FREE HARMONICA LESSON!

mb-chro_photoHow many of you have bought a harmonica, blown and drawn a few chords, got bored with it and put it down, discouraged and not sure what to do next? I suspect, most of us. That’s because we probably didn’t know even the basics of how to play this little folk/blues/classical music wonder. In this article I’m going to show you how to play the harmonica in several different ways, even if you’ve had no previous experience with this terrific instrument! We will learn the difference between the diatonic harmonica and the chromatic harmonica. We will hear the scales on both types. We will learn how to play a simple chord melody. We will learn (this is big!) how to play a single note melody. We will learn how to combine the single note melody with accompanying chords. You will hear my friend John and I play folk tunes, old standards, a beautiful classical melody, as well as cross-harpin’ the blues! Also included is a video featuring blues greats Big Mama Thornton and John Lee Hooker, as well as a video of young harmonica great, Konstantin Reinfeld. If you’ve been curious about the harmonica but were afraid to try it, the encouragement you are seeking just might be in this article!

HOW NOT TO PLAY THE HARMONICA: Listen to me play the tune Oh Susannah the way you’d probably try to play it when you first pick up your “harp.” (We harmonica geeks call them harps.)  Too many corny old western movies taught us the wrong way to play the harp. In this self-standing lesson you will learn some cool ways to make that old harmonica really sing!

Oh Susannah – Blow/Draw Chords – (easiest)

When you’re first learning to play, this simple playing style impresses the heck out of us. But it’s terribly limiting. A tune might sound good when playing the 1st chord or the 5th chord, (ignore the tech talk), but it sounds terrible when drawing (inhaling) on the 4th chord. This playing style also sounds quite monotonous. Further, it’s difficult to nail the actual melody note in all that mess. Is there a better way to play the harp? Oh, yeah. 🙂

BLOWING INDIVIDUAL NOTES: To add definite structure to a song, we need to learn how to blow individual notes so we can nail the melody and then chord around it. There are three ways to do that–

1> You can purse your lips so it surrounds the note hole you want to blow. Some swear by this method, but it doesn’t work for me at all. I often got blurps and bleeps, no matter how much I practiced this method, making the tune sound rough rather than clean. On an accuracy scale of 1 to 10, I give this method a lowly 1, with 10 being the most accurate on the scale. I must hasten to add, though, that just because this method doesn’t work for me, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t work for others. In fact, my friend John Arbuckle, who you will hear play his chromatic harmonica in this article, does well with this method.

2> With your tongue you can block the notes you don’t want to sound and leave unblocked the single note you want to sound. This method works well enough, but I find it clumsy and uncomfortable to execute. On a scale of 1 to 10, I give this method a 3, with 10 being the most comfortable. There is no doubt the method is accurate, but it’s an uncomfortable tongue tangle for me.

3> By placing just the tip of your tongue under a note hole, the note will sound clearly and accurately. On a scale of 1 to 10, I give this method a 10, with 10 being the most accurate. It’s also, (for me), the most comfortable method to get just one melody note at a time, which is exactly what we want. It will take a bit of work to get it right, and when you first try it, it might not work at all. It didn’t work for me at first. But I kept at it and it didn’t take long before individual notes began to emerge loud and clear.

SCALE ON THE HOHNER MARINE BAND G HARMONICA: When you hear me play this scale, you will be confused by the lower notes. They don’t seem to be part of the scale we’re used to hearing. My friend John calls these the oompah notes! They are strictly used for adding interest to the bass line, even though some of the notes can sometimes be used to fill in the lower part of a melody. Let’s hear what individual notes sound like on the Marine Band–

G Scale on the Marine Band diatonic harmonica

Notice how the first five notes don’t fit into any scale we’re familiar with. Those are the oompah notes. Going past these first five notes takes us into familiar territory. Notice, though, that the second to the last highest note is missing. This apparently is by design because this note is missing on all the Marine Band harps I’ve owned.

THE CHROMATIC HARMONICA: There is another kind of harmonica called the chromatic harmonica. Picture yourself sitting in front of a piano keyboard. What do you see? You see white keys, but you also see black keys. These are referred to as the sharps and flats. The standard Marine Band, the harmonica I just played, has no black notes. Only white notes are available on this simple model. The chromatic harmonica has all the notes. Let’s listen to John play the scale on his key of G chromatic harmonica–

G Scale on the Chromatic Harmonica

To directly compare between the Marine Band, (musically speaking it’s called the diatonic model,) and the chromatic model, first play the Marine Band key of G scale, (two tracks back), and then play the key of G chromatic scale, (the track above). Notice how many more notes are available on the chromatic harmonica. It has a much longer note range, and all the sharps and flats are there. This is accomplished by a button controlled sliding gate that blocks and unblocks the sharps and flats just by pressing the button when you need to access them! It’s a fine instrument if you want to play complex music. Larry Adler of some years ago was a monster chromatic star. He played everything from jazz to classical. The most noted master of the chromatic harp today is Stevie Wonder. We are all familiar with his music! Listen to John play the first part of Somewhere Over the Rainbow in a single note melody on his chromatic harmonica.

Somewhere Over the Rainbow – G Chromatic

Single note melodies work well if you are playing along with someone like a guitar player for some added accompaniment. Folk musicians, though, often want to play an instrument as a full sounding solo instrument, and they want to play both melody and accompaniment, all at the same time! Is this even possible? It most certainly is. 🙂

OH SUSANNAH SIMPLE MELODY: At the beginning of this article you heard me play Oh Susannah the easy way by simply blowing and drawing whole chords. Now hear me play this tune as a single note melody–

Oh Susannah Melody on the Marine Band (diatonic) Harmonica

Notice this was played on the simple Marine Band harp that has no chromatic button to get at the sharps and flats. That’s because many melodies have no sharps and flats. Oh Susannah is one of many tunes that fit in this category.

MELODY/CHORD DEMONSTRATION: You’ve heard single notes. But what if we added something more? How about we add a chord accompaniment, just like we might do when playing the piano or when finger picking the guitar. First, a simple melody/chord demonstration–

Diatonic Melody and Chord Accompaniment Demonstration

Notice that the chords are made up of more than one note. That’s what makes them chords. You probably also noticed I dipped into the oompah notes to show you how that worked. If you didn’t hear those, don’t worry about it. You’ll figure out how to use them when you try it yourself.

OH SUSANNAH AS A MELODY/CHORD SOLO: When you hear what I play next, you probably won’t believe it’s coming out of just one harp and played all at once! Recall the melody/chord example you just heard. I’m using exactly that technique here, but now the song has a recognizable structure because the tune is so familiar.

Oh Susannah With Melody and Chords on Diatonic – Medium Tempo

Sounds pretty darned cool, doesn’t it! Let’s kick up the tempo–

FAST! Oh Susannah Melody Chords on diatonic

Gasp! There is no way I can play it faster than that. I call this my show off speed! 😀

WALTZ TIME: Oh Susannah isn’t the only song you can play like this. To demonstrate for you a simple waltz tune, I chose Goin’ Home as the perfect example. This beautiful melody, often mistaken for a folk song, is from Dvorak’s Symphony #9. It’s slow, it’s quiet, it’s heartfelt, and the melody is so beautiful. But notice the long section where I leave out the chord accompaniment and play only the single note melody. On a Marine Band (diatonic) harp like I’m playing, there are no chords you can play in this section that will sound good with the melody. And so, put every bit of feeling you might have in you into this section. Here me play it–

Going Home Waltz Demonstration – Diatonic Harp

PLAYIN’ THE BLUES! And finally, let’s cross-harp the blues! Blues notes are gotten by playing in a different position and then by mostly drawing rather than blowing those blues notes on the scale—notes like the minor 3rd and the flatted 7th. Ignore the tech talk. You’ll play this instinctively. This puts the harmonica in a different key. If you are playing a C harp, cross-harping the blues will be in the key of G. Cross-harping a key of D harmonica will put the blues in the key of A. Cross-harping on an A harmonica puts the blues in the key of E. The secret is to look at the key your harmonica is in. The key is printed on the end of the instrument, but it’s even easier to read on the box it came in. When we cross-harp, it moves the blues key up five scale intervals from its native key–

Key of C — C, D, E, F, G — blues is in G

Key of A — A, B, C, D, E — blues is in E

Key of C — C, D, E, F, G — blues is in G

Key of D — D, E, F, G, A — blues is in A

etc.

