Saturday, March 27, 2010

iPhone App You Must Read About I know this has nothing to do with bluegrass, but it is a money-saver and it's way cool.  This new app allows you to get a second line on your iPhone complete with voice mail and other amenities, and you can use WiFi to place phonecalls instead of AT&T.  This means you don't use your AT&T minutes, which means you can downgrade your base plan.  It also can turn your iPod into a telephone with no cell service plan at all!!!!  There's no way I can describe this new app.  You simply have to read it yourself:

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Eureka Contests for Youth - Interpretation & Results

It is hard to imagine the amount of talent that we currently have right here in our own midst!  Many times, I'm in my own little bubble (which is quite good in and of itself), and I don't always get the chance to hear what's outside our Bluegrass Shack world, if you want to call it that.  Last night at the MABC Spring Bluegrass Festival I got the chance to fully listen the youth talent that was present at the contest.  It is simply amazing!

First of all, since I manage many of these contests, I don't always get the chance to listen to all the performers.  I am busy making sure the judges have everything they need, that the performers are on deck when they should be, warming up contestants, backing up contestants, presenting the awards, and many other duties that arise.  I made it a point last night to try to listen to as many of the performers as I could.  I couldn't stop thinking and talking about it afterwards.  Don't get me wrong -- it's not that I don't know it's out there and it's not even that I don't get to hear it.  It's just that I don't always get to the hear the "live" performances. 

A contest is not actually a true picture of a person's talent.  It is a small snapshot into their abilities.  What I mean by that is this:  Some people have the unique ability to rise to the occasion and really perform under pressure.  The audience energizes them.  Unfortunately for others, lack of stage experience and/or nerves and/or myriad other things prevent some performers from doing as well under pressure.  Much of this can be chalked up to the number of times a person has performed on stage or in contests; a person's general make-up and how well they do under pressure; the judges' individual tastes; coincidence or luck on a particular day; how many other contestants there are and how they perform; song choice; order of performance; and other issues. 

As an experienced teacher, I have the ability to see through mistakes not only in lessons but also in performances.  I can see and hear a fine musician flub up an entire performance and still know what kind of a musician they are.  I am able to look at the entire picture, even if I don't know the performer and haven't heard them play before.  And, obviously, if I DO know them, I am even better at this.  How?  Well, I am looking at how a person handles mistakes, how they can recover from them, execution and tone of a song, demeanor, and other things.  In a nutshell, I can learn more from a person's mistake than I can a perfect performance.  Everyone can get lucky and have a perfect or near perfect performance.  When a person makes a mistake, I get to see how they recover from that mistake.  That is a key factor in overall musicianship.

What I saw at the youth contests last night was incredible.  The banjo and fiddle contests were something that I get to see more often than anything.  The talent portion of the contest is something that we only have around here once a year.  We had 16 entries in the talent contest last night and it ranged from fiddle, to flatpick guitar, to singing, to youth bands.  Since kids are natural performers, it was a blast to watch them all in their element.  I heard a little girl named Olivia, who was not even 10 years old yet, sing Mule Skinner Blues like no one's business.  In fact, she won 3rd place in the contest!  Drew, who also played in the banjo contest, flatpicked in the last spot in the contest and was a huge hit.  His banjo playing was good, but his guitar picking was outstanding!  Drew won 1st place.  Drew is only 10 years old.  (Makes me want to throw my Martin...)  Wyatt sang with some guitar backup from dear old Dad and I can only just wait to hear what will become of this young man's future.  Sophia and Daniel did an outstanding job playing and singing Old Joe Clark.  They had the entire arrangement all figured out and performed flawlessly.  The first contestant of the night, someone I have watched for the past several years, is only 11 years old and sang and played guitar to a song that she WROTE herself.  Heather is an example of a young girl I have gotten to watch improve dramatically over the past couple of years.  She also played in the fiddle contest and won second place.  I could actually write something about each and every performer, but I think I'd run out of room here.

