Archive for category Banjo

Watching your brain change

Posted by on Tuesday, 8 March, 2011

A late night blog meditation!

Thesis: I seem to get crushes not just on hobbies, but on the bizarre skills required for them.

Take a look at banjo: is there anything more bewildering than listening to Earl Scruggs play a solo at top speed? To a bystander, it’s an astounding blur of continuous arpeggiation, with accents in just the right places. It’s a bit like watching a tap-dancer go nuts with his fingers instead of feet. When I started listening to bluegrass, I fell in love: I must learn to do that crazy thing.

And so I practiced. And took lessons. And practiced. And practiced. Arpgeggios everyday. I would listen to clips of Earl’s recordings slowed down to half speed, analyzing — note by note — each little trick and lick. After a few months, I noticed one day that Earl was starting to slow down whenever I listened to his albums. Was something broken in iTunes? Wait, no… Suddenly my brain was starting to decompose the stream of notes in real time. The blur was actually a bunch of distinct phrases, some which I knew how to play already. And the more I practiced, the slower his recordings became. It’s fascinating to watch your own brain adapt!

And now ham radio. Morse code is clearly a useful tool — it cuts through static like a katana through whipped cream. It propagates much farther than voice and requires almost no power. But ugh — listen to those folks on the air doing it! It’s a cacophony of irritating high-speed beeps. It’s like my kids banging windows with their little toy wooden hammers. Make the noise stop!

But hey, let’s jump in anyway. Listen to a tutorial CD, learn one letter at a time. Practice hearing each character at slow speeds. Practice, practice, practice, for several months. At some point, I gain the courage to reach out and have a slow speed conversation with a stranger over the air. Never mind that I’m shaking and sweating and so nervous that I’m only able to copy half of the characters coming back to me. Over time, the more I do this, the less nervous I get, and the fewer characters I miss.

Then the same revelation comes back this week: “Man, why is it so hard to find people doing high speed morse on the airwaves these days?” Is everyone slowing down? Oh wait. It’s me. My brain is changing again! Morse code doesn’t sound irritating anymore. The beeps are obviously broken into clear section, clear characters. The tones are haunting… almost relaxing. The whole experience is a bit like a calming vacation.

I turn on the radio, and in voice (sideband) mode, the filter is quite wide. I hear endless grating hiss.

I narrow my filter to 1/6th the width, which is best for picking up code. Suddenly the hiss turns into a whispering valley of calm. It’s a bit like being in an indoor swimming pool: endless harsh echoes of screaming families reverberating around you — and then dunking your whole head underwater. A beautiful solitude. A sound of deep watery solace.

Then turn the dial till a code conversation appears. Listen to the letters float by! Like tiny drumbeats of beautiful tone, perfectly spaced. It almost puts you in a trance.

I know my brain has changed, because I can no longer read emails while listening to morse code. It used to be background noise, but now it’s actively messing with my language centers, competing with my ability to read text.

Ramblings of a man on paternity leave

Posted by on Sunday, 26 October, 2008

[cue Doogie Howser theme music]

Dear diary,

Google is probably one of the only companies in the U.S. that gives an actual paid paternity leave (7 weeks!)… why, it’s almost as civilized as living in Europe. It not only gives us a chance to bond with babies, but try to reset our lives as we walk around in a sleepless stupor. Highlights of my downtime so far:

  • When mommies and babies are sleeping, it’s still possible to practice the banjo with the magic of Mike’s Mute, the mostly highly rated of mutes on all of Banjo Hangout (where the cool kids are!). The photos don’t do it justice. It just clamps onto the bridge and makes your banjo as quiet as an unplugged electric guitar… yet it still sounds like a banjo!
  • Did you know that the bottom of a newborn baby’s foot, being completely unused, looks exactly like the bottom of a hand? Delicate little lines everywhere — the same ones palm readers look for. It’s amazing to think that those features are hiding under the thick dead layer of smoothness on the bottom of adult feet. In that same vein, did you know that when a newborn straightens out his arm, all one can see is a single puffy tube of flesh? There is no visible elbow, no indication of how or where the arm bends… thus proving my scratchy elbows are a product of nurture, not nature.
  • As the temperatures drop into the 40’s in Chicago, our pantry is overflowing from potatoes delivered by our local community supported farm. It’s time again to dig into my favorite recipe for potato leek cheese soup. Seriously: just boil some potatoes and leeks, add cream cheese, and you’re in heaven. Blending with a stick blender is strictly optional; I can’t get enough of the stuff. Go make this soup right now.

Back to the diapers.

Banjo trade-o

Posted by on Sunday, 4 May, 2008

Remember that awesome folding travel banjo I bought a year ago? It was really cool, but I traded it away for something better.

