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Saturday, November 24, 2012

Band Dynamics NEVAH's BlueGrass Instrument prt-2

As mentioned in part 1 of my band dynamics blog … NEVAH, Maine's a-typical Progressive NewGrass - BlueGrass - Country (like) music band is made up of eight (8) members … with numerous backgrounds / talents. Each member can play more than one musical instrument, however, on-stage we tend to lean towards a "single" instrument" subbing occasionally when the need arises.

Our sound is really hard to define. Some folks think we lean towards a Country music sound where as others focus on our Bluegrass twangs, with a leaning toward NewGrass, and still a percentage of folks don't label us at all and simply like our overall tonality, vocals, harmonies, instrumentation and of course … fancy dress. We labeled it PROGRASSIBLLY music to cover the wide range of NEVAH.

Our instrumentation is as follows (from stage left to stage right - upstage to downstage - see photos):

We have a terrific percussionist who plays congas and snare along with other rhythm-ish instruments. Next to the congas is our drummer, a guy who has done it all, played every genre of music and who understands and works with our needs. To the right of the drummer is our Pedal Steel, Dobro and occasional 2nd/3rd and/or 4th guitar player, we all marvel at some of the sounds he creates. Back in front over to stage left is our acoustic lead guitar player who also plays banjo and mandolin and whose fingers occasionally have to be drenched in cold water to cool them down after a lead. To the guitarists immediate right is our flute, penny whistle, sax, kazoo and a few hand held percussive instrument player who adds a different touch to our tunes elevating the music to another level. Dead Center is our Electric Bass player, another talented instrumentalist who has done it all with an amazing musical sense and who keeps the band moving along. To his right is our lead Mandolin player who also picks a mean guitar when called upon for the task, the sweet leads of his mandolin playing are a joy to behold, plus he's got an ear for tuning that keeps us all … "IN" and "ON" pitch. And last, but not forgotten is our Kavanjo amplified Stelling Banjo player (me), who also plays some rhythm guitar – I'm there and try to be on and in time.

NEVAH Maine's Bluegrass Band - Set-up Sans Drummer
The pictures are of two set-ups, above shows the band without our drummer and below is the band without the percussionist (Conga player).

NEVAH Maine's Progressive Bluegrass, NewGrass Band
With so many varied instruments we create a wonderful onstage audible and visual dynamic, a wall of pleasing sound … most of the time … and as we rehearse, arrange, re-arrange and continue to grow we are learning how to"listen" and embrace the "less is more" philosophy of sound. The instruments, I think, lean towards a country, bluegrass feel, but with electric bass, drummer, flute/sax we can cover so many styles of music that we are only limited by the time we have to practice and perform. We can and have played rock-ish tunes, Celtic, Irish, Gypsy melodies, etc. The hard part is, again, the "less is more" philosophy of playing. And on top of that we tend to feature our vocals, the human instrument.

I think one of the nice things about this bands instrument dynamics is our ability to listen, discuss, try, add or eliminate, rework and then practice an arrangement. And the repetition of the process until we feel a tune is ready to be heard outside our rehearsal space. Everyone, if they so desire, has input, and we may not agree with some of the choices made, but we at least attempt to work through the suggestions and use our instruments wisely in each tune. For the most part we come up with what I feel are strong arrangements that work for us and fans of NEVAH seem to enjoy.

NEXT NEVAH BLOG: How we get along musically

Monday, November 19, 2012

Band Dynamics NEVAH - NewGrass, BlueGrass prt-1

Hey there music lovers and fans of Nevah, I have finished, for the moment, discussing my search for better Banjo dynamics and thought I would address a topic of wider interest. Something that might appeal to those outside the banjo amplification crowd. And as NEVAH prepares to go into the Studio to record our first album, I thought I would broach a subject all bands and makers of music experience at one time or another … yes, you've guessed it … HOW DO YOU DO IT,  STAY TOGETHER WITH ALL THE DIFFERENT DYNAMICS IN THE BAND?

Please note: These are my own thoughts on Nevah's Band Dynamics, and my own observations. And no innocent animals have been mishandled during this process.