Listen to my blues demonstration below. I cross-harped the blues on my C harmonica, which means the blues is in the key of G. I found a couple of drum tracks from Garage Band, stuck them together, and then I played along with them. There are many instrument loops in the Garage Band library, but most are in specific keys. If your harp key doesn’t match the GB track key, the result will sound terrible! Drums like the timpani, most often used in symphony orchestras, are tuned to specific keys. But for the most part, GB drum tracks will go well with any instrument tuned to a specific key —

Blues With Garage Band Drum Tracks – Diatonic

PROS CROSS-HARPING THE BLUES: If you want to see how the pros cross-harp the blues, check out this old video featuring Big Mama Thornton and John Lee Hooker–

Big Mama Thornton and John Lee Hooker – Blues Harp

They are playing the original Hohner Marine Band harmonica. It was invented by a German watchmaker in 1896, and it still remains a favorite model. By the way, if you want to visit Hohner’s website, go here–

Hohner Harmonica Website

Another excellent video on the Hohner website is of the young man, Konstantin Reinfeld, from Germany who plays everything imaginable on the simple “diatonic” model, which is the Marine Band or Blues Harp models which has no chromatic button to give him sharps and flats. He’s a fantastic player and talks about playing in several keys on just the one harmonica. He talks about “over blows” and “over draws.” This is a difficult technique because for many notes it requires a lot of wind. But by shaping the note with your mouth as you play a note, you can distort the reed to play higher or lower than blowing it straight. You heard me do this in Oh Susannah, where the pitch of the notes change when I play the line, “Oh Susannah.” Since the chord notes available for this part of the melody sound terrible, I do this to add character to those two single notes. This is called an “over draw,” because I’m pulling in rather than blowing out. It’s difficult to explain the technique, but you can hear me do it, so you know it can be done. A player with strong lungs can play this little harmonica like a chromatic model, where all the sharps and flats are there, even though they aren’t there when you play it normally. Watch this guy play! —

http://us.playhohner.com/media/?mode=select&videos=1

I would be remiss if I wouldn’t mention my hero, Bob Dylan! Bob introduced us all to the “harmonica holder,” that rack around the neck that holds the harp in place while you are playing another instrument, like the guitar, at the same time. It’s easy to use and with a bit of practice you will sound like a one-man (or woman) band. Bob is a good harmonica player for what he needs it for. But he’s a straight player. He doesn’t mess with the pitch much. But even though he’s not that accomplished when compared to those monster blues stars out there, it fits his type of music perfectly.

BEWARE OF FOOD PARTICLES! If you are thinking of playing the harmonica, beware of eating right before you play! The clearance between reed and valve and the metal grid they live in is extremely close. One tiny bit of food can instantly wreck your instrument. John, (my friend who demonstrates the chromatic harmonica in this article), has taken the cover off some of his harps and cleaned out food particles. It can be done. But I should mention that John is a careful craftsman with very steady hands. Don’t try fixing a harp yourself unless you know what you’re doing.

And there you have it! My lesson doesn’t go very deep, but I hope it gives you an overall view of what’s possible with this simple instrument. Playing the harmonica competently and cleanly won’t happen overnight, but with practice you will eventually amaze yourself! And your family! And your friends, too! Keep practicing! That little harp in your hand can be pure dynamite!

 

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The Mighty Drone Flute!

Native American drone fluteThis article is about the drone flute, a startlingly powerful version of the Native American flute!

There are two ways to play an instrument. You can play it along with at least one other person, (a duet, a trio, quartet, band, whatever), or you can play it solo. With today’s tech tools available to us, we can even prerecord other instruments to accompany ourselves and then play along with them. But it’s still playing solo, since it’s you that is playing several solos, one at a time, and then combining them with the tools from today’s technology. So that possibility is off the table in this particular discussion, although that possibility and variants of it will come up in future articles. Let’s talk about solo performances in this article, whether you are playing your solo for others or playing just for your own enjoyment.

I guess I’m a lone wolf by nature. Okay, I confess, I’ve played in bands. But playing in a band ain’t easy. It’s fun when it works, and it’s hell when it doesn’t. I’ve always been interested in the potential of a single instrument and what it can produce. It’s fun not to have to worry about those others you might play with. You can just concentrate on how well you can play that single instrument without worrying about ol’ Jimmy Joe’s bad notes clunking out from his worn out guitar strings. You’ve heard me talk of my dad’s blues sax in past articles. Dang, he was good! My daughter is a cellist, and although you can play more than one string at once on a cello, the ultimate beauty of the cello lies in that full, fat beautiful melody that comes from it. Dang, my daughter’s good! 🙂 And so I’ve always appreciated the monophonic, (that’s fancy music theory talk for one note at a time), music played on a beautiful instrument. This is why I write articles about the Native American flute. Its tone is so beautiful that your flute performance, if it’s truly heartfelt, can be very full and satisfying by playing just one note at a time. Music is most beautiful when it’s simple. That’s the pleasure I get from the flute; it’s that elegant simplicity that fires the emotions and puts your head in a different place when you hear it or play it. Most who play the Native American flute play the single barrel flute. When you blow, you hear just one note until you change your fingering to another note. We play the flute monophonically since it’s the nature of the single barrel instrument. But wouldn’t it be interesting if you could play two notes at the same time? You can if you play what’s called a “drone” flute.

The drone flute has the same melodic configuration, generally speaking, of a bagpipe. Try to imagine how the music of a bagpipe sounds. There’s no mistaking that powerful sound, is there? If you listen closely, you’ll hear that single, ever present drone note which provides harmonic accompaniment to a tune. The drone note on a bagpipe is usually the ‘tonic’ note. The ‘tonic’ note is the first or bottom note of any scale. For example, if we play the C scale on a keyboard, we play up the white keys by starting at ‘middle C’. The notes by letter names are C D E F G A B C. The last C is the octave note. But the tonic note is the first C, the first note of the scale. Got it? Sure you do. It’s easy. The word “tonic” is just a term meaning the first note of any scale. Remember that term so you can throw that into the conversation during the next discussion you have with your fellow musicians. 😀

The drone flute usually, but not always, has two barrels. (Some newer varieties have three barrels.) One barrel has the standard note holes so we can play the same complex melodies we play on the standard single barrel NAF. The other barrel has no note holes because we don’t finger notes on it. We just blow it at the same time as the barrel with the note holes. As we play the melody, the constant sounding drone note comes along with it, just like that of a bagpipe. It’s equivalent to playing a type of harmony as you play the melody. If you look at the photo that leads off this article, you’ll see the two barrels of my own drone. Chris Fuqua of WindPoem flutes made this F# drone for me. He calls this design the ‘shotgun’ drone because it looks like the two barrels of a shotgun. Chris makes and sells single barrel NAFs, and if you’re interested in his work, you can check out his work at his website at —

You can also see his work on the website you are on right now at —

NOTE: (Chris does not make drone flutes for sale, but he makes single barrel flutes in various woods like cedar and pine, as well as bamboo and PVC.)

I made a quick recording of the Pentatonic scale, played on just one barrel from my F# drone. Then I replayed the scale, this time blowing through both holes of my drone flute so you can hear how the added drone note fleshes out the simple scale —

Comparing Single Barrel flute and Double Barrel Drone:

 

I recorded this next sample in the Native American traditional free style of playing. I kept it simple so you can hear how the drone note adds depth to the melody.