The kids made my evening!  If I was judging I'd have to proclaim a 10-way tie.  It was that good.  Now after that long summary, here are the actual results:

16 & Under Fiddle:
1st - Paige Park
2nd - Heather Stortz
3rd - Paige Johnson
Most Entertaining - John Klein
Youngest - Sophia Hasler

16 & Under Banjo
1st - Nikki Warnecke
2nd - Emily Hall
3rd - Drew Thurmond
Most Entertaining - Nikki Warnecke
Youngest - Drew Thurmond

16 & Under Talent
1st - Drew Thurmond
2nd - The Pickin' Chicks
3rd - Olivia Park
4th - Emily Hall
5th - Paige Johnson

Many thanks to our judges, who had some very tough decisions to make; to MABC, for sponsoring this wonderful contest and opportunity; to Carla (my mother), for her scorekeeping duties, which are vitally important for this kind of function; to Zane, for providing backup to anyone who needed it; to Steve, who did a great job on sound; and to all of the audience, who provided support to MABC and all of the performers.  It was a successful night indeed!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Bluegrass Retreat Date

It has come to my attention that I cannot do the bluegrass retreat on the August date I initially chose.  I am going to be doing workshops in Belleville at Our Lady of the Snows Shrine that weekend.  Where was my brain???!!!  Please stay tuned for the correct date, and in the meantime, keep those e-mails coming to tell me what you would like for the weekend!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Chris' Beginning Bluegrass Banjo DVDs are Here!

Finally!  Yes, they are here!  You can order them online at, or you can call The Bluegrass Shack directly to place your order.  By visiting the Learn Bluegrass Website, you can get the full details on the DVDs.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Bluegrass Festival in Eureka, MO This Weekend!

Don't forget about the MABC bluegrass festival this weekend at the Holiday Inn Six Flags in Eureka, MO.  Friday night's highlights include the All Youth Fiddle, Banjo & Open Talent Competitions.  This is the only annual Youth Talent Contest for bluegrass that I know of locally.  It is my favorite of all the contests because I like to hear the youth sing and play anything and everything!

The Bluegrass Shack will be set up as vendors this weekend, so we hope you'll come by the vendor's room and say hello!  (The Bluegrass Shack in New Athens will be closed to the public this weekend, but Friday & Saturday lessons will still be held as usual there.)  If you want us to bring something in particular, you'd better call or e-mail us right away!

If you haven't joined MABC, we hope you'll consider it.  The Bluegrass Shack is not affiliated in any way with MABC, but I do manage their contests and I believe they are a fantastic local organization.  They produce a great newsletter that comes out six times a year and lists many area festivals, events and general bluegrass news.  You get discounts for all MABC events with your membership.  Check out their website at

BG Shack to Sponsor Workshops & Retreat

Please watch the blog for the date!  We are thinking late August, but I have to firm things up still.

The Bluegrass Shack is tentatively planning a series of workshops and concerts for its 1st Annual Bluegrass Retreat to be held in Pinckneyville, IL.  All of the details are currently in the planning stage, but we wanted interested folks to 1) save the date; 2) give us feedback; 3) be the first to get "official" notice!

Some of the things that we would like to plan for this weekend include --
Workshops on:
Fiddle, Banjo & Guitar  (Possibly mandolin & bass as well)
How to Change Strings
Take Apart Your Banjo
Fiddle Strings & Bows (does it make a difference?)
Basic Fiddle Setup

Jamming for:
Open Jams anywhere you want
Beginning Jams

Bands to perform concerts & open stage time

We are planning to hold the retreat at Lake Sallateeska.  This is Baptist Camp, but please note we are not affiliated in any way with the camp and this is a non-religious event except for maybe some great old-time gospel music!  The camp has over 160 acres, with 40 acres being the main part of the camp.  They have RV hookups available as well as hotel rooms on-site!  They have additional beds available if you'd like to reserve for a group (these are bunk beds with a working kitchen & livingroom area, and bathroom facilities).  They have multiple pavillions, an indoor pool, paddle boats, and you can fish in the lake.  There is a game room for the kids.  This is a great place for our bluegrass retreat, as everything can be held indoors in air conditioning, or outdoors!  They even have a cafeteria.  There are several great antique malls nearby for those who wish to have another activity.

Please, take a look at their website to see all the facilities available:

So what would we like from you?  We'd like to hear from you to see what you might be interested in participating in.  This can be from the list I posted above, or whatever you think of.  You might be the one with the great activity we forgot!  Feel free to send e-mail directly to The Bluegrass Shack (bluegrassshack @ or as comments to this blog post.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Closed Friday & Saturday, March 19 & 20, 2010

I just wanted to let everyone know that The Bluegrass Shack will be closed to the public on Friday and Saturday, March 19 & 20.  Students that have lessons on Friday and Saturday will still have their lessons here, but the store will be closed to the general public as Earl and I will be out of town at the bluegrass festival in Eureka, MO.

