difficult, but will, in my estimation, work for the active learner. The first method has merit as well. I recommend that you attempt the first method; if you see little or not enough progress then perhaps maybe the second method would serve you better.

9. Repertoire Maintenance

It's a good idea to keep a list of tunes that you have learned. This will help you when you are preparing for a performance or recital. The pieces you plan to play can be practiced daily, but i recommend putting them in rotation, that is, if you have four pieces you plan to do, practice 2 of them today, two others tomorrow. This will give you more time to work on the pieces.

10. Keep a Journal

This is highly recommended. It will allow you to evaluate your progress by giving you written documentation of what you've accomplished. Write down your goals for each day and an evaluation of each thing you did in practice.

11. Playing with Others

There comes a time when you just have to get out there and play with other people. A good way to get a head start on this is to pick up a copy of Band-In-A-Box and start playing along with some of the songs you've worked out. It's not quite the same as having real people, but it's great practice and it will allow you to work at different speeds, and it'll never get tired of playing the same song over and over. It will help your timing and your ability to just "keep going" when you make a small mistake or miss some notes.

Playing along with recordings is of value too. You'll be forced to play along with people, albeit recorded. In many recordings you'll discover that there is an ebb and flow to the beat, and you'll also begin to pick up on the dynamics of playing with a group.

Finally, get out there and find people to play with. The above steps will make the transition from the practice session to the jam session much simpler.

12. Be Creative

Don't neglect taking some time to sit and find new things on your instrument. You might just surprise yourself at some of the ideas that you might have. Remember, if it sounds good, then it's good. Keep a recording of the better ideas so you can refer to them later - you'll be glad you did.


I borrowed liberally from:

The Art & Technique of Practice - Richard Provost - Guitar Solo Publications of San Francisco - 1992

Mel Bay's Complete Flatpicking Guitar - Steve Kaufman - Mel Bay Publications - 1991

Tune Your Guitar!

Many years ago when I was an active member of #guitar on dalnet I wrote the following lesson for tuning your guitar. I hope you find it helpful.

I can think of nothing more irritating than not being able to get my guitar in tune, unless of course it would be listening to someone else who didn't think it was necessary to even "get close." I suppose this frustration is what prompted the phrase, "Tune it or Die!" I've certainly heard musicians(?) with their instrument so badly out of tune that killing them would have probably been, "Too good for 'em."

I hope the next following paragraphs can help you solve this sometimes simple, often times impossible task of getting in tune.

Tone Deaf? You are kidding right? No? Well, I promise it's likely only a temporary condition. Hearing degrees of pitch is something that you learn over time; the more you do it the better you get.

Here are some simple guidelines to follow:

  • When you first pick a string it will tend to be sharp. Allow it two or three seconds to settle to its actual pitch.
  • Always tune slowly, and LISTEN to the pitch or beat of the note.
  • Always tune UP to the note you're are trying to reach. If necessary loosen the string a bit first and tune up to the pitch. If for some reason you can't seem to find the pitch, chances are you've gone too far, loosen the string 3 or 4 turns and start over.
  • Tuning takes practice. Practice tuning every day.

Devices to tune with:

Pitch Pipe - This was probably the first device I recall using to tune with. Basically six cylindrical reed pipes joined together with each representing a string on the guitar. The principle here is to select a note blow it and match the corresponding string to it. This is a tried and true method, but requires practice. Even as a beginner I was able to use a pitch pipe without much difficulty.

Advantages - Small and covers all the notes necessary to tune you guitar to standard pitch.
Disadvantages - As it ages it will likely go out of tune itself and become a very useless dust collector.

Piano - Many times you'll need to tune to a piano, as it's easier to tune your guitar to it as opposed to tuning it to you. Just find the corresponding notes and tune to the piano. If it's an acoustic piano, there is a good chance that it will not be in tune with itself, which means you'll only be close to in tune. So you'll have to make adjustments. If you are tuning to an electronic keyboard then you will likely not have that problem.

Advantages - Keyboards can be very precise.
Disadvantages - Too big to fit in your guitar case.

Tuning Fork - Struck against your knee, the prongs of this fork will vibrate at a predetermined frequency. While it's vibrating you can hold the base of it between your teeth and then match the appropriate string to the tone now resonating through your head.

Advantages - Small and very precise.
Disadvantages - Only good for one note; you're on your own for the rest.