A Simple Free Style on the NAF Drone:

 

For this article, Chris sent me one of his performances on his own key of F# drone. Chris often plays traditional Native American music on his flutes, and this sample is no exception. You will immediately hear the richness the drone barrel adds to the melody.

Chris Fuqua Plays the Native American Drone Flute:

 

EXAMPLES FROM DAUGHTER EARTH ALBUM: I produced and recorded a Native American flute album titled “Daughter Earth.” Below are several tracks, (some shortened), from this album. We begin with Amazing Grace. I played it first on my single barrel pine F#, and then finished it out on my pine shotgun F# drone. (The twittering bird background is from freesound.org.)

Amazing Grace:

 

Another track I put down for this album is the old sea chantey titled “Parson’s Farewell.” It was quite difficult to work out on my F# drone, but have a listen to see how the drone adds real depth to the melody —

Parson’s Farewell:

 

You also might like to hear me play “Sweet Hour of Prayer” on my F# drone —

Sweet Hour of Prayer:

 

By listening to what I’ve recorded, I think you can see that the drone flute has huge possibilities. Not every melody works well on the drone, but many melodies do. I play only melodies that work well. Even highly melodic tunes in major keys, like Sweet Hour of Prayer, sound good.

The standard single barrel Native American flute, in its current form, is considered to be a contemporary version of the original. The original Native American flutes were not as sophisticated as today’s instruments. But the flute has evolved, just like any other instrument. Many flute makers are taking the drone flute in surprising directions. Check out the YouTube video of the Mayan Temple Flute by Southern Cross Flutes, New Zealand. This flute has two playable barrels, three holes to each barrel, but the lower register can also be played as a drone when all three holes are closed —

 

The 12 Hole Triple Drone Flute by Falcon Flutes is another unique drone flute, allowing several playing configurations between the three blowholes. Toward the end of this demo the designer/musician’s performance is accompanied by the heartfelt singing of his two adorable dogs. This means when the designer/musician is playing through all three barrels, and when each dog is singing along, we have a living, breathing quintet. 🙂

 

A word of caution. Before you lay down your hard earned cash for a drone, be aware that by it’s wider body, (two barrels side by side), and all six holes on one side, one set of fingers will have a slightly longer reach than the other set of fingers. This is just the nature of this shotgun design. (Notice that the players/designers in both videos favor the shotgun design.) But the design is compact and it has worked well for me. There is another drone design where a standard flute with its six note holes and a drone barrel, (no note holes), are joined at the blow-end but separated by a yoke at the tail end. With this design, both hands can grip the standard barrel and access all six note holes with equal advantage. You can find many examples of both drone styles on, where else, YouTube.com! 😀

The Native American flute will continue to evolve. It probably began with the Anasazi rim blown flute, a devilishly difficult flute to play, and it will probably never stop evolving. (It’s worth noting that 5,000 years ago a drone flute was found in a Mayan temple.) You can’t hold back beautiful music. But please don’t be overly impressed by the seductive sound of the drone and its present day varients. The simple single barrel Native American flute will always play beautiful, complex music that will never cease to fascinate us with its elegant simplicity. Should you need a change, though, consider the drone. It’s a wonderful way for a solo player to make some interesting music.

You can buy my Daughter Earth Album as a CD on Amazon.com. You can buy the download version at iTunes, and Bandcamp, to name a few. All my how-to music books are available on this site. Just click the MUSIC BOOKS tab at the top of this page.

You can learn more about Chris Fuqua and his many books and CDs on his own website. On his homepage, scroll down to his nonfiction books where you will see two NAF books you might be interested in: Native American Flute Craft – Ancient to Modern, as well as The Native American Fllute – Myth, History, Craft. His website is below.

http://csfuqua.com

 

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Quest For the Native American Flute

Build a PVC Flute

Build a PVC Native American Flute

Sometimes it can be a long road to finding an instrument you really want to learn to play, an instrument like the Native American flute. With me it was an easy walk to the tenor guitar, (a small guitar minus the 5th and 6th strings), because my father introduced me to it when I was a young boy. That’s where my musical quest began. Eventually I picked up my grandpa’s old Sears guitar. It was in terrible shape with nearly unplayable action. The “action” is the distance the strings are from the fretboard. If the action is too high, it’s impossible to fret notes because it kills your fingers. I tuned that old guitar to an open G tuning and used a table knife as a slide, and that, of course, solved the action problem. Later in life I found the banjo, as well as ukulele finger picking and blues harmonica (cross harping). I played folk guitar and blues on an Ovation acoustic, I played rock on a Gibson electric solid body, and I played classical guitar on Martin and Córdoba guitars. Yup, there are lots of instruments and many musical high points in my life. You’d think that with all these instruments, I would have had enough of it. But underneath it all was the desire to own and play the Native American flute. It took many steps to get there.

It might be a surprise to you what initially attracted me to the NAF. It wasn’t the romance and culture of the NAF, although I respect that aspect of it. And It wasn’t that iconic “look” of the NAF with its animal totem and attached feathers, either. I wasn’t interested in any of that. I was interested in the musical possibilities of the instrument, most specifically the blues. My dad played a hot blues sax, and so I was fortunate enough to have grown up around his gift for blues and jazz. I had heard the music of the NAF somewhere, and although at the time I didn’t realize traditional NAF tunes were being played on the simple pentatonic scale, I heard the blues notes in that scale. And so I wanted more. I knew I could play the blues on it if I just knew where to find one.

When I first thirsted for the NAF, there was no Internet. Yes, it was that long ago! So I had no idea where I might buy an NAF. Music stores certainly didn’t stock them because the flutes at that time were all hand made. The answer seemed to present itself when my daughter and I were at a craft fair in Flagstaff, Arizona. I saw an authentic Native American flute I liked and asked the builder to play me something. He played me “Melody In F” by Anton Rubinstein. This was an epiphany because I realized, then and there, that any kind of music could be played on the NAF! Even complex classical music! But the man wanted more money than I was willing to pay for his flute. And so I passed it up, and I can tell you I was very heartsick about it. At that same craft fair my intrepid daughter, refusing to give up, went scouting and found me a 6-hole whistle for 5 bucks. It was made in India, it stunk like my grandpa’s mahogany rocking chair, it was easy to play, it had a soft  breathy sound, and it was in the almost unworkable key of B. It wasn’t compatible with a guitar player unless the guitarist played in A with his/her capo on the second fret. (This is why capos are indispensable to guitarists.) That whistle, although not an NAF, nor did it finger like one, set me on the NAF path. But it still took awhile. From that simple 6-hole whistle I bought a 6-hole penny whistle, key of G. Then I bought a 6-hole penny whistle in low D. It’s finger holes on the low end are almost impossible for me to reach. I also purchased a recorder, (the kind you blow into to get a tune), as well as a 6-hole whistle from Afghanistan. You could say I was in the process of whetting my whistle for the honest to God big daddy — the Native American flute!

Eventually the Net uncovered many NAF flute builders. I bought my very first NAF, online. It was a Cedar flute and it still sounds nice. (Flutes, like guitars, sound better and better with age.) I don’t play this particular flute that much because the note hole distances are too great for me to comfortably play it. Without going into details we don’t need here I eventually stumbled onto my good friend, Chris Fuqua. Chris is an accomplished author, and through this author/publisher association I learned through our email discussions that he built excellent NAFs with note hole distances I could comfortably handle. And so, this is where my flute playing truly began.

Chris (C.S. Fuqua) has written several books on the NAF. His meticulously researched book “Native American flute: Myth, History, Craft” introduces us to the NAF in a way few authors have even touched upon. He has also written the how-to book, “Native American Flute Craft.” This book extensively covers many aspects of the building of several flute types, including the drone flute and the Anasazi flute, and you can read full descriptions of both books under the site tab, MUSIC BOOKS. Just tap to get the drop-down menu.

