Saturday, November 23, 2013

Lesson Twelve:  How to Tune Your Banjo

Tuning seems easy, you just twist the knobs until the electronic tuner says you are in tune.   Oh, if it were only that simple!
I recently had a workshop with Marla Fibish at the O'Flaherty Irish Music Retreat outside of Dallas, TX.  Mandolins are notoriously hard to tune - you have to make sure both strings of the course are the same, there is a lot of stress on the instrument which moves the neck and changes the tuning, and the scale is very short which means that bridge placement is crucial.  Marla showed us some of the tricks to tuning this finicky instrument that will translate to the banjo.
Banjos are not as hard as to tune, they have four strings after all, but they suffer from the same problems that a mandolin has plus they are banjos.
Why "plus they are banjos?"  Among stringed instruments, banjos are a distinct minority in that they are an assemblage of parts instead of being an organic glued-together entity.  The average banjo has between 70 and 90 parts all of which can come loose at some time.  In addition they are all put together by external forces which have to be optimal for the the banjo to sound good. 
Like other instruments they are also made of wood which is a material of widely varying properties and they are subject to environmental forces that can change the relationship of the parts.
The bottom line is that banjos can be just as squirrely as their owners and usually more often.
So where does this lead us when we want to tune?
The so-called Irish Tenor Banjo tuning is GDAE, lowest tone to highest, an octave below mandolin tuning and lower in pitch than the standard tenor banjo tuning of cgda.  Since tenor banjo scales vary quite a bit from nearly 16" to about 23.5" (400mm to 600mm for those of you who are inch deprived) the string gauges vary quite a bit in order to reach these pitches.  In addition action heights often vary for a number of reasons and the tension on the strings changes with a number of factors including string type and gauge. 
If you add in the age of the instruments, the type of tuners, nut slot widths, bridge slot angles, etc., tuning suddenly becomes more complicated.
Other factors include your musical environment (i.e. how well the other instruments are tuned), the physical environment (temperature, humidity, changes in both) and you ability to hear and duplicate tones.
Actually it is a lot harder to tell you how to tune than it is to tune, so let's get started.
You need three things besides your banjo to tune well: an electronic tuner, a pick, and a good ear.  In the old days before electronic tuners you had to have a really good ear if you wanted to be in standard tuning.  The newer electronic tuners (the first one was a strobe tuner dating 1939 and they are still the most accurate) are cheap and accurate.  I like the Snark series because they seem to react to banjos well but a lot of tuners work.
The pick is mostly important in that you are consistent in the way you strike the string and that you don't hit another string in the process.  The harder part is developing your ear.
 Being able to distinguish tones is a skill that every string player has to pick up at some time.  Electronic tuners take some of the gross skills away - you don't have to know when you are close to A=440 anymore, the tuner will do it for you - but you do have to know when the tuning sounds "right."  This latter skill is not a savant absolute pitch thing, it is more of an emotional response to when all four strings sound right.  Banjos (or any other instrument) don't tune exactly to the mathematically correct notes that some tuners look for.  For one thing nothing is a straight/parallel line with banjos so fret placement is not always reflective of absolute notes.  Also, since banjos are resonating bodies they all have a natural tone that they resonate to.  Some of this depends on the setup and especially the  tension of the head so that certain notes will be louder or fuller than others.  As a result  if a string is slightly out of beat with the natural resonance of the banjo (which includes the other strings) then the banjo will not sound as good as you'd like. 
Jazz (cgda) banjo players will often say that they like the third string to be slightly flat by a few cents to make sure that the banjo sounds best.  Piano tuners tune the whole pianos close to perfect as possible and then the tune to the ear so the piano sounds the best.  It humbles you when realize that every piano key has two or more strings.
Throw in testy tuners, slightly small nut slots, the wrong angle bridge break (the angle from the bridge to the tail piece), and the effect of string gauges then you have a less precise and more artful task when you tune.
The basic rules are:  1) Always tune from below the note, it lessens the chances of slippage later on; 2) tune the A string first as close to 440 as possible with the electronic tuner; 3) tune the other strings as close as you can with the electronic tuner and finish off with your ear; 4) banjos are ungrateful (expletive deleted) and  go out of tune at the most inopportune times so be aware.

