More Imported Content

If you’re a regular reader of DanWhitenerMusic.com, you may recognize the handful of posts immediately below. Never fear–you haven’t run out of articles to read! The archive goes back further now, including new-to-you posts about Dan’s historic gigs and adventures. Enjoy!

published 1/4/2014

Post from the Field: Grey Fox

It’s time now for a mobile post – I’m at Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival enjoying the unique sounds of Crooked Still on the main stage.
This is my third year and it only gets better. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the wonderful world of that music called bluegrass.
Quick plug for the group Crooked Still as well. Whoever had the idea of replacing guitar and mandolin with rhythmic bowing on cello and fiddle, they were right. Amazing sound, in turns percussive and vocal, bouncing and fluid, always rolling forward. Truly progressive, and perhaps, as has been said, even alternative.

REVIEW: Epiphone Valve Jr


This is a great thing to have.
Like I said, I have two amps for my electric instruments. (I also have an acoustic amp which I will mention later.)
One is a pretty standard-issue starter modern amp. That would be the Crate FW65. It’s solid-state, which means it can get pretty loud pretty easily and doesn’t need quite as much maintenance as… well, I’ll get to that. It’s got three channels (clean, overdrive, and high gain), which I rarely use, and digital effects, or DSP, which I never use. If you’re like me and you have a loop pedal and you can’t have effects coming out of the amp, or you’re like me and you just want to plug in your instrument and get an awesome sound, these channels and effects aren’t for you. I do use this amp, but this review isn’t about that.
This is about the other amp. The other amp, i.e. the Valve Jr, is a tube amp. It’s also low-power, using only 5W, and physically small, with an 8″ speaker. This means two things.
First, it’s cheap. Okay, that’s not the first thing, but it is nice to keep in mind.
Second, it’s got an awesome sound. Because it’s a tube amp that is both low-power and small, it has an awesome sound.
Here’s basically why: Vacuum tubes used to be common in all sorts of electronics. These days the transistor is more common since it’s easier and cheaper to use. Tubes are a lot like light bulbs. They get hot, they burn out, you have to replace them, you can break them, all that.
But they distort the amplified signal in a very natural way. Turn up a tube amp, and you get some beautiful warm distortion that the best modern solid-state (non-tube) amps of today are all trying to model or digitally replicate or, with hybrid amps, directly incorporate. According not only to lots of players but also to the market, tube sound is the best sound.
Now, the way you get a tube amp to distort is to put lots of signal through the tubes, i.e. turn it up! But that gets real loud real fast. I have some very nice custom molded earplugs (which I should post about later, come to think of it) which I don’t want to have to use. I believe in great sound and reasonable decibels. So I don’t want to turn up loud, but I want to sound great. What do I do?
I use an amp that doesn’t use a lot of power, that only has a few tubes (in this case the Valve Jr has got one preamp tube and one power tube) and I drive it, in some cases, as hard as it’ll go.
Also, since the speaker in this combo is a little 8″ that’s been particularly voiced for the Valve Jr amp head, I’m pretty sure you get a little speaker distortion and a little extra impedance against the amp, meaning that it has to work a little harder, meaning even more distortion at lower levels!
Also notice that this amp has a grand total of 2 control thingies. You got your power switch, you got your volume knob. Turn it on, turn it up. Most tube amps will at least have either a second switch, a second knob, or more. The second switch is usually a standby switch, allowing you to literally warm up the tubes before putting sound through the amp. The second knob would be a gain control so you can drive the preamp and keep the power down, or keep the preamp low and clean while making the amp louder with the master volume. But this amp has the most basic control you will find. And for the most part, that’s a good thing. This makes the Valve Jr a very mod-friendly amp, as you can add pretty much whatever you want and not have to worry about extra stuff getting in the way.
I haven’t modified this amp much, but I did change the tubes!
Now, the stock preamp tube that came in this amp was an Electro-Harmonix tube that produced some very bass-thick distortion at early levels. I like that effect on guitar. But I use this amp for electric banjo as well, of course, hence this blog! So I changed the tube to a Sovtek tube which does not break up as early and gets a brighter sound in general. Better sound for my Crossfire which uses active Alembic pickups.

Pedalboard

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The six-space Boss BCB-60, in all the glory I can give it.
From right to left:
Boss NS-2 Noise Suppressor
MXR Dyna Comp
Boss DS-1 Distortion
Line 6 Echo Park
Boss RC-20 Loop Pedal
The effect chain is pretty straightforward, except for two things.
1) The NS-2 uses a send/return loop. That’s where you put the pedals you want to suppress. I have the compressor and distortion in the loop. The delay pedal needs to be unsuppressed.
So the line goes – NS-2, comp, DS-1, back through the NS-2, to the delay.
2) Then once it hits the delay, it splits into stereo. The Echo Park is stereo in, stereo out, and it can take a mono signal and split it to stereo. I do this for two reasons. I have two amps, each with a different color. Also, the loop pedal is great, but sometimes I want to solo over a loop without getting muddy. When your solo and your background loop are coming out of the same amp, that can pose a problem.
Solution to everything? The L out from the delay pedal goes to the loop pedal, which goes to amp 1, a clean accurate amp. The R out bypasses the looper and goes straight to amp 2, the amp with more color.
Boom.
Let me be clear: I am VERY happy with this setup. Would buy again. I may upgrade individual pedals or get a bigger board to expand the setup, but with an external wah pedal this board is a very solid basic setup.