We will be set up there in the vendor's room with instruments, books, DVDs, and accessories, so come by and say hello!

Don't forget the youth banjo, fiddle & open talent contest is also this weekend at Eureka.  If you've never seen it, you don't want to miss it.  This is my favorite because it features kids playing in bands, singing, and playing all different kinds of instruments.  If you want to enter the contest, it is for all youth 16 years of age and younger.  You can view the contest rules on MABC's bulletin board.

Monday Night Beginning Jam

It was another good beginner's jam tonight.  This was the less advanced of the jams tonight, though we have certainly come a long way!  Everyone is picking out their second song now, which means we have over 20 to choose from.  Some of the newer songs include Old Dan Tucker, Little Maggie, Pig in a Pen, Sweet Betsy From Pike, Pretty Mary, and Somebody Touched Me.

We have for quite some time been working to get the banjo players up to speed.  Banjo is the toughest instrument to play fast because it has to play so many more notes than the rest of the instruments.  It is also hard for beginners to go from back up to lead.  Part of that is because the lead is twice as fast as the back up, and it is a timing issue.  Everyone is getting so much better at this, though!  We can finally get through a song with everyone taking solo breaks and keeping up or catching up, whatever the case.  I am so proud of everyone!

We have been working on a couple of instrumentals, including Bile Them Cabbage, Banjo in the Hollow and Blackberry Blossom.

I noticed that Barb is getting her guitar runs down now.  Although I couldn't hear her (she was at the opposite end of the room from me), I could see that she was putting her C run in the right place with the right timing.

It was Barb and Bobby's 41st wedding anniversary as well, so we all sang Happy Anniversary to the tune of Happy Birthday.  Too bad we didn't have any food for the occasion...

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Page 249 and Going Strong

I'm now on page 249 of the book "Man of Constant Sorrow."  So far, this has been a very good read, though not a fast read.  Here are some my thoughts at this point after having read this far.

I think that professional musicians of Ralph Stanley's greatness are far and few between.  Most people would not be able to live this kind of lifestyle clean.  I was surprised and impressed by Ralph's fairness to himself and others, yet I think he really did speak his mind.

Ralph's story is a good blueprint for others wanting to get into the bluegrass music field:
1.  He knew from a very early age what he wanted to do.  He pursued that and never let it go.  It was hard for him because he was so shy, but he didn't let that stop him.
2.  His choice for life was not made because he thought he could make lots of money.  He did it because he loved music and he couldn't see himself doing anything else.
3.  His longevity is due to the fact that he kept himself "clean."
4.  Ralph speaks quite often of the "Stanley sound."  Even though there were many changes of personnel in the band over the years, he was intent on keeping this aspect of the band no matter what.  This was the thing that set the Stanley Brothers apart from all of the other bands.  They knew what sound they wanted (and were good at) -- they set out to get it.
5.  Be ready for fatigue and frugality.  Ralph makes it clear how hard they worked, how long they were away from home, and how little money they actually made so much of the time.
6.  Success comes slowly and doesn't last.  Just when you think it's gone, it might come back!
7.  His family was very important to him.  They fully supported him, but they weren't the driving force behind him and his brother.  (My personal note to pushy parents: Stop!  Children are not an investment nor are they a lottery ticket.  Children have their whole lives ahead of them to become famous if that's what they want.  Even though Ralph knew he wanted to pursue music, it was Ralph himself who pursued this when he was old enough to pursue it himself.)
8.  Ralph understood that a good performance included entertaining the audience, not just playing good music.

I personally enjoyed reading about how close Ralph and his brother Carter were, and also about the special relationship they had with their mother.  They endured some incredibly bad times and events.  The music of this time reflected a lot of this as well.  (Which was actually eye-opening to me because there have been times when I have wondered why some of the old songs are so morbid.)

Wrapping this up, I'm a little more than half-way through the book so far.  It's still just as good as it was in the beginning.  Go get yourself a copy!

Monday, March 8, 2010

Charlie and the Girls Win First Place!

Congratulations! We are proud to announce that Charlie and the Girls won first place in the Open Talent Competition on Saturday morning! The contest was held at the 20th Annual Gateway Bluegrass Festival in Westport. Check out the Facebook page for Charlie and the Girls. Here's a picture from the contest.

