Saturday, November 28, 2009

Pre-Order Key West CD!

The Official CD of the First Annual Key West Dulcimer Fest is now available for pre-order! Buying now will put you first on the list for this tropical collection of 15 tracks by the teaching/performing staff of the fest. Tracks include:

Margaritaville - Bing Futch | Birdland - Karen Mueller

Jamaica Farewell - Tull Glazener

Rivers Of Babylon - Lois Hornbostel | Fragile - Butch Ross

John B Sails - Robert Force

Pupu A `O `Ewa - Gary Sager | Sing A Song - David Beede

Sun Lotion 99 - Susan Trump

Kokomo - Jeff Hames | Three Little Birds - Rick Thum

Swingin' 7's - The Aaron O'Rourke Trio

Mode For Dulcimer - Stephen Seifert | Samantha's Smile - Guy George

By Land & Sea - Dan Landrum

You can hear samples of each tune in the store.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

"Her Diamonds"

For the curious, I'm playing a Folkcraft chromatic mountain dulcimer on this tune, which has some neat twists and turns.

Rob Thomas' "Her Diamonds" was recorded in the key of G, which for me is singable, but I wanted to get it down into a more comfortable range, thusly F.

The verse moves through these three chords:

F - G7/F - Bbm/F

returning to the F as a bridge between verses. The voicing of the G7 and Bbm (with the F as the root) makes less of a lateral jump and keeps the progression tense and mysterious. Of course, what do these three chords have in common?

F = F* - A = C

G7 = G - B - D - F*

Bbm = Bb - Db - F*

Normally, the F would shoot from the root to the dominant 7th and then hang out as the perfect fifth - but with the above voicings, it remains put at the root of all three chords. Pretty cool, huh?

Onto the chorus:

F - C - Gm - Bb (repeated twice)

Another thing that's neat about this tune is how it changes character, using some of the same chord roots, from dark and eerie in the verse to light and somewhat uplifting in the chorus. Notice that our bright and shiny G7 is now a dark Gm and our previously chilling Bbm is now a major lift of Bb. For more flavor, you could change the C to a C/E and feature a walk-down of the bass in transition from C to F.

And the bridge:

Bbm - F - Bbm - F - Dm - G - Bbm - F

Basically sets up between the first and third chords of the verse, re-establishing a connection with the initial groundwork of the tune, then introduces a new chord to the entire mix, the Dm, which lifts to a positive-sounding G (right at the point where the lyric "she'll be alright" appears for the first time) before settling back into the haunting chord pairing.

Rob Thomas is a brilliant songwriter and I would love to get inside of his head during the process - this tune in particular has no wasted space; every placement of notes has a purpose, from melody to arrangement. I love digging into these tunes as they come my way, hoping that you'll get something out of the process too. Enjoy!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


It almost looks like German in the subject line.

'Twas a blast at the 2009 NGFDA Fall Festival in Helen, Georgia. My third year in a row, driving up was a joy and all the while it was about looking forward to not only the workshops, concerts, fellowship and jams, but also the wonderful gifts of this little faux-Alpine town.

Of the four nights I was up there, three dinners were spent at the Hofbrauhaus eating nummy German food and drinking Hefe-Weizen. I taught six workshops, performed in the Saturday night concert (with Ken Bloom and Keith "Elvis Two Sticks" Davis closing out the set) and had a great time jamming in tight circles with Bloom, Bill Taylor, Wayne Seymour and Jeff Furman.

Once I got back home, all sights were set on the fast-approaching Key West Dulcimer Fest, specifically in regards to the instructor CD. Some final touches and it's almost ready to go.

Just a couple of shows lined up - back at Dicey Reilly's this Friday and Saturday - then a private concert in Orlando on December 5th with Roger Zimish. Mainly - this time is for the run-up to the festival, recording "Dive!" as well as "Dulcimerica: Volume 2" and trying to keep up with matters around the house and studio.

Pick of the Crop

Since I last posted, the new V-Pick that I've been developing with Vinni Smith has become part of their stable of some 66 designs. They've dubbed this one the V-Pick "Bing" and it currently comes in an ultra-lite (.8mm) and lite (1.5mm) version with a 1mm version coming soon. This is a firm-yet-flexible pick that's perfect for mountain dulcimer playing - excellent for strumming as well as flatpicking. You can find it on the website here.

It's a deep honor to have a piece of gear named for you - and I not only enjoy working with Vinni and Nancy, but I also really dig their picks. Give it a try and see what it can do for you.