My original itch was the fact that I was flying to California (and other places) at least five times per year, and wanted to be able to join in jams in other cities. It’s really nervewracking to carry a banjo on a plane — usually the attendants will let you store it in the coat-hanging closet, but you live in constant fear of being forced to “gate check” the thing into the bottom of the plane. And that means burly men throwing the thing around. You can fill your hardshell case with bubble wrap all you want, but there are still a lot of horror stories out there. So the Tranjo was perfect: the neck just popped off (with strings still attached!), and the whole thing fit in a backpack. I went through airport security five times last year before anyone even noticed I had a banjo in my bag — it only got searched on the 6th flight. Great peace of mind!

Unfortunately, the Tranjo had one big drawback: it was too quiet. I’d take it to jams and couldn’t even hear myself playing. The instrument was great for practicing quietly in hotel rooms, or playing solo around a campfire (which I did once)… but that’s it. No group jamming. So, I stopped carrying it with me on trips, and discovered it was easier to just ask friends to lend me banjos on the other side. Turns out there are several Googlers in Mountain View who have banjos I can borrow. 🙂

Thus, I decided to trade in my Tranjo for a really nice “traditional” open-back banjo. It’s a beautiful, light-weight thing, with a rock maple rim and mahogany neck. It sounds great, and is perfect for old-time “clawhammer” frailing. (Clawhammer is a whole different school of banjo-playing that doesn’t involve picks at all—the music pre-dates bluegrass by centuries, long before the bluegrass-heads added resonators to make banjos louder.) The banjo is made by a single artisan in Michigan, Bart Reiter. So now I have my big-ass resonator banjo for bluegrass jams, and my smaller (less expensive) open-back banjo for camping, car trips, and practicing at my office. It’s a joy to play!

(Pictures below are taken from Turtle Hill Banjo’s website.)

A Peek at Google Chicago

Posted by on Saturday, 1 March, 2008

The Google Chicago office (where I work) recently won an award from Crain’s Chicago Business magazine as the “best place to work in Chicago”. As part of the press, a reporter followed me around the office for a few days taking photos, movies, and interviewing me and Fitz about our corporate culture. The final result was a short article in the magazine, and a fancy web slideshow where you can watch photos while listening to the two of us narrate and ramble. This is also your chance to see AND hear us playing guitar and banjo together in the office! 🙂

Bust the Rut

Posted by on Thursday, 13 September, 2007

A friend of mine from my regular Friday night jam tipped me off to a once-per-month bluegrass jam at the Montrose Saloon. So last night I thought “what the heck” and showed up at 8pm. The place was a smoky, smelly dive bar, but cute and friendly at the same time. There were lots of regulars hanging out and drinking at the bar, and only two guys on stage with guitars. They were plenty friendly and excited to have a newcomer, but said people wouldn’t trickle in for a while. So I walked around the block for 30 minutes, came back, and now there were four guys on stage with guitars.

At this point, I started to get worried — was this going to be one of those 8-guitars-and-1-banjo jams? But soon more interesting instruments started trickling in the door: a fiddle player, a mando player, a dobro player, and an upright bass player. Awesome! We started playing simple bluegrass tunes, and I stood in the back of the group just following along by ear, keeping simple rhythm. They kept trying to get me to step forward and solo… but c’mon, I just a newb, playing a bunch of songs I’ve never heard before, with a bunch of people I’ve never met before, in front of an audience of 30 people. I mean, hey… solo? No pressure or anything!

Finally I realized why they kept trying to get me to solo: they were spoiled. In walked another banjo player, apparently their “regular” banjo guy who they had mercifully failed to warn me about, in fear of scaring me away. This guy was fantastic, and familiar-looking. After his first solo, I realized that it was Dave Bragman, a banjo teacher from the Old Town School. He was also really nice to me… kept encouraging me to do solos, showing me various licks he was playing. I have to say, it was a rush to play in large group with another banjo player, trying to synchronize styles. It was also a great rush to play new music in front of an appreciative audience, and it was a breath of fresh air to work with other musicians. The whole experience reminds me that it’s good to get out of our ruts now and then!

Banjo Hackers

Posted by on Wednesday, 2 May, 2007

The Hacker’s Dictionary defines a “hacker” as:

“(1) A person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and how to stretch their capabilities, as opposed to most users, who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary. […] (7) One who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations.”

A hacker is a tinkerer — someone who wants to endlessly poke at a system to figure out how it works, modify it, experiment and improve it.