Chris has recently added an excellent video to YouTube on how to build a flute from PVC pipe. His original video proved to be so popular that he has recently upgraded it with much more construction detail.

This video doesn’t take the place of his book, “Native American Flute Craft.” That book is extremely extensive in the art of building the Native American flute. But if you consider yourself handy, you might want to try to build a flute of the PVC variety, just for the heck of it. This video will give you all the info you’ll need to do this. My only suggestion is that when Chris tells you in the video that you’ll need a tuner, get a tuner. He uses an expensive tuner hardware device, but you can download free chromatic tuner apps for your smart phone that do the same thing. They do a good job. Regardless of how good an ear for pitch you might have, if you have no ear for pitch, you won’t know that. Or if you have just minor problems with discerning pitch, you won’t know that either. And since most of us don’t have perfect pitch anyway, (most of us have good relative pitch), you will need a tuner if you hope to play with others. You will need a tuner that visually displays the correct pitch. All tuners display the correct pitch, regardless if they are an expensive device or a totally free tuner app. A good free tuner is called “Pano Tuner.” I have it on my iPhone and find it easy to use. There are other free tuner apps, but even the more expensive tuner apps cost only two or three bucks. In regard to that, I bought the “insTuner” for my iPhone and I think it cost me three bucks. (The pay version of Pano Tuner is similarly priced.) It displays a correct pitch differently than Pano Tuner, but they both work well. Before you even consider getting a tuner, first watch the video. Then you’ll know if you want to actually try building a flute.

It took me awhile to really fall in love with the NAF. Even after I bought my first flute, I had no mentor. And so I didn’t play that first flute much. I needed someone to listen to and learn from. I didn’t need actual instruction. I just needed someone to play for me, stupid as that might seem. I needed someone to emulate until I eventually developed my own style. Chris sent me his own MP3s, and my eyes lit up at his sound! Through his MP3 examples, he came along and became my mentor. You need to listen to the music of others so you know what you should sound like. That’s the way we all learn, regardless of which instrument we might want to play. If you want examples but don’t have flute playing friends to take you by the hand with their own sounds, listen to the online MP3 examples Chris and I have posted for you. We have posted dozens of examples on this site that will hopefully inspire you. Tap the following links and listen to what’s there. Once you’ve finished listening, close that page and you will again see this page so you can then try other page links in this list.

LISTEN TAB

CELEBRATE THE NATIVE AMERICAN FLUTE (BOOK SAMPLES)

EARTH FLUTE (BOOK SAMPLES)

The path to the instrument of your dreams can be frustrating at times, but that path can be a joyous one as you experience those many wonderful flute “events” along the way. 🙂

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Lightnin’ Hopkins and His Blues Guitar Style

Lightnin' Hopkins promo photo from Wikipedia.org

Lightnin’ Hopkins promo photo from Wikipedia.org

Learning to finger pick the guitar is an adventure, and I look back with great memories on some of those turning points that led me closer and closer to the logic of fingerpicking. There is a logical approach to it all, and in a future article I’ll try to get into that logic. But for now, let me relate to you a story that truly set me off on the path of Blues fingerpicking. In the 60s, when I began my quest for the perfect finger picking style to emulate, I found what I was looking for. One day I was in a variety store where all kinds of stuff/junk was sold, including vinyl records. There was no cassette tape technology yet. It would still be a few years before we could punch cassettes into boom boxes and car decks. After that would come CDs, something we couldn’t conceive of then since the only affordable technology was a continuous physical groove cut into a big black (usually black) plastic platter bigger than a dinner plate. (Digital music, as I learned later, was in the very early experimental stages.) As I stood and looked at this store’s selection of “platters,” I saw a record by Lightnin’ Hopkins, someone I’d never heard of. On the front I read that Lightnin’ (Sam) Hopkins played the blues. Was it just him and his guitar, which I wanted, or did he have a distracting backing band? I wanted to learn a guitar solo style, not a style that required a band to back me up. I read every word on the big paper envelope these records were in, and I just couldn’t decide if it was what I wanted. (There was no way to sample the tunes in most shops including reputable record stores.) Worse, could I even afford it? It was in the budget album section and the price was two bucks! I sweat bullets in front of that display, trying to decide if I could afford a mere two bucks. It was 1964, I was in my first year of teaching in a public school system, and the annual salary for a starting teacher at that dark time was $4100 bucks, (oh, no, boys and girls, I’m not kidding!), while monthly take home was a stinkin’ 300 bucks. You can probably see why I was carefully watching my pennies. But irrationality won over and eventually I caved and bought it. I took my record home to my little one room Taj Mahal and played it on my cheap stereo. I was amazed at what I heard because it was so complicated I knew it was impossible for just one man to play it. But I listened to every tune on that budget record over and over and over until I thought my ears would fall off! And finally I perceived both a pattern and a technique. Hopkins was steadily thumbing the 6th string, the E string, (thickest and lowest string), to accompany the complex melody and harmony lines he was playing with his 1st and 2nd fingers on the higher strings. This makes it possible to play the guitar in a complete style by actually accompanying the melody and harmony with a steady bass line. It’s equivalent to having a little piano on your lap; this was the sound I was looking for. And this was my first big finger picking revelation. A door had been opened, and I can honestly say that Lightnin’ Hopkins was the doorman to that secret door and he generously let me in. Playing like him didn’t happen in a flash, though. I had to practice. First I worked out some simple tunes, and from there I slowly but surely began to emulate his style. It was fun, it was inspiring, and before I knew it, I was on my way.

There is an informative video of Hopkins playing, “Baby Please Don’t Go,” on YouTube,com (of course). You can watch it here–

Hopkins plays “Baby Please Don’t Go”

Hopkins usually played in the key of E, a favorite blues key for several reasons. If you fire up the tuner app on your smart phone and hum the tonic note as he plays, you’ll find it’s an F, not an E. So you might think he’s playing in the key of F. He’s not. F is a terrible key for folk blues finger pickers. Only classical guitarists play in the key of F. The reason it seems like he’s playing in the key of F is because Hopkins has all his strings tuned a half step higher, either deliberately or accidentally. I only mention this because many of you who have tuner apps need not email me to tell me he’s tuned a half step above standard tuning. I already know that. But this isn’t what’s important. RELATIVELY he’s playing in the key of E, where the three main blues chords in this key are E/E7, A7, and B7 and are fingered that way. If you watch his left hand, (chording hand), play through it, you’ll see these three chords fretted. I didn’t have access to this video when I bought the Hopkins budget record. It probably hadn’t even been made yet. I had the record and could listen, only. I had to figure everything out with my ears, not my eyes. Through sound alone I had to visualize how he was playing it. Now that I can see the video, I notice that he’s playing a wide shouldered Gibson, a model favored back then and now because of its outstanding volume. He’s also using what appears to be a de Armond add-on pickup where there are six separate pickups in the plate, one for each string. The pickup plate is fastened across the sound hole and under the strings. The de Armond was a popular add-on pickup back then and I remember owning one myself. He also used a white plastic thumb pick to give his bass strings more penetration. I used this same type of thumb pick for years on my Gibson acoustic. (When I took up the classical guitar, I dispensed with using a thumb pick, but I still use it when playing my banjo.)

Hopkins had a good career. Sometimes he used a light band backing, the most effective, in my view, when he had just a skilled drummer behind him and a savvy bass player where neither played to overwhelm, but to support. A great example of this can be seen here, at an Austin City Limits performance–

Partial performance of Lightnin’ Hopkins at Austin City Limits

If you want just Hopkins and his guitar, with no instruments backing him, there are still plenty of albums out there to pick from. Go to iTunes. There are so many Hopkins albums in the iTunes stable that it staggers the imagination!

