Friday, May 25, 2007

July Events - Junior Fiddle Contest & Parade

Mark your calendars for the Second Annual Bluegrass Shack Junior Fiddle Contest. We will be hosting the contest right here at The Bluegrass Shack on Sunday, July 22, 2007. This is an indoor venue with air conditioning, so it is rain or shine! Registration starts at 1:00 p.m., and the contest starts at 1:30 p.m. There will be three age divisions: 12 & Under; 13-15 Years Old; and 16-18 Years Old. We have flyers at the Shack, or click here for a .tif image of the flyer. All contestants receive a medal regardless of placement. There are so many talented young fiddlers out here. We hope you'll come to hear and encourage them. They are the future of old time fiddle music!

Since this particular weekend (July 21 & 22) is the time of the New Athens Homecoming, we are officially inviting you to come be a part of our town's fun! There will be all kinds of events in the park, and on Sunday you are invited to join us for the parade. We are asking all banjo players who are intested in playing Duelin' Banjos on a float in the parade to contact me (Chris) via e-mail ( or phone (618-475-3678). The parade is on Sunday after the fiddle contest. Lineup is at 4:30 p.m., and the parade starts at 5:00 p.m. The Chris Talley Trio will be leading the song (with a portable PA system), and all participating banjo players will be seated on a flatbed trailer to play along. The parade starts almost right here at our shop, so how convenient can it get? If you don't play a banjo, or if you don't want to play on the float, come show your support and cheer us all on!

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Lessons and Practice Sessions

Today was a pretty normal day full of lessons. Right now, I'm finished for the evening, but I'm enjoying listening to Mike and his student Alaina singing in the next room. Alaina is taking guitar lessons, but right now they are playing piano and guitar AND singing together. It really sounds great! Is this the best job in world, or what???

It was a day full of great progress. Kurt is getting ready for a mission trip to Syria and he is taking his fiddle along with him. We talked about how to transpose written music, and we are going to work on that some more when he returns. Kurt plays both by ear and by music. His tone is great; you can really tell that he works on his bowing and intonation (playing in tune).

Dolton is working on Duelin' Banjos and Shuckin' the Corn on his banjo. His wife is learning guitar, so they practice together. That is really a great way to spend part of your practicing time. Learning to play together can be really hard when both people are beginners, but it has the wonderful benefit of both people not minding practicing the same thing over and over again. Dolton and I were talking about his progress since the beginning. He is able to memorize so much more than when he first started, and he learns everything much faster than he did in the beginning. This is actually a normal progression of learning, but it is really great when you start to realize your progress for yourself.

Now that I'm talking about practicing, let me just state a few tips regarding practice.

1. Play vs. Practice - First of all, there is a difference between practicing and playing. When you practice, you will probably be working on the same thing(s) over and over again. When you are playing, you are more likely to go through the song(s) once or twice, and what you play should be fairly good.

2. Speed - Make sure you practice slow enough that your technique and clarity of notes is good. Once you can play the song with only occasional mistakes and good technique, you can start speeding it up. A metronome works very well for this. The way to work with a metronome is to start at a speed that is easy for you. After you play through the song once, then speed up by 5-10 notches. Play the song again at this new tempo. Then speed it up again 5-10 notches. You should be able to do this about five times. By the fifth time, you should be making lots of mistakes and be barely able to keep up. Then cut the speed back 10-20 notches and play the song again. It should be easier. Record (write down) your starting speed so that you know what speed to start at next time. When you get to where the fifth speed is pretty good, then you need to "up" your starting tempo.

3. Mistakes - Everyone is going to make mistakes. The most important thing is to keep going. Only worry about wrong notes if you make the same mistake every time. If you make the same mistake every time in the same spot, then you need to focus your practice on that one spot to fix the problem. If you play LOTS of wrong notes, then you are probably playing too fast, or maybe you are just having a bad day. It is also possible that the song is too difficult for you. You should be able to tell the difference between these if you think about it.

4. Practice Time - The best time to practice if you take lessons, is to practice on the day of your lesson AFTER you have had your lesson. This will allow you time to forget a LITTLE of what you learned and then remember it again while it is still pretty fresh. This will really help cement your learning for that lesson. Although long practice times can be very helpful, they are not absolutely necessary. In fact, more frequent, smaller time periods are preferable. It works on the same theory as practicing on your lesson days. It allows you a little bit of time to forget what you worked on, and then have to remember it again later. You are also fresher when you start your practice session.