Gad! Midnight, already? At this rate - the festival will be tomorrow - where does the time freakin' go?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

On Top Of Old Smokey

Autumn in the Great Smokey Mountains is a beautiful thing. Crisp air, blue skies, foggy mornings that transformed into glorious golden afternoons filled with music that ran well into the late evening. The occasion was the 2009 Smokey Mountain Dulcimer Retreat organized by the Knoxville Area Dulcimer Club. Townsend, Tennessee was where it all took place, so it felt a little like coming home after my past visits while performing at the Pickin' Porch at Wood 'N' Strings Dulcimer Shop.

Lots of great instructors like Bill Taylor, Maureen Sellers, Terry Lewis, Dan Landrum, Jim Miller, all folks that I've gotten to know over the past three years. And lots of neat folks that I've also gotten to know through the travels between dulcimer festivals were there as well - plus some new friends that share a love for this cool little instrument.

I taught flatpicking and blues for dulcimer; both classes had a real good time after they finished reeling from the amount of theory that I taught. It's my goal in every workshop to introduce a little bit of theory in order for people to get past that deer-in-the-headlights phase involving the "t" word.

After the weekend - I came home for just a couple of days and am about to head out for the NGFDA Fall Festival at Unicoi State Park in Helen, Georgia. Whereas it was my first time at the KADC retreat, this will be my third year in a row at Unicoi and I'm really looking forward to the intense number of workshops that I'll be teaching and the four awesome nights of concerts. Plus, I've got a day free (Saturday), so I plan on hanging out in Helen; the cutest little Bavarian/North Georgian town you ever saw. It's always Christmas there - so might as well bring home an ornament or two. Maybe some schnitzel.

Picked up a new tuner from Mike Clemmer - an Intellitouch PT10 - a huge improvement over their past models.

Mark Wilson of Onboard Research, the makers of various models of the Intellitouch, had this to say: "Competition keeps progress flowing, and we have greatly benefited from the influx of lowcost tuners that adopted the clip-on approach to tuning. We at OnBoard have gotten feedback over the years from thousands of PT1 users who described the features and capabilities that they liked, as well as the little things that did not like. So we decided to design a tuner that was small and compact, very lightweight, with a very bright backlight, a clamp that won’t loosen up and fall or get knocked off an instrument, and nestle it snugly behind the instrument’s headstock where it can be seen by the musician but not be distracting to an audience.

Plus, while we were at IBMA, someone approached us with the idea of a light that would change when the string went in-tune, and suggested this approach would make tuning faster because the switch in backlight colors could be seen in peripheral vision, allowing the musician to stay in better contact with the audience during necessary tune-ups. We implemented a design that glows red when out of tune and snaps to green when the string goes into tune, and the effect is stunning. It really does make tuning easier and faster.

Lastly, although many people prefer the Intellitouch arrow display, we heard from other people who expressed appreciation for the traditional needle style of display. Therefore, for the Intellitouch PT10 Mini. we are tipping our hat to the needle displays of the world and offering what we believe is the best one available."

No lie there. I've got two different models of the Intellitouch tuner and this new one makes them both seem rather antiquated. You can get yourself one here.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

New Gear + Track

So, in my last post, I was talking about how much difference your gear can make. When it comes to audio recording (not to mention video), this is especially important. I'm guilty of not paying enough attention to these things, but lately have been trying to shore up my studio equipment and the results are pretty amazing.

I recently picked up a Shure SM-57, the standard workhorse microphone that is great for both instrument mic'ing and also vocals. Though I got it primarily to record the mountain dulcimer, part of the test drive involved recording vocals on the excellent Mark Knopfler/James Taylor tune "Sailing To Philadelphia." My studio isn't sound-proofed, so we're at the mercy of the neighborhood noise here, from the nearby fire station to the boom cars and passing airplanes, so using a condenser microphone (my Audio-Technica ATM33a) was picking up a lot of this background wash. The SM-57 has a uniform cardioid pickup configuration that isolates the main sound source and eliminates background noise. Usually, I turn the ceiling fan off before I record, but decided to leave it on - also, there was a guy weed-wacking across the street and neither element showed up on the track. Sweet.

Don't know if I posted about this other recent acquisition, but it's worth mentioning again if so: used in combination with the SM-57 was the L.R. Baggs Para-Acoustic D.I. Though I acquired it for the purpose of better controlling the color of the dulcimer tone while on-stage at gigs, as well as a boost for weaker signals, I've been using it in the studio when I plug the dulcimer in directly. On a whim, I sent the vocal signal through and got a warm, full level that allowed me the expression I was seeking without having to overdrive, which is what I've had to do in the past. Makes all the difference in the world! The Baggs direct box has controls for dialing in low, mid, treble, presence, notch filter and both notch and presence have frequency dials that further allow you to dial in (or out) tone. There's also a main gain, FX loop and inputs for both 1/4" and XLR.

