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.

Pros/Cons
+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.