When I'm practicing hard on a song, I might practice that one piece 100-200 times in a row. It has always been amazing to me how I can do that, and then the next day I can't seem to remember the song. It's always faster learning it the second time around, though, and it won't take me long to get it back in my head.

Too much practice on the same thing can put you on brain overload so that you start getting worse instead of better. When that happens, either work on a different song, or stop practicing for a little while. I usually spend the first part of the my practice time working on my new songs or licks. That is actually the majority of my practice time. Then I will do some playing. Playing is when you enjoy what you are doing the most. It involves just going over the songs you already know how to play pretty good. You might find something to practice among your playing songs, especially if you haven't played a song in a long time, but you should be pretty good on your playing songs. Playing will keep your songs fresh in your head so you won't forget them.

5. Make a List - Make a list of all the songs you know how to play. A songlist will help you with your practicing because you won't forget to play or practice all the songs you know. It is also helpful for when you play with other people, because then you know what you can play. It's funny how you can know 30 songs, but when someone asks you to play something, you can't seem to think of any. If you have a list, you can just look at it.

Once you have a long list of songs that you can play, you won't be able to get through them all in one practice session. I try to make sure that I go through the songs I know at least once every two weeks. That might be only 10 songs for each practice session before I've covered them all. That's not too bad.

6. Play with Others - This is the most important thing you can do for yourself. There are many ways this will help you. It will keep you steady in your rhythm, and will also help you find the weak spots in your playing. Plus, it's fun! When you play with other people, you will find people your own age that are doing exactly what you are doing, and you will have someone to share your music with. You never know who you might inspire! Someone else will see you learning and they will decide that they can do that, too! Remember -- it doesn't matter how good you are. If you are a rank beginner, sit on the edge of the jam session, make sure you are in tune, and play quietly. You may be lost the first several times, but YOU WILL GET IT! We all started there, too.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Beginner's Instructional Jam

Tonight was our every other week beginner's instructional jam. It was another very good session. We went through Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Long Journey Home, Jambayla, Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms, Dooley, Worried Man Blues and Cripple Creek.

For the banjo players, we talked about using parts of other songs as fill-in licks for back-up. We also went over the basic positions for playing melody notes out of C position. Denny was busy working on runs for the upright bass. We went over some melody notes for lead breaks on guitar and mandolin for the song Long Journey Home. We also went over the bass notes for different chords on guitar (boom chuck). Everyone is supposed to be deciding on new songs to work on at the next session.

It is really great to see how well everyone is progressing. Matt tried his first fake break tonight on banjo and did wonderful. Nick's lead on Will the Circle was good, too. I am amazed that John can play and sing at the same time since he is so new to the group. Verlan is one of the more advanced players of the group, but has always been timid about taking the lead. He seems to be getting more comfortable doing this, and is really doing a fine job. Denny started to figure out the bass runs at the last session, and there is no stopping him now! Christine is the other newcomer to the group. Her chord changes on guitar have gotten really good and she is able to make almost all of them on time now. Most importantly, we're all having FUN!!!

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Nice Used Band Instruments for Sale

If you are in the market for a band instrument, you really should think about purchasing a good used instrument. The cost is far less, plus, if your child quits band, you can resell the instrument without a loss and get your money back. We guarantee all our band instruments for 30 days, plus we have in-house repair. All instruments are cleaned, repaired and played before being put out for sale. Currently, our inventory includes:

Used Vito Alto Sax $350

Used Artley Clarinet $160
Used Bundy Clarinet $170
Used Andre Chabot wood clarinet (French-made) $275

Used Gemeinhardt Nickel Chrome flute $120
Used Gemeinhardt M2 silver plated flute $150
Used Gemeinhardt 2SP silver plated flute $175
Used Buescher silver flute w/solid silver headjoint $300
New silver plated flute, open hole, B foot, no brand $350
Used Yamaha silver plated flute, open hole, B foot $350

Used Olds silver plated piccolo $300

Used Bundy trombone $100
Used King Tempo 606 trombone $160
Used King Cleveland trombone $175
New Roy Benson trombone $300

Used Conn Cornet $100
Used Lafayette trumpet $125
Used Selmer Signet nickel plated trumpet $175
New Palatino trumpet $225
Used King Cleveland 600 silver plated trumpet $300

We actually have quite a few more band instruments that I haven't had time to clean & repair, but I'll get around to them someday! If you are looking for something in particular, let me know and I'll tell you if we've got it.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Chris Talley Trio Performance, Banjo Response, & Repair Work

I started this post on Wednesday, but now today is Saturday and I'm just now getting around to actually finishing it. We have been very busy again today. I think the good weather has a lot of people out and about today. I had hoped to do a little more work on the website, but that didn't happen. Too much else to take care of.

