Author: Alvira, Marco

Learning the Bluegrass Way

I had become adept at winning radio call-in contests. “The sixth caller to answer …” I knew exactly how long it took to dial any number, the length of the rings, and the time in between each ring. I was continually enjoying live shows in the Bay Area courtesy of the local radio stations. One particular Saturday morning was no exception. The KKUP D.J. announced that the fourth caller to answer the question correctly wins two tickets to the Strawberry Bluegrass Festival (ya, it was still a bluegrass festival in those years). I waited out two seconds before punching in the number; winning these things had become so much easier since the inception of those new push button phones. Sure fire, the D.J. picked up the other end. “Howdy. Who am I talking to?” he asks.

“ This is Marc in Hayward,” I responded —my heart beating a little rapidly (I always liked the rush of winning these things).

“Well Marc, you’re the fifth caller.”

“Oh no,” I thought, “ I missed it.”

“Who is the father of bluegrass?”

Yahoo! Some idiot had missed the easiest question of all! “Bill Monroe!” I blurted, the adrenalin overtaking me.

Some idiot indeed! Had it been any question about anything else bluegrass, I would have never been able to answer (well, maybe if they had asked who performed the “Ballad of Jed Clampet”). For as much as I enjoyed bluegrass, I really never paid any attention to the particulars—I didn’t know the Stanley Brothers from Hylo Brown.

These last three years, things have changed a little. I’ve become familiar with many bluegrass names and styles from across the decades, and through our own CBA website and forums, I’ve learned a tremendous lot about California’s rich bluegrass history. The truly huge task was joining the rank of all the pickers out there. The music seemed simple enough: most songs had three chords; everyone played simple acoustic guitars; and there were even some little kids bopping around on fiddles and what not at festivals. How hard could it be?

Well, here’s a punch list of things I found out I needed to learn, right quick:
-There isn’t a rock or blues number around that is played over 180 beat per minute—BG pickers can play all night at 220 plus (henceforth known as the “speed of bluegrass” or SOB --i.e., a new scientific system to measure the time it take for sound to travel from string to ear)

--My hands couldn’t play rhythm at the SOB

--My hands certainly couldn’t play leads at the SOB (or even 180) without electronic sustain, reverb, and a host of other electronically enhanced devices.

--Leads play around the melody (who in rock outside of Santana knows how to do that?)

--Guitars are NOT the focal point of the music, unless you’re Tony Rice, Norman Blake or one of those guys (how weird—as a rocker and blues guy, I had always figured a song only exists as a platform for the guitar solo)

--You have to learn songs (not like Freebird: a 30 minute freestyle jam in G, Bb, C)

I had (and have) a lot of work in front of me, and it wasn’t easy being a complete neophyte at 48 years old. There wasn’t the ability to learn and retain vast quantities of new skills and material as there was when I was 19, or even 35. Nor was there the brash confidence of a young man in his twenties, willing to risk failure in front others simply because he just didn’t know any better. Not surprisingly, there were a vast number failed musical moments. What is surprising, at least to me at the time, was each of those moments was met with understanding and tremendous graciousness by much more experienced pickers. One of many instances comes to mind. At the Summergrass Festival in Vista, Ca, after making friends with a few folks, I found myself invited into a very hot jam. A bunch of pros who played earlier that day were just flat-out tearing it up, and there I was, the newbie of about ten months, sitting in the circle just managing to stay out of everybody’s way. Someone called a tune I recognized, “Whiskey Before Breakfast”. I had been practicing it for a couple of weeks, so when the fiddler to my left gave the do-you-want-a-break look, I jumped into it and hard…so hard that I pushed the low E string right off the edge of the neck. My face turned fire engine red and I never quite recovered, always a beat or more behind. After the last note of the final B part, I was about to slip quietly into the darkness outside the ring of lantern light. Before I could move, that sweet fiddling gal gave me a nudge and smile then said, “Take it again.” I let out a deep breath and played it another round, at least managing to end each measure on the right note.

The fiddler, with all her wizardly, magical licks, wasn’t the only bluegrass veteran to demonstrate patience and kindness over the course of my mistakes and incessant questioning. In fact, I don’t know of a musical genre in which expert players are so eager to help along a newcomer. Over the last couple of years, some really good pickers have taken the time to stop and give a little advice:

--Dix Bruce: I once called asking about some of his material. He answered the phone himself. Soon he had me singing a tune on the phone that I was having troubles picking. He told me that I had to know the song well enough to hum it and pick it. He also said he plays a tune about a hundred times before he really has it. (I had only played “Whiskey” about fifty times before that jam)

--Orrin Starr: Another phone call about materials. He, too, mentioned it takes playing a song about a hundred times. He also said that playing live is different than playing in the living room; try to pick with as many players as I could that are better than me (that

--Rick Sims: Who hasn’t received valuable help from Rick?! He has spent several hours with me at various gatherings providing invaluable help-- Play the melody; how to play the melody within the chord; different picking techniques; exercises to build picking speed; etc.

--Eric Uglum:. He and I actually play the same arrangement of “Hard Times” (the James Taylor version) I can’t believe he took considerable time after a show to compare notes with me and give some good advice on picking technique. (Is there a flat picker with better tone than Eric?)

--Lloyd Butler and Wayne Nolan: Well, they really never taught anything about picking, but they always made feel like I just wasn’t that bad. They were motivation experts. (Gawd, I miss ‘em.)

Bluegrass has done more than change my picking and listening habits over the last few years. Some great role models have taught me, above all, to be patient and to share with others what gifts I might have. For the first time in my 24-year teaching career, I’ve taken on student teachers, passing along a valuable toolbox of technique and tricks. I only hope that I can make them feel as special as so many in our little bluegrass world have made me feel.

Posted:  12/6/2009

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