Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Brooklyn Rider with Béla Fleck

Brooklyn Rider and Béla Fleck are performing together at the Brook's Center for the Performing Arts at Clemson University on November 19, 2013. The tickets are apparently free; wish I could go!

Check out the links below for the details regarding the show and the performers.


  1. Clemson Events
  2. Brooklyn Rider's Web Site
  3. Bela Fleck's Web Site

Monday, November 11, 2013

Blue Ridge Acoustic Uprising

Some of you folks might want to check this out. Looks like it might be a nice way to spend a couple of days in April 2014 in Virginia with a lot of acoustic music floating through the air.


  1. Blue Ridge Acoustic Uprising

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Metronome Upate

I just want to let you know that the bluegrass rhythm is not included with the base iReal b iPad app. They do have one, but you'll have to pay extra for it. It's included in the Pop Styles Pack, and it will cost you another $5.00.
There are several other styles in the pack, but the bluegrass style is the only one I wanted at the time. Anyway, just a heads up if you're considering this app.
By the way, I'm considering buying a set of wireless speakers to use with my iPad during practice. An acoustic banjo easily overpowers the iPad, so sometimes I have difficulty hearing the rhythm.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Metronome Alternative

The metronome is unarguably one of the best tools in any musician's tool box. For me it helps me get over my tendency to start picking up steam when I practice alone.

My metronome is one of those standard digital units with a flashing red LED and an obnoxiously loud click that marks each beat. Although it may help with my timing issues, the downside is that it really gets on my nerves and offers nothing interesting in the way of rhythm.

A quick search for a metronome replacement lead me first to Band in the Box. I owned this product many versions ago, but I wanted specifically to use the metronome replacement on my iPad, so I was out luck following this route.

Then I came upon iReal b for iPad. It provides a drum instead of a sterile click, bass, and piano that play against chords that you enter for the song that you want to practice. 

The iReal b app also links to a forum where one can find and download countless songs in various categories, and yes, bluegrass is one of the categories.

There is no demo version of the app, so I forked out a whole $8.00 to purchase it, and I'm glad that I did. No more obnoxious metronome and a way better practice experience!

Disclaimer: I'm not affiliated with the product, but I am a happy user.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Fireball Mail

Back to Basics

The five string banjo sounds beautiful when playing bluegrass. It's a perfect pairing, but sometimes I find myself neglecting bluegrass in favor of my own music. When this neglect comes to mind, I realize that I need to get back to basics.

With this in mind I present to you three variations of a well known tune, Fireball Mail. Fireball Mail does indeed have lyrics, but I've mostly heard this preformed as an instrumental. 

Variation 1

The first variation stays fairly true to the basic Scruggs version with two exceptions to note. The first is the non use of the 5th string as a drone. All three versions replace the 5th string with the 3rd string as a drone nearly all the way through.

The second departure is the use of chord substitution. To stay true to standard bluegrass banjo I use this sparingly in the first version. See the image below for the first chord substitutions played against the D chord in the first half of song.

Starting half way through measure eight I start walking up the scale from the initial F#. This takes me through the Em, Am, and then finally a short stop on the Ddim7 chord that leads to the G in measure 10. At this point I feel that I haven't strayed too far from the traditional sounds of bluegrass, and with exception of the Ddim7 chord, everything in these two measures fits with the tonality used in the key of G.

Variation 2

The second variation leads us slightly further astray on paper than it sounds when played. Take a look at measure 23 in the image below. In this case I am playing the notes of an E7 chord against a G chord. An E7 chord is constructed from the following notes: E, G#, B, and D. It's not too outlandish, and it leads down to the D chord in measure 24 quite nicely.

The last real chord substitution is at measure 31. This comes on the tail end of a bluesy passage that starts in measure 26. Take a look at the image below. In this case I am substituting the last D chord in the song with an F chord. This serves to link the long bluesy run in the previous measures to the standard bluegrass banjo G ending in measure 32.

Variation 3

The third and last variation is just straight bluegrass banjo. It's not quite the way that Earl played it, but it doesn't stray far from tradition at all. 

I hope you enjoy this. Don't forget that you can find the tab in the section below or on my tablature page. I have two versions for you. One is PDF that most people should be able to read, and the other is GPX. GPX is used with the latest version of Guitar Pro.

Thanks for reading!

