Running With Wöyh!

Wöyh! is a Finnish group known for their absurd progressive rock who just released their 3rd album titled KRTKRTK. When I was asked to play on this album, I didn’t know what to expect except exciting experience (what a beautiful language) and a challenge that would stretch the boundaries of my banjo technique. The song was recorded in May in Hollola at Petrax studio. It's an old farm house turned into a top-notch recording studio, which you can see on this video. I think you can hear the laid-back atmosphere on the recording, too. So here it is. Hope you like it!

I talked about the bliss of getting to challenge yourself in weird real life situations in one of my earlier posts about the Kraftwerk - gig and this definitely goes to the same category! The arrangement turned out to utilise all the three basic flavours of banjo technique (Scruggs style, single string and melodic style). So, it’s sweet like a trio ice cream (but which flavour goes with each style?). 

I’m not going to go through every little detail, but you can find the music for the whole song at the end of this post. Here are some thoughts on my favourite parts of the song.

Melodic Licks

The tune starts in G major (definitely vanilla) and even though the melody is not your everyday bluegrass I got the A-part under my fingers surprisingly fast. Even the arpeggios outside G major are working out for the melodic style. Just one open string is often enough for the position shift so crucial for moving around the neck and maintaining the legato sound of the melodic style. Here for example you can find the open g- and d-strings used throughout Gmaj7-, Cmaj7-, Bbmaj7- and Abmaj7-arpeggios. Don’t you just love it when the arrangements fall in their place like that?

The A-part is featuring some cool Maj7 arpeggios

Another cool melodic style passage giving me great satisfaction is this whole tone scale passage before the second A-part. It took me a while to figure this one out. But while doing this I got so excited about the sound that I started playing old bluegrass tunes with whole tone scale. (I should make another post about those as they turned out pretty cool). 


A lick based on the whole tone scale
Scruggs Style

When I started learning this I had a demo with some midi instrument playing the melody pretty much the way it is here. I liked the fact that the composition was taking me away from the traditional stuff. On the other hand I still wanted to give it just a little banjo flavour with a couple of Scruggsy licks. The first one was very basic forward roll played as fast as possible in the context. 


When aiming for the speed, forward roll is your most loyal friend.

The second Scruggsy lick I threw in the middle of this part with sporty double stop pinches. I really like how it’s giving momentum towards the repetition.


Second Scruggsy lick leading to the low D
Single String Style

The third flavour, single string style, is the one that I only use when nothing else is working. Single string style has a sound that’s more even, kinda like a flatpicked guitar, hence not having as much of an exotic appeal for a musician with a background in guitar music. Nevertheless, it does have it’s moments. A good example is this chromatic ear bender part which I started with melodic style but had to soon switch to single string style. Chromatic stuff is possible with melodic style when playing higher when you get you use your thumb on the 5th string. I actually worked this part out octave higher like that, but that part never got used because the lower sound was preferred.


Chromatic passages can be challenging with the melodic style so sometimes you have to compromise

And here’s the sheet music:

CAAS – The Fingerstyle Convention In Nashville

Nishi Nishiyama playing at CAAS

I’ve considered Nashville to be my favourite place in the whole wide musical world and coming back these past days was only reinforcing this perception. I’ve been here twice before for CAAS and once for a field trip with my old school Berklee College of Music so this was my 4th time in the music city.

My trip was sponsored by this great iPhone app for chord learning that I reviewed in my last post called OneHour Method so part of my focus was on promoting, but it didn’t get in the way of getting my mind blown time after time with these great performances.


I was attending this convention arranged by Chet Atkins Appreciation Society or CAAS in short. CAAS is basically a convention where fingerpickers from all around the world come to perform, meet and to learn from each other.