NEVAH, Maine's atypical, progressive NewGrass, Bluegrass band, has some amazing dynamics. I am going to try and break down: who we are, what instruments we play, how we are able to function - especially with eight band members and a revolving sound person, describe all we are doing, how we do it, why it works or doesn't work, why we have been able to play in venues of all shapes and sizes, how we practice, how we approach our tunes, how we arrange songs, how we select our sets, how we set up, breakdown, coordinate, handle bookings … in general … how we survive and are able to function with such a large band, with so many different personalities, schedules, and our own professional situations.

I'm not sure of the exact order but I'll take from the list above and each blog will tackle one area.

First: Who is NEVAH?

NEVAH is made up of nine (9) folks - eight musicians and a revolving sound person - we come from a wide variety of backgrounds and I dare say, that each member is truly gifted in more than one area of expertise, but for now I will only list basic occupations. There are several lawyers, a town manager, a doctor, a mechanic, a research scientist, and a prestidigitator. Backgrounds as varied as our instruments.

What's nice about this smorgasbord of human beings is everyone brings something special to the table and offers an insight into each and every aspect of our bands journey. We all have experiences that lend a hand in our band decisions. As a matter of fact because of the make-up we are able to easily divide tasks. We rarely have to look outside the group to find someone who can "get the job done" - whatever that job or task may be. And, if we can't handle a particular project or aspect of any situation, someone in the band knows the perfect contact to handle anything. It's quite remarkable. I think there is a respect for each member of NEVAH, shown by and to everyone in the band and that is one major reason we continue to move forward at a nice pace.

The Men of NEVAH

NEXT NEVAH BLOG: The many Musical Instruments we play

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Kavanjo Banjo Solution IT WORKS for ME - Pt 4

In part 3 of my banjo amplification search I left off after ordering a KAVANJO completely BLACK BANJO HEAD …

Hey, Hal the banjo guy from Nevah, Maine's atypical progressive NewGrass, Bluegrass Band … we call it PROGRASSABILLY for short. I hope this series of "blogs" helps folks to find a Banjo Amplification solution that is efficient, effective, effortless and enjoyable.

A very quick recap … I play a wonderful Stelling Sunflower Banjo in a large Band - NEVAH - 8 band members total, not counting our sound person. In order to be heard I tried several avenues, playing into a vocal mic, playing into a dedicated mic, installing a Fishman banjo pickup which worked for a while but wasn't 100% reliable, which could certainly be my fault, however, it would not work with my wireless system desires. Therefore, I finally purchased a Kavanjo Banjo Head with a built in pickup so I can play through a Line 6 G-30 wireless system.

… so there you have it, you are up to speed. The first ever Jet Black Kavanajo Banjo head arrived, complete with black screws and the external 1/4 jack as requested. I was a bit nervous about installing it, but John Kavanaugh has published installation videos demonstrating, in terrific detail, the process on a variety of banjos including Gibson, Deering and Stelling. The site does recommend you have the head professionally installed, but after watching the videos I felt confident I wouldn't have a problem putting it on by myself.

Installing the Kavanjo head was easy with the videos to guide me. I suggest you watch them first, and make sure you watch all of the videos relating to your instrument. For me there were three videos to watch. I'm glad I did because it alerted me to the proper technique and placement I had to be aware of.

And, I must admit, installing the 1/4 inch jack was so easy I was ecstatic by the process. I did have to do a little dremel work on the inside of the banjo resonator to get it to fit perfectly, but it was a couple of minutes detour. Hey, Stelling makes an amazing product with incredible tolerances.

1/4 inch jack provided by Kavanjo
Once I had the head in place, aligned and tightened down, tuned (the head that is), the strings and bridge repositioned I did my first test plugging directly into my Fender Acoustasonic 150 amp … and Wow, what an amazing sound … like a BANJO. It was perfect.

The Jet Black Kavanjo Banjo head - Note the black bridge.
Then I unplugged from my direct connection and plugged into the Line 6 wireless setup and again … PERFECT! I couldn't be happier.

It worked! After a couple of years trying various things, I finally had a solution I could rely on to give me an amplified banjo sound, one I really like, one the band liked. It also gave me peace of mind knowing I wasn't going to cut out, and I didn't have to worry about getting close to a mic. It's a real joy.

