Feeling the strings

I’ve been practicing some chords, using what one of my method books calls a “Klopf-Übung” (the book is in German). This is where you hold all the notes of a chord and then lift up one finger and hammer it back down, a few times for each finger. I suspect this is a very basic exercise on the fretted string instruments, but I don’t know what it’s called. (“Hammer exercise”, maybe?)

Anyway, I’ve noticed something interesting, especially with the more complicated chords, like this B-flat chord at the nut:

2014-01-15 B-flat major chord


At first I just banged my fingers down on the fingerboard and was happy if I happened to make a chord that didn’t buzz when I strummed it. Then I realized that I was aiming at places on the fingerboard when maybe I should be aiming at places on the strings. That was an improvement.

And now, over the past couple of days, I have started to FEEL each individual string as I press it down. I don’t mean I just feel the string; I feel the whole “journey” it makes to the fingerboard and the springiness it retains even when held down firmly. Suddenly what was formerly an on-or-off thing — string pressed down or not — has become an experience, a process. I can feel the string resist my finger and then give way reluctantly, as if I were pressing my finger into a dense sponge. It is a totally different feeling from just banging my fingers into a hardwood board that happens to have a string in the way.

I am now realizing that squeezing a string onto a fingerboard is a very sensual thing. It is the sort of feeling I knew well on the trumpet. On that instrument, if you don’t HEAR and FEEL the note you are about to play, it will likely be out of tune or even a wrong harmonic — say, a high B-flat instead of a high C. But when that “pre-feeling” is right, you feel like a god! You KNOW the note is going to come out exactly as you want it. (It’s a little bit like when you shoot a basketball, and the instant BEFORE you release the ball you already know whether it is going in the hoop or not.)

P.S. Watching top-notch banjo and guitar players, I have noticed that their left hands rarely seem to be in a hurry, even when the music is moving very fast.

Possible solution for pick-grip discomfort

I would really LIKE to use the “standard” pick grip. It looks like a relaxed and ergonomic position which still offers a firm grasp on the pick. But, as I said in an earlier posting (click here to see it), my forefinger hurts at the point where it is squeezed by the pick.

2014-01-14a How the pick squeezes the nailbed      2014-01-14b How the pick squeezes the nailbed (without pick)

I have been thinking…. Maybe the problem is merely because the CORNER of the fingernail digs into the flesh of the forefinger, where the arrow points in the picture below:

2014-01-14c Where it hurts

So I am going to let the fingernail grow out a bit, past the point at which the flesh can be dug into. If that works, great! And if not, no problem, I’ll find an alternative.


Crisis of confidence #2 (the “extra” pick-hand fingers)

I was cutting up some food for the dog yesterday (not Brown, the fat dog in the previous pictures, but our other dog Tolo, who is scandalously skinny because of a liver problem and needs to be tempted to eat). Here is Tolo a few days ago on Epiphany morning:

Tolo on Epiphany morning

Anyway … I cut right into my left thumb. It was not a deep cut, rather more like taking a slice off my fingerprint. (No, I’m not going to post a picture. Yuck.)

Luckily, it didn’t get completely sliced off, and I was able to patch it back in place, where it should heal nicely. (Reminds me of a book about the FBI that I read when I was a kid, in which one crook changed his fingerprints.) Even more luckily, it is not directly where the thumb touches the neck of the banjo for most chords. But it is close enough, so I am taking a couple of days off to let it knit.

Yesterday I limited myself to some right-hand picking practice. It was a good opportunity to try out some of the great advice I’d received regarding how to hold the pick. (I described my doubts both here on this blog two days ago, and also posted on banjohangout.org, whose members are very helpful — click here see the banjohangout thread.) I also looked at a few tenor banjo sites around the Web. (Really enjoyed banjoseen.us.)

Today I did more picking practice and dared to work on some chords, holding them down and then moving one, two or three fingers off and onto the string. I’m sure there’s a name for this sort of exercise, but I don’t know it….

Anyway, it’s a good time to blog! Here’s my next “crisis of confidence” — another doubt about my right-hand technique:

Obviously I am going to use the thumb and forefinger to hold the pick. So … what do I do with the OTHER THREE FINGERS?

I have bought and watched (many times) the Buddy Wachter video from HomespunTapes.com, and I love it! He distinguishes between two types of playing:

  • FINGERS UP (Eddie Peabody) style, with the four fingers curled under. It is intended for strumming, chord-melody playing, etc. I think I understand this style, at least in theory. No problem here.
  • FINGERS DOWN (precise-playing) style, with the last three fingers in contact with the head. It is intended for single melody lines, single-string tremulos, etc. I tried it, and found it marvelously helpful. (Until I saw the video, nobody had told me that it was okay to touch the head!) But … I have one question about this style:

So, I have three fingers in contact with the head. When I switch strings, say from the first to the fourth, should those three fingers (a) flex back and forth (curling more or less), or (b) just move with my hand, maintaining the same arc? Here’s what I mean:

(a)  If those three fingers extend or curl up, according to the string I’m playing on, the fingertips maintain the same distance from the first string, but change their distance from the pick:

2015-01-12a first string - fingers curled      2015-01-12b fourth string- fingers extended

(b)  If the fingers maintain the same arc, the fingertips change their distance from the first string, but maintain the same distance from the pick:

2015-01-12c first string - fingers extended      2015-01-12d fourth string - fingers extended

Neither of them feels entirely natural to me. Which is better? (Or, perhaps, what other options do I have?) If you have an opinion about this, I’d love to hear it!