I’ve always treated this cheap budget album like pure gold. There is not a nick, not a blip, not a scratch, and not one wobbly wowie on my album. I’ve carefully, carefully played it over and over for years because I knew what a jewel I had. Eventually my good friend, Brian White, a master with audio and everything related to it, who in the late 90s had audio equipment most of us didn’t yet have, made a quality recording of my whole album on tape. From that tape Brian made me a high quality CD where he tracked and separated the tunes as individual MP3s. When the iPod became a reality, this budget album was the first MP3 playlist I imported to my new 2nd gen iPod. Three iPods later it’s still on my iPods. When I play this album today, I needn’t worry about wearing out the delicate grooves on an acetate record. That record is safely packed away in my office closet. My daughter, who is a classical cellist as well as a folk/blues aficionado, will enjoy playing that album some day.

This album is valuable to me for reasons already stated. But this particular album also has a few tunes on it I’ve not heard on the other albums Hopkins has released. (Of course, I don’t have all of them!) That alone makes this album more valuable than I can say. Every once in awhile, when I want to hear some innovative and soulful blues finger picking I never grow tired of, I crank up my iPod. “I’ve got a dog in my backyard….howls every time my baby’s gone….” It’s a honey of an album, and it goes without saying the album is no longer available, not even in reprints. And why is that? Well, because after all, it’s just a budget album! 🙂

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Band Member Becomes Author

Sometimes it’s fun to see how someone can start in one artistic direction, like music, and then shift to another direction, like writing. This is from a blog article by Bonnie Lynne. It bears re-posting.

~Penthouse 5 Founding Member’s Final Dream Realized Years After Death~

Popular 60s rock band

Popular 60s rock band

Rob Graham, founding member of the popular 1960s band Penthouse 5, had his last dream of writing and publishing a novel realized nearly seven years after his death in 2009. Wolfshadow, co-written with author C. S. Fuqua, was published in eBook in January 2016 by Ursa Major Books, with the paperback version scheduled for June 2016 publication.

Graham was a founding member of Penthouse 5, a popular Texas-based 1960s garage rock band. When the band broke up in the mid-1960s, he moved on to acting and modeling, but alcoholism took its toll and, by the late 1980s, Graham was living on the street. Following a near-death experience, Graham entered rehabilitation, got clean, and tackled the dream of becoming a published writer. Fuqua reminisces about Graham’s roller-coaster life and their efforts to realize Graham’s final dream in the blog post “Piss on It: Developing Wolfshadow” at http://csfuqua.blogspot.com/2016/01/piss-on-it-developing-wolfshadow.html.

Shortly before Graham lost his voice to throat cancer, he discussed his prognosis from his hospice care facility with Fuqua: “I’ve had a good life, Chris—good friends and a great family. I have cancer. I won’t be going back home.” As Graham’s cancer progressed, he and Fuqua worked via email and through the assistance of David Graham, Rob’s brother, to complete Wolfshadow. This collaboration continued until two days before Graham died. Fuqua continued to work on the novel and finished the final draft three years to the month after Graham’s death.

WolfShadow book coverThe science fantasy novel Wolfshadow features Jim Pleasant Wolfshadow, a Cheyenne Native American and former Navy SEAL, who’s resigned from Nattech Inc., America’s controlling corporation, following a terrorist bombing that killed his wife, a bombing for which he wrongly blames himself. He has no intention of jumping into an unknown future when so much is once again on the line—until Max, his best friend and Nattech’s lead science officer, vanishes. Unwilling to lose another loved one, Wolfshadow returns to Nattech service to locate and rescue his friend. Accompanied by a shape-shifting entity who claims to have been with him since birth, Wolfshadow must battle Max’s abductor and source of increasing global mayhem, an other-dimensional, megalomaniacal being, determined to conquer Earth and subjugate its inhabitants to his rule.

Author and reviewer Suanne Schafer gives Wolfshadow five stars and describes it as, “A thought-provoking and interesting read.” (http://suanneschaferauthor.com/book-review-wolfshadow-robert-edward-graham-c-s-fuqua/)

Science fiction magazine Albedo One says, “If you are looking for a Fantasy novel that masterfully bridges the gap with Science Fiction and aren’t afraid of the grimdark, then this book is definitely for you.” (http://www.albedo1.com/2015/11/04/wolfshadow-by-robert-edward-graham-christopher-s-fuqua/)

Wolfshadow is one of the few books released today that has its own music soundtrack, composed and recorded by C. S. Fuqua, available as a free download with book purchase, separate purchase from iTunes, Amazon, Loudr, and Bandcamp, and streamable on Spotify and other services. To sample all songs, please visit the Wolfshadow Bandcamp page. The publisher, Ursa Major Books, has tentative plans for a contest in conjunction with the paperback publication. The prize will be a flute handmade by C. S. Fuqua.

  1. S. Fuqua has been a professional author, composer, and musician for decades. His work has been published in the Christian Science Monitor, Main Street Rag, Chiron Review, Years Best Horror Stories, and many other small and large press publications. His published works cover many genres including horror, science fiction, non-fiction and southern gothic. He currently resides in Las Cruces, NM, but has lived in Pensacola, FL; Honolulu, HI; and Huntsville, AL.

For additional information please visit the sites above and the following sites:

To schedule an interview with C.S. Fuqua, please contact his publicist, Bonnie Lynne, at BLynne@cooperativeink.com.

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Strrrrrretching “Folk” Music

I Dream of Wires - documentary

I Dream of Wires – documentary

What the heck is music? Really, what is it? I found a good formal definition online. Here it is–

Music: vocal or instrumental sounds (or both) combined in such a way as to produce beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion.

That “beauty of form,” of course, is in the ear of the listener. I love Bob Dylan, you might hate him. I love the Stones, you might hate them. I love Mozart, you might not be interested in any kind of classical music. I mention these music entities because today’s music form is far removed from our earliest musicians who beat sticks on rocks and played one note on flutes made from the wing bone of a bird. Classical music is complex, multi textured. Rock music is pulse pounding, mainly because of electric amplification. Dylan is an entity unto himself, and his poetic music is also complex and multi layered, both instrumentally and in thought.

These early musicians had not yet discovered how to capture and control electricity, (nor would it have had any meaning for them, anyway), making it impossible for early musicians to be able to play their instruments with any kind of amplification. But they were observant enough to realize their music would have more power if they played it in a cave. The sound would have been contained, and so would the audience. I’ve played in three different bands over the years. We used amps in the first and second band, which was fine. When I joined the third band, it was a startup band. We could take the band in any direction we pleased. In the very beginnings of our little group, all four of us had a say as to how we wanted to communicate. My hope was that we would use no amps at all. I envisioned us playing in very small venues, (like a cave of those early musicians). Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? You could play in a small room for a small audience. The connection between you and the audience would be intimate and gratifying. But in a matter of just a couple of weeks we knew this would be a bad idea if we ever wanted to be heard at all. Things were a lot simpler even just a couple of hundred years ago, where you played your possum skin mountain banjo or fiddle on your front porch and the neighbors just came and sat on your porch with you as you played. They might have even danced as you played! Those simple days are gone now. Now we amp up everything.

The early days of amplification did not begin with rock and roll. It began with jazz guitarists playing through amps so crude that they actually picked up local radio stations! But we know our love for loud music didn’t end with jazz guitarists. (Jazz groups didn’t play loud, but amping the guitar’s natural low volume, in comparison to horns and drums, helped to balance out the combo.) As more and more musicians took to the amp, it became necessary to electrically amplify everything we played, because it was our only hope of being heard. Pure folkies have fought amplification, and I can certainly see why. But if we didn’t have electrical power that allows us to perform on a stage to adoring audiences, or provide the means to record ourselves and then sell our folk music or any other kind of music, for that matter, we would be doomed to permanent oblivion. Our societies, regardless of where on the planet we might live, are large, unwieldy, and complicated. Those days of gathering around the campfire to hear the local tribal singers and musicians are gone. We only hear that kind of thing in a tourist trap, and even that kind of experience more often than not is amplified right out in the middle of a forest somewhere, just so all those tourists can clearly hear the performance above the ambient forest sounds of the frogs and crickets. To have any hope of preserving folk music means we have to use whatever technology is at our disposal. Further, we have to keep the folk music tradition alive by composing new songs. Most folk performers are doing exactly that, and they are playing to the masses through their wireless mics and amps. So we needn’t worry that folk music will ever die. In fact, folk music will be alive and well as long as there are musicians and people willing to listen.