The Chris Talley Trio will be playing at Eckert's Orchard in Belleville, IL tomorrow (Sunday the 19th) from noon to 4:00 p.m. It is a free concert for Eckert's Annual Strawberry Festival. There's going to be good weather and the show will be FREE fun for the whole family. Even the kids from the audience get to come on-stage for a few numbers to help entertain.

I have managed to make it down to Gary's Restaurant a few times this week and have really enjoyed hearing everyone's comments about our big banjo. Terry did such a wonderful job on it! He is so talented!

I finished up a saxophone cork repair job, two violins, and all kinds of band instruments for our own sales. I'm working on an old archtop guitar, three more violins, and a banjo for customers. The archtop guitar needed to have a neck reset, its ribs shortened, the endblock reglued, and then be glued back together again. It has really been a bear to work on because it does not have a traditional soundhole. Instead, it has two f-holes on the front and I can't get my hands inside or see what I'm doing very well. The only "proper" way to to fix the lining, ribs and block would be to take either the top or back off so that I can see what I'm doing and make sure nothing is loose. The problem with doing that is the guitar's only value is sentimental, and the customer does not want to spend a lot of money on it. It has great "cool" value, though! The pickguard is a good-looking imitation tortoiseshell and has a treble clef made out of rhinestones on it. I've never seen anything like it, but then I guess I don't get out much either! I finished all the rib work on the guitar today and it is ready for the neck reset. After that, it will get put back together again and we'll get to see what it sounds like.

I have to replace the neck on a customer's banjo. It was a good sounding, vintage Ibanez banjo, but then the neck went haywire on it. It is twisted and warped all sorts of ways and it started to buzz. I ordered an unfinished Gold Tone neck that the customer likes, and that will get finished to match the banjo, and then installed. I haven't had time to get started on this yet, as the other violins came into the shop first.

Of the fiddles that I am currently working on, two are for one customer, and the other is for another customer who will donate it to a school when it is finished. Nice, huh? I think that is a great idea! I did a fingerboard fitting today, repaired a hole in the scroll, and then did some touch up work on the varnish.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Banjo Sign is Up!

Hello everyone! Well, we finally did the deed. We had nine guys over to help with the sign raising on Saturday at noon. Thank goodness for everyone's help! I manned the camera and Earl (his back is injured) manned the BBQ grill. Let's see, we had Verlan, Charlie, Larry, Denny, Rodney, Earl's Dad Earl, Mike, Rich, and of course Terry. (Last time I listed names, I forgot someone -- so I hope this is everyone!)

It was so much fun watching everyone's reactions as they drove by. People were sticking their heads out the window and shouting, honking, and taking double- and triple-takes. We had people stop by that we had never met before. The honking and hubbub increased later that night when we turned on the chaser lights.

So far as we can tell, this is the 2nd largest banjo sign. We know it's the largest in the State of Illinois, and also the largest "Stelling" banjo in the world. I will be posting a page just for the sign when I get a chance. Here are some photos for you in the meantime. You really should come by and see the sign in person!

Sunday, May 6, 2007

New 24.4' Banjo Sign!!!!

Okay - only a few people have known about this project, but since it's getting closer now and I posted something about it last week, here is a "sneak" preview. I spent last night and today at Terry's house finishing up the painting. Geoff Stelling has given his approval, so this is the final result:

It is now 24.4' long and weighs approximately 300 pounds. It is an all metal sign. Many, many thanks to Terry & Becky. Terry made the sign and did a large part of painting, and Becky put up with having their garage overtaken by it for weeks! I did the all the lettering and detail work on the neck and headstock.

Friday, May 4, 2007

I'm All Booked Out!