Here is a video showing you my method of tuning:

Mike Keyes

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Lesson Eleven:  An Hour with Kieran Hanrahan

The very first Irish tenor banjo CD I ever bought was entitled "Kieran Hanrahan Plays The Irish Tenor Banjo."  Since than I've always wanted to hear him in person and perhaps take a lesson from him.  It didn't hurt to have Gerry O'Connor, Brian McGrath, and Enda Scahill all tell me that he was a master on the four string "even though he played a different style."
That latter caution (if that is the word) intrigued me because as far as I was concerned Kieran's driving style was something I'd like to emulate.
Kieran rarely comes to the US since the days of Stockton's Wing tour in 1984 so when I heard that he would be at the O'Flaherty Irish Music Retreat, I couldn't wait to see and hear him teach.  The problem was that I was already signed up for Marla Fibish's mandolin class and I could not miss that either.
Fortunately the format of O'Flaherty's had changed this year and allowed for an advanced class in banjo with Kieran Hanrahan that did not interfere with the mandolin class.
Kieran plays with a driving style that is particularly strong on stage especially with others playing with him.  He uses alternating picking exclusively - a style he developed himself as he had no good models the way students do this way.  The result is a driving swinging style that I love and one that suits North American banjo players who come from other instruments and other musical styles.
Most of you are familiar with the "controversy" concerning the right hand style needed to play jigs.  In typical internet style there has been a long protracted discussion mostly consisting of persons advocating DUD DUD or DUDU pick strokes that mostly is people talking past one another.  Kieran Hanrahan often is featured in these dialogues as the poster boy for DUDU while others point to a variety of well known banjo players and teachers who insist that only DUD DUD should be played when jigs and slip jigs are involved.
For the most part, I advocate DUD DUD for beginners because that is one of the best ways to learn the feel of jigs and I try my hardest to do that when I play.  But I have to confess that I was brought up in bluegrass and old time music which has a long tradition of not playing jigs so my fall back position is almost always alternating picking (DUDU) when I get tense or unsure of the tune.  Kieran showed us that alternate picking can be successfully used with jigs but it did take both a paradigm shift and a lot of work to make it sound like music if you are using the DUD DUD method.
With this in mind, I took in his advanced class armed with a borrowed banjo (thank you Kenny Tweedy)  and an open mind.  It didn't take long to realize that this man is a genius on the banjo and that the reason all those other geniuses wanted me to see and hear him was that any banjo player would be incomplete without exposure to his methods.
Right away I realized that he was a consummate musician who had a full grasp on Irish traditional music, not that that is a surprise, but was also able to present the music in a fresh and appealing way.  I have known most of my classmates for several years having taken at least five banjo classes at the O'Flaherty.  They all said that this class was different and "made them think" (almost everyone said those exact words) about considering expanding the way they play the banjo.  Instead of the contrarian view often posed in the internet discussions, I found that his style is complementary to the more or less standard style taught these days.  Kieran, like most elite level musicians, developed an efficient and musical style that is fairly easy to explain but takes a lot of work to use in a seamless and accurate way.  Basically he shows that keeping a steady alternating beat with the right hand drives the music while the left hand can bring in stylistic elements with the occasional right hand triplet.  This simple idea has multiple variations when music is played and he showed us a few of them in the class.
Gerry O'Connor (who is a good friend of Kieran's) has a similar approach to playing the banjo.  He told my class at Milwaukee in 2012 that he has a simple approach that uses the triplet in a distinct way.  He said that he didn't use a lot of ornaments but he did vary the way the tune was played and continues to develop his style.  There is no question who is playing when you hear Gerry play, just as you can tell when Kieran plays.  The elements of their styles are distinct, but the format of their playing, simplicity that becomes infinitely variable within the style, is the same.  All good banjo players eventually decide how they want to play the banjo and sound like themselves.  Stylistically, Kieran is just different than the average banjo player.
So there is not a big difference and certainly not a heretical version of banjo playing with Kieran Hanrahan. He even has the proof - he wrote his Master's thesis on how the Irish tenor banjo is taught.  i was unable to look at the entire text of his paper but he does have some pretty good evidence that most teachers show students the same things he does and only at the higher levels do things change.
So what about the DUD DUD vs. DUDU?  It's a matter of style.  What you get is the strengths of both techniques when you hear an elite level musician play.  The same tune can sound quite different in different hands.  The differences between alternate picking and DUD DUD players are less different than those among DUD DUD users.  The important thing is that if you are going to pick a style, you have to learn it inside and out if you want to become creative with it.  In addition there is no rule that says you can't use both and in several interviews with well known players they all admit that they use alternate picking in jigs when it suits them.
Remember, that these musicians are the very best and that they began with one or the other technique and then developed style afterwards.  At an intermediate level it is possible to continue to add styles and then meld them as your progress.  It is in a beginning student's best interest to start with a standard style so there will be a base upon which more sophisticated methods can be built.  If you use a hodge-podge of unrelated methods starting out, then there will be no base to expand and no logic to your system that will allow you to analyze and improve.
Kieran's style is incredible and is one that I am drawn to because it is so similar to what I grew up with in the States.  My problem has been learning to play the music as Irish music and not an Americanized version of the tunes.  I found DUD DUD very helpful and will continue to use it but I also find that the expansion of my style will benefit by the use of alternating picking.
Kieran does not like his image to be on youtube.  You can see why if you look for him, there are a few poorly produced images that really don't show his full genius.  He let me video the tunes he taught in the class, but I won't show them.  Instead I'll try and show the things he taught us with a video of my own.