Since I started playing banjo about three years ago, I’ve been watching the relatively small-world community of banjo players. They have endless forum discussions at Many also subscribe to the “official” community magazine, The Banjo Newsletter, which a monthly treeware periodical that’s been going for 34 years now, full of hand-transcribed tablature, tinkering advice, and classified ads.

What’s striking to me is what a “hacker” culture it is.

By comparison, I played guitar for a few years before playing banjo, and most of my musician friends are guitarists as well. Guitar-player culture seems (to me) to be a fairly refined thing. Instruments are exquisitely designed and crafted as works of art, and the people who buy and play guitars much the way classical musicians handle their antique violins. “This is a beautiful object, both in form and tone.” The instrument goes on a pedestal. It can be slightly tweaked to taste, by choosing a certain brand of strings. The ease of play(“action”) can be adjusted by slightly bending the neck via a turn of the truss rod. (Though many guitarists are too scared to do this themselves, they have a professional do this for them.) In a nutshell, when you shop for a guitar, you find the one you love, and it becomes an immutable piece of art — and takes its place as a distinct personality in your guitar collection.

The banjo community, however, is a bunch of wheelin’, dealin’, giddyap hardware hackers. Unlike a guitar, which is (mostly) a single piece of shaped wood, a banjo is a frankencollection of odd parts and gizmos. You’ve got the “rim” of wood that makes up the main body of the drum. There’s the “tone ring”, a metal chamber between the rim and drum-head which shapes the resonation, and the “tension hoop” held down by brackets, which secures the drum-head and provides even tension. Combine all this with a metal framework (chrome? silver? gold?) for holding down the drum-head, and the whole thing is called the “pot” — with uniquely shaped airholes surrounding the rim to let the sound reflect out from the “resonator”, which is the big plate of wood behind the pot. Don’t forget a custom tailpiece to hold the strings at the bottom, and a custom bridge (of varying height) to thread the strings through. Oh, and banjos can also have fancy tuner gizmos at the tip of the neck, allowing one to bend tones (via spring mechanism) in live performance.

Every one of these pieces is malleable. You can buy replacement parts, swap them around, adjust them, and then spend weeks tinkering to make your banjo sound just the way you want. These folks fill their discussion boards with advice about how one component sounds compared to another, the best way to tweak parts, and putting up recordings for each other to evaluate. The banjo you buy is just a starting mold; it may be something else a few years and many fiddlings later. When I shopped for the one, I was explicitly looking for a banjo known to use the Tony Pass rim, due to the partially-petrified (extrodinarily dense) wood used. Since then, I’ve changed my bridge, armrest, strings, drum head… and even my fingerpicks. (Double-cobalt plated picks!)

These folks are the same people who spend their weekends rebuilding old cars on their lawn. I love them dearly.

My Folding Banjo

Posted by on Friday, 16 February, 2007

Folding? Yes, you heard right.

I fly around so much now (5 or 6 times a year, at least), that’s it’s become an annoyance to leave my banjo behind. I hate spending a week in North Carolina or California with no opportunity to practice. I did manage to carry my mega-banjo into the cabin of an airplane once; the very nice attendants let me stow it in the coat closet. But the thing is crazy heavy to lug around an airport, and you can’t always depend on kind attendants. There’s always that looming risk of some jerk forcing you to check the instrument, and no hard-shell case can withstand the abuse of a baggage guy throwing your instrument 20 feet into a hold.

So the solution? Sell my first ‘beginner’ banjo, and buy a travel banjo. This thing is tiny and light (only 5 pounds!), yet has a full size banjo neck. This is a huge improvement over other travel banjos which are perfectly to-scale, but look like they’re sized for a preschooler — I don’t want to play ukelele, I want to play banjo.

What’s truly amazing about this banjo is that after unscrewing a bolt, the whole neck just pops off and lays across the body, with all the strings still attached. This allows the thing to compact down into your gym bag or backpack for easy carry-on. And it only takes a moment to reassemble — no restringing necessary!

I love this thing. It has a smaller, more muted sound, but it still feels like a banjo and sounds like one. The tuners are weirdly located inside the drumhead, but hey, they work!

Spontaneity, Bottled for your Consumption

Posted by on Wednesday, 19 July, 2006

A couple of weeks ago, it seems that the leader of our Friday Night Jam group decided to secretly record the dozen or so of us. He gave us a CD last week, and the results are surprising! For one, I’m singing really out of tune on the one song I lead… I wouldn’t have been so sloppy if I knew I was being memorialized!

The really great track, however, was Freeborn Man. It’s just so much fun to listen to. Straight up bluegrass, not too fast or slow…. seven minutes of selfish giddy music. The song is led by one of our excellent electric guitar players,and he really leads the song. He calls on people to solo (me, a mando player, another electric player), and even does this great “build up” from drums and bass to full ensemble. I love the sheer joy in this performance.