My electric setup

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Amps, effects and all. Remarkably portable – the least necessary part is the larger amp, as I get better tonal color from the little Epiphone.
I’ll go into detail in another post.

Banjos I currently own

At time of posting, I am the proud owner of three banjos. I don’t believe in parting with instruments, and my girlfriend might not allow me to get any more, so let’s assume I still have exactly those three.

They are:

Deering Goodtime 2 (with maple fingerboard, not the rosewood as shown), my starter banjo

Stelling Crusader, my main banjo

Deering Crossfire, my electric

 

More to come on those.

Basic history: I picked up the Goodtime when I first started. A few years in, I found a used Crossfire at Picker’s Supply down in Fredericksburg VA (pickerssupply.com) and started experimenting with that. Finally, a few years ago I got the banjo that I consider to be “my” banjo, my “real” banjo, my “main” banjo, the Stelling Crusader.

Everything on this site comes from my experiences with these three instruments. While they have changed me, I have also changed them. I can generally recommend each banjo for its different applications, but I also came to them in my own way. If you want to buy some other banjo, just go do it. All banjos are banjos.

I will be talking about the modifications I have made to these instruments and how I did them.

Webernets

Howdy, folks!

Well, Chris Rubeo gave me an idea today as we were talking about the many ways to increase internet visibility and successfully advertise our projects, like our band the Sparrows.

He’s putting together several sites, both for the band (thesparrows.bandcamp.com) and for himself (chrisrubeo.com) and we were talking about putting up links to each other’s sites and to the sites of the other band members, Perry Allen, Brian Barth, and Odetta Hartman.

And then he suggested that I start a blog.

And the strangest thing was that I actually thought I could do this. I mean, anyone can put together a blog, but I might be able to post content that is relevant to interested people, content that I have some authority on, content that will drive traffic to my page and then move that traffic over to other pages and generally boost the internet economic cycle in some intangible way.

So here goes: Since I am a banjo player, this blog is going to be about playing the banjo. I’ve been playing for about seven years now, and in that time I’ve been exploring this instrument, its sound, its history, its alluring charm. I’ve experimented with playing techniques and hardware modifications. I’ve tried different strings, picks, bridges, drumheads, pickups, even armrests.

With the banjo I’ve done some pretty fun things, too – I’ve played with groups and solo, in public and countless hours in private, at home and on tour around the country. I’ve taken musical and personal journeys as well, learning and writing songs for the banjo, and recording the banjo on several CDs, ultimately on my own CD in ten original songs.

At the time I am writing this, I may not be super-famous. While my CD is available on iTunes and Amazon, and you can hear it for free on Pandora, I don’t believe a huge number of people know who I am or have even heard of me. And the more I think about getting famous, becoming known to thousands or even millions of people all over the world, the more I wonder if it’s worth it. I’m not even talking about the “moral” cost of fame: the idea that when you become a superstar you lose a part of your soul. No, it’s just that our world has become so superconnected with the rise of the internet and of social networking norms in our generation, that the way fame works is a little different now. It’s easier to create content and to access worldwide availability, but it’s also harder to make your content stand out from all the rest. Things like memes and hit count have become more prominent, and maybe even more important, than they were before.

With all this new craziness, it’s important to remember two things – first, that this is pretty much a slightly different version of the old craziness (remember fast-talking radio ads? or door-to-door salesmen?) and second, that how popular you are on the internet doesn’t really matter as much as you might think.

What does matter, as far as I can tell, is the stuff that would matter anyway. Like, for example, playing the banjo.

I’ll step off my soapbox now and answer any questions about playing the banjo. That’s pretty much what I’m going to do here.

Posts will consist of information, experiences, and opinions that I think will be able to preemptively answer some of the frequently asked questions about playing the banjo in my own personal, different way. I’m sure that I will end up restating some answers to these questions almost word for word. I hope so. When it comes to things like music theory and good technique, it’s comforting to know that there are often, in fact, right answers to many questions. So if I say something that you have heard elsewhere, take it as a sign that it’s just true (or at least believed by many people, which is good enough, right?).

One more thing – I might occasionally have a musical idea that is best expressed as a video or sound recording, so that’s what I’ll do. I don’t want to try to express something in text like “move your hand a little to the right, but not that far, so that it is relaxed and slightly bent” that could be more clearly expressed visually or sonically.

Okay, so to recap: playing the banjo, how I do it, things I use, technique, music theory, composition and innovation, and the vaguer, broader category of real-world application, i.e. where and how to book a gig, how to fly with a banjo, or things like Pete Wernicke’s article in Banjo Newsletter about being a banjo ambassador and the value of sharing your music with others.

I won’t stress too much about posting constantly, so don’t expect a post a day. I don’t think I could come up with something meaningful every day even if I wanted to. Instead, I’ll just aim to fill this blog with helpful information as more of an archive resource.

Oh, and finally – it just occurred to me that there might be people out there, reading this blog, who do not in fact play the banjo. For those of you who are not yet convinced, I offer this encouragement, taken from the website of the American Banjo Camp at langston.com/ABC:

“The ability to play the banjo soon places one in a position to pick and choose among scores of social invitations. Everywhere, the banjoist is assured of a hearty welcome.”
-1927 Gibson catalogue

I don’t know what’s funnier, the idea that a banjo will open all your doors in life, or the pun about “picking” among your invitations.

Pick away!