Kieran has graciously allowed me to show his video.  He pointed out some small errors that I made in the article:

"Thanks for the complimentary article on your blogspot. Much appreciated. There are one or two points to make . Early in the week of the O’Flaherty retreat I made the point that I don’t exclusively use the DUDU technique while playing but it is the point from where I start. You could say that I use it 95% of the time. There are times when, for effect or depending where there’s a single triplet, I change by doubling up on the downstroke. I showed some examples of this during the earlier classes. Even in the playing of the Rambling Pitchfork I made a couple of subtle changes in order to show the cross-picking effect. I think If you take a closer look at the clip you’ll see about four or five changes of stroke but at that point I was more focused on the effect of cross-picking. I’m not caught up in the rights or wrongs of technique but rather that a player should have a plan when playing and not, as happens a lot, have a random approach to picking."

Two things are shown on this tape: Alternating picking a jig allows you to get a very interesting syncopated effect  by hitting the drone string while playing a descending passage and the left hand plays a more important part in the music with this style.  What is not shown is the use of a triplet that starts on the upstroke - something I need to practice a lot if I want to do it properly - and a left hand triplet that he does by inserting a left hand pizzicato  with his ring finger in between the down and up stroke.  I wish I had the ability to do this left hand ornament, maybe later, but it is pretty nifty and he does it automatically with great style.
Kieran Hanrahan is a seminal player of the Irish tenor banjo who has to be heard in person for your pleasure and a class with him should be on your bucket list if you want to expand our style.  He is both a gentle man and a scholar of the instrument who developed a masterly way of playing.  I am so glad I was able to get this hour with him and I hope to be able to take a longer set of classes with him some day.

Mike Keyes

Friday, November 1, 2013

Marla Fibish:  The Irish Mandolin

I had the great pleasure of taking an Irish mandolin class from Marla Fibish at the 2013 O'Flaherty Retreat.  for those of you who don't know Marla, she is one of the great teachers of Irish mandolin in North America and a superb musician herself.
Marla started out playing the mandolin thirty years ago in San Francisco which has had a long Irish music tradition that continues today.  Marla is one of those musician who had to explore her instrument mostly by herself and in the process learned the strengths and limitations of the mandolin.  She plays a 1921 Gibson A2 that she inherited from her grandfather that has become her trademark.  She also plays mandola and guitar, but in this lesson we focused mostly on the mandolin.
Coming into this lesson I was biased by the many glowing reports about her teaching style and her musicianship.  I was not disappointed, in fact those remarks were muted if anything.  Marla is a warm and welcoming person who has a lot of information to impart and is more than willing to spend time with you.  She clearly has a love for the music and like all elite players has strong opinions about how best to play the music.  She does not impose a prescriptive method, but she does want you to play to your potential and to learn to improve your technique.
The class started out with basic strokes on the mandolin.  She insists that you get the best tone out of your instrument and she has developed a number of exercises to help all levels of players.  She taught a few new tunes, but most of the emphasis was on learning to get into a groove with the stroke and to make sure that you play with taste, drive, and tone.
We spent half the class on reels and the other half on jigs.  Marla also taught an "enrichment" class for advanced students (much like a master class) that explored issues with various tunes and techniques.  The basis of these classes was learning how to use the pick and we practiced a number of increasingly complex exercises in alternate picking (DUDUDUDU) for reels and jig picking (DUD DUD) for jigs.  All of the class was familiar with alternate picking and most of them had the idea of DUD DUD  down before the class so she was able to teach a number of interesting ways to use these strokes. 
While all of this seems like it would be fairly basic stuff, it really wasn't.  I've seen both Roland White and Andy Statman give similar classes and each time I came away with new insights into the mandolin. Ironically in the Roland White class only the better players seemed to understand the absolute need to keep up basic skills and for me that was the insight.  In the Andy Statman class every player there was an expert and the class went down very well.  The same is true of this class.
One of the things that Marla emphasized is that playing the mandolin requires a system of techniques.  Mandolins are relatively new to Irish music and some tunes are not suited for the mandolin as much as they are for the flute or fiddle.  If you read Joe Carr's book on Bill Monroe he addresses this issue much in the same way that Marla taught.  Bill Monroe could not play the tunes the same way the fiddle did so he developed his own style that included doubling notes instead of using passing notes and changing the tunes in minor ways to reflect the strengths of the mandolin.  Over the years Marla has come this same conclusion about the mandolin and Irish music.  Instead of a complex descending triplet/roll she would substitute a smothered triplet on one note or advise not to even do it.  It is possible to play those fiddle ornaments, but there are ornaments that the mandolin can do and the fiddle can't (such as droning an octave below because of the sustain a mandolin has) that fit much better with the mandolin.
As a result much of the music Marla plays is a little slower than session speed and much richer on the mandolin. 

Here is a sample of her teaching the Paddy O'Brien reel The Antrim Rose:

If you ever get a chance to take a lesson from her (She does Skype lessons, take it.  You won't be disappointed

Mike Keyes