There were dozens of great players and there was no time to see them all so I’m just gonna pick out a few worth checking out. These are also the guys to check out if you’re new to fingerstyle.  Some of my old favourites performing there were Tommy Emmanuel (no surprise there), Joe Robinson and Richard Smith. I also finally got to see a whole show of Brooks Robertson the next in the Jerry Reed - Buster B. Jones bloodline. That funky clavinet-like sound is still haunting me. After days of fast virtuosic fingerstyle I walked into a room where a guitar man named Tony McManus was playing a piece by Eric Satie, the French composer. And the time just stopped and for a moment it was so calm and peaceful. Another one who stood out for me was this gentleman called Sean McGowan whose swing and delicate jazzy playing style I enjoyed a lot. 

Michael Coppolas 9 stringer with unorthodox tuning seemed to be out there, but the man could actually play that thing.
Another cool design was this electric harp guitar that I enjoyed playing.

There’s also a good amount of jamming happening in various styles including blues and jazz (especially gypsy jazz has been present lately). Jack Pearson of The Allman Brothers fame turned out several nights and I got to play with him, too. But as I said, too many good players to name. 


I also caught a bunch of great concerts outside of CAAS, all of them taking place at 3rd & Lindsley, which seemed like a place to be.

First one was Brent Mason on Wednesday night. Brent Mason’s Hot Wired was one of the first tunes I learned on a thumb pick 10 years ago when I was studying with a great Finnish country picker Jarmo Hynninen. It was probably the one to push me over the edge and to almost desert the regular flat pick. (Reed’s influence was pretty heavy, too) So it was very emotional moment for me. Brent played many tunes from that album including the title track and was just burning on that guitar. The band was also something else. Adam Nitti on the bass, Mike Rojas on keys and Kirk Covington on the drums are all at the top of their league. Especially mr. Covingtons mean and angry drum work left me feeling like I got hit by a truck. In a good way of course.

Muriel Andersons Guitar Night was pretty amazing as well with Stanley Jordan, Brooks Robertson, my old school buddy Saso Zver, Laurence Juber from the Wings, Jack Pearson… But the one to really take me by the surprise was Michael Kelsey whose elastic playing style was so impressive, innovative and funny (all the things I’d like to strive for in my playing as well) that the performance just sucked you in and the whole world disappeared. Doesn’t happen too often to a jaded music scholar like myself.

Muriel Andersson's All Star Guitar Night had a pretty impressive line up.

After the CAAS I still got to go to the bluegrass jam in Station Inn and saw The Time Jumpers at 3rd & Lindsley. Both being the best of they’re kind. So I’m definitely coming back to Nashville at some point - hopefully sooner than later!

The future of CAAS is unclear for reasons too earthly to mention, but assuming it’s still held in the future I can warmly recommend it to every picker in the world!

OneHour Method – Nice Tool For Understanding Chords On Guitar

Today I’m flying to Nashville and I’m going to use the time to review a nice little tool called the OneHour Method. This post is also the first log of hopefully many in my travel journal of this upcoming 2 week expedition. I’ll be spending a week in Nashville, hit San Diego/Spring Valley for a couple of days and finally visit my old home town Boston where I used to study for a while in the beginning of this decade. But more of those later on. The app is available for download for free during the CAAS convention so you should definitely download it here now! 

OneHour Method is an app for iPhone that’s aimed for guitar players learning the fretboard and chords. To be as transparent as possible, it’s probably best that I talk about my relationship to the app first. I first learned about this app when Reijo Hiltunen, the creator of the method, called me and asked me to make a couple of videos to promote it. That I did and apparently he was happy with my work as he wanted to deepen the collaboration.

We met a few times talking about the history and the future of OneHour Method and finally Reijo suggested that I’d do this trip to the States to spread the word and to find new collaborators.
That been said, this is not meant to be an ad but a review and I aim to be objective as best as I can.

When I first tried the app, I recognised its benefits for a beginning guitarist trying to figure out what the heck is happening on the fretboard. This is not a simple task even on a piano where everything is linear and visually easier to grasp, but on the guitar with six string tuned asymmetrically it can be quite overwhelming. I used to figure out fingerings of scales and chords (which are ultimately two sides of the same thing) drawing them on countless little pieces of paper (which I’m still finding from time to time after all these years). I have no regrets, doing it the hard way challenged my mind in a good a way and made me who I am today, but most of people don’t have the time and persistence to go through this - including most of my students. As I’ve recommended OneHour Method -app to my students, I’ve only heard good things about it and I believe it has sped up their learning process.