Let’s suppose we are on a starship at some distant point in the future. Let’s choose a specific date. How about the year, 2416? That’s 400 years into the future. What will “folk” music sound like then? We can get a crude preview of what music might sound like this far into the future by investigating technology we had as long as 30 years ago. To see and hear what I’m talking about, go here–

WEBSITE– I Dream of Wires

The above website explains a most interesting documentary called, “I Dream of Wires.”

VIDEO TRAILER– I Dream of Wires

This documentary is about electronic music and the technology that produced it. In fact, this technology, in one form or other, is still producing electronic music, because eventually that early technology moved into our computers and keyboards, and that made making music even easier. With this early form of electronic music, there is no instrument a human plays to make music on the fly. Instead, music is produced with circuit board “modules,” modules which produce the music before it’s performed. Think of a mechanical music box. Wind it up, press the go button, and that music box plays only one song, over and over again. There is a little disk in the box that has pegs projecting from its surface. There are also a number of metal tongues, that when twanged by a passing peg would sound a note. Now think of a complex music box, the kind of box that was an early form of entertainment in bars and saloons of a couple of hundred years ago. Instead of just one music disk, there are several. But these disks aren’t built into the box like the simplest music box. They can be put into the box, just as you might put an acetate record on its turntable, which means you can put in different disks that play different tunes. The twanger setup, much like flexible steel tongues that twang when disturbed, is a fixed array of noisemakers, much like piano strings or guitar strings, but the disks have different peg points, and that makes it possible to have the music box play more than just the one tune simply by playing different disks. Now think of each music disk as a circuit board module. By using different modules, you can play the tune that’s on the module. Take a look at the image at the beginning of this article. Do you see all those modules in the console? Once installed, they all work together, making it possible to control them and play them in various combinations. But instead of being able to play just one disk at a time, like those in a music box, we can run several modules at the same time, making it possible to construct an endless variety of compositions. “Sampling” hadn’t been developed yet. The notes produced didn’t sound like those from a piano or electronic organ or electric guitar. It had its own sound—a strictly electronic sound, and the music from these early machines was sensational! We’d never heard music like this before. These modules were the forerunners of the Moog Synthesizer and all those electronic keyboards to follow.

So how, you might ask, can we possibly call this music? If you go back to the beginning of this article and look at the definition of music, preprogrammed music seems to fit these requirements. The definition mentions “vocal or instrumental sounds.” These music modules produce sound other than from the human voice, so it qualifies as “instrumental” sounds. These modules also produce “beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion.” One might argue with the emotion part since there is no human playing an actual instrument. But the programmer can make subtle variances to each note or passage, which can mimic the human touch when playing an instrument. And so, it’s more than possible this kind of music will gradually replace a dedicated instrument played by humans. In fact, much of the music we hear is produced electronically. We just don’t know it. If you watch the “I Dream of Wires” trailer, you might be taken back to the original Star Trek TV series where we would sometimes hear Spock play his lyre on the Starship Enterprise! It sounded weird and very electronic!

By the way, you can buy the full four-hour “I Dream of Wires” documentary from their website. But you can also watch a free, two-hour version of this great documentary on Netflix. Although I will never take up electronic music, I found this well produced documentary fascinating and fun. Who knows? Four hundred years from now, if we add voice to some cool electronic modules cranking away for accompaniment, we might very well call it “folk” music. After all, who would have thought our folk music would have ever moved from our front porch to some of the largest venues on the planet?

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“Knitting” Tunes

Comparing knitting to playing musicIn this article I would like to compare “doing” music to the art of knitting. What? Have I lost my mind?! No. Far from it. If you’ve read even some of my articles on this blog page you will already know that I enjoy looking at music from interesting angles. The angle of this particular article came to me when my sister recently set up a knitting class. Connie is a professor at–

Des Moines Area Community College,

The college has recently built into its schedule a one hour period during every noon hour where no classes are scheduled. The idea is to give the professors, should they choose to use it, an hour each day to schedule a beneficial activity that costs the student nothing but will benefit both student and non student participants in some way. And so Connie set up a beginning knitting class, and the response has been phenomenal! She and I talked about the possible benefits of knitting (beyond the obvious) at length, and we both agreed that an activity like knitting must have, at the very least, meditative benefits. So Connie went looking for support on our theory. She found it at StitchLinks.com. The physiological and emotional benefits of knitting have been studied at length, and this website has posted a most impressive list of the benefits. Here are just a few of the characteristics and benefits as listed on this site—

PATTERNS OF MOVEMENT:

Bilateral. (Both hands required)

Repetitive

Rhythmic

ENRICHED ENVIRONMENT:

Creativity/Imagination

Meditation

Fun/Play/Exploration

SOCIAL ENGAGEMENT:

Community

Friendship

Belonging

These are just a few of the benefits of knitting. Who’da thunk it! If you go to the website, you’ll find many more benefits.

What’s interesting about knitting is that the benefits and even the general patterns of movement are also present in playing a musical instrument. That’s why I titled this article, “Knitting Tunes.” And that’s why you see a knitting illustration and a ukulele merged in the single illustration at the head of this article. They really do go together in many ways.

Do you sometimes wonder how our forefathers (and foremothers) endured a life without radio, without TV, without computers and tablets and iPods and iTunes and SUVs? And smart phones—where would we be without smart phones?! Our ancestors led repetitive lives. They plowed long furrows behind the pulling power of a horse. They knitted orderly rows of twisted yarn to make socks, sweaters, mittens, hats, scarves. The work was repetitive, but beautiful creations grew out of this automatic repetitive action that produced far more than straight furrows and orderly rows. This is also true when playing an instrument. We play note after note after note in a simple musical language. And yet we use our imagination to come up with new patterns, new compositional configurations to make tunes no one has heard before. Whether it’s plowing a field, or knitting a new design, or picking out a new tune, the benefits of a repetitive activity that calms us down and allows our imaginations to soar are massive.

So how did our ancestors pass their days of endless repetition without going absolutely insane? They passed them quietly with little noise other than the happy noise of socializing with others, no crushing schedules to follow, no traffic jams, no high pressure jobs, no apartment neighbors above you who are playing their TV so loud that you can’t stand one more second of it. Instead, our ancestors walked in sync with the quiet snorting of their horses as the wooden plow blade turned over the soil, they sat hours and hours with the quiet clicking of knitting needles as they imagined a new creation, and they rhythmically strummed and picked folk tunes as they created new words for old tunes, or new words for brand new tunes of their own creation.

How can we possibly be creative while engaging in a repetitive activity? It makes about as much sense as believing that the repetitive ticking of a clock can be a creative experience. That is exactly the point! That repetitive action allows our mind to find a different place, and when we are in this different place we are free to loose our imaginations—to create. This is what happens when we knit, this is what happens when we use repetitive patterns in creative ways to make a quilt, and this is what happens when we play music. The repetitive action and repetitive patterns allows our brain to calm, to find a place of rest so we can just let our imagination find something novel, something valuable, something worthwhile. To demonstrate this principle, listen to my own rendition of Deep River Blues. Click to play it.