Crisis of confidence #1 (how to hold the pick)

As an experienced musician (on the trumpet), I know that it is important to establish good habits from the start. So I am a little worried about my right hand technique. At present, I have two doubts:

  1. How should I hold the pick?
  2. What should I do with the other three fingers of my right hand?

This post is about #1.

Holding the pick. It seems that the “standard” way is between the flesh of the thumb and the side of the forefinger, like this:

2014-01-11a standard pick grip - viewed from above      2014-01-11b standard pick grip - viewed from below

The problem is, this position really hurts my forefinger where the skin is squeezed into the nail by the pressure of the pick. See below — the arrow shows where I mean:

2014-01-11c standard pick grip w arrow showing pain point - viewed from below

So I have tried moving the pick further along the forefinger, where it is supported by the knuckle:

2014-01-11d standard grip moved to knuckle of forefinger - viewed from above      2014-01-11e standard grip moved to knuckle of forefinger - viewed from below

But I don’t know whether there are disadvantages of this method which will come back to haunt me in the future. If anyone has any suggestions, I’d love to hear them. I’m also putting this post on the tenor banjo forum at BanjoHangout.org (click here to see it), which seems a great place to get advice.

See the following post for my next crisis of confidence. 🙂

My audience, and a sound clip

Today I am giving my poor left fingertips a rest. The previous times I tried to learn the banjo, I generally played too much the first few days and actually did myself some damage. This time I’m going to start slower and give myself time to develop callouses! I’ll just do a little right-hand practice on the open strings today.

In the meantime, here are a three photos of my number-one audience. Notice how he relaxes little by little:

Brown sits down

Brown relaxes

Brown is comfortable

In case you’re wondering, his name is Brown, and he’s a podenco andaluz, which translates to something like Andalusian hunting dog. My wife and I found him abandoned in the country and adopted him. He is terrified of firecrackers and other sudden loud bangs, which may be why his previous owner (presumably a hunter) dumped him. Brown can stand my banjo playing for at least a few minutes before he has to leave. (He never much liked my trumpet playing.) With such sensitive ears I think he has potential as a musician, or at least a critic.

If you want to know my level of banjo playing, feel free to listen to my attempt at creating some chord melody, recorded three days ago. I know you’ll be kind — you know I’m a beginner, right? 🙂 The piece is “Jacob’s Ladder”, from Mel Bay’s Music Pocketbook for tenor banjo, where it is printed in lead-sheet style, with just the melody line and chord symbols:

[audio http://www.dmcclure.org/SHARED-FILES/trumpettobanjo/2014-01-02_Jacobs_Ladder.mp3]

Sorry about the sound quality. I recorded it on my MP3 player. When Deutsche Grammophon offers me a contract they’ll probably want to use their own recording equipment. 🙂

First post: Trying out the banjo

Here’s my blog! Wow…. Of course, I meant to start it on January 1st, but … well, you know … lots of distractions. Today I have to go shopping for some Epiphany gifts, so I’ll write what I have time for in today’s maiden entry. (Epiphany gifts? Yes — I live in Spain, and my family, like most Spanish families, reserve most of their Christmas giving for Epiphany, January 6th.)

Anyway, on to the banjo! I used to play the trumpet professionally, but had to retire a few years ago because of focal dystonia (let’s just say, it was a chops problem, or, if you’re really interested, you can look it up). This blog is NOT about focal dystonia. 🙂

I missed music, so I bought myself a banjo. Over the past couple of years I have made several enthusiastic but aborted attempts to learn to play it. (Always found myself too busy with my jobs — teaching English and music — or other responsibilities.) This time I’ll do it! My goals are:

  • to learn to play simple chord melody at sight.
  • to get a Dixieland group started up and running.

There are a whole bunch of types of banjo. Given my goals, after a little research, I decided on what’s called a TENOR banjo. This is not the five-string banjo you see so frequently nowadays. I like the five-string’s sound and its flashiness, but it is not the most appropriate banjo for jazz. The tenor banjo has four strings, tuned in fifths, C-G-D-A, exactly like the viola (or an octave above the cello). It is not nearly so popular as it once was, but it is still the banjo of choice for Dixieland music, a.k.a. traditional jazz.

I am not an absolute beginner on the banjo, due to my various attempts to learn it in the past two or three years, and the fact that I played the trumpet professionally for some 28 years means that I know all about the technical aspects of music (reading the various clefs, chords and scales, transposition, etc.). So I hope this blog will end up documenting some pretty fast progress. At the moment my left-hand fingertips are aching, as I have not yet built up the requisite callouses. I have practiced on Dec. 30th, Jan. 2nd, Jan. 3rd and today (Jan. 4th), with increasing amounts of time. Today I gave it about two hours (!).

Yesterday and today, my major focus was memorizing the “standard” major chords, all as close to the nut as possible. These are the chords that come in the beginning books, and although I know that what I want to really master are the “moveable” chords, I also want to learn these. I went through the circle of fifths ten or twenty times each day, and I think I have these basic 12 chords memorized.

For a trumpet player, it’s weird to have to memorize a bunch of apparently random finger positions to make music. Or maybe it’s not so weird. After all, the fingerings you have to learn to play the trumpet are pretty much random until you are pretty advanced and start to analyze them more deeply. I suspect the same thing will come about for me on the banjo.

Anyway, enough for today. Christmas/Epiphany shopping calls. I’ll end with a picture of my banjo. And with my best wishes for a marvelous 2014!

Doug's tenor banjo