Friday, November 30, 2007

Fiddle Bowing Tip

I decided that this time I would post a tip for all those fiddle players out there! This tip is about bow speed and pressure. I think there is a misconception that the weight of the bow is all that is needed to make a good sound on the strings of the fiddle. It is important that the player use some pressure on the bow in order to get a good, full tone quality. Slight bow pressure also helps reduce bow bounce and skidding.

Bow speed and bow pressure are directly related, though. When you increase either one, the other needs to be increased. If you use a lot of bow speed with no pressure, then you will dramatically decrease tone quality and increase bow bounce and skidding. When you increase bow pressure but not bow speed, you will get that terrible "squawking" sound.

To increase bow pressure, use the index finger of your bow hand. The pressure is added to the index finger by tilting your hand towards the fiddle. Don't apply any pressure with the pinky! Think of your thumb as the pivot point. Your index finger is in front, and your pinky is in back. You want to pivot towards your index finger.

Remember: Good bowing comes with lots of practice and RELAXED wrist and grip! It's very hard to relax the grip while increasing the pressure. Keep thinking "pivot" and not "grip harder."

Cute Picture

I've been busy this week with the continuation of recording and taking pictures for The Bluegrass Shack student CD. Dolton and Marian did their recording on Wednesday, and since they played together, they dressed to have their picture taken together. It is so cute that I just HAD to show it to you!

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Tuesday's Jam

Once again, we had some new folks at our Tuesday night jam. They included players and listeners, both of which are always welcome! I think everyone is in the holiday spirit or something, because we were laughing so much! I really had a good time with the music and with the joking. To view a clip of Tuesday's jam session, click here.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Lots of Kids Tonight!

We had a group of children here tonight for their first lessons. Ten kids are coming from a local church to learn how to play music together. The pastor of the church, Fred, told me that the church was going to pay for several months of lessons and also provide the children with instruments. In return, the children will attend the church services regularly and also practice. Right now, they are all taking private lessons, but later we will add group lessons so they can start learning to play together. They were so excited! Fred and several other customers started an impromptu jam session, and the kids were all sitting on the floor, singing and clapping their hands.

Dulcimer Hearts

Bill came over tonight and brought a dulcimer project with him. He is building a dulcimer from a kit for his wife and has it partially completed. The fingerboard has been glued on, the frets are all installed, the back is glued together, the sides have been glued into the blocks, and the back and sides have been glued together. We worked some on the scroll, and I carved two hearts in the top for him. Now all he has to do is install the tonebar, fit and glue the top, install the tuners, finish the scroll, and then varnish it. I can't wait to see the finished product!

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Music CDs Added to Website

I did some updating to the website this afternoon and evening, including adding a number of bluegrass and country CDs that are for sale. You can view a list of the titles by clicking here. I also added several new banjo DVDs, songbooks,new violins outfits and a number of used and vintage guitars. If you can't find what you're looking for, let me know! We just might have it here and I haven't had a chance to put it on the website!

Twenty-five Done!

I have spent the last two days recording, editing, mixing and mastering. So far, I have finished 25 songs that will be on The Bluegrass Shack Student Sampler CD. I am really excited for everyone to hear the finished project. Here is a shortened sample from the CD. This is 16-year Justin playing Salt Creek: Click Here

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Paige and Cole

Here is 10-year old Paige and her 2-year old brother singing together in the waiting room at The Bluegrass Shack. Paige is a super talented little girl, and I think her brother is on his way, too!

Click here for video

Always Learning

It has been so much fun recording the students for our upcoming CD project. I'm always amazed at how much I've forgotten about learning. One thing about teaching is that your students will always keep you in touch. They share their thoughts and questions about everything, and it makes me such a better teacher. I thought I'd share some of the things that have happened since we started this project:

1. I was explaining "public domain" to Nathan, who is 9 years old. Nathan listened while I gave my best explanation, he thought about it for a few seconds, and then he stated, "So we have to pick a song that was written by a dead person so that we can afford to put it on the CD." (Keep in mind, I never said anything about the writer being deceased!)