 DEEP RIVER BLUES, arranged and played by Dick Claassen, Cordoba tenor uke

Notice the repetitive nature of the tune. It doesn’t sound repetitive unless you pay special attention to it. The repeated parts are scattered throughout a composition, but in a patterned way, giving the tune structure. The creativity isn’t in the repetition: it’s in the composition itself. I didn’t compose this tune. It’s my own tenor ukulele interpretation of it. When I just sit and play, I come up with something new and unique. When you knit or quilt from someone else’s pattern, (someone else’s composition), you will do this within the pattern, using different colored yarns or different quilt colors and shapes just like I use different “colored” blues licks to give my pattern or composition the power to rise up and give us something new and unique. It’s your sweater; it’s my blues. It’s your quilt; it’s my tune. It’s our interpretation. It’s the design in your knitted socks, and it’s my blues licks in Deep River Blues. You can receive this benefit whether you do any repetitive activity, whether you play the guitar, the banjo, the Native American flute, the ukulele, you name it. It’s all there, waiting for you. If you go to the LISTEN tab at the top of the page, you can hear more of my music as well as the music of my good friend Chris Fuqua. We two have done a whole lot of meditatin’ in our lives!

My sister began this knitting class because she likes to knit. She also knew that the Des Moines chapter of the Animal Rescue League had started an initiative where knitting groups in the area are knitting simple squares for homeless kitties to lie on. The class projects are simple squares, but already many students are ready to break out and do more complex projects in addition to their kitty efforts!

In every activity there is benefit. Choose one that fits your interests and stick with it. It will increase your physical and emotional comfort, your well being, and it will lengthen your life. It sure as heck is lengthening mine! 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Play That Old Guitar

Play-That-old-guitarI have no way of knowing what percentage of you who read my articles are musicians. Many of you who want to turn that corner from listener to musician might be afraid to try. After all, picking up something like a guitar with its six closely spaced strings strung across that enigmatic fretboard can be intimidating! If you have already made your own start to learning a stringed instrument, I suspect that in that moment of first picking up the instrument you realized there is quite a difference between playing “air” guitar and “real” guitar. In this article I want to talk about those physical limitations we all have and how we can work within them so we can become the best musician we can possibly be.

Folk musicians are like any other musician, and so even though this is a folk music website where we talk about folk music and folk instruments, we have much to learn from musicians who play in other genres, (music categories). A musician worth listening to is jazz guitar great, Jim Hall. Jim Hall passed away in 2013. But before he died, Terry Gross of NPR’s award winning interview show, Fresh Air, interviewed him. Jim was a jazz guitar giant. He was the best of the best. He really knew how to play that arch top f-hole guitar, a guitar with a quite different sound than the familiar flat top acoustic guitar we folk musicians favor. During the interview, he tells us that the guitar was a difficult instrument for him to play. He practiced everyday, just as any professional would do. But he had a secret. The secret was that he couldn’t play fast! Yikes! Really? Yes, really. So to compensate for this physical limitation, he played at slow to medium speeds, only. He wasn’t a flashy player, because “flashy” implies “fast.” But he didn’t let this so-called limitation hinder him. To work his way through this limitation, he played at speeds that best showed off his talents. To play at speeds he wasn’t comfortable at would have made it impossible for him to develop into the jazz great he eventually became. Rather than work beyond his limitations, he played the best he could possibly play inside those physical limitations he knew were there.

We should take heart from Jim Hall’s efforts. The number one problem all musicians have is trying to play fast when they aren’t ready for it or aren’t capable of it. Everyone wants to play fast, and if they can’t, they don’t think they are a good guitarist or a good banjo player or a good fiddle player or whatever. I have a good friend whose name is John. John didn’t take up the mandolin and the fiddle until he retired, which was around 16 years ago, as of the writing of this article. John is not a fast player; he’s not a flashy player. But as I told him just the other day, I would trust playing with him in any performance we might give together. John has talent. He keeps the beat. He knows his chords. He practices. He’s steady. He’s always there when you need him and he’ll never jump into the next phrase too soon, which means he’s as reliable as a Swiss watch. He doesn’t want to play fast. He just wants to play well. John is a real musician. He’s the real deal If you want to play with someone and not have to worry about him, you need to play with someone like John.

And then there are any number of my previous guitar students of years past who were eager wannabe rock and rollers when they first began their lessons. They weren’t interested in playing slow. They only wanted to play fast. Dazzlingly fast. They wanted to play so fast that no one else could touch them. And so they never got their act together, literally. They would plink around rather than play with solidity because they were constantly making mistakes. And so they would get discouraged and quit. You can’t correct your mistakes if you are constantly trying to play faster, trying to play out of your comfort zone. This is the #1 error of those who try to learn to play. They get impatient and push beyond their abilities, and they never learn to play a song cleanly. They sabotage themselves before they ever get off the ground. Jazz great Jim Hall didn’t worry about playing faster than he could handle. He wisely played at a speed that showed off his talents rather than at a speed that revealed his inadequacies. My friend John doesn’t play fast either. John doesn’t want to impress anyone with his playing. He just wants to play. And he does. He plays well. And so will you if you just…slow…down….

There are many examples of top-flight musicians who don’t play fast. The old blues player, Robert Lockwood Jr., comes to mind. Lockwood’s “catalog” was fairly limited. That is, during the duration of his career there weren’t many tunes that ended up on his playlist. But what he did play, he played very well. Lockwood was a finger pickin’ blues master. He played all his tunes at a slow to medium speed, and his playing was bluesy to the very core of him. He would settle into a slow or medium rhythm and the tune would practically play itself. A good example of Lockwood’s slow and easy playing can be found here–

Robert Lockwood Jr. video

Lightnin’ Sam Hopkins was another example of a musician who could take slower playing to new heights. Sam was a great folk blues guitar player. Most of the time Sam played at a medium speed, he almost never played fast, and in the video below, Sam deliberately plays a short introductory section too fast, finally settling on a medium tempo of Baby Please Don’t Go. This short performance shows how playing too fast can hurt rather than help a good song.

But we began this discussion with Jazz great Jim Hall. Play this video to hear this great guitarist in action. In this clip he plays on the old Johnny Carson TV show. The first tune is at a medium tempo, and the second tune is at a slow tempo. I think this clip is the perfect way to round out this article.

If you would like to hear Jim Hall (Terry Gross Fresh Air interview) where he talks about his career and why he played all his tunes at a slow to medium speed rather than at fast speeds, listen here–

Jim Hall jazz guitarist Fresh Air interview

Play strong, but don’t play faster than you are capable of. Stay within your God-given abilities and you will be a better musician for it. And you won’t get discouraged so quickly. You will be more likely to stick with it. Eventually you will cradle that old ax like a baby as you play your tunes at just the right speed.

If you want to play fast, play fast if you’re physically able. But you will have to practice to get up to speed. If, in your practicing you find that slow to medium is the best speed for you, you will have to practice to play at that speed, too. Regardless of the speed you play, you will need to practice in order to play well at that speed. Simply put–practice! 🙂

 

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The DNA of Music

Before you read this article, please note that this is not a political blog. So when you read that some strict religious sects don’t allow music, this is not meant to ramp up anger among music lovers. I use this fact only to make a point, which you will read about in the article. Please do not leave any political comments in regard to this article. They will not be accepted or posted.

