The life of an artist never takes on a set path. Life and time throw changes at us all that can be difficult to manage even with a steady job. You learn to adapt and evolve, or run the risk of joining other dinosaurs in a dusty museum.
Presently, I find myself at yet another moment where I am forced to shift my plans. Some projects will be temporarily shuttered and others shelved entirely to free up my attention, allowing my father and I to take on this new, new thing.
We will post more information when there is something to share. For the moment, my advice is to do what I plan to do right after posting this: go out into the summer night and play a few songs for the lightning bugs and the stars. There is more to learn right there than the entirety of the Internet.
Go on now. Get lost. Don’t come back until you can do like we showed you.
I intended to post this last night, but was floored by a migraine. My head still hurts this morning, but I might as well post this update.
The weather over Crisfield, Maryland, for the past week has been alternating from searing heat to pouring rain. Every time a new front rolls through the atmosphere, my neuropathy, and arthritis pain goes from hellish to a place that is impossible to describe.
I’m not complaining. Doing so in this age of TL;DR would be futile. I am simply giving some perspective as to why my work in front of the camera has been slow.
While chronic pain is, to put it mildly, unpleasant, I do have Crisfield. Somehow, with help from my family and friends, I have been able to marshal my strength enough to walk around the block. I broke my right foot badly in a fall years back (isn’t epilepsy fun?), so I can’t go far – and it hurts like hell, but it is good to be outside. It is, to be honest, a shock to find myself socializing after years of being housebound, but it is good to see my friends once in a while. I had an invitation to play dominoes last night with some old-timers, but I am hurting too bad for company or the short walk.
Still, the invitation is like gold.
I have to get my hands on some kind of mobility scooter, so I can get over to the workshop and hang out more often. It would also be nice to get to the grocery store on my own. I have a couple of packages to mail here in the office that are getting dusty because I am waiting for the chance to get to the Post Office on my own.
While I don’t get around easily, and it has been years since I have been able to get to Assateauge, Blackwater, or even Brick Kiln, my knack with wild animals has turned the backyard into a small ecosystem.
Every night sees whitetail deer, foxes, raccoons, possums, and a groundhog the size of a VW Beetle roaming under the pecan tree.
We have always been lucky with attracting songbirds, but this year has been particularly abundant. Several varieties of woodpeckers, cedar waxwings, and meadowlarks are visiting the bird feeder. Bats, swallows, lightning bugs, and massive dragonflies fill the air at twilight.
My hands are too clumsy for the camera now, so I stopped trying to take pictures for the moment. It is enough to just sit on the back steps and take in the wonder all around me. Then I go inside and compose my feelings during those sunshine and twilight moments into music.
I guess it’s time to start recording that stuff.
In addition to my overgrown garden, inside the house, my family, Daisy the dog, and the three cats are good company. When the pain gets intense, one or all three felines are quick to curl up next to me. While the pain can make me more misanthropic than usual, I am aware that this time with my dad is a gift. I can’t wait until I get work caught up enough to start some of the projects we have lined up.
Work on Zen in the Five-String Banjo continues. Dear Old Dad and I have several irons in the fire. I just need to be strong enough to swing the hammer.
Over the next week, I will be recording and experimenting with the new tools. I have to learn the interface, PreSonus, and get used to working a mic again. I’ll be using dad’s ears and the car stereo to work around my hearing. If anybody wants to be a sonic guinea pig as we work out the mix, drop us a note.
This first recording will be entirely acoustic. Just banjo and voice. Once the parts are here and the electric banjo is upgraded, we will be doing a separate project. It would be cool to hook up with a drummer and bass player, but I’ll let that happen on its own.
Well, I guess that’s all the news that fits. I pushed too hard, setting up the recording gear for tomorrow. I’m going to curl up with the cats and a bad movie until this headache passes. Then, I have work to do
The new body for my solid-body electric five-string banjo has arrived from AE Guitars. It is an alder body finished in a nice sunburst and then given the relic treatment with sealer over the worn wood. It’s beautiful. I would love to take a picture of it, but there is a slight problem.
