Saturday, November 28, 2009

Old Joe Clark

Here's that old warhorse fiddle tune, Old Joe Clark. It's another one in the key of A.

And here is the tab for most of what I play in the video.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Three Things To Try With Your Metronome

If you haven't done these things before try them. They may be painful or unpleasant at first, but they are not really hard and will make you a better musician.

1. Try setting your metronome to tock on the 2nd and 4th beats of the bar instead of the 1st and 3rd while you play a tune you know well. If you've never done it before, it might be hard, but do it slowly and try it for a while. It gets easier, and your rhythm and timing get better. (Note: this isn't really a metronome setting, your head has to do the trick.)

2. Try just playing rhythm chops along with your metronome with the beat on the 1 and 3 or the 2 and 4. Try switching between the two.

3. Before you play a fiddle tune or try an improvisation, play the chords along with the metronome on the mandolin. Make sure you know the chords and then try to play the tune or the improvisation along with the chords in your head. Think of the chords while you play the melody or improvise. Keep the metronome going.

If you're interested in rhythm and timing and have 25 bucks, you could get John McGann's Rhythm Tune Up DVD. He also has a range of more advanced material if you're interested.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Improvising on Fiddle Tunes in A

A lot of fiddle tunes are like Kitchen Girl in that the first half starts with A major, and then goes to the G so you get a kind of myxolidian modal sound, and then in the second half they start in A minor and also go to G and other chords which I think makes them have a dorian modal sound. And then also in each part you can play pretty much straight A or A minor and G scales over the appropriate chords, plus you can play A blues scales over everything. All around there are a lot of options for improvisation - here's me messing around with some of those ideas over the chords to Cattle In The Cane, another very similar tune. You can probably hear shades of Cold Frosty Morning and Jerusalem Ridge in here too.

and here's the actual Cattle in the Cane, which I learned from the Bluegrass 95 CD:

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Kitchen Girl in AEAE Tuning

Here's a new way to play fiddle tunes in A that is surprisingly easy to do. I've only just started so I'm no expert, but tuning your two bass strings up a tone to A and E means you can play a lot more open strings on A tunes, which sounds nice. Some people call it cross tuning or sawmill tuning. Also because the tuning is that same as the top two strings just an octave lower, you can use the same scale patterns you use on the top two on the lower two, so it's very easy.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

This Is A Great Age To Be A Mandolinist

Or frankly any kind of musician. Never before was it possible to go online or onto iTunes and buy just about any tune you wanted. And then to get hold of a piece of software like Transcribe! or any of a dozen other applications that allow you, for little or no money, to play along with the finest musicians in the world on any tune you want to play at any speed you want to play it.

If you are not doing this yet, you are really missing out - start today.

Note that although a lot of music on iTunes is not copy protected, some of it is, but in that case you just need to burn it onto CD in order to be able to slow it down with the software of your choice. A lot of people use Audacity, which is free. But really, pay these developers, it's so little for creating such a world.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Kitchen Girl

Here's a tricky little tune that has a lot in common with other fiddle tunes like The Growling Old Man and the Grumbling Old Woman, and also reminds me a little of Jerusalem Ridge because of all the A minor possibilities.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Speed 2

The more I work on this and think about it, although it does seem to help a little to develop speed technique by working on things I can play well at high speed, it's counterproductive for more difficult material, which I have to play slowly until I have the technique down smoothly enough. So I think to expand a little on what I said in my first speed post, what I'll try to work on now is bringing up speed only in things I can play very easily, and keeping it very slow on anything more difficult.

It's more like an iterative process - working on a tune at speed shows me where the problems are, slowing it down lets me try to solve them. Speeding it back up again tests my solution.

Monday, November 9, 2009


You often hear the advice that playing something slowly is the key to being able to play it fast. I would certainly agree that if you cannot play a tune well slowly you will not be able to play it fast, so sorting out all of the difficulties of playing a particular piece and really getting it down at slow speed is a prerequisite of playing it fast.

But having done all that does not mean you will then be able to get up on stage and blaze that song at 150bpm. Even if you have worked on it at slower speeds for months, or years.

The problem is that in order for the advice about playing things slowly to be true you already have to be capable of playing at high speeds. I believe that's why you will quite often hear professionals recommend this 'play it slow first' method - they know it works for them. And it does, because they already have the technique they need to play fast.

