Damn and blast! My new banjo has not arrived yet!
I know it's terrible of me to have gone from wide-eyed wonderment to spoiled-child impatience in less than a week, but this is the banjo that I didn't expect to have for another few years at least; take three+ years of low-level longing and anticipation and cram it into two weeks and you can't help but wind up in 8 year old on Christmas Eve mode.
Interestingly, I just dug up this fragment from the 'Draft' pile, originally written on 2004-06-23. I don't remember why I never finished it, but I do remember the frustration that spawned it:
"It's a poor carpenter who blames his tools", so the saying goes, but dammit, you can't do good work with the wrong tool for the job either.
I need a new banjo. I'm getting into the 3-finger style, and my plunky open-back banjo just doesn't cut it. It's fine for frailing, where plunk is generally desirable, but it lacks the bright, cracking sound of a good resonator banjo... as my 3-finger playing improves marginally, it's becoming more apparent just how integral that resonator sound is to the style. (At least, to the style as I would like to sound when playing it.)
I am trying not to place too much faith in this new banjo's ability to contribute to my abilities on the instrument, but I have no doubts about its ability to contribute to my motivation!
If you've never thought much about banjo beyond that scene in the beginning of Deliverance, you might be surprised to discover that there's quite an active community of banjo enthusiasts to be found online.
You might also be surprised to discover that there are talented banjo players out there who play music in styles other than Foggy Mountain Breakdown or Dueling Banjos.
You probably wouldn't be surprised, then, to discover that discussion threads about banjo players and music inevitably degenerate into chest thumping about whether a banjo player plays "real bluegrass" or not, at which point intelligent discourse is no longer possible. Even if the discussion at hand is not even about whether somebody plays "real bluegrass" or not, the debate is over the instant somebody uses the phrase "Real bluegrass".
(See Godwin's law.)
I am choosing not to ponder what I have done to deserve such good fortune, but I do have a vague sense that I have burned an unusually large quantity of good karma in a short amount of time, and I feel that I have an obligation to do something with my new instruments other than play them by myself at home. At a minimum, to stop telling friends and family about how I keep meaning to go to a jam session and actually go... But that's a subject for another post entirely.About a year ago I briefly considered buying a mandolin, but eventually decided to pursue Scruggs-style banjo instead. I blame Tony Trischka's Early Years CD for finally pushing me over the edge after a year and a half of contented frailing.
It wasn't long after my initial post about the lessons that frustration set in. While it was true that I had a substantially better banjo than the first one I learned clawhammer on, it just didn't lend itself to the bluegrass style very well; being open-backed and having only a simple rolled-brass tone ring, my Saga SS-10 has a sweet, mellow tone. This is ideal for old-timey music, which relies less on machine-gun picking and more on rhythmic strumming. When trying to practice 3-finger rolls, however, that mellow tone makes it hard to tell whether the mushy sound you're producing is the result of your technique, or just the nature of your banjo. That sharp, ringing tone was absent, and although I got reasonably proficient at basic rolls and tunes it just didn't sound right.
I had been swapping some web consulting time for my lessons and when that dried up I opted not to continue on a paying basis, figuring that I would begin saving my pennies for a "high-end entry-level" (or "low-end professional-level", if you please) instrument, something like a Gold Tone BG-250F or a Fender FB-58 and then pick up where I had left off.
It was around this time that Banjo Hangout began holding raffles for instruments as a way to raise funds for the site. I entered a few of these, a few dollars here and there via PayPal... I figured my odds were substantially better than winning the cash equivalent via scratch ticket, and it's a nice way to support the Banjo Hangout community. I awaited the drawings eagerly, not really expecting to win, but always hoping. In the meantime, I continued to save pennies.
The thing is, the acquisition of any halfway decent banjo requires the saving of quite a few pennies. I put on the fingerpicks every once in a while and had a burst of inspiration after seeing Ross Nickerson's Banjo Road Show in July (incidentally, I highly recommend his Banjo Encyclopedia - a straightforward instructional text that spends plenty of time on the basics before dumping you into into tablature. If you go to his show you may be able to get a spiral-bound copy), but my open-back's mellow tone was really an obstacle for me. By the end of last year I had decided to shoot for a less expensive mandolin instead, reasoning that I already owned three banjos, having been gifted with another SS-10 by Ernest. Then even that plan was somewhat postponed as I finally got my workshop built over Christmas break, and dropped a bunch of money the tools and supplies necessary to undertake the assembly of a ukulele kit, and other long-planned adventures in lutherie.
One day about a month ago I entered another Banjo Hangout raffle, this one for a Gold Star GF-85 banjo. This time it was truly a "what the heck" gesture, I really didn't think about the raffle after buying my tickets; it was around this time that it also finally occurred to me that I didn't really have any use for two SS-10 banjos. With Ernest's blessing, I took one of them down to the Fretted Instrument Workshop in Amherst, and walked out with a shiny new Kentucky KM-150s mandolin, an even trade.
It's nice to get back into flatpicking an instrument, which in many ways feels much more logical than either frailing or 3-finger banjo. I admit to indulging in some sour-grapes thoughts as I practiced various scales and fiddle tunes on my new instrument; "Maybe I'm just better suited to mandolin," and "I really shouldn't be buying instruments costing hundreds of dollars right now anyway - in a couple of years the cost of a decent resonator banjo will be easier to justify," et cetera.
Imagine my surprise when I opened up the Banjo Hangout e-mail newsletter this past Monday and read my name as the winner of the GF-85. I had never experienced a "I head to read it three times before it began to sink in" moment before, but this was definitely such a moment. The most exciting thing I had ever won in a raffle up to that point was a copy of Trivial Pursuit, the fancy millenium edition in the metal tin. And this isn't just an adequate resonator banjo, this is probably the last resonator banjo I'll ever need. (notice I said need, not want.)
Amazingly, for an outlay of two dollars (and a favor owed to Ernest) I have acquired an all-solid wood mandolin and a professional-level banjo in the space of about three weeks. I am choosing not to ponder what I have done to deserve such good fortune, but I do have a vague sense that I have burned an unusually large quantity of good karma in a short amount of time, and I feel that I have an obligation to do something with my new instruments other than play them by myself at home. At a minimum, to stop telling friends and family about how I keep meaning to go to a jam session and actually go... But that's a subject for another post entirely.
Exotica musician Martin Denny has passed away at the age of 94.
I haven't listened to my Ultra-Lounge catalog nearly as much as I used to since leaving the decidedly more tropical climes of Los Angeles, but Martin Denny's music provided the soundtrack for numerous weekend googie photo expeditions around southern California.
His music never failed to transport me from the ugly, cynical, overcrowded L.A. of the 1990's back to the sleek, modern, optimistic (and yes, kitschy) L.A. of the 1950's, and for that I was always grateful.
As pointed out by BoingBoing, what a nice way to go after a long, successful life; peacefully, in your sleep, and in Hawaii.