2. When you are recording more than one beginner at the same time, it is almost impossible to get them to do the same thing at the same time. We had decided at the end of one particular song that the "band members" would strum four times at the end of the song and that they would stop the last strum immediately afterwards. I think we practiced this about 20 times to no avail! This is one of those times when I realized that it is really hard for a beginner to have the timing to perform this consistently.

3. It's very hard to "punch in" a beginner. I've never given it a second thought when I've been in the recording studio about punching in to correct small mistakes. Well, if you think it's hard for a beginner to keep going when they make a mistake, just try to have a beginner start in the middle of the song, match what is currently playing through the headphones, and play at the correct tempo!

4. Children under the age of 10 are very happy with anything they record, even if you happen to know that they generally play better than the recording they just made.

Probably one of the most surprising things to me is how willing everyone has been to try this. I'm very pleased with everyone's hard work! There's been a lot of practicing going on around here!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Repair Shop

The repair shop has been ever so busy lately. Verlan has been coming in to learn about violin repair. He is working on our own fiddles right now to learn how to do basic setup and repair, such as fitting bridges, nuts and soundposts, and gluing separated seams. I am so glad to have some help!

I've been busy working on mandolins, banjos and fiddles. I fit a mandolin bridge yesterday, and worked on a banjo and several fiddles over the weekend. I've got four customer fiddles to complete work on, another banjo, and a guitar. This is something that I really enjoy!

The Bluegrass Shack CD is coming along. We have just about every student that is capable of recording signed up to participate in the recording of the CD. Fourteen recordings have been completed, and I have mastered about half of those. I am really enjoying this project, and am amazed at the talent of the students. Everyone will have something to be proud of when this is finished. Here is a sample for you to listen to. Although this particular song is a Christmas song, it is the only holiday song at this point that will be on the CD. This is 10-year Jaclyn who is a guitar student here. Click here to hear her sing O Come All Ye Faithful in Latin. Please note that we do not teach voice lessons here, so all of our singing students are just "plain folk" like the rest of us.

Monday's Beginner's Jam

The Monday night beginner's jam has progressed so much that we are now shifting our focus. Up to this point, the lead singer (which changes from song to song; everyone has to lead) has been using a songbook instead of memorizing the words. Our new goal in this group is to have the words memorized so that a book is not necessary at all. We have gone from no one being able to take a break, to at least half of the members being able to kick-off a song, and everyone being able to take a break on at least one song. I no longer provide CDs of the songs to the participants, as we are able to learn them fast enough in the session now. Paricipants are free to choose any 3 or 4 chord song, even if it is new to the group. Obviously, some new songs are smoother than others!!!! Everyone has an idea of what key they sing most songs in, and the Nashville number system is no longer a mystery. I feel some public performances coming on...

Bluegrass Shack Students Perform on WHCO Radio

The Hall Family received a request to play on WHCO radio station yesterday. The children had performed for a their local 4-H club, and one of the members who had contact with the radio station asked that they come perform on the radio. Charlie, Emily, Rosemary, Natalie, and Mom & Dad had their first radio performance. Congratulations! I'm sure there will be more to come from this talented family!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Ralph Stanley Concert!

Earl and I went to the Ralph Stanley concert held at the Sheldon Theatre in St. Louis last night. MANY thanks to Rick C. for giving us the tickets to this SOLD OUT event! Ralph Stanley and his son and the rest of the band were all there, and they were very entertaining. In my opinion, a live performance should be more than just playing good music. I want to be entertained and hear good music. If I just wanted good music, I could put a CD in the CD player.

I had never seen Ralph Stanley in concert before. His voice is still high and lonesome, and he really has a good sense of humor. For the majority of the concert, he had Steve playing banjo with the band, but he did pick up the banjo for two numbers. We bought several CDs, and I got to have my picture taken with Ralph. He even signed my thumbpick!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


We've got more Parking Lot Pickers books on order. I sold every one I brought with me to Springfield. This is a really good book. It is, in essence, a fakebook with words and tab. It is made specially for each instrument, includes regular musical notation and tab of the song melody (note: this is not exactly what you'd "take a break" on, but is more for reference as to what the melody of the song is), and several CDs which play EVERY song in the book. It is new for this year, and I think is destined to become one of the most popular books around.