So, at the moment I can play pretty well up to about 110 to 120bpm. By that I mean I'm able to play a lot of tunes cleanly and be fairly comfortable improvising up to that speed. But a lot of bluegrass songs are played at speeds of 135 to 155 bpm, and banjo instrumentals may go even higher. Bill Monroe played Rawhide up to about 195bpm when he was in the right mood.

So I guess my next project is to figure out a way to bring what I can do at 110bpm up to 130bpm speeds. My assumption is that the more time I spend playing well at speeds above 120bpm, the more likely I will be to achieve my goal. So in the hopes of tackling this, I'm going to work over some fiddle tunes I know pretty well, and see if I can get them all up to about 130bpm. I'm also going to try pushing my technique exercises up to those speeds and see if that helps.

Just to be clear what I'm intending here, it's not that I can't play at all at these speeds, just that I don't have the kind of control over tone and rhythm up there that I do at slower speeds. Here's an example


Sunday, November 8, 2009

Temperance Reel

Here's my version of Temperance Reel, with some stabs at improvisation. They don't all work but you get the general idea.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Conservation of Energy

I've been putting in a lot of work to try to develop my mandolin skills this year, and I've noticed a couple of key improvements. Recently I've been noticing that my left hand fingers don't gallop about the fretboard quite like they used to - they move much more quietly and calmly from place to place, in what I think of as an orderly fashion. This makes it easier to play faster and it also makes playing itself much less effort, and more enjoyable. I am able to use less downforce on the string too.

I've also noticed my right hand developing the ability to get more sound out of the string with less force, which also contributes to an increase in speed as well as improved tone.

I think the specific exercises that have got me this far are the ones on Mike Marshall's Mandolin Fundamentals DVD, but also the work I've put in on learning breaks by famous players and new arrangements of fiddle tunes has helped a lot too. I still have a long way to go, but it's encouraging to see progress.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Frost Bite - secret CD alert

The other day I was looking for the lyrics to the wonderful song Molly, which you can see here performed brilliantly by the Deer Creek Boys (its a .wmv file which you have to download I'm afraid, but it is worth it). I happened to recall that Wyatt Rice recorded this, I believe the song was written by Tim Massey.

Anyway, while I was on Wyatt's site, I noticed this new CD featuring Adam Steffey on mandolin that I had never heard of. I bought it on iTunes and it's just great, it's well worth the price of entry just to hear Steffey playing Wheel Hoss. The CD is called Frost Bite by Dan Menzone, who is a great banjo picker. It also features Rickie Simpkins, Rob Ickes, Wyatt Rice and others.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Paddy On The Turnpike

There are all kinds of bluegrass-style ways to play this tune, here's mine. Just about everyone has a go at this tune some time. Oh, new strings, that's weird.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Zombieland to Mandoland

In Zombieland, Columbus has 32 rules to avoid a typical horror movie death. I think most of these rules apply to Mandoland as well, especially when the time comes to go and stage, and you have to nut up or shut up. I'm only going to allow actual rules from the movie here, so of course many are missing that you can fill in.

Rule 1: Cardio. Practice. A lot.

Rule 2: Doubletap. Always end your break clean, and end the song clean.

Rule 3: Beware of Bathrooms. Avoid getting stuck in any small space where you're not developing your talents.

Rule 4: Seatbelts. You should always take sensible precautions, such as having your set list, making sure you have a spare set of strings, and anything else you will need on stage.

Rule 7: Travel Light. Don't do more than you need to. Never take an octave mandolin to a ukulele gig. Don't take a Chris Thile concerto to a Carter Family gig.

Rule 17: Don't Be A Hero. It's just not worth it. Play what you can play well, save the rest for your practice room. But when the time comes and you're ready, of course, go ahead and be a hero.

Rule 18: Limber Up. It's what the warm-up room is for.

Rule 22: When In Doubt, Know Your Way Out. When you start going into an improvisation, you should always have an exit strategy or fallback position in case it doesn't work out.

Rule 31: Check The Back Seat. Expect the unexpected. Be ready for when your buddy suddenly plays the wrong chords, the mics cut out, your strings break, etc. etc.

Rule 32: Enjoy The Little Things. Because that's all there is.