Now, I did have to tweak my set-up a bit, it's a NEW Head and has to be adjusted and tightened along with the bridge and tail piece to get the sound you want. And YES - I actually colored my bridge black too so it would be almost invisible on the banjo head. Don't ask, its just me.

Anyway, I am thoroughly delighted with my Kavanjo Banjo Pick-up System and highly recommend it to anyone who needs to amplify their banjo, wireless or not.

Hey, if you have any thoughts or questions about my setup just contact me at -

Thanks for reading this series of blogs …

NEVAH Banjo Guy

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Banjo Wireless Solution That Works (for me) - Pt 3

All right … Pt 3 of my Banjo amplification search

When last we left off … "I was stuck in amplified banjo sound hell … and then to top it all off I added to my troubles and decided to go wireless …"

Actually it was the wireless desire that changed everything. One of our NEVAH band members a wonderful bass player, singer, song writer, arranger and harmonizer, plus all around nice guy, Phil Pitula, bought a Line 6 G-30 wireless set up. I was thoroughly impressed as he walked around the rehearsal space with a wide range of full mobility and 100% clarity. No long chords. The only thing keeping him in one spot was singing into his microphone, an issue we will address in the near future with wireless headsets. I went on-line and looked at the device, then went to a local music store in Bangor Maine, Northern Kingdom Music … they had one in stock, sooooo … I bought it.

Line 6 G-30 Wireless Rig

I took my newly acquired Line 6 G-30 wireless system and rushed home. I plugged the receiver into my Fender Acoustasonic 150 amp, then, after putting the battery in the transmitter, plugged that into my fishman pick-up and NADA, nothing, zip, no sound. AHHHHHHHHHHHHH! 

I was a bit perturbed to say the least. I called Fishman and spoke to a super nice technician who explained to me why the Fishman Banjo Pick-up probably wasn't working with the Line-6, nor would it work with the wireless system. Technical stuff, I think he said Ohms, that had my head spinning. In plain terms … the Fishman and the Line 6 G-30 were not compatible.

I hung up the phone, and then it hit me … I saw the MTV music awards, or one of the numerous music award shows and Taylor Swift, yes, Taylor Swift was playing a Deering six string banjo, moving about the stage freely and her Banjo Head had a built in pick-up. The Banjo sounded fantastic, albeit the sound equipment and crew was a little out of my budget and could possibly be the reason the six string Deering sounded so good –  I now had a direction. The solution was right in front of me. I googled Deering Banjos and there it was … the KAVANJO banjo head. I called Deering and they directed me to John Kavanaugh inventor, patent holder, designer and manufacturer of the Kavanjo banjo pickup system. I went to his site, called and left a message. 

Kavanjo White Banjo Head
A short while later my phone rang and it was John Kavanaugh. I asked him numerous questions especially the one concerning the Line 6 G-30 and John assured me it would work. I then asked him if he had made one in BLACK. He had not, but would be happy to provide me with the FIRST BLACK KAVANJO Banjo Head pick-up system … with black screws of course. Don't ask me why, that's a whole other story. Let's just say, I wanted it in Black. I also asked for an external 1/4 inch jack setup as opposed to plugging the wireless chord directly into the head. John said, "no problem" - he was shipping it out the next day, and pointed out that there were video installation guides on his site …

Yes … I was in amplified banjo heaven …

Next Blog: Kavanjo Banjo Solution - installation and the real TEST.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Banjo Fishman Magnetic PickUp a Solution - Pt 2

Amplifying my Stelling Sunflower banjo wasn't as easy as I thought it would be … picking up where I left off … being in NEVAH, Maine's Progressive Bluegrass, NewGrass, Prograssabilly band with eight (8) talented band members, I needed to be heard. After hoisting the banjo up to my vocal mic during a good portion of one of our shows the conclusion was … NOPE. Then trying to mic it separately standing real close to it for most of the show and playing as loud as possible during the breaks, again for me … NOPE.

Therefore …

Third Banjo Sound solution:
I broke down and decided to see what was out there in the way of pick-ups. At the time I started looking there weren't too many. I'd discussed this with Tony Trischka at one point and if I am not mistaken Tony had a "custom made" pickup that had been tweaked for his needs. I am certainly no Tony Trischka, anyone who has heard me can certainly attest to that, so I thought I'd see if an off the shelf pickup would work.