And I’m not even too ashamed of my banjo playing: you can hear me keeping a steady syncopated beat all the way through. I do a short solo near the beginning, and a longer one about 5 minutes into the recording. Nothing stellar, but at least I’m comfortable with the limited improv. 🙂

You can download the mp3 here.

Sketching my living room

Posted by on Saturday, 29 April, 2006

Things have been busy. Lots of travel for Google and family. Six flights in two weeks is too much.

The baby, at six months, has decided to start crawling. This coincides with his first two teeth. So now he crawls around the house, gnawing on chair legs when we’re not looking; I think he may be secretly building a dam. And today he learned to pull himself up onto low surfaces, standing and balancing precariously on coffee tables, couches, and steps. Now we have to catch him every time he falls over, as he tries to furniture-surf. I think this sort of behavior is a bit… early… for only six months old!

The new banjo is great too. After practicing on it for a couple of weeks, it’s hard to go back to the old banjo. The new banjo allows a lot more control, more subtlety of tone and dynamics. I took a one-day master class with Greg Cahill (a well-known bluegrass player) and came away with a whole bunch of tablature-ified licks to practice. And last night, my Friday Night Jam group actually played in public at a coffee house. Lots of people came and went, it was great fun. However, we tend to overplay in public. If I can’t hear my own banjo, then you know everyone is playing way too loud!

The fun project of the weekend is preparing to receive a baby grand piano. Mom is moving into a smaller house, and I’m inheriting the Steinway 1935 baby grand. The question is, how the heck are we gonna fit this thing into our living room?

Luckily, Google just released a new free product called Sketchup. It’s really amazing. It’s sort of like a point-and-click paint program that allows you to create 3D models, and the user interface is really dead simple to use. After a 15 minute tutorial, it took me about an hour and a half to recreate our living room. We could then spin furniture around, orbit the camera around the room, and find a place for the piano:

Really, you gotta try this program. Go download it and play around! Of course, my wife laughed at my insistence on using this program. In about half the time, she took out our actual house floor plans and made little paper cut-outs of our furniture. By the time I finished the 3D model, she had long figured out where to put the piano already, and was off working on other chores. Hmph.

This one goes to 11.

Posted by on Monday, 13 March, 2006

Road trip to Nashville is complete!

Visited a few stores, and even got a private tour of a small banjo factory. Dragged my friends, wife, and baby with me, and most of the time they seemed to enjoy themselves. The final trip was to the farmhouse of a semi-famous banjo player and master craftsman, Paul Hopkins. He builds banjos one at a time with his son, and has over 30 years of experience in the business.

Like many independent banjo builders, he owns a couple of pre-WWII Gibson banjos, which are considered by most banjoists to be the Holy Grail of banjos. Paul, in fact, has inherited the actual 1934 Gibson that Earl Scruggs plays in the opening track (“Ground Speed”) of the uber-famous Foggy Mountain Banjo album. And of course, he even played that tune for me on said banjo. 🙂

So, as you might expect, Paul and others have spent years trying to build new banjos that imitate that magic pre-war banjo sound. They model the neck and resonator, and then pour in their own tricks. Folks like Tony Pass, out in Arknasas, have figured out super-secret ways of squeezing together a 3-ply block-rims out of submerged mega-dense wood. Each banjo takes days to hand-carve and assemble in these shops, and let me tell you, you get what you pay for! Here you can see Paul, Tony, and former collaborator Mike (R.I.P) sitting in Paul’s sound studio, the very place where I got try out the completed banjos.

And so I finally found The One, made of glistening walnut and chrome. There’s really no way to describe the sound of this thing. It makes my $300 banjo sound like a toy. It has a ring that is smooth and beautiful when played softly, yet knocks down walls when I start picking harder. I need to actually be careful when I play this thing, I’m not used to the giant bolts of electricity shooting out of it. I fear its power, and expect it will take me years to learn to control it. I suppose the only thing to do is lay down a track or two and post a recording for all to hear!

Sure, I could have driven to central Michigan and bought the same banjo from a store, but it’s just incredible to see the exact tools, benches, and pieces of hardware whence your instrument was born. It’s even better to know the craftsman personally. If something goes amiss with the banjo, I can phone Paul and ask for advice, or just ship it out to him for servicing. He wants to take care of his “babies”, you could say. That’s the sort of attention you just can’t find at a retail store!

This is the banjo for the Rest of My Life, well worth the two years of research and savings. It’s the banjo to pass down to my heirs. And holy moly, does it inspire me to practice!

(P.S. If you haven’t clicked the links above, do so. There are some nice photos.)