Sunday, January 18, 2009

Banjo versus TV: Week 49

A weekly check-in on the Banjo versus TV project — J.R.'s resolution to spend more time in 2008 on his banjo than on TV. This post covers 12/02/2008 through 12/08/2008.
Banjo 312 hrs, TV 296 hours

This week's event is something I made a big deal out of last year: I performed in Flatts & Sharpe's annual recital.

Last year (as you'll recall) I played a sing-along Preamble from Schoolhouse Rock, complete with slide show. It was pretty labor-intensive. But all that fuss and pomp helped to mask my lack of skill.

This year I'm a better player. The Banjo versus TV project has really helped. So with the urging of my banjo instructor, Dave, I decided to play it straight and to perform a simple medley of my two best songs: I'll Fly Away and This Land Is Your Land, with the latter played as a sing-along.

The performance went very well, except for one embarassing, rookie mistake.

I lost my picks -- which wasn't, itself, the rookie mistake, though it was a rookie mistake.

No, the rookie mistake was that I walked up to the mic and told everyone that I'd lost my picks but was going to play anyway.

It's like saying, "Hey, everybody. If this next thing is bad IT'S NOT MY FAULT! It's the lack of picks."

Really, I know better. When there's some problem before a public presentation you shouldn't draw attention to it, or start off in such a weak, apologetic fashion. I should have just sucked it up and played.

Ah, well. I got the crowd singing along and everyone seemed to have a good time. I got lots of compliments.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

You need to rent the Step Brothers DVD

I'd decided to rent the Step Brothers DVD because of the Jessica Winter's spirited defense of the film at Slate's end-of-2008 Movie Club (and despite its low, 55 point, Tomatometer rating).

But I've discovered the real reason to rent Step Brothers: The world's first improv-musical commentary track.

Really, you must must rent this.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Mark your calendars: B-Fest

Frank Jenks as Detective Homer Shaw in Woman on the Run (1950)

I will NOT repeat my previous years' mistake of missing B-Fest, that annual festival of B movies. So I've wadddled over to and signed up for email notification.

You should do so, too. B-Fest usually happens on the Friday before Superbowl Sunday, which would put it on January 30th this year.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009


It's a couple of weeks too late for Christmas and six months too early for my birthday, but I've recently discovered some cool stuff that just has to be added to J.R.'s Wish List.

Zot! Special Edition: The Complete Black and White Collection: 1987-1991 (Hardcover) comes to me via Bully's annual Fun Fifty. The other 49 would all make me happy, too, but I've been wanting to get to know Zot.) Update 6/2009: Got it for my birthday. Thanks, Mom!

Also, I discovered The Austin Lounge Lizards while shifting through CDs at a pawn shop. Why didn't you all tell me about the Lounge Lizards? They're wonderful. I bought their CD, The Drugs I Need, at the aforementioned pawn shop and have added their other albums to my Amazon wish list.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Banjo versus TV: Week 48

A weekly check-in on the Banjo versus TV project — J.R.'s resolution to spend more time in 2008 on his banjo than on TV. This post covers 11/25/2008 through 12/01/2008.
Banjo 310 hrs, TV 294 hours

So I get a text message from my brother. He was driving up from Texas with my just-turned-8-year-old fiddle-playing niece and her brother in tow. Among the visit's highlights was going out to a restaurant for her birthday party. The text read:

She just said, "Maybe Uncle J.R. will play me Happy Birthday on his banjo."
One problem: I didn't know Happy Birthday.

But, of course, a few hours later at the restaurant, I knew Happy Birthday.

Also in the last week:

Banjo versus TV: Week 47

A weekly check-in on the Banjo versus TV project — J.R.'s resolution to spend more time in 2008 on his banjo than on TV. This post covers 11/18/2008 through 11/24/2008.
Banjo 308 hrs, TV 283 hours

What we covered in this week's banjo lesson:

  • We discussed the bringing of books to a jam session. I'd loaned someone a copy of The Parking Lot Pickers Songbook at the Costello's jam and he'd given the book to Dave to return to me, which is what kicked off the discussion. Dave figures that the only good role for books at a jam is to provide lyrics. I noted that, at this stage in my playing, I'm using the books to know what chords to play.
  • Dave suggested that I instead learn to watch the guitar player for chord prompts. I've been working on this, of course. It was the whole reason I took guitar lessons this fall. But I'm not there yet.