So, here's the track - chromatic dulcimer is going through the Baggs as well as being recorded with the SM-57, panned to far left and far right, minimal E.Q. Backing tracks were arranged in Band In A Box and assigned software instruments in Garageband. One track of melody and harmony vocals with an overall "jazz warm" compression setting for the track. Three of the last additions to the studio, working together to make production so much easier! Now, I just need to replace this nutty PreSonus Firebox audio interface that's acting like it hasn't got any sense. Also, on order is a Shure Beta 58a - which is another industry standard workhorse, but mainly for vocals. I've been using a SM-58, which is not a bad mic, but apparently the beta is much better, so it's going to be early Christmas sometime this week.

Bing Futch - "Sailing To Philadelphia"

Tuesday, November 03, 2009


I've been using V-Picks since July when Vinni Smith laid a ridiculously huge pick on me at Summer NAMM Show in Nashville and automatically boosted my performance. As musicians, we tend to put a lot of weight on ourselves to make the music happen, and for good reason. We need to figure out the musical language so that we can speak truth to what's inside of our spirits, which means getting all this rhythm and individual notes and chords and stuff figured out.

But so much of how we sound as players is also dependent on our gear, from the caliber of instrument that we play to the amplification system that we play it through. For mountain dulcimer players, things like strings, tuners, string lubricant, wrist-rests, foot-rests, lap pads, straps, slides and picks all make a huge difference on how we play. The great Dave Para, musical partner (and otherwise) of Cathy Barton, is on a self-proclaimed "pick quest" right now and this guy shreds some acoustic guitar, as you know if you've seen them perform. So why does someone so obviously and richly talented suddenly decide that they need a new pick? Preferences change just like people do. Maybe a new approach to strumming or flatpicking demands a new pick to keep up with said demand.

I used to play with a Dunlop .44 mm nylon pick. Nowadays, I look back at those moments in time and wonder how I could have ever managed to play half of the stuff that I do now. The answer being: there's no way. However, I wasn't playing the stuff that I do now back then, right? So, as my repertoire changed, and so did the amount of flatpicking, so then my need for a firmer pick emerged as well.

Problem is, many people like to have a thin pick for strumming. Least amount of resistance to the strings so that you don't launch the pick. That kind of reasoning makes sense until you analyze it a bit. By using a thin pick and really going at the strings, you are actually increasing the amount of resistance to the pick because you are using more force behind each strum, which means you have to either grip the pick harder or find clever ways to make the pick stick with you. This manifests itself as bits of sand paper, sticky tape or the patented product Gorilla Snot (I kid you not.)

Playing with a thicker pick forces you to relax not only your strum, but your grip as well. It makes you think about your playing in an entirely different manner, and maybe that's not what you want to do with the mountain dulcimer. But if you're trying to coax more performance out of your instrument (and you), thicker is the way to go.

I'd played around with all manner of picks, from the Tortex to the Herdim, large and small, pointed and rounded, nylon and thermoplastic, tortoiseshell and steel. Then along comes Vinnie with his see-through cast acrylic picks with the insane bevels and blew my mind with the immediate improvement in my playing style. 80% more volume (which meant I could ease up on my strumming), 50% more speed, thanks to a relaxed grip that comes naturally when playing with one of these picks. I was an instant convert and he gave me a few other models to try out.

Since July, I've bought a number of these picks and have been experimenting with both flatpicking and strumming. The last thing you want is to have multiple picks for multiple applications, at least when you're playing on stage somewhere. For in the studio, no question that it comes in handy. If I'm doing an all flatpicked piece, I'll easily lean over and grab something huge with a mighty bevel like the Big Fattie or the Acoustic.

The different bevels along the edges of the many, many V-Picks contribute a variety of effects to your playing, from warmer tone to louder volume to a slicker surface that encourages faster playing. Some of these thicker picks, however, also yield a certain amount of pick noise, which, depending on your style of playing, may be desirable or not. I like a certain amount of transparency to the pick noise and, up to this point, the Herdim yellow has done a pretty good job. It took a while of experimenting with V-Picks until I finally came to the Shredder Ultra-Lite. It's about the same size and shape as a Herdim, .80 mm thick with a nominal bevel. I find that, strum for strum, the amount of pick noise is the same as a Herdim yellow (which is to say, virtually non-existent.) Volume is definitely up and the tone is just a bit higher than a Herdim. So I began asking Vinnie about the science of the bevels and what it would take to yield a more mellow tone without sacrificing volume.

He's been in the laboratory on this one and the first couple of V-Pick batches have been experimentally fun - we are basically on the way to developing a great, 21st century mountain dulcimer pick!