I'm Left-handed: Should I learn to play right- or left-handed?

Now there's a loaded question if I've ever heard one! Especially since I'm right-handed!

My advice to left-handers is this: If you don't already play an instrument left-handed, DON'T START! Why? Well, there are several very good reasons why.

1) Once you start left-handed, you'll want to play all instruments left-handed...

2) Since most instruments are made right-handed, you won't get the same selection of left-handed instruments that you'll get right-handed. They cost more and many have to be special-ordered.

3) If you want a vintage left-handed instrument, it's much harder to find.

4) You won't be able to play other people's instruments and they won't be able to play yours.

5) If you want to play violin in an orchestra, you WON'T BE ALLOWED to play left-handed.

6) Many instruments don't even come in left-handed models (e.g., the trumpet, the flute, the cello, etc.)

Now, onto some other information for you if you still aren't convinced. Both hands have to learn to do something, so what difference does it make? As a teacher, I have taught many left-handers to play right-handed. I've not had ONE single student come back and tell me they wish they would have done it the other way around. I've not had one single student not able to do it.

As far as teaching goes, I have had several left-handers that seemed less coordinated at first, but this went away after several weeks of practice. My left-handed students that learn right-handed generally thought that any problems they were having were related to the fact that they weren't playing left-handed. This is quickly dispelled when they have a chance to talk to others who are learning and they see that practically everyone faces the same challenges. When they realize the difficulties they are having are not limited to themselves, they get over it quickly because they stop making excuses.

If you MUST play left-handed, for whatever reason, I suggest the upside-down backwards method. In the St. Louis area, we are lucky to have one of the finest left-handed upside-down backwards players I know of. He played with the Over the Hill Gang for 17 years and his name is Harry. Harry plays the guitar, mandolin and fiddle all upside-down and backwards. He is simply incredible! Now what does that mean? It means he takes any ordinary instrument and simply flips it over. He doesn't restring it (which would not work well for several reasons that I'm not going to go into right now). When everyone else is strumming down, Harry strums upwards.

How about switch-hitting? It's common in baseball, so why not make it a standard in music?

One more insteresting fact. When I was in college, we used to do these informal polls on the blackboard in the music majors' student lounge. More than half of all the music majors were left-handed. How many played left-handed instruments???? None!

What's the Difference Between 4, 5 and 6-string Banjos?


What is the difference between four, five & six string banjos? If you want to play banjo and you don't know the answer to this question, you should! This is a very important question because the type of banjo that you play will be determined largely by the type or style of music that you want to play.

4-String Banjo

The 4-string banjo is called a tenor or plectrum banjo and is generally used for dixieland music. It is played with a guitar pick. (Another word for pick is plectrum, hence the name plectrum banjo...) You can either play and strum chords as backup, or you can actually pick out the melody notes like what you would do on a guitar. The standard tenor banjo has 19 frets. The 17-fret tenor banjo is called an Irish Tenor banjo. Both of these tenor banjos look about the same size as 5-string banjos.

There is such a thing as a longneck tenor banjo. It has 22 frets rather than the shorter 17-fret (Irish) or 19-fret tenor banjo. The longer neck length gives the banjo a deeper (lower) pitch.

You also might see small four string banjos. These are actually banjo ukuleles. They can be played like a standard ukulele, or just like a tenor banjo as well.

The tuning on a tenor banjo can vary greatly. There are quite a few different tunings that are used. I don't play much on tenor banjo, but when I was talking to some of my fellow friends who play tenor, they told me that at the St. Louis Banjo Club, everyone uses different tunings to suit them according to what is easier for them to finger, or what might be similar to the tuning used on another stringed instrument that they already play. Some people tune the tenor banjo like a fiddle or mandolin (EADG), some tune it like a ukulele (GCEA), and then there are others that tune it like the first four strings of a guitar (EBGD). Due to the fret spacing, I think ukulele or guitar tuning is the easiest to play chords from.

5-String Banjo

Standard 5-string banjos have 22 frets, with the 5th string tuning peg at the 5th fret. The 5-string banjo with a resonator is the standard for bluegrass banjo. It can also be used to play folk music or clawhammer (frailing). For clawhammer, you want a banjo without a resonator. This gives the banjo a softer sound both in volume and in tone quality. Bluegrass style banjo is played with a thumbpick and two metal fingerpicks. Clawhammer style banjo is played with the fingernails or special plastic picks that fit over the nails of the right hand. Think of Earl Scruggs for bluegrass style and Grandpa Jones (Hee Haw) for clawhammer style.