Downloads and Links

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Rolling Thunder/Baby's Breath

Original Banjo Music

I recently released a video showcasing two of my songs, Rolling Thunder and Baby's Breath. These are both original songs that I wrote and thought that they just might complement each other, so I recorded both and combined them into one video. You can find the link to the video in the Downloads and Links section below.


Creating videos is something that is fairly new to me, but I'm finding it to be a new diversion that I find quite enjoyable; however, it's also time consuming and requires a bit of new found creativity and most of all the willingness to learn new techniques and the tools necessary to achieve the end product. 

For this particular video I employed the use of what is now known as the Ken Burns effect. This is basically the effect of panning and zooming a still image in video to give the illusion of motion. I believe that one of its intents is to draw attention to a particular subject in the still image.

I also learned the technique of taking a still image and turning it into a cartoon. This comes in handy when I'm the actor as I feel that I don't have to worry about the details as much when I'm represented as a cartoon.

Rolling Thunder

This song was written using typical Scruggs patterns that one find in most bluegrass banjo tunes. The overall sound conveyed touches on some classical tones using full banjo rolls with those few exceptions towards the end of the song where I use full on bluegrass banjo fill licks to complement the descending line. Take a look at the tab below. This example is played near the end of the song.

Baby's Breath

Baby's Breath is a completely different animal than Rolling Thunder. This is especially true in regards to technique and chord structure. Although I classify both songs as contemporary pieces, Baby's Breath uses a variety of interesting chords and there are quite a few meter changes between 4/4 and 3/4 in the last half of the song.

Regarding the interesting chords, Baby's Breath begins with a Gmaj7 and descends over the next two bars to finally land on a D. Take a look at the banjo tab excerpt below from the beginning of the song. This gives it a cool jazzy sound that ends with a D major chord and notes with long sustain.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the video and the music, and I appreciate you giving it a listen.

Downloads and Links

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Fiddle Tunes in their Natural Key: #3

June Apple

The next song in my series on playing fiddle tunes in their natural key (on the banjo) is June Apple in the key of A.

Like the other songs in the series, you will need to be versed in multiple banjo playing techniques. In the case of June Apple this includes a mix of single-string technique and arpeggio picking patterns in the first part or verse. The second part or chorus is entirely different and relies purely on the use of the melodic picking style.

As always you can find the tab used in this blog in the Downloads and Links section and on my the tablature page.

One of the nice musical features of June Apple with respect to the 5-string banjo is the musical mode that it employs. June Apple uses the same mode that is used in Red Haired Boy. That mode would be the mixolydian mode. This mode takes the major scale and lowers the seventh degree by a half step. This gives us a G instead of a G# for the seventh note of the scale. This also gives us another note that matches one of our open strings and makes our melodic passages much easier to play. In chord speak this gives us the A7 chord as well.

The image below depicts the A scale and its corresponding pattern. The G scale is provided as a familiar reference. In this case the seventh degree is also lowered a half step. Note that this pattern is for the mixolydian scale and is the same pattern for all keys.

Mea Culpa

After stating that bar #7 is giving me problems, I can't seem to find my way past it. I've altered bar #7 slightly to hopefully make this easier to play. Take a look at the fourth note in the image below to see the change.

I hope this helps you as much as it is helping me.

I don't have a video prepared for this installment but will update the article as soon as I post it.

If you have any questions, feel free to give me a shout.

Keep on picking!

Downloads and Links

  1. June Apple Banjo Tab (PDF)

Sunday, August 11, 2013

New Tab Page

Just wanted to let you guys know that I added a new tablature page to the blog. My current intention is to only add the tabs that either I author or arrange, but we all know how things can change. It's not complete yet and there are only a few entries, but it will grow over time.

I currently have links to tabs in Adobe PDF format, but I will also add Guitar Pro GPX format as well. This is a tab editor that I have used for many years. Don't let the Guitar Pro name fool you; it provides tabs and standard music notation for many instruments.

Take a look, and I hope you enjoy!

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Product Review: Fults Blue Ridge Banjo Tailpiece

Fults Blue Ridge Tailpiece with XYZ Mount

If there's one thing that hasn't served me well on my Gibson banjo, it has to be the tailpiece. I purchased my Gibson banjo in 1989, and since then a vibration issue has always plagued me. I have felt in two places in order to stop the vibration, but nothing seems to work as the vibration seems to have a mind of its own; coming and going as it pleases.

My tailpiece also looks flimsy and it looks like it doesn't belong. Its design is steeped in tradition and seemingly little has changed over the last several decades. When I consider the price of a professional banjo these days, I believe that it might be time for some banjo innovation.

Vibration isn't my only complaint, and I've read that this is not an issue for some, but for me the stock tailpiece simply isn't adjustable enough. A single fastener holds the tailpiece in place, and a single screw allows the tailpiece angle to change, and that's all that she gives us.

Searches for a replacement tailpiece in the past turned up the same old thing and my last search was years ago. There just didn't seem to be anything that was new and innovative...and maybe this is how it goes for niche market products.

Enter the Fults

A new day and a new search brought about by the buzz coming from the back end of my banjo. A Google search for "banjo tailpiece" brought me to the Banjo Tailpiece Web Site.  After reviewing the various descriptions of tailpieces on the main page, I placed my order for the Blue Ridge tailpiece with the XYZ mounting system.

My Fults tailpiece arrived quickly, and when I pulled it out of the box, I realized that it is a solid thing of beauty. The mechanical design and aesthetics are excellent, and the manufacturing of the finished product appear to be executed in an expert fashion. It is a quality product that in my opinion far surpasses that of my stock tailpiece.

The tailpiece is accompanied by a small diagram. As there are many out of the ordinary components to this tailpiece when compared to my original equipment, I assumed that I would need to study the diagram to figure out how to install and operate it; however, this turned out to not be the case. The tailpiece also comes with an Allen wrench and after a couple of minutes of loosening screws, how to install and operate the tailpiece became self evident.

The image above is of my stock tailpiece. Note the addition of felt to the underside of the cover. This was an attempt to dampen the vibration. It didn't help a whole lot, and to this day I'm not really sure of exactly what was vibrating.

The image below is the Blue Ridge tailpiece. The two pins underlined by red are the mounting points for the tailpiece, and they control the height and lateral adjustment of the tailpiece. Green underlines the adjustment for the angle of the tailpiece. Here you can see that my tailpiece is mounted at more-or-less a 90 degree angle. The blue arrow points to the removable tone pin. I have not yet performed any experiments with the tone pin.


My intention was to baseline the sound of my banjo with the stock tailpiece, and then after installation of the Fults Blue Ridge I would compare the new sound to the baseline sound. All things would be equal with the exception of the tailpiece. I unfortunately did not pull this off as well as I would like as I encountered a couple of unforeseen issues.

The first issue is related to strings on my banjo. I intended to use the same strings with the Fults tailpiece that I used in the baseline recording; however, this was not the case. After installing the Fults tailpiece I realized that the old strings were not quite long enough, so the recording made with the Fults tailpiece are using a new set of strings. Both the old and new set of strings used are GHS PF-160 Banjo Strings.

The second issue is related to the recording. I recently made a prototype mount for my Shure Beta 98 microphone and somehow did not check the sound levels before I recorded the baseline. The prototype mount moved my microphone closer to the banjo head. This resulted in some clipped samples which manifest themselves as little pops in the recording. At this point I did not want to remove the Fults tailpiece to repeat the experiment, so I adjusted the recording levels down a bit when I recorded with the Fults tailpiece installed.

So this doesn't quite provide us with the comparison that I hoped for, but I feel that it will at least help me reach some kind of conclusion, and hopefully it will also help you form your own opinion as well.

I might also note that the video of the sound comparisons can be found in the Links and Download section.

Comparison Conclusion

As you may recall I have two issues with my stock tailpiece. The first is vibration, and the second is adjustability.

The Fults tailpiece does not vibrate. The Blue Ridge tailpiece is 1/8th of an inch thick and is solidly constructed. There doesn't seem to be anything on the tailpiece that will shake loose. I always thought that the hinged cover on my stock tailpiece was the culprit but efforts to prevent it were fruitless.

Next is adjustability. As the XYZ name implies adjustment to the tailpiece location and orientation to the banjo is possible on three planes.

To accommodate movement on two of these planes, the Fults XYZ mount uses the two hoop hooks that exist on either side of the stock tailpiece. The mount allows lateral movement between these hooks and a height adjustment along the axes of the two hoop brackets or hooks. The mount point or set screws for attaching to each hook control both of these adjustments.

The third range of motion allows the tailpiece to rotate along the third axis with the knob. Check this out in the image below. This allows you to apply more or less downward pressure on the bridge and can be used in conjunction with the height adjustment to achieve the same.


There are two addition items to mention above and beyond my two original issues with my stock tailpiece.