Electronic Tuner - I bought my first electronic tuner in 1978. I still have it. I paid $99.50 for it and you better believe I'm proud to still own it. Electronic tuners have come way down in price since then, as a similar tuner now will cost about $30. Electronic tuners range in price from $10 to several hundred dollars (The one on my repair bench sells for about $300).

Advantages - Tuning with one of these devices is extremely easy and very precise.
Disadvantages - You really never learn how to tune; you become dependent on the device.

On to the Tuning!


Relative Tuning

  • If you have a piano or access to one, try to match the 6th string (the biggest one) to the 12th white key to the LEFT of middle C (it's also the 12th white key starting at the far left). Once you have matched these you're ready to go to the next step. If a piano is not available then a pitch pipe can help you with this note. 2. Fret the 6th string at the 5th fret and strike that note (it's an A). Now match the 5th string to that pitch. Remember to tune UP to the pitch, so loosen the 5th string and tune slowly until the pitches match.
  • Fret the 5th string at the 5th fret and strike that note (it's a D). Now match the 4th string to that pitch. Remember to tune UP to the pitch, so loosen the 4th string and tune slowly until the pitches match. One of the most common mistake when tuning is tightening the string too much and going past the desired pitch. If you feel this has happened, loosen the string and start over.
  • Fret the 4th string at the 5th fret and strike that note (it's a G). Now match the 3rd string to that pitch. Once again remember to tune UP to the pitch, so loosen the string and tune slowly until the pitches match.
  • Fret the 3rd string at the 4th fret and strike that note (it's a B). Now match the 2nd string to that pitch. Yes, I'm going to repeat it - Remember to tune UP to the pitch, so loosen the string and tune slowly until the pitches match.
  • Fret the 2nd string at the 5th fret and strike that note (it's an E). Now match the 1st string to that pitch. Remember to tune UP to the pitch, so loosen the 1st string and tune slowly until the pitches match. (It's important - that's why I keep saying it.)

Ok... you're almost done. You should go back to the sixth string and check it with the piano or pitch pipe repeating the six steps. It's good to check it a couple of times; try to get it as close to 'in tune' as you can. This method can be reversed and tune from high string to low string. This is handy when using a tuning fork; most common tuning forks used with guitar are E-329.6 (same as the first string) and A-440 (first string fifth fret). So by reversing you start with the high E and fret the 2nd string at the 5th fret and match the fretted note to the open string, etc. etc.

Harmonic Tuning

If you are interested in this method of tuning chances are you've experimented with harmonics. If you've not tried it, try it now at the 12th fret. Just a light touch, (not pressing) directly over the fret, after the string is picked, quickly take your finger off. If you've done it right a bell-like tone will have just sounded (this is called the first overtone).

Other positions create natural harmonics as well, and we can use those positions to tune a guitar.

Here's how:
  • Start with your guitar (or at least your 6th string) close to 'in-tune.'
  • Match the sound of the harmonic of the 5th string at the 7th fret with the harmonic of the 6th string at the 5th fret.
  • Match the sound of the harmonic of the 4th string at the 7th fret with the harmonic of the 5th string at the 5th fret.
  • Match the sound of the harmonic of the 3rd string at the 7th fret with the harmonic of the 4th string at the 5th fret.
  • Match the sound of the harmonic of the 2nd string at the 5th fret with the harmonic of the 3rd string at the 4th fret. This may be difficult for the beginner, so you can also match the harmonic of the 6th string at the 7th fret to the open 2nd string.
  • Match the sound of the harmonic of the 1st string at the 7th fret with the harmonic of the 2nd string at the 5th fret.

You might want to repeat those steps a couple of times to make sure everything is as close as you can get it.

Tuning by Beats

After you've played and practiced tuning for sometime and your ears are more sensitive you may be able to hear what is called beats. Whenever you strike to notes together, if they are not in tune with each other the intensity (or volume) of both notes will pulse at a regular frequency. These are the 'beats' - listen carefully. The number of beats per second is equal to the difference in vibrations per second of the two notes. The slower the beats the closer the pitch of the two notes. When you can't hear the beats then you've succeeded in matching the two tones.

Octave Tuning

I find this to be a handy method of tuning, but even handier in checking your tuning. The following steps can be followed to use this method of tuning.