Chelsea got this cute cookie from one of her students yesterday. Maybe you can make some of these for Thanksgiving this year!

The annual Christmas Party for Bluegrass Shack students and their families will be held on Friday, December 14th, at 7:00 p.m. We are asking that everyone bring a snack or drink to share. We will sing Christmas carols (don't worry -- I'll provide the words!), play some Christmas music, jam, eat, drink and be merry! Not necessarily in that order! We hope to see you there!

Tuesday's Jam

I think it just keeps getting better and better! Sorry to a few of the folks who didn't make it on this video. I think this includes Chelsea, Denny, Terry H., Gary, Anna and John B. I didn't get out of the teaching rooms until at least an hour into the jam session and so you did not make this video. We are sure glad that everyone came, and I know I had a great time! Click here to see the jam.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Bluegrass Shack CD Project

We have decided to do a unique project that involves all the Bluegrass Shack students. For all of those that would like to participate, we are recording a CD that will be ready by Christmas. All participating students will choose one or two songs that are public domain, and we will record them here in the shop. Some of the students are singing and/or playing together (like a band), and others will be playing with a guitar and bass backup. We may even add some harmony to some of the tracks. Each student will have their picture and name on the inside CD booklet, and will also receive a free CD for participating. Additional copies will be available for purchase for $10. All the money that we raise will go towards the two Bluegrass Shack fiddle & banjo contests we will be sponsoring next year.

Ellie's First Fiddle

I said I would add some more stories and pictures to the blog, so here is one. I got an e-mail from the parents of a little girl we met in Springfield. The little girl is 2 years old and her name is Ellie. I watched as her parents sat her in a chair and helped her "play" several different instruments at our booth. I didn't know she was only two, as her vocabulary and behavior was quite advanced in my opinion. I ended up pulling out a little fiddle we had under the table to see if Ellie was interested in trying it out. She loved it! Her parents and her older sister took some pictures of Ellie and they e-mailed them to me, so I am posting them here for everyone to see. Maybe one of these days Ellie and her older sister will be performing somewhere for everyone to hear!

Monday, November 12, 2007

Great Time in Springfield!

We all had a great time at the bluegrass festival in Springfield, IL this weekend. We were as busy as busy can be, but I think we still managed to do all the things we wanted to do. Chelsea was a big help to us. We couldn't have done it without her!

We setup Friday around 4:30 p.m., and people were already coming in droves to check out the vendors. Chelsea helped me pack a "repair bag," and I did so many small repairs and setups over the weekend that I can't count them all!

I taught two workshops on Saturday -- a fiddle workshop and a banjo workshop. They both went very well. It is so much fun to help people who really want to learn to play an instrument. I can't wait to talk with these folks next year to hear about the progress they've made. Hopefully, they will all still be picking and have some good stories to tell.

Zach Hardesty caught me in the elevator Saturday morning and asked me to play guitar with him for the talent contest. We found a bass player while we were upstairs rehearsing. Zach played How Great Thou Art and Shuckin' the Corn on his banjo. He did so well! What a talented young man he is.

The excitement for the weekend was probably when there was a coal dust explosion at the nearby power plant. We didn't notice it too much in the vendor room. Only a blink in the lights told us there was anything at all wrong. Then people started coming in telling us how bad it smelled outside, how many restaurants were without power, and that all the Springfield Fire Company was at the fire. They had to call in all the surrounding small fire companies to man the Springfield Firehouse. When we went to dinner at midnight, about half of the restaurants were still closed. We ate at a packed Denny's restaurant.

I'll post some more stories and pictures later when I get a chance. I just wanted to let you know what a great time we had!

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Major Neck / Scroll Repair Finished!

I finally finished the neck/scroll work for Steven. He is meeting us in Springfield to pick it up this weekend. I can hardly wait; this is one of my favorite indoor festivals! Here are some pictures of the repair work and the finished product.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Kid's Banjo

Matt is a banjo student of mine who has two young boys. His oldest boy has a fiddle, but the youngest is very interested in Matt's banjo. Every time Matt tries to practice, the 2-year old wants to play, too. Matt came to me and asked if we sold any small banjos that would be tough enough for a 2-year old and not cost much. We talked about several options, then decided to alter one of our banjo trophies so that strings could be added to it. It is not meant to be truly playable, but it can be strummed and is very tough.

