Friday, July 21, 2006

Huber Banjo on the Way

I did it! Within an hour after getting home from the Cherryholmes concert on Grand Manan Island (July 4, 2006) , I was on the telephone talking to Steve Huber.

You see, I've had my ears tuned to Huber banjos for some time now, and I was waiting for an opportunity to be able to have one in my own hands and hear one in person. That opportunity was realized when Cia Leigh Cherryholmes let me try her Huber Lexington model banjo. I was blown away with the tone from the Huber and made my mind up to order one, and all of this with my wife's blessings. Not only did she tell me to order the Huber, she's telling me I should keep my Deering Deluxe as well. She must think we're made of money!

I've made a 50% downpayment to Huber banjos and now I'm in the Huber queue. Now the hard part comes - I have to wait at least 7 months before I'll see the banjo, as there is a long list of people ahead of me. But that's not the hardest part. The hardest part is deciding which model banjo I really want.

Because of the long list of people ahead of me, I have at least 2 months to decide on the final configuration of the banjo. I ordered a Lexington model Huber with a maple neck, Keith D-tuners and a speed neck. Now I'm wondering if I should change the options. Maybe I should go for the mahogany neck for that added warmth in tone. Do I really need the fancy engraving and gold plating that comes standard on the Lexington model? I could save a lot of money without it. V-neck or standard profile neck? Standard 1 3/16" nut or a 1 1/4" nut like I'm used to? Speed neck or finished neck? There are too many options. To make things worse, Huber already has a Jim Mills signature series and a Ron Block signature model is only days from being announced. Both Jim Mills and Ron Block are two of my banjo heroes. What am I supposed to do?

In the end, the number one priority is the tone of the banjo. But, if I'm already spending a large chunk of change should I just go for it? Add the fancy options and get the banjo of my dreams? What if I get it and a year or two down the road it's not my dream banjo any more?

When I bought my Deering Deluxe banjo, I thought it was going to be the only banjo I would ever want. And, to be sure, make no mistake about it - it is one fine banjo. It's very playable, the workmanship in it is some of the best I've ever seen and it's got a good sound, especially since I've changed the head on it.

Hello, my name is Michael, and I'm a banjoholic! My wife says "you need help!"

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Drop C Tuning on the Banjo

I love the sound of a 5-string banjo in drop C tuning, also known as standard tuning. The most common tuning today, particularly in bluegrass music, is the open G tuning; however, in earlier times, drop C tuning was commonly used instead. Perhaps this is how drop C tuning became known as standard tuning.

In drop C tuning, the strings are tuned gCGBD as opposed to gDGBD found in open G tuning. The 4th string tuned to a low "C" note instead of a "D" note adds a real warmth to the sound of the banjo, and there's just something about that low C note that catches my ear.

Home Sweet Home was the first tune I ever heard in drop C tuning and it really got my attention. Soon after, I heard Soldier's Joy, Dig a Hole in the Meadow and Pearl Pearl Pearl - all in drop C tuning.

I've been practising Home Sweet Home and Soldier's Joy for the last couple of days. With any luck at all, I'll be able to play them at a Bluegrass Friends jam session soon. Until then, I'll keep plunking away.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Cherryholmes Concert

I'm back from last night's Cherryholmes concert on Grand Manan Island. Here's how the trip went down:

While waiting (about an hour) to board the ferry in Blacks Harbour, we got our instruments out and started the first of four jam sessions, right there in the vehicle lineup at the rear of Esther Prosser's van. That made the hour go by real quick.

Our picking group included Murray Sheils, Keith Hines, Esther Prosser, Lynn Hutchinson, Ed Betts, Ron Paisley, Buck McLeod and me. There were also a few innocent bystanders at the jam - Becky Betts, a couple friends of Ed and Becky, and a friend of Buck.

Once on the ferry, we had our second jam session. This seemed to make the crew quite happy; actually, they thought it was great, but I'm not sure if all the passengers were enthused.

We arrived on Grand Manan Island around 12:30 PM, which meant we had some time to kill before the concert. I wanted to meet Sheldon Frost, the promoter of the event, whom I had talked to on the telephone several times in the past few months. I called him with my cell phone to let him know I was on the island, then, Murray, Keith and I headed on down to Sheldon's house where the Cherryholmes family happened to be staying.

We met most of the Cherryholmes family, but not Sandy as she was out somewhere. I had quite a talk with Jere and Cia Leigh. Cia let me try her Huber Lexington banjo - I was blown away with the tone and volume coming out of that thing! I asked Cia if she would add her name to my banjo head of fame, which she gracefully did. Keith got most of the family to sign his newspaper clipping.

At 3:00 PM, we left Sheldon's house and headed to the Marathon Inn, where we were staying for the night. We had a jam session under a big old apple tree at the inn. We ended that jam at about 5:00 PM, had some supper, then headed to the school for the concert.