The app has two main modes - the tutorial and the chord builder mode.

The tutorial is a simple yet effective introduction on how the chord tones are combined on the fretboard to form chords. It makes you alter chords on the screen and has a quiz at the end to test if you paid attention. I guess the name OneHour Method refers to this part as it can give you the basic understanding of the chords on the fretboard really fast - within an hour they say and I have no reason to doubt that even though it must vary depending on every individual. On top of that you have short theory lessons regarding the different chord types.

The chord builder mode gives you the ability to create your own chords in two ways. You can either choose a root and the type of chord and the app will show you the possible choices of notes from which you can choose or you can just choose notes and it will tell you the name of the chords. The chord selection is very wide, definitely enough for most levels from beginner to advanced. There are a couple of more advanced chord types missing like 9sus4 and 13sus4 and quartal harmony, but I’ve talked to Reijo so they should be included in the future updates. After you have the notes down you can listen to how it sounds. You can even strum or pluck the strings one by one swiping the strings on the screen which is a nice feature.

More advanced features include different tunings and a capo and you can even have both of them on simultaneously. The one feature that I’m missing is the banjo fretboard (who would’ve guessed :D), but if all goes well that will be added later on as well as others like ukulele and mandolin.

If you have comments about the OneHour Method -app or ideas for future development of the app please post them below or e-mail them to us! 🙂

OneHour starts with understanding the familiar chord shapes
The app shows you how to alter the chord tones to get different chords
Testing the limits
After trying out different options we found our winner

FretPaw – Banjo Capo Review

Using a capo and retuning fast has been one of the biggest technical challenges for me when playing banjo live. This is because the sound of the banjo is based very much on the open strings and changing keys often involves using a capo. For some reason banjo is also more sensitive to getting out of tune than guitar when capoing. Especially when working with a loud PA it’s hard to get any kind of tuner to work because they pick up a lot of noise that distracts the tuner. I’ve tried different clip-ons and pedals using the internal mic on my banjos. Even though some tuners work better than others, none of them has really solved the problem. FretPaw is approaching the issue from another angle.

FretPaw - banjo capo
FretPaw - capo with individual claw for each string

I’ve used it’s predecessor, the PerfectPitch - capo before which already did the job - although it took me a while to learn how to make it work. Same applies to FretPaw as figuring it out required some detective work. The instructions did explain the procedure, but I found them a bit confusing. I admit that it may be partly due to English not being my first language and thinking outside the metric system is also still a challenge. Nevertheless, after a little trial and error, I found a way to put the capo on so that I could get it pretty consistently in tune. I checked with my Peterson and the accuracy was impressive. Maybe a little adjustment would be in order for studio work, but it seemed definitely accurate enough for playing live.

This week I had a chance to take my FretPaw on the road and do a real field test. We played two shows in Helsinki with Huolestuneet Kansalaiset on consecutive days. The circumstances were less than optimal with very limited sound check time but on the other hand they were perfect considering this field test. The monitors were loud and I had a hard time hearing the instrument between the songs (unless I had played really loud during Karri’s speaks) and using a tuner would’ve been a pain also. So I was relying on muscle memory on the capo positioning I had figured out. I was very happy with the results. The transitions were smooth even when I once remembered upcoming tune’s key wrong and had to change the capo twice between songs. I also think my banjo was better in tune than if I had been working with traditional capo and using tuner/ear to retune while not being able to hear myself well.

All in all FretPaw turned out to be the best capo for my needs and I can warmly recommend it to anyone who’s having the aforementioned retuning issues. You can find out more about it at the manufaturers site.