    To get there, I'm going to practice along with Pete Wernick's (that is, Dr. Banjo's) Bluegrass Slow Jam for the Total Beginner and Intermediate Bluegrass Jam Session DVDs. These DVDs provide a split view with a close-up of the guitarist's left hand...

    ...for exactly the reason Dave mentioned: so you can learn to follow the guitarist's chords.
  • Dave played me a 1975 Steve Goodman version of Mama Don't 'Low and a Doc Watson recording of the same song. Dave's been helping me prep for the songs we'd like to play at the family jug band get-together in December, which includes Mama Don't 'Low. When I first started my lessons with Dave he told me we'd be spending a lot more time listening to and playing along with recorded music and a lot less time working with tabs.
  • We discussed bluegrass harmonies and the bass, baritone and tenor parts.
  • We discussed the tambourine, which is another family jug band instrument. (More on that later, too.)
  • We talked about several instruments that will be part of the family jug band. More on these in later posts:
    • Melody harp (gusli)
    • Tambourine
    • Fiddle
    • Guitar
    • Cookie tin banjo
  • Dave told me a trick that he sometimes uses when he plays guitar with another guitarist. If they're playing in A, he'll let the other guitarist play without a capo and he'll play with a capo. That means that, while both guitars as playing in the same key, they're both playing a little differently. This sounds like a good idea and is applicable to other capo-capable instruments (like the banjo).
  • We talk key changes. Dave shows me a simple three-chord key change trick to go from G to A. Basically, you wrap up your G part, you play a G chord then a G# chord then an A chord on the first string like this...

    ...and you continue to play in A.
  • My homework includes switching between C and F chords.

Also in the last week:

  • Spent a chunk of time working on tabs for the upcoming family jug band: Underdog and Duelin' Banjos.
  • For various reasons I spent a lot of time waiting in my car this week. Happily I'd brought along the sawed-off banjo so I got some good practice time in as I waited.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Banjo versus TV: Week 46

A weekly check-in on the Banjo versus TV project — J.R.'s resolution to spend more time in 2008 on his banjo than on TV. This post covers 11/11/2008 through 11/17/2008.
Banjo 303 hrs, TV 273 hours

What we covered in this week's banjo lesson:

  • The redhead says she'll get me a fancy schmancy banjo for my birthday. That's still seven months away, but still, I've started looking. I'm thinking about getting one from Tom Nechville, who I met at Midwest Banjo Camp in 2008. Dave and I discussed the various features of the Helimount banjos from Nechville, the Stealth banjos from Scott Vestal, Steve Huber's tone rings and the alloys of Gold Star banjos. Any of these would be a big step up from my Oscar Schmidt OB-5 with its aluminum tone ring.
  • We discussed the low bridge on my OB-5 and if/when to raise it. Dave's Stealth banjo has a higher bridge and he likes it a lot. If I'm going to raise it, I'll do so after the beginning of the new year. Why wait? Because I've got my recital and my family jug band coming up in late December and it takes a while to adjust to a change like a raised bridge. How long? (Boy, you ask a lot of questions.) Motivational speaker Brian Tracey says it takes about 21 days to establish a new habit. That's about how long it took me to adjust to my closer-to-the-fingertip style of finger picks this summer.
  • We talked about my plans for a family jug band at our holiday get-together. I ran my instrument ideas past Dave and got his feedback.
  • I asked for some advice on what to play at the December recital for Flatts and Sharpe, my neighborhood music store. Dave suggested doing a medley of my two best songs: I'll Fly Away and This Land is Your Land. I like it, since This Land is Your Land would make a good sing-along. Last year's sing-along of Preamble was a big hit.

Also in the last week: