Momma Don't 'Low? is a newsletter to support acoustic and traditional music, as well as the folks who follow our music articles on various web pages, including Creek Don't Rise?, Classic Train Songs?. SchoolOfTheRock?, and PaulRaceMusic.com
In this Issue - December, 2016
When I was in high school in the 1960s, one of my heros was banjo player, singer/songwriter, and activist Pete Seeger. Pete was an entertainer of sorts, but he used every little scrap of public attention he received to advocate for civil rights, fair treatment of workers and other righteous causes. And it cost him dearly.
Recently I've begun to appreciate something I never realized when I was young. Pete never let the injustice he saw and sometimes experienced poison his outlook on life.
Pete was no less opinionated about such things than his friend Woody Guthrie, whose rejection of nationalistic demagogues like Mussolini, Hitler, and Senator McCarthy caused him to write "This Machine Kills Faschists" on his guitars. But on Pete's banjo was the inscription "This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender."
Somehow Pete maintained both a positive outlook and a commitment to substantive, permanent social change, change that we now know was never entirely accomplished. If ever there was a time to follow his example, it is now.
Should I mention that I have a banjo and I know how to use it?
A Moving Experience - On a totally different subject, Shelia and I have moved to a new house. Some of my musician friends wonder why I haven't done much musically lately, but this is one of those life things you have to put first. That said, there is an oversized garage bay that I should be able to use to set up my studio and workshop again, for the first time in decades, so I'm hoping that will be helpful. In the meantime, the new place - including the garage - is full of boxes of things we haven't figured out what to do with yet. And there are shelves to build and to hang, wiring to fix, and a thousand other things we need to do to really settle in.
Looking Forward to Recording Again - I did buy one new toy on a Musician's Friend Stupid Deal of the Day sale - a Digitech Vocalist Live Pro, the modern version of the old Digitech harmonizers I used to use. I wanted some of the updated features, but I bypassed the foot-pedal versions because they mixed things into fewer outputs, which would have given me less flexibility than I wanted in my home studio. Also I don't expect the guitar chord interpretation features to be that helpful, since I fingerpick most things, and feedback in that regard is mixed. If that turns out to work better than I expect, I might look into getting the footpedal version later. In the meantime, when I set my studio up this time, I expect to have fewer, more powerful toys. :-)
I'm also upgrading my PC to an I-7 (on a "Black Friday" sale), since I want to do more video editing, etc. Although I have been keeping up with upgrades to Sonar, I haven't been installing them on my I-5 PC, because the new features I didn't really need weren't worth the risk of slowing the system down. Starting with a clean slate will hopefully be a good thing.
We Miss You, Leonard - This past year has seen us lose several musical greats, most recently Leonard Cohen, whom I first learned to appreciate in 1967 from songs like the enigmatic "Suzanne." Cohen was introduced to a new generation in 2001 when his song "Hallelujah" was used in a surprisingly poignant scene of the animated movie Shrek. Sadly, soon after, he discovered that his manager had pilfered all of his bank accounts and sold the rights to his songs without his knowledge. Though he won multiple lawsuits, he never received any money from them. By 2008, Cohen was touring again, in a large part for financial reasons. However he was greeted by appreciative crowds and great acclaim wherever he went.
Part of his legacy may be the new fans who have learned from him to appreciate apparently simple songs that are actually deeply profound. We'll miss you, Leonard, and we're sorry we didn't treat you better.
For a Goodtime, Call . . . - On the banjo news front, I didn't mention last newsletter that I had picked up a Deering Goodtime Artisan banjo - the backless, tone-ringless "base" model. It plays just like my baseline Goodtime - which is to say GREAT! But it has planetary tuners, spikes, and a far more traditional look. The Artisan line is replacing the "Classic" line, which introduced brown stain, planetary tuners, and spikes to the Goodtime line. (I have and love a Classic Openback Special.) The American-built Artisan's improvements are somewhat cosmetic but nevertheless push the instrument even further into the professional-quality-at-import-prices category. One upgrade is a new kind of stain on the fretboard that goes all the way through, so you have that great maple fingerboard feeling (like a skinny Telecaster), but you won't wear through the stain like some people have who really, really played their Classics. The fretboard also includes fancier, old-fashioned-looking inlays. The other improvement is adding a dark laser-cut veneer over the peg-head so it looks like a fancy, Victorian engraving job. A big improvement over the Goodtime star. Sorry, Greg, but I wasn't a fan of that logo.
Playing and tonewise, the biggest difference between the entry-level Artisan and my open-back Goodtime Classic Special is the lack of a tone ring on the Artisan. As a result the Artisan is quieter and not as "chimey" as the Classic Special. Which means that when folks invite me to bring my banjo to parties, I can play in the background without drowning out everything else that is going on, actually a good thing. I can also accompany, say, Appalachian dulcimer players and people with quiet voices, and look very authentic and old-timey at the same time. That said, models with resonators and/or tone rings are also available, or were when I last checked around.
Shoppers have complained that the Goodtime 5-strings and 4-strings don't have adjustment rods in the neck, but Deering has figured out how to keep the necks stable - apparently indefinitely. I've never known a Goodtime owner to complain.
More Goodtime News - The big news on the Goodtime front will be too late to help most of you with your Christmas shopping. After years of begging (on my part as well as others), Deering has finally introduced a metal-stringed 6-string Goodtime. I think that part of their hesitation was that a flood of cheap imported canoe paddles that were sold as 6-string banjos in the last fifteen years gave the things a bad reputation. Not to mention the hype that they would make any hack guitar player into a professional banjo player overnight.
As I've mentioned more than once, the 6-string banjo is a distinct, historical instrument that requires adjustments to get optimum sound, whether you're coming from 5-string banjo or 6-string guitar. But in the last few years with folks like Keith Urban getting great sounds out of REAL 6-string banjos (like the Deering Boston that Urban uses), the instrument is starting to get some respect, and demand for a reasonably priced American-made 6-string has increased. (Deering's previous 6-string Goodtime, the Solana, was based on historical 1880-1910 six-strings that used "gut" strings and classical guitar-width necks, so it was out of the 6-string banjo mainstream).
Based on some cryptic conversations I had with Deering people this past spring and summer, I think they were hoping to have it out by September, but here we are, three and a half weeks before Christmas and only a handful have hit the stores.
Here's an interesting twist - a century ago, 6-string banjo players like Johnny St. Cyr were actually using the thing to provide the base line in Jazz bands (what we might call Ragtime or Dixieland today). Most of the instruments being used that way had larger heads than the standard 11" head shown on the banjo above. To meet that need, as well the desire of anybody who wants his six-string to really "growl," Deering has also released a version with a 12" Renaissance head called the "Jumbo." Both versions have a radiused neck that guitarists will find comfortable, as well as a banjo-length scale (26 1/4") that helps maintain an authentic banjo sound. And yes, THESE Goodtimes have adjustment rods in the neck. Apparently Deering figured out that the extra two heavy strings would put a lot more pressure on the neck than a typical 5-string setup does.
One of the Deering PR guys asked me if I'd like to borrow one for review, but I was too busy at the time to put one through its paces. Besides, my long experience and ownership of Deerings at both ends of the cost scale gives me confidence that the thing will meet and or exceed ANYBODY's expectations. I did tell him to let me know when they had an Artisan Backless Special (tone-ring) version. :-)
Help with Instrument Purchases - For years, we've been answering people's questions about what kind of instrument to buy. When we realized we were telling many people the same thing, we put those answers into articles on our various sites, like:
As it turned out, this didn't cut down on the number of reader questions - it increased it. A lot of the questions had to do with comparing specific manufacturers and models. So rather than clutter up our articles with a lot of brand name discussions, etc., we decided to set up a separate site - Riverboat Music - that would get into specifics.
There IS no one-size fits all - everyone has different needs, preferences, and budgets. Sometimes these are vastly different. That's why we have seven pages for different classes of acoustic guitars and six different pages for different classes of banjos (harmonica and dulcimer pages will have to struggle along with one page each).
Here's a list of the "high-level pages"
Of course, providing those resources has led to even more reader questions. I've helped several folks who live in "banjo deserts" or "saxophone deserts" to find the best instrument for their needs, even to the point of checking Craigs List ads in their regions and telling them which used instrument is likely to be the better choice. With Christmas approaching, I get too slammed to help folks with this kind of question, but I enjoy helping people find the products they need to make the music they want to make.
Home Recording Retrospective - As I mentioned in the last newsletter, a combination of reader questions and stumbling across a stack of old reel tapes got me nostalgic for my long-mothballed home studio, but it also got me thinking about all the iterations it went through before it went into storage. So I've put together a series of articles on how home recording has evolved through the years, and the many compromises I made to get SOMETHING on tape even with a very limited budget at times.
I know that many people would be more impressed with me personally if I bragged that I had, say, the first Studer-equipped studio in North America. But I also know from experience in other forums, that telling the whole story of home-grown projects - even the most embarrasing parts - encourages other folks with limited means and confidence levels to "take a whack" at it themselves. Also, I have a lot of little diagrams that describe setups that would be unnecessary today but which will hopefully help train your brain to see how the audio chain works in different circumstances.
If your takeaway is "If this idiot can pull this off with these Rube Goldberg setups, I can surely do it myself," I have succeeded.
To see the index to my "Home Recording Memories" articles, please click the following link:
Playing "Out" for Other Folks' Welfare - So maybe there's no place to get in front of people where you live, and even busking is illegal. (It's not illegal here, but I feel silly setting out a can to get money for myself from folks who generally need it more than I do.) Consider playing for the Salvation Army, which has one of the highest ratings in the world for channeling donated funds right to where they're needed most. I took a few turns playing sax and organizing caroling at the kettles a couple of years ago, and I have to say, it was fun for us and fun for the jaded shoppers, and we really boosted giving the nights we played/sang.
For the story of how I signed up, and how things went, click the link below:
Make Your Giving Count - Finally, I want to address the fact that this is the time of year when scammers come out of the woodwork presenting themselves as real charities and asking for money. Giving to people and causes that need it is good in almost every world view, and is good for the giver as well as the beneficiary. Giving money that could have gone to help real people to scammers because they catch you at a bad moment and guilt you into throwing money away instead of checking them out is not good for anybody (except the scammer).
For tips on how to sort out the scammers from the real helpers, please click the link below:
More to ComeIf you've spent any time on any of our music sites, you know that we have a lot of topics to share about.
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