I feel that I have to mention the ease of use of this tailpiece. I know. It's a tailpiece. How does one use a tailpiece? Part of this is related to the ease of adjustability that I just spoke of, and the other item to point out is the slot cut for the third or middle banjo string. One just slips the string through the slot and onto the easy to reach string posts. I find this to be a very nice feature albeit a very simple one.

The second additional item is the sound. I have played the sound comparison over and over, and I think what I'm hearing is a mid-range boost in the recording with the new tailpiece. I feel that this could be leading to clarity throughout my banjo's range in the recording and maybe a boost to volume as well. To me the recording of the new tailpiece is much cleaner and crisper.

The stock tailpiece seems to sound muddier especially in the last couple of passages where I'm playing some random Scruggs-style licks. At least to my ears the muddiness sounds more pronounced in the lower end.

I know that everyone has an opinion, but all that I can tell you is that I'm happy that I spent the money. No more bad vibrations and a clearer tone to boot! I'm looking forward to my next recording.

Keep on picking!

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Fiddle Tunes in their Natural Key: #2

Fiddle Bop

In my previous blog I talked briefly about Red Haired Boy in the Key of A. Today I will discuss an original fiddle tune that I wrote for the banjo. This tune is called Fiddle Bop, and it is written in the key of E.

Unlike Red Haired Boy that I played strictly using the single-string style, Fiddle Bop employs pattern playing a la Earl Scruggs and only a small amount of single-string technique. The chorus is also filled with arpeggio patterns that I feel mimic the sound of a fiddle in a similar fashion that the fluid scale passages do in Red Haired Boy.

The Major Scale

First things first; for those of you with little to no background in music theory, a major scale is a major scale no matter what the key is. When a scale is played in a closed single-string style on the banjo, the pattern or scale becomes movable without changing the pattern. Thus the pattern for one major scale is the same pattern in any other key. We'll take a look at this shortly, but first let's build upon our G and A scales from last time and add the E major scale.

As you can see the E major scale adds an additional sharp when compared to the A major scale; not to worry though as you will see below that the major scale pattern is the same for all keys regardless of the number of sharps or flats in the key. Meaning: it is no harder to play than any other major scale.

Single-String Major Scale Pattern

Let's start with the familiar banjo key of G. The tab on the left is for the G major scale, and the image on the right represents the pattern that the fingers make while ascending the scale from the first note to the last note of the G major scale.

G Major Scale

Now take a look at the banjo tab for the E major scale and its corresponding pattern. Note that the two patterns are identical. By learning one scale pattern in the single-string style we learn them all by default for all keys! This of course is true as long as you start your pattern on the 4th string in the open G tuning.

E Major Scale

Just to clarify, the red dot on the lowest string on the left is the root of the scale and starts the pattern.

Scales are the foundation of most music. I say most music because there are indeed works of atonal music. Atonal music basically lacks a central tone or key, or perhaps has a key but doesn't convey a sense of musical direction found in typical music.

For the vast majority of fiddle tunes and other music the bottom line is that scales are important; whether they are major, minor, or any number of other scales. Learn them!


Probably the largest element of Fiddle Bop is the use of arpeggios to convey the melody. An arpeggio is simply a chord that is played as a sequence of notes. The image below is the first bar of the Fiddle Bop chorus. The two chords employed are the A major and B major chords. Over these two chords I am playing a Scruggs-style pattern of eighth notes that at least in my mind gives me a fiddle-like melody.

Banjo players will recognize these chords as a standard bar chord. The first bar chord here is the A major chord and then the B major chord follows in the last half of the measure. Playing chords in this manner is an arpeggio.


This song should not present too many obstacles for the average banjo player, and your fiddle playing friends should also enjoy it. Perhaps one of the biggest obstacles of Fiddle Bop is that it is written and played in the key of E. As I stated last time set your capo down and give it a try.

The banjo tab to Fiddle Bop can be found in the Download and Links section, and you can hear the tune by viewing the video as well. If you have any questions, feel free to give me a shout.

Keep on picking!

Downloads and Links

  1. Fiddle Bop Banjo Tablature (PDF)
  2. Fiddle Bop YouTube Video

Monday, July 22, 2013

Fiddle Tunes in their Natural Key: #1

Red Haired Boy

Playing fiddle tunes in their natural key can be challenging and could require advanced techniques that encompass everything from Scruggs techniques, Keith techniques, and single-string techniques. 