+no need to retune making it
+fast to use and
+more accurate
+works above 4th fret
+excellent service (I had some mailing trouble because of changing locations a lot and had to contact Alan, the manufacturer, several times but he was very helpful and patient with me)

-bulky compared to the traditional models but I was able to cram it in my banjo case even with the container
-easier to lose or forget compared to the kind of capos that you can store behind the nut
-confusing instructions

G Minor Pentatonic – Melodic Style Banjo – Part 1

Couple of weeks back I wrote about melodic style in general. Now it’s time to get into details. Pentatonic scales are useful for improvising in various idioms. Personally I’ve used these a lot on rock stuff with Electric Banjoland as well as on traditional bluegrass tunes for that high and lonesome feel, if you will. A couple of months back we made an arrangement of this old Paleface-tune Mul on lupa for Huolestuneet Kansalaiset and the banjo part turned out to have this cool African vibe (maybe reflecting my trip to Ghana last fall) and I got an impulse to go into more depth to be able to use this pentatonic scale to improvise more freely.

I’m a big fan of the melodic style so I figured out a few systems or positions where this G minor pentatonic works best IMO (as opposed to single-string style where you can have a position on every fret). Every one of these systems is a small world of it’s own and deserve some special attention and time to get internalised so I’m going to deal with only one at a time. This first melodic style position is the one I use the most, but it’s also the trickiest to get sounding clean. The biggest challenge for me with this position is to get the pinky on the 8th fret of 4th string consistent so that it’s got a solid touch to the 4th string but doesn’t mute the 3rd (unless drier sound is desired). You can achieve this in two ways. First one is similar to classical guitar where you bring your wrist down to gain a wider reach between your index and pinky. Second one resembles violin grip and has the neck deep in your palm. It requires a little more stretch from the pinky but I prefer it whenever possible because the wrist can be straight which feels more comfortable and sustainable to me. You can see this one in the video.

The exercise itself is just composed mathematically going through all combinations of adjacent unidirectional notes of the scale. The rhythm isn’t that important here, but, as always, it’s a good idea to use a metronome on a slow tempo. Meanwhile this is a good exercise of coordination and melodic style in itself, these combinations can also be used later in various ways to create different kinds of interesting, and often polyrhythmic, patterns. And most importantly they’re great for developing speed - the ultimate sign of great musicianship!

Personally I noticed that this worked as a muscle workout for the pinky as well. After a few repetitions I started to make more mistakes, which might be partially a concentration issue, but also I feel that the tired muscle isn’t as accurate anymore. And of course the discomfort of a worn out muscle would affect the concentration as well so it’s impossible to tell. The point being, take breaks and be patient and merciful towards yourself and give yourself time to develop that muscle strength as well. After a few days I already felt an improvement in the finger power as well as coordination.

Banjofy That Melody – The Robots By Kraftwerk

As a musician, it’s sometimes hard to combine your ambitions and the demands of the work. This could be a topic of it’s own, but for now, let me just say that the better I can align these two, the happier I am. And right now I am.

This week I was asked to do a banjo clinic for this Kontula Electronic Music festival. I was given carte blanche, but I was requested, if possible, to also do something by Kraftwerk, the electronic music pioneer from Germany. I’m a sucker for silly ideas so of course I went for it. I chose everybody’s favourite tune, The Robots.