Meatball, for reasons known only to himself, will not let me near the box.
In other news, song selection is over and work begins on my first EP. I will be making an announcement now and then as things progress. It’s going to be slow. I only have one functional hearing aid, so I’ll be using Dear Old Dad and the CD player in the car to master the tracks.
I’ll be keeping the tracks under wraps until release. Six songs from various genres with a connecting theme, one banjo, and voice.
As this, Zen in the Five-String Banjo, and other projects come together, you could help us spread the word. Share some of the tracks I have already available with friends and family. Anything to get the word out will be a huge help.
While my solid-body electric five-string banjo has been a revelation, the fact is, banjo players can’t help themselves. Even I am not completely immune from the upgrade bug.
Parts are steadily coming in to improve some of the issues I have with the electric. Additional gear is on order to transform an already remarkable instrument into something better.
I thought it would be fun to elaborate on the upgrades, and then answer some frequently asked questions.
I have a new alder hardtail Stratocaster style body on the way from AEGuitars. The body currently on the instrument was cut for a tremolo, and we had to block out the trem cut to use a hardtail bridge. This new body will be set up for this style bridge from the start.
A new 7-string bridge is here from Gotoh. We take off two saddles, and it works like a charm. This new bridge is milled brass, and much heavier. It won’t do much anybody would notice to the tone, but it will make the instrument more stable. Stability is good.
To brighten up the tone, new single-coil pickups from Bootstrap are on the way. I though boutique pickups would be out of my price range, but these are affordable. A steel baseplate from Philadelphia Luthier Supply will be added to the bridge pickup to liven things up.
New wiring from Tone Man keeps the simple and standard 5-way switch, with just a tweak to the circuit for better control of tone and a few other tweaks.
To dress it up, a silver aluminum pickguard is on the way from Quick Guards and matching knobs, switch tip, and strap locks from Schaller.
It’s a lot of parts, but I stayed reasonably within budget. The only twist, so far, was the body. I had not anticipated replacing that. It’s a little more difficult to find a hardtail Strat body, but they are out there.
The neck on my banjo is a blemished neck from our days running Somerset County Banjos. It was carved out of a single block of maple with a carbon fiber support rod and rosewood fretboard.
I also added a footswich, foot controller, expression pedal and volume pedal to my Boss Katna Artist MKII setup. It’s a little overwhelming presently, simply because there are so many tonal options. I love playing with the wah and my slide. It’s funky on country stuff, and insane with blues songs…
Frequently Asked Electric Banjo Questions
Why go electric?
My initial drive to explore the electric banjo was mainly curiosity. That has not changed. I want to see how far I can take my skills.
What about tradition?
The only Tradition I ever cared about was a go-do dancer. She helped me sell a truckload of Tandy rope lights to a bunch of guys having a midlife crisis. It’s a long story. My boss kept asking me if she worked there. I told him she was working.
Dear God, I miss the 80s.
Before you get mad at me for poking fun at what some might say is a sensitive topic, satire is one of my family traditions. My ancestors were vaudevillians. My father is a Philadelphia Mummer, and so am I. Laughing at the world is in my blood.
I will mind my traditions, and you will mind yours. The language of music is larger than a single culture or place on a map. We can find harmony and still be free to express ourselves. The banjo can change and remain the same. The important thing is not what I do, but your work.
What is it like to play an electric banjo?
It’s a lot like playing an acoustic banjo, but people enjoy it.
Joking aside, the two main difference are ease of fretting and responsiveness. The fretboard is the same, the strings feel the same – but every little sloppy moment that gets lost in the roar of an acoustic banjo gets its moment to stand out over everything else. In other words, an electric banjo takes some skill to control.
Up the neck, electric banjos are a revelation. The entire fretboard is within easy reach. Fretting is effortless. Tapping and bending are glorious.
Should I buy/build my own electric banjo?
If you have to ask…
What are you going to do with that thing?