Utilizing all of these techniques in one song may also require elevated levels of concentration and much practice.

Red Haired Boy is a very nice fiddle tune and is naturally or normally played in the key of A by fiddle players. Although the bluegrass banjo is tuned to open G, the key of A with this song should not present too many obstacles. As you can see in the figure below, the key of A has three sharps; two more than our favorite key of G.

This isn't a large change in itself, but as you can see, the major triad (1, 3, 5) of the G scale is represented by the open strings of the banjo. Unfortunately this is not the case for the key of A. In this case I present to you a single-string version of Red Haired Boy that stays fairly true to the melody.

Feel free to download the tab for Red Haired Boy from the Download and Links section below. You can also view the accompanying video on my YouTube channel to follow along.

Next week I'll present to you an original fiddle tune that I wrote in the key of E for the banjo. Keep on picking!

Downloads and Links

Sunday, July 7, 2013


I recorded this song back in 2000 shortly after writing it after some prompting by master musician and singer Roger Bellow.

The song was written as thanks for a couple of bottles of Rioja wine that my aunt sent from Spain. Sadly it was placed on the shelf shortly thereafter, and I only recently found the original tracks.

I'm playing the electric banjo and bass and Roger covered everything else to include the guitar, mandolin, and fiddle parts.

Special thanks to Jamie Joyner for mastering the audio recording.

Downloads and Links

  1. Rioja on YouTube Video

Saturday, July 6, 2013

V- I Transition for Bluegrass Banjo

There is nothing like a hard driving bluegrass banjo song. Hopefully something interesting is played during the break and then it is finished off with a Scruggs-styled phrase that takes us from D to G.

The problem that I have is that I tend to play the same old thing every time. This is especially true at jam sessions, and sometimes I just want to jazz it up a little. To get there I need to develop a phrase that is sonically pleasing and then practice it until it becomes second nature, so let's get started.

Design Goals

I have three simple goals for my new phrase.
  1. It has to be fairly easy to play. This will allow me to play the new phrase without thinking about it too much when I'm put on the spot.
  2. It needs to have at least a moderate amount of wow factor. I want the people whom I normally play with to notice that I pulled something new out of the bag.
  3. Putting the wow factor slightly aside, I don't want to rock the boat too much. For me this means not going too far off the reservation in terms of chord substitutions for standard bluegrass music.

Downloads and Links

  1. Salty Dog Blues Banjo Tablature (PDF)
  2. Salty Dog Blues YouTube Video

The Transitions

The banjo tab contains two V – I transitions. The first is a Scruggs-styled phrase that appears in bars 5 – 8. This is version one of the song. It is a more-or-less standard sounding transition and when properly accented it sounds pretty darn good.

The second transition appears in measures 13 – 16. This is version two and is identical to version one with exception of the transition bars.

As you can see I took an arpeggiated approach with the new transition with the phrase played over the D bars and then a simple melodic approach with the phrase in the G bars.

The D chord starts the transition, and the following chord substitutions played against the D chord only contain the notes of the G major scale. The anchor notes through these two bars are F# and G in bar 13, and A in bar 14. I linger on this formation to build a little anticipation prior to hitting the bar 15 with the transition to the tonic (G). I am essentially crawling my way up to the G bar where I'll start the downward transition on a B in measure 15 to cap off the song.

At this point the G lick is a more-or-less standard melodic phrase and happens to flow fairly well into the last note.


So did I meet the design goals? To my ears, and I know that this is purely subjective, the new transition doesn't create a tremendous amount of musical tension and sounds pleasing, so I believe this covers my second and third goals, but is it easy to play?

Honestly I think this is something that you will have to decide for yourself. Please give it a try and feel free to tweak it as you see fit. Hopefully you can add this to your bag of tricks, and don't forget to check out the tab and the video.

Happy picking!

Wednesday, June 26, 2013


I write lots of music primarily on the banjo but never bother to actually let anyone else hear them. I'm not certain if it's due to laziness or my innate ability to believe that the next take will be even better. Of course this leads me to the "it's not good enough" thought and projects end up being left on the shelf to age.

Now I'm older and wiser as they say and have finally reached the conclusion that it is good enough, and I'm comfortable that the recording is far from perfect in my mind, so please check out Tranquility on YouTube. It's piece that I wrote a few years back for the 5-string banjo. It's not bluegrass, but it certainly has its foundation there. I hope you enjoy!

Downloads and Links

  1. Tranquility on YouTube Video