I was planning to focus on the melodic style for the time being, but because the melody is so sparse I decided that a roll-based (Scruggs-style might be a stretch in this context? 🙂 ) approach would work better. The basic idea is very simple. You just figure out the melody notes (the first 4 bars in the example) and fill the rest with chord tones, rolls or hot licks of your choice. The easy road would be to stick with the mere melody notes, but the sound of the banjo that I want to hear, doesn’t just come from the actual sound (timbre) but the choice of notes and rhythms as well. Banjo often operates in the 16th notes so I wrote out all the 16th note rests so you can see more easily how many notes you can cram between the melody notes. Although we banjo players often instinctively take the more-is-more slope, it’s definitely okay to play longer notes or even rests. Often times they are just the thing to give the song that nice bouncy rhythmic feel. My version consists mostly of forward rolls as they just came naturally. Backward rolls, forward-backward rolls, square rolls or some others could also work well (I’ll be going through the rolls in more detail later, but for now you can easily find information about these from almost any banjo book for beginners or, of course, the all-knowing internet) and I probably would have tried to incorporate them more as well given more time. Even though knowing the rolls can help a whole lot, you shouldn’t worry too much about using specific rolls. Just try to fill the gaps with any notes and listen! If it sounds good it is good. The melody is the most important part and most people won’t even notice the difference in the fillers. Depending on the situation you might want to accent the melody notes (I’m gonna go through accents in more detail later, too) to some degree. In the example the melody notes come from the synth as well so the need to accent them isn’t as great. In a solo performance I might dig in a little deeper for them to create the impression of separate layers of melody and accompaniment.

Anyway, here’s the clip and TAB. Hope you enjoy them and please send feedback! 🙂 Unfortunately, I only had time to do this short clip. For the full version with more robotic stuff you’ll have to come to Kontula tomorrow!


Starting Off With Some Melodic Style

So here we go. This is the first post of my new blog. It’ll start as a kind of a mix between personal practise journal and educational site. You can read about the initial idea in more detail from the Letter To Mick. So this is the starting point but I’m going to be open to let it evolve as it may.

For a while, I’ve been frustrated and disappointed at myself for letting all that valuable time to leak to office work, procrastinating and such. Even though I’ve been lucky enough to earn my living doing what I love, even many of the musical projects I‘ve done have been stressful because I’ve felt that I couldn’t give my best due to lack of time or energy or focus. So I did the logical thing, took a break from the teaching work and moved abroad to have minimum distractions. Now I had time. The easiest and most sustainable way to transform some of this time to energy is physical exercise, so I made sure I got plenty. To get better focus I’ve done meditation and occasional yoga. Even with no excuses left, I’ve felt inner resistance and it still feels like a huge leap to open the practise process and present this incomplete side to the public. (That is actually illusion in two ways, as the incompleteness is present in everything manmade anyway. And also the potential public exposure of this marginal subject might not be that huge. But illusion or not, that’s the inner feeling I’ve been struggling with.)

I’ve actually been so excited about finally getting this site going, that I had a hard time choosing my first topic. After a couple of weeks of procrastinating on bebop banjo, I finally decided to start with the melodic style. I've been fascinated by this technique for a while and I've noticed that often when picking up either a guitar or banjo without a thought, melodic style exploration has begun spontaneously so it seemed like a natural place to start.

If you’re a banjo player or otherwise know what melodic style is about, feel free to jump to the video/tabs. The basic principle in melodic style is to play melody so that you pick consecutive notes on different strings as much as possible. This will create a cascading sound that might remind you of the sound of a harp, kantele or kora. The term melodic style comes from the world of the banjo and is most strongly associated with a great picker called Bill Keith and is sometimes referred to as Keith style. With this technique he was able to play fast fiddle tunes note-to-note which wasn’t possible with the prevailing Scruggs style (I’ll explore this in the future, too). Same kind of approach exists in the guitar world as well and is called campanella. Thinking “melodic” might be tricky at first, but after the initial shock (which should be over within 2-10 years 😀 ), many of the fingerings feel more natural to play with fingerstyle and it might even be easier to achieve a beautiful legato sound this way. Melodic style is something that might give you a terrible headache in the beginning, but the more you do it, the better it feels and having put that time and effort in really gives you a different kind of appreciation towards your creations. In that sense you could think of it as a kind of reverse alcohol.

Later on I’ll get into more technical details, but to get in the mood I arranged a fiddle tune called Gold Rush for melodic style banjo and guitar. Hope you enjoy it! The tabs might be slightly different as I wrote them as standalone etudes while the video is a duet. All feedback is appreciated as my goal is to (in case you didn’t guess it yet) to advance my fingerstyle playing.