Currently, I am learning the ins and outs of Focusrite and Presonus – an audio interface and a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). I am working with the acoustic banjo until the electric is upgraded.
Once I have the electric banjo modded, I plan to go have some fun.
What about acoustic-electrics?
I looked into it, at some expense. In theory, it should work. In practice, it just sounds like an amplified banjo without the advantages of the electric. Your mileage may vary.
Are you giving up on the acoustic? On Teaching?
I learned to play the guitar using my teeth to hear the instrument. I don’t give up on anything.
Change is natural. Focus changes from time to time. Joints twist and hearts harden. Young musicians grow old and fade away – but our craft goes on forever. Even when my hands are too useless to hold and instrument, I’ll keep on singing.
For the moment, I have to focus on a few projects for personal reasons. I’m always around in the video archive.
There is much excitement behind the scenes here at #6 Potomac St. There will be many changes and announcements in the coming weeks.
With the new recording capabilities of my electric banjo, along with tweaks to the acoustic, it feels like a good time to post some collections of songs. I finally have a good recording setup. Why not knock out an EP for Spotify and the other streamers?
It was easy choosing gospel and blues songs. Cover songs is a tougher category because I know so many songs.
So, I picked up my banjo and started running through songs I know well enough to perform if I had to do a show with no time to prepare. To make things interesting, I limited the selection to songs people probably don’t associate with frailing banjo.
Help me narrow it down to six titles. Use the comments, forum, or contact me with your suggestions.
While I have not been posting much lately, I think the picture above conveys that I have been busy in my offline time.
Since I will be working so much with the solid-body electric five-string banjo, I went ahead and added foot controllers to my amplifier. A volume, an expression/wah, controllers for all amp functions, and there is a looper until hooked into the effects loop.
It looks like a lot, but this setup along with the Tone Studio software gives me access to a massive library of effects. My old pal Buster had his Gibson Les Paul Custom, a Bassman amp, and an entire wall of tape machines set up to copy one of Les Paul’s early recording rigs. So, compared to Buster’s jaw-dropping setup, I have kept things minimal.
Still, somebody better call Queer Eye or an organization specialist to do an office makeover before I kill myself on these wires.
The electric banjo itself is also getting a facelift. It will take a few weeks, but new pickups, a wiring harness, and custom pickguard are in the process of being wound, soldered, and cut.
There are plenty of other things happening behind the scenes. I would go into details, but that would spoil the surprises. Besides, I want to go mess around with my amp and stompbox array. It’s set up to record in stereo, so the musical possibilities are endless – and I am using the same techniques as the acoustic.
Now I am off to use both pedals and my slide for some pedal steel sounding banjo licks. You go practice, and start building yourself an electric banjo. This is where the craft is headed next.
In the tradition of William Conrad, I am getting weird packages from Amazon. It’s called brushing. A retailer sends out random junk to Amazon customers in the hopes of reviews.
You see, the Internet is broken. Everybody from corporations to pollsters to horrible musicians hell-bent on faking it until they make it has been pumping the numbers in terms of views, reviews, and anything remotely positive on social media. This eventually led to brushing, where Amazon retailers give stuff away in the hopes one random soul will say something positive.
I have notified Amazon and taken the usual steps, but once this train starts it can be hard to stop. It will be interesting to see what comes.
As packages arrive, I will be compiling the list into a Christmas carol
The Brushing Days of Amazon To the tune of The Twelve Days of Christmas:
On the first day of brushing, Amazon sent to me A Glade air fresh-en-en-er!
On the second day of brushing, Amazon sent to me Two gun safes and as assortment of Colgate toothbrushes!
A Glade air freshener Two gun safes And an assortment of Colgate toothbrushes!
Dear Old Dad will be scheduling private lessons with beginner frailing banjo students soon.
I will be available for intermediate and advanced frailing banjo lessons once I can come up with a schedule within the hours of the day I am able to work. Chronic pain makes things complicated, but we’ll figure something out.