I spent all day today working on the website adding books and changing the web page layout for the Books & CDs page. I added a separate page for the different instruments and for songbooks. There were just too many titles to list everything on a single page. It is 10:30 p.m. and I am still here, even though we officially closed at 7:00 p.m. I did have a bit of a break, though, when Leslie and Steve came by for a little while. I stopped the computer stuff for a couple of hours and we had a nice visit and some fun singing and picking. I made the decision to get at least a few books listed on every page of the Books & CDs sections, but I still have many more books to add. At least it's a start! Indulge me a bit, and take a look at

Yesterday evening, it was crazy around here. We had five teachers teaching at once, and people coming out of the woodwork. It was actually kind of fun to have everyone here! James stopped by with his banjo, so towards the end of the evening after lessons, we all jammed for 15-20 minutes. James is better every time I hear him. Bev, Justin and Jenny had a long ride ahead of them, so they left promptly at 9:30 p.m. -- and that was the of our jam! Before it was all over, though, we coaxed Jenny's last fiddle student to play a few tunes along with us. Susan played two songs with us and did great! She had never played with anyone else before.

One of our distributors accidentally sent us 50 of the wrong cases. We had boxes sitting in the main showroom yesterday and today until I got the mess straightened out. Nothing like having five huge cardboard boxes sitting in the middle of the floor taking up space. We struck a deal with the distributor, and now we will be running a special on ugly fiddle cases. If you would be interested in an ugly but functional fiddle case, let me know!

Not having any children of my own, I really don't know how parents keep from talking about their kids all the time. I am so proud of everyone I teach, I feel like I can't keep my mouth shut! I guess it comes from knowing what all the difficulties are for each person, and realizing all their tiny goals (in others' eyes) are really huge successes. This is why I love teaching. I know everyone can do it, and it is so exciting when THEY finally realize it.

Tomorrow I hope to do some shop work. I have several fiddles to finish for customers, and a guitar to do some rib work on.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Tuesday's Jam - Rain, Rain, Go Away - Violin vs. Fiddle

Tuesday's jam was another good one. Attendance was down slightly due to the rain. We had about 20 pickers and several more listeners. Several folks ran into very bad rain, lightning and wind on the way here. It seemed strange, because we had nothing more than a little bit of rain in New Athens. We were pleased to have newcomer, Jack, with us. He is a great singer and guitar picker. Ken is another newcomer that showed up. Ken and his daughter are taking guitar lessons from Mike. Larry was back; it had been several weeks since he had been able to attend. Terry played the infamous Celito Lindo on his banjo; better known as The Frito Bandito. That's a really cool song. Kelsey lead a song on her fiddle for the first time and did so well! She played Amazing Grace. No dobros -- which reminds me to make mention of Ben's father. He had a quadruple bypass earlier this week and Ben asked for us to keep him in prayer. Last I had heard, he was stable but not out of the woods.

I've been adding books to the website again this week. I plan on putting all of our normally in-stock items there, but I'm only able to do it a little bit at a time. Just remember, we can special order any Mel Bay or Hal Leonard (including Home Spun) items you would like! I'm still looking for a source from which to purchase bluegrass CDs for resale. If you've got any ideas, let me know!

It's another rainy day here. I think it's supposed to rain all day. Yesterday, I had the doors open all day because the temperature has been so nice. It's very humid, though. I kept having to tighten the hair on my fiddle bow all day.

I've been thinking about fiddle strings with this humid weather, and now seems like a fine time to discuss the topic. Many people ask me what is the difference between a fiddle and a violin. There are several differences in setup, but there's no difference in the actual instrument itself. Usually, folks who play classical music will refer to the instrument as a violin, and those who play country, folk and bluegrass will refer to the instrument as a fiddle. Here are some of the differences in setup:

1. Strings - Classical players usually prefer perlon strings, which mimic gut. Gut was what was always used in the past, but it is very expensive and much more subjective to the weather. Perlon strings are still more weather sensitive than steel, but since most classical players don't play inside, outside, inside, outside, in the sun, etc., that's not too much of an issue. Since perlon strings stretch so much, most classical players do not use four fine tuners either. They don't need them with perlon strings because the amount of stretch in the strings allows them to tune from the regular tuning pegs at the top of the instrument. There will be one fine tuner for the E string, which is usually steel. Perlon strings blend more with other instruments and are slightly more mellow. Dominant is the most popular of this type of string.

Bluegrass, folk and country players usually prefer steel strings. Steel strings don't stretch as much, aren't as subjective to the humidity and temperature, and are generally louder and more cutting. This is important because the fiddle is playing acoustically and needs to be able to be heard above the other instruments when taking a break (lead). Since this type of music is generally played all over the place, indoors, outdoors, etc., steel strings are more suitable because you don't have to tune so much. Steel string players will generally have four fine tuners on the tailpiece because steel strings don't have a lot of stretch in them and the fine tuners are needed to get the strings in tune. Popular string choices are Super Sensitive Red Label on the low end, then Prim, Pirastro Chromcor and Wondertone. Some "cross-over" players like Helicore.

