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!