The talent in the Cherryhomes family is really something else; every single one of them has been granted the gift of music. Wow! What a performance they put on - just spectacular.

After the concert we had one final jam at some club, of which the name escapes me right now. We ended at 12:30 in the morning, because it was closing time. I think everyone was pretty tired anyway, I know I was.

I'm really glad all of us made the trip; the performance was well worth it.

Thanks to Becky Betts, here's a link to a few pictures of the trip.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

It's Back Together

I'll try to keep it short. My banjo is back together (see previous post, It's Coming Apart at the Seams, if you don't know what I'm talking about). She's lookin' pretty, and not sounding too bad either, although there is some more tweakin' to do yet.

As I was tightening the new head, I was truly amazed with the various sounds produced as I played the banjo after each adjustment, and believe me, there were many. I was going for that elusive G-sharp tuning of the head - the starting point to get that "killer tone." On my way to the G# tuning, I heard everything from dull thuds to hollow ringing sounds. One particular head tightness emphasized the sound of the finger picks striking the strings to the point where I could barely tell what note I was playing. I just couldn't believe some of the sounds I was hearing, and how such small adjustments of the head affected the tone so dramatically.

I didn't know if I was going to get the sound I was looking for or not. I wondered if I had already tightened the head past the perfect point. Then it came, after one more small adjustment. I couldn't believe how great the banjo was sounding. I truly thought it was sounding very similar to Jim Mills' banjo, and I was extremely pleased.

I took a break for supper. When I agian turned my attention to the banjo, the Jim Mills sound had disappeared into a much more dull sound than I remembered just before supper. "Oh no, how am I going to get it back?" I guess the crispness disappeared because the head was stretching, just like a new set of strings. You wouldn't think a plastic head would stretch that much, but according to Steve Huber, they do stretch.

I made several more adjustments, tightening the head a little at a time. I never did get the Jim Mills sound back, but it doesn't sound too bad. Still, I'm not 100 percent satisfied knowing there is potential for a much better sound. By tomorrow morning, another adjustment may well be in order. On the bright side, banjo heads are only $25.00 and I wouldn't hesitate to try my luck with another one, although it does take a fair bit of time and fooling around.

Well, Ive got to get to bed - I'm off to Grand Manan to see Cherryholmes tomorrow morning; make that later this morning.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

It's Coming Apart at the Seams

It's coming apart at the seams literally, although I didn't know it until I got brave and started dismantling my banjo. What I found was a 3 inch tear in the head. That picture to the right, well that's not proper! That's a picture of the banjo head while I'm holding it up to the light, looking out my office window. I'm not entirely sure, but I don't think I'm supposed to be able to see the trees through it!

Exactly what was it that possessesd me to rip my banjo apart? Well, I wasn't entirely happy with the tonal quality. When playing in the key of A or B-flat, I seemed to be happy, but when playing in G or B, something wasn't quite right; I just didn't like the tone it was producing. So, as mentioned above, I got brave. Now my Deering Deluxe is in a hundred pieces!

Just for a little refresher, I'm going to watch a rerun of "Killer Tone," which details proper banjo setup and maintenance according to Steve Huber. Hunny said "don't you think it would have been a good idea to watch the video before you ripped it apart?", to which I nonchalantly replied, "nonsense - I've got it covered!" Surely, she can't know what's on my mind, which is "what have I done? I've just turned a $2500.00 banjo into rubbish!" But, I'm safe - she never reads this blog, she can't read my mind, and you're not going to tell her. You're not, right?

Okay, I made most of that up. But, I think she was a little skeptical until I showed her the hard evidence. "Look Hunny, a ripped head! See? It wasn't a waste after all."

As long as the banjo is disassembled, I might just as well give it a good cleaning before I put it back together - not that it's terribly dirty. I'm going to install a new Weatherking banjo head that was presigned by Earl Scruggs, which I purchased at the Thomas Point Beach Bluegrass Festival last fall. Some of you may remember I purchased an additional banjo head while at the festival which I was fortunate enough to have Mr. Scruggs sign in person; that one is a keepsake and has many other autographs on it as well.

I have a new set of Schaller D-tuners that were given to me by a good friend and well known musician around the Saint John area, the late John Virgin. I've been talking about installing these for a while, but I've been too lazy to do it. Now seems like a good time since I'm already in banjo maintenance mode, and since I'm now working on a tune that makes use of them. To finish off this unplanned maintenance, I'll throw on a new set of strings, but that goes without saying. When I'm done, it'll be like having a brand new banjo! Maybe I'll be able to get that Jim Mills model by Huber out of my mind for a little while.

This coming Tuesday, I'm going to Grand Manan Island with some friends to see Cherryholmes in concert. I was planning on taking my banjo with me to have a jam or two, but now I'm not sure. With any luck at all, I'll be able to get it back together and sounding half decent before I go, otherwise it's staying home.