It is nice that it doesn't have a banjo head that can break. It makes a pleasant sound when the strings are tuned in harmony, and it is not very loud. Here is what we ended up with:

Monday, November 5, 2007

Portable Violin/Fiddle Rack

Every year, we go to Terry Lease's bluegrass festival in Springfield, Illinois and set up in the vendor. It is something that we really look forward to. We get to meet new folks, talk with folks we already know but haven't seen in a year, and of course -- JAM!

There are a number of other vendors in the room, so each vendor gets only so much room or so many tables. It's always a challenge trying to fit as much stuff into your area as possible, without making things too cramped. I have been thinking for a few weeks about a good way to display our violins/fiddles when we attend this year. Earl and I did some brainstorming at Home Depot and finally came up with what we think is a really good solution.

We ended up making a stand that would fit over a 6-8' table. It is kind of like a swingset frame in that it has "A-frame" ends and a single rod that connects the two ends. The instruments are hung from wire that has been bent and attached to a 3/4" clamp on top of the pole. We can clamp the entire frame to the table, or we can just let it stand freely on its own. It is easy to disassemble, and the best thing of all is that it cost less than $30! The fiddles now hang at eye level, and there is still room between the table and the fiddles to use the entire table to display other things.

Major Violin Pegbox Repair

I haven't written anything lately about repairs, so I thought this would be a good time to do it. I started in on a HUGE project yesterday. I received for repair a fiddle that had the entire pegbox completely broken off. The customer would like to keep the original neck and scroll, or replace with one of the same model (1920's Nippon).

After waiting for almost a year to get in another Nippon with a bad body, I finally gave up waiting and decided to try to repair the existing parts. I started by removing the old glue and nails (yikes!) that were used by the customer to try to fix this. There was some J.B. Weld and Gorilla glue both that had to be removed.

Next, I started removing some of the pegbox and some of the neck in the area where these two pieces fit together. I will gradually rebuild these parts with maple (the original wood) in a way that will overlap both pieces on both sides of the pegbox.

Finally, I will have to remove the excess wood and carve it to match the existing neck and pegbox. I have posted a few pictures below to show the original condition and also the first step in rebuilding. It is kind of hard to see past all those clamps!

Friday, November 2, 2007

Banjo Tip - Technique "Slide"

I thought today would be a good day for me to take a few minutes to share an important tip to all those learning to play banjo. I want to talk about slides today. If you click on the links, you will see very short video clip demonstrations. Here are some common problems that I see in beginners:

1. Not leaving the sliding finger down long enough on the string. When you perform a slide, you need to leave your finger down long enough for that note to continue to ring. When you listen to the "incorrect slide" file, you will notice how the sound stops as soon as the sliding finger is lifted. This will lead to a choppy sound in your playing.

Incorrect Slide #1

Correct Slide

The main reason I see people lift the sliding finger too soon is because they are not using the correct finger placement and it interferes with the next string. For example, you slide from the 2nd to 3rd fret on the 3rd string. If you leave your finger down, when you try to pick the 2nd string immediately after the slide, the 2nd string is muffled by your finger. You need to position your finger high enough on the 3rd string so that it does not interfere with the 2nd string. It might take some work, but the results will definitely be worth it!

2. Not staying close enough to the fret you are sliding across. For instance, if you are going to slide from the 2nd to 3rd fret, start with your finger just behind the 3rd fret. There is no need to slide all the way from the beginning of the 2nd fret to all the way across the 3rd fret. This will slow you down when you start increasing your speed.

Incorrect Slide #2

3. Not making it across the fret; sliding within the fret. This may seem like it goes without saying to some of you, but I see this from time to time in my teaching. It usually occurs when someone is watching their right hand instead of their left hand. They actually know they have to cross the fret for the slide to take place, but since they aren't watching the left hand and aren't listening for the change in sound, they don't realize they aren't actually sliding across the fret.

Incorrect Slide #3

Pictures from the Hall's

I received a few more pictures today in e-mail from the Hall Family. These are some of the pictures from Saturday's contest.