There is also a longneck 5-string banjo as well. The standard 5-string banjo has the 5th string tuning peg installed at the 5th fret, and has 22 total frets. The longneck banjo has three more frets than the standard 5-string, making the 5th string tuning peg at the 8th fret or between the 7th & 8th frets (depending on the maker of the banjo). Due to its longer length, it has a lower tone than the standard 5-string, making it more popular for folk music and frailing.

6-String Banjo

The 6-string banjo is basically a guitar that is in the shape of a banjo. It is tuned like a guitar and played like a guitar. This would be ideal for someone who already knows how to play a guitar, but wants the tone quality of a banjo. The important thing to note here is that since it will be played like a guitar, it will only have the tone quality of the banjo, not the sound of HOW the banjo is played. In other words, a 5-string bluegrass banjo will be played with rolls. There are many fast notes that fall into specific patterns. These cannot be duplicated with a guitar pick.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Youth Contests: Banjo, Fiddle & Open Talent

Youth musicians & singers: Here's your chance to shine! Once a year, MABC sponsors a contest just for you! This year's contest is on Friday, March 19, 2010, at the Holiday Inn Six Flags in Eureka, MO.

This contest is for all youth 16 years of age and under. If you play banjo or fiddle, or if you play other instruments, or if you are in a youth band, or even if you just sing, come and share your talent. Backup musicians are allowed; however, karaoke is not.

For a complete listing of rules, please see the MABC bulletin board posting. If you have additional questions, feel free to e-mail me! We hope to see you all there!

Steve: After Only One Year!

This is my banjo student, Steve, who has been playing for about a year. He has no previous musical experience and is retired. Steve takes lessons 1-2 times a month and regularly attends a beginner's jam session another 1-2 times a month. I am posting this to inspire others who want to learn banjo to go ahead and JUST DO IT! Steve has memorized 15-20 song leads now, and can also play backup to just about any standard 3-chord song. He can use a capo as well. Although not all his leads are up to speed, his backup is. Great job, Steve! I'm very proud of you!

Monday, March 1, 2010

Instructional Jam Sessions

It's been a while since I've written about any of our jam sessions, so I thought this would be the perfect moment to do so!  We are still having them regularly, so maybe you'd like to come join us for one.

Every Monday, we have instructional jams.  There are actually two different sessions, each one runs every other Monday.  One is more advanced than the other.  If you are interested in attending one of these sessions, give us a call or send me an e-mail so we can determine which one you'd be better suited for.  The cost is $10.00, and the sessions last 1-1/2 hours. 

The nice thing about the instructional jam sessions is that you can ask questions, get answers, and try anything you want again!  If you are kicking off a song and really get it messed up, you get to have another shot at it if you want.  Everyone picks out a song to sing, I help you figure out what key you should be singing in, and then everyone learns how to sing and play the song together.  It's a very low-key environment because everybody gets to know each other and everyone is truly supportive in so many ways!  We always have a lot of fun.

Sometimes we work on harmony or study very basic theory as it applies to bluegrass music.  Tonight's session was the less advanced session.  That doesn't mean that we are rank beginners anymore, though.  We talked about transposing to other keys, the Nashville number system, bar chords, "real" chords versus chord positions, and capo usage. 

Just about everyone is picking out another song now.  That means a lot of work for me!  I have to get the chords and words out to everyone, and then I have to write breaks to all the songs in whatever key the singer is playing the song in.  I write breaks for mandolin, fiddle, banjo and guitar.  The songs that we are currently playing include:  Blackberry Blossom, Worried Man Blues, Shady Grove, Mountain Dew, Nine Pound Hammer, Banjo in the Hollow, Highways and Hedges, On Jordan's Stormy Banks, Tom Dooley, Hot Corn Cold Corn, Pig in a Pen, Little Maggie, Somebody Touched Me, Keep on the Sunny Side, Jambalaya, Old Dan Tucker, Wabash Cannonball, Bile Them Cabbage, Liza Jane, Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Sweet Betsy From Pike, and Old Joe Clark.  I have probably missed a some, too!  We have accrued quite a list now and everyone is improving so much!