Violà … I found the Fishman Magnetic Pickup for my banjo. Highly recommended by tons of banjo folk and used by at least 3/4 of a ton of banjo folk. I didn't know anyone up in Maine, at the time, who had one so I took a chance.

Hal's Fishman Banjo Pick-up
The Fishman pickup arrived and after carefully installing it … it worked. They recommend it should be professionally installed. And I agree, installing micro electronics needing to be soldered at any point in the procedure should be professionally installed …

… mine wasn't, and that could be the reason why, after months of using it I had "issues." I spent a lot of time trying to figure out if my soldering joints weren't right, and I took it to a professional to double check. Everything was soldered correctly. Then, again, I replaced the battery even though it was the first thing I checked, it was fine …whatever the reason was, whatever excuse I came up with for WHY I wasn't getting the consistent sound I wanted … was merely an excuse.

I even went out, on the recommendation of Philip Zanon - who runs sound for the Kruger Brothers and purchased a Fender Acoustasonic 150 Amp thinking that maybe the marshall acoustic amp I'd borrowed wasn't working. I'm pretty sure that Yens Kruger has a Fishman Pickup in his Deering Banjo  and his works fine. So I concluded that it must be me.

I was totally stuck in amplified banjo sound hell … and then to top it all off I added to my troubles and decided to go wireless …

Next Blog: Fourth Banjo Solution - A Terrific Wireless Banjo Setup that Works for Me

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Banjo Dynamics in a Newgrass Bluegrass Band - pt 1

I want to discuss my take on BANJO dynamics or being heard in a NewGrass / Bluegrass Band. And in particular my experience playing in NEVAH, Maine's own Progressive NewGrass, Bluegrass, Prograssabilly band. This will be in several parts … each one describing a "different" approach to solving my banjo sound.

To start with Nevah is an 8 piece band, hardly your typical Bluegrass Band. Our instrumentation is more a progressive newgrass, country, with a twist. Our music selection is hard to pin down to any single genre  … we have: An acoustic lead Guitar, Electric Bass, Mandolin, Banjo, Pedal Steel, Drums, Percussion, Flute … and we double down with acoustic rhythm guitars, dobro, sax, penny whistle and all sorts of percussive devices.

NEVAH at the Blue Hill Fair
Plus we have anywhere from 2 to 5 part vocal harmonies … lots of vocal sound along with the instrumentation. I dare say we've filled up our 16 channel board and are ready for 24 channels plus.

NOW, here was my personal dilemma … my banjo, a beautiful - very loud Stelling Sunflower - was getting drowned out. Acoustically speaking if you stood in front of the instrument (6 to 8 feet away) you would vibrate from the intense sound, however, when performing live I was never able to get the sound to be heard over all the other instruments. Everyone is plugged in, amplified, etc … and due to many factors I will touch upon I just couldn't deliver the sound I wanted.

Stelling Sunflower (oops - one solution revealed)
The factors were simple to identify:

1) My lack of experience performing with a lot of electrified instruments …
2) My lack of banjo mic-technique
3) My desire to be able to move around while playing
4) For some reason I couldn't hear myself
5) I know nothing about sound … I thought you simply play and let the sound technician take care of everything.

Once I identified the factors I was able to attack the problem.

My first Banjo Sound solution:
To amplify my banjo without any cost, I thought would be to simply raise the banjo up near my vocal microphone and play harder. This proved to be difficult, very difficult … for me. The Stelling Sunflower banjo is incredibly well made, heavy, and I could never get it close-enough to the raised Shure SM58 microphone and at the same time play to my best ability (another story, another time).

Second Banjo Sound Solution:
Therefore, when the initial solution failed to provide adequate sound I figured that by putting another mic in place I could play into it and be heard without any problem. After all I'd seen countless banjo players do this effectively. So, I purchased an extra mic, put it on a stand, aimed it at my banjo and during setup, sound checks, it was fine - very nice, really good-ish. However, during the show I tended to back away or move from side to side and the sound would get lost. Not the microphones fault, merely my own. And of course you didn't want it turned up too loud because then it would drown out everything or pick up unwanted noise. And without a dedicated sound person at all performances there would never be any consistency.

Next Blog: Third Banjo Sound Solution