2. Bridge - In general, classical players don't play as many double-stops (two notes at a time) as fiddle players, so they prefer a more curved bridge. A curved bridge makes it easier to play one string at a time. This is also the preferred bridge shape for beginners, regardless of style. A flatter bridge makes playing double-stops much easier. I've seen some old time fiddlers' bridges that looked almost completely flat! Just a note on bridges: bridges are usually cut to the curvature of the fingerboard, then refined based on player's preference.

3. Tone - The classical violist is looking for a tone that will blend well with the other instruments; something that is slightly more mellow than what a fiddle player would be likely to choose. A fiddler is looking for an instrument that will be able to stand out in an acoustic jam session. Once again -- these are just generalities and everyone will be looking for their own particular desired tone and volume.

4. Shoulder rests and Chinrest pads - I've noticed that all styles of players use shoulder rests about the same percentage-wise. Shoulder rests not only help hold the instrument, they also relieve neck tension, promote good left hand position (because you are not holding the instrument with your left hand so it is free), and helps to teach muscle memory to the right arm because the instrument will always be at the same angle, so the bow arm "learns" how high and what angle it needs to be to play each particular string.

I have noticed that classical players use chinrest pads far more frequently than fiddle players. At first, I could not figure this out, but after some discussions with a few other folks, we decided it is probably due to the fact that many orchestra pieces can be as long as 10 minutes or more, and the chinrest pad would be much more comfortable. Fiddle tunes generally do not last that long unless you are playing square dances, and most of the time the melody is passed off to other instruments so the fiddle player is not playing for 10 minutes solid.

Those are the major set-up differences that I can think of at this time. If I've missed something or you've got something else to say, feel free to comment.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Stelling's Approval & Banjo Intonation

We got approval from Geoff Stelling to use the Stelling Trademarked logo and banjo design (flange and peghead design) for our 23' banjo sign. This is so exciting!!! Terry and I have some more work to do before it's ready to be put up, but it's more than half way done. I am hoping that we can get it up within two weeks, but you never know...

While I'm thinking about it, I want to mention something about instruments playing in tune. James came and saw me last week, and he's certainly not the first to talk about this, but we were discussing the intonation of his banjo. I think it's a common misconception that instruments are perfect in pitch and that electronic tuners will tune them perfectly. In reality, neither of these two statements is true. For instance, James and I noticed that after tuning the 3rd string to the tuner, we then changed the pitch slightly and the tuner still read the same. We could both hear a slight difference, but the tuner did not reflect this. Secondly, after tuning the banjo to the tuner and re-checking bridge placement, not all the strings were perfectly in tune when using the string to string tuning method. This is especially true with 2nd and 3rd strings on all banjos, in general. Some banjos are better than others, even within the same model and brand, and some brands (like Stelling, which compensates the nut) make adjustments on their banjos to try to correct this.

Anyway, this out of tune G string was driving James crazy. It's the kind of thing when you hear it, you just start listening for it and you can't seem to concentrate on anything except waiting for that out of tune string to be played again. These are the suggestions I made to James, and I would make these to anyone that is concerned with banjo intonation:

1. First off, make sure you're not using old strings.
2. When fretting, put your finger as close to the fret as possible.
3. Don't use more pressure than necessary to fret the string.
4. Change to a thicker gauge of strings. These won't be as sensitive to stretching or pulling.
5. Make sure you are not pushing or pulling the string up or down as you fret.
6. Most important - don't rely entirely upon your tuner to tune your instrument. On a banjo, the 2nd string when fretted at the 3rd fret is inherently sharp when compared to the 1st string open. Tune the 2nd string down slightly so that when fretted at the 3rd fret, it matches the 1st string open. There are too many songs that use that fret position for it to not match the 1st string. The 3rd string also tends to be sharp, which is the very reason why compensated bridges came into being. A compensated bridge can help somewhat, but you will probably also have to do some pitch adjustment when tuning. I try to go up slightly with one string and down slightly with another to get a "happy medium."

Hopefully, these tips will help out anyone who is experiencing intonation problems.

We had a good jam last night, but I don't have time right now to write about it. I'll post about it later this week.