Let’s do an experiment. As you read this first paragraph, sit very still. Put your hand over your heart and feel your heartbeat. Or, you might find it easier to feel your pulse in your wrist. As you relax, your heartbeat will steady and might even slow down a bit. Now…put yourself into the brain of the very first musician on this planet: that very first human to make music. Look through his/her eyes. Listen with his/her ears. I’m not talking about the brain of Uncle Jethro who plays with his jug band on his front porch every Saturday night, nor am I referring to the brain of J.S. Bach who wrote incredibly beautiful and complex music, nor the brain of my hero, Bob Dylan. We are going back much, much further in time. You are the first musician on the planet, but you aren’t very smart yet. You can hunt. You can propagate your species, (no smarts required there). You can wrap yourself in animal fur to stay warm or to intimidate your enemies. And you can keep a burning fire going where you carefully carry it from one campsite to another. Other than that, you can’t do all that much. But you’re growing; sometimes you get antsy. You’re probably looking for another way to express yourself. You might be sitting on a rocky outcrop next to a gurgling brook. The meditative but chaotic gurgle magically–the brains of true musicians are magic–puts you into an organized state, with a mysterious, underlying rhythm giving this gurgling tapestry real structure. You idly pick up a stone, and you begin tapping the stone on another stone. At first, the tapping is random. That’s because that first musician has no fracking idea what s/he is doing yet. But soon, those random taps take on order. They seem to sound in synchronicity with the gurgling brook, just as if the chaotic smashing against each other of all those water molecules possesses its own organized mind. And as the tapping continues, the tapping takes on a definite rhythm. This rhythmic tapping is the beginning, the seed of all music. This music, as it grows and develops, will accompany soldiers into battle, it will soar grandly into the heavens as listeners and musicians alike find their spiritual way to enlightenment, it will accompany young lovers on the dance floor, it will capture the imaginations of people of all ages sitting around a campfire as they listen to their tribal folk singer spin fascinating stories of love and war accompanied by the simple beating of a stone, a stick, and eventually a beater on a drum. It will inspire, it will generate hate and love, it will shape our lives like no other power we know as it unleashes the meditative Pentatonic scale, unleashes specific tunes like This Land Is My Land, We Shall Overcome, Blowin’ In the Wind, Battle Hymn of the Republic, the French national anthem, God Save the Queen. And it most surely all began with one lone early human, tap, tap, tapping on a stone, just like the raven in Edgar Allen Poe’s like-named poem, “tap, tap, tapping at my door.”

Why do I think that first musician was a drummer? Because making a rhythmic tapping noise is the easiest and most intuitive road to making organized sound. Music is organized sound. Even non-rhythmic extemporaneous playing on the Native American flute with no discernable rhythm is organized sound. Music is woven into the fabric of our lives. Music is an integral part of the human condition. And yet, we find that very strict religious sects of many faiths expressly forbid music of any form. Those who worship with music will be excommunicated from the sect, or worse! And if you think this strictness is only indicative of nonwestern faiths, you would be so wrong. Strict branches of faiths familiar to us all have, at one time or another forbade music. (Some still do.) The early Protestant church was quite famous for this. In the very early days of Protestantism, the church fathers stripped their former Catholic churches of all they considered ornamental or unnecessary. Sculptures and paintings of images of Jesus, Mary, the apostles, you name it, were chucked right out the door. So was music! That beautiful sacred music that grew and developed in the Catholic Church was not allowed to be performed in these early Protestant churches. After all, the Protestants were revolting. To show this, they stripped their own houses of worship to little more than four walls and a pulpit for the preacher at the front. But, of course, as years passed, the good church fathers eventually saw the error of their ways and, in most churches, allowed music to return. That period of enlightenment eventually gave us rousing hymns and Christmas carols like A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, Faith of Our Fathers, and Silent Night. And yet, there are still a few Christian sects here and there that frown on music in any church service. But most people, unless their church authorities scare them silly, will embrace music. Apparently these brave, intrepid souls live by the lyrics of that old novelty tune, “I don’t care what Mama don’t allow, gonna play my banjo anyhow!”

Why is music so powerful? Why is it nearly impossible, (unless the good church fathers own AK-47s and aren’t afraid to use them), to take music away from us? It’s nearly impossible because music is part of our DNA. This is not a casual statement on my part. Music is truly part of our DNA because our organic bodies have their own rhythms. At the cellular base of us, our cells vibrate at specific frequencies. We are humming with vibration! If you doubt this most scientific of scientific facts, go here–

Cellular Rhythms

The article behind the link talks of the specific frequencies of red blood cells in humans. An MIT research team is working towards being able to analyze red blood cells to determine the onset of specific diseases. Those specific frequencies, those rhythms, are already in us. We are born with them in us. We are rhythmic humans. Rhythm is coded into our DNA! So music can’t be taken from us because music has been in us since our conception in our mother’s womb. How dare those “misguided” church fathers even dare to take that from us! How dare they! Let them try! I don’t care what Mama don’t allow, gonna play my banjo anyhow! 😛

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Whales and Native American Flutes

WHALE-FLUTESVery recently someone asked me if you could play a major scale on a Native American flute. I assured him that not only could you easily do this, you could play a number of both major and minor scales on the NAF, much like the whale seems to be able to play its own infinite song. This opens up the possibility to play just about any melody you’ve ever heard or any melody you might want to compose on the NAF. To be clear, my experience is with the 6-hole NAF, not the 5-hole NAF. I have nothing against the 5-hole flute, but there is at least one, and in some cases, depending on its construction, two notes missing from the chromatic scale, (the piano’s black key notes as well as white key notes) on the 5-hole flute. The 5-hole flute is wonderful for playing traditional Native American flute music, because all the notes needed for traditional music are there. But the 6-hole flute opens it up to every other music genre as well, not just to traditional music. I’m a die hard musician so all my work has been and will continue to be on the 6-hole flute. I want the total tonal range of the NAF. If you want the full spectrum of sound from the NAF, go for the 6-hole flute. These flutes are as readily available as the 5-hole flute.

We identify the NAF with that mysterious sound played in the “pentatonic” scale. This is not a major scale. It’s the simplest type of minor scale. This scale, as described in a previous blog article, has just five notes. It can effectively be extended by adding the octave note plus two more notes above the octave note. The Native American flute purist might gasp at these three extra notes. That’s okay. But if you think that maybe these three extra notes might give this instrument more potential than you thought, you would be right. First let’s address the “purist” approach. The purist wants only traditional music from the NAF. The purist has a perfect right to consider the flute in just this way. But now let’s consider the guitar lover. If we were to take the stance of the guitar purist, we would probably want only Flamenco music to come from the guitar. But look at how the guitar has grown. Would we want to give up the blues, or country, or jazz, or rock, or classical music, all readily playable on the guitar? Of course not. We pick up the guitar and play every kind of music imaginable on it. The same goes for the NAF. If we could find a fingering for a major scale on the NAF, we would be able to play much more on this instrument than just traditional music. R. Carlos Nakai, arguably the man who brought the NAF back to us, (or to us in modern times), is of Navajo/Ute heritage. He plays a lot in the pentatonic scale, and much of what he plays is traditional music of the Native American. But his experiments with the flute and the music it can make is legendary. I own several of his jazz quartet albums. And his collaboration with Paul Horn, famous jazz flutist, is one of the best albums he’s ever made. This music is most definitely not the music of the flute purist. Nor is the music of Native American flute artist Robert Tree Cody. He experiments in both major and minor scales. Regardless of Nakai’s and Cody’s Native American heritages, they respect and recognize the instrument as a rainbow of many colors, and they believe it is worthy of experimentation and development. So do I.

Unknown to those new to the music of the Native American flute, many traditional NAF tunes are played in a major scale. Yeah! Who’d-a thunk it? Old traditional players of this flute were experimenting right along. We just didn’t hear it because we were always listening for something exotic rather than what those old musicians were really playing all along. I’ve made an audio demonstration where in several major scales I play a familiar tune on just one flute. If you’d like to hear it, click MAJOR SCALE DEMONSTRATION. This demonstration is one of 60 FREE MP3s that are included with my newly released book, EarthFlute. I began writing many versions of this book many years ago, selling them as PDF ebooks. Eventually I combined all the genres and playing techniques into one book, and I put the resulting book into print. If you are interested in exploring all of the different aspects of the Native American flute, you might be interested in this book. Of course, no background in music is required to learn the book’s contents.

The simplest of instruments can surprise us, if only we had a little bit of knowledge. Even the whale can surprise us. 🙂

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