  • Fret the 1st string at the 7th fret (it's a B). This note is an octave higher than the note you'll tune the 2nd string to. Match the 2nd string to the fretted note on the 1st string, but remember you will be an octave from that note.
  • Fret the 2nd string at the 8th fret (it's a G). This note is an octave higher than the note you'll tune the 3rd string to. Now, match the 3rd string to the fretted note on the 2nd string, again remembering you will be an octave from that note.
  • Fret the 3rd string at the 7th fret (it's a D). This note is an octave higher than the note you'll tune the 4th string to. Like before match the 4th string to the fretted note on the 3rd string, and remember you will be an octave from that note.
  • Fret the 4th string at the 7th fret (it's an A). This note is an octave higher than the note you'll tune the 5th string to. Again, match the 5th string to the fretted note on the 4th string, but remember you will be an octave from that note.
  • Fret the 5th string at the 7th fret (it's an A). This note is an octave higher than the note you'll tune the 6th string to.
  • Finally, match the 6th string to the fretted note on the 5th string, don't forget you will be an octave from that note.

Once again, you should do this procedure a couple of times to make sure you are as close to being in tune as you are presently able.


I'd like to add here that the condition of your instrument certainly will have an effect on your ability to tune, play in tune, and stay in tune. A fresh set of strings is always a good place to start. Worn frets, nuts, and saddles can also affect tuning along with probably a hundred other things I've failed to mention.

In conclusion, there are certainly other methods of tuning (I've only covered a very few), and I'm sure with some experimentation you will find one that works best for you. I also neglected to discuss Pure Tuning as Opposed to Temperament - which is certainly a subject for later discussion. There is, I suppose, no right or wrong way to tune. There is, however, a standard tuning, and you need to attempt to be as close as you are able, regardless of the method you use to get there.


Mel Bay's EZ Way to Tune Guitar - Roger Filberto - Mel Bay Publications - 1979
Guitar Tuning for the Complete Musical Idiot - Ron Middlebrook - Centerstream Publications - 1981

Music Bio

I started playing banjo in 1977. I'm self taught... the old fashion way - I'm a firm supporter now of the listen and learn approach. I've ruined many records by dancing the needle across trying to hit that particular spot on record.

I soon found myself playing in the FFA Stringband in High School. We played all over Georgia and even had the honor of playing at the FFA National Convention in Kansas City.

I have done assorted session work. While living in Athens, Georgia In the late 80's I even played banjo for the "soundtrack" of a FedEx commercial.

I have played and recorded with the Dalton, Georgia based bluegrass group Shady Hollow. I also played and recorded with Country Comfort.

From the beginning I loved teaching others to play the banjo. I've had as many as 50 students a week. On of the greatest opportunities as a banjo teacher came when some of my articles were accepted and used by Banjo Newsletter. I later had the opportunity to teach at the Maryland Banjo Academy.

While in college in the early 80's I took up playing the clawhammer style of banjo playing. I worked from a book I got from Grandpa Jones. I learned the basics and then spent hours trying to figure out Soldier's Joy from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Will The Circle Be Unbroken Album. Years later and many hours of practice I think maybe I finally understand the style. I think all of the effort paid off in 1999 when I won the Old-Time Division at the Georgia State Championship in Hiawassee, Georgia.

I am the 2005 Tennessee Bluegrass Banjo Champion.

I'm currently playing with the Hamilton County Ramblers.

Yo-Yo Bio

I got my first yo-yo sometime in the late 60's. It was a slimline Russell Championship Model that was used in a McDonald's Restaurant promotion. I really don't recall much about the promotion, but I remember a demonstrator and getting a yo-yo. I was young and not in the habit of getting names and details.

From that point I always remember having a yo-yo of some sort. If I ever misplaced or found myself without one I would make my way to the store and buy something - usually a Duncan of some sort (Imperial, Professional or Butterfly). Limited to what I could find in the local department stores I was basically bound to the "back of the card" tricks found with most yo-yos of the time.

Let's fast forward to 1996. I was shopping with my wife and some friends when I found a shop that had these "new" yo-yos. Some that they had would even return to your hand automatically - Yomega Brains and Fireballs. I bought a SaberWing Fireball and found myself re-addicted to this marvelous toy. Since then my collection of yo-yos has grown from a half dozen to several hundred.

In 1998 I received a Playmaxx Turbo Bumble Bee as a gift. This was my first ball bearing yo-yo. It was also about that time I found the "online" yo-yo community. Through this medium I've met many people involved in yo-yoing and I now find myself more involved than I ever imagined.

I've helped plan and promote the Georgia State Yo-Yo Championships. I've also helped with the Southeast Regional and Worlds Yo-Yo Contest.

From 2002 - 2006 I was on the American Yo-Yo Association Board of Directors.