What Happened To My Frets?

Frets Magazine (1979-1989)

Doc Watson On Frets' Premier Issue

In 1979, I had just finished my first year at college and returned home for a summer break.  Of course, my banjo, guitar and mandolin came back home with me.  After walking into a nearby music store, I discovered the premier issue of a magazine called “Frets”.  This was a perfect magazine for me, I thought, since I played three instruments and wanted to learn as much about playing them as possible.

So I was smart enough to buy that premier issue.  It’s not often that you have the first copy of a magazine that is newly published.  It’s especially not often that you still have that premier issue in mint condition 32 years later.

Frets Magazine Featuring Bill Monroe

Frets was not just about banjo, mandolin and guitar.  It included issues for violinists and fiddle players, bass players, dulcimer players and well; anything with a fret.  Later issues featured Sting, Al Dimeola, Dan Fogelberg, Arlo Guthrie, Stephane Grapelli, Chet Atkins, Sam Bush, Ravi Shankar, Bela Fleck, Byrone Berline, Alan Munde, Willie Nelson, Albert Lee, Los Lobos, and even Itzhak Perlman to name a few.  The genres were varied and included bluegrass, jazz, blues, classical and more.  There were lessons, shop talk, expert columnists, history, special editions, and buyers guides.

The topics, covered by experts in the field, included such themes as “Song Arrangement”, “Acoustic Music Festivals”, Reading Music”, “Buying Strings”, “Sound Recording”, “Performing”, “Learning and Teaching” and “Playing Tips”. Much of the information is still relevant today, which is one of the reasons I have maintained by collection for all of these years.

There was also a luthier section that covered many topics from instrument repairs to instrument building.  The care and maintenance of your instruments was addressed, as well as reviews of vintage instruments.

Earl Scruggs Featured On Frets Magazine

This was an encyclopedia of musical knowledge for the acoustic musician.  It included lessons from well respected instructors Alan Munde, Byron Berline, David Grisman, and Happy Traum.  Upright bass was taught by Ron Carter and of course, Bill Keith wrote many columns on music theory. Other Shop experts, such as Roger Siminoff and James Rickard talked about everything from “Banjo Tone Bars” to “Acoustructure – Instrument Endurance Tests”.  Each month was a treasure trove of information.

So whatever happened to Frets?  You would think that such a fine magazine should have survived and thrived in today’s acoustic music scene.  The new performing artists of today should be the new feature covers and the topics could be further updated from yesterday’s news.  I guess the profit for the publisher was just not there but the interest from its readers still is today, as noted on music forums concerning this topic.

The magazine was owned by Guitar Player magazine and was a descendant of a earlier 1970s magazine entitled “Pickin”.  The first issue was Volume I No I in March 1979 and the final issue was Volume 11 No 11 in August 1989.  There were 114 issues in total, published from 1979 through 1989.

Collection of Frets Magazines

This magazine is loaded with so much useful information, that  I have maintained my copies in my personal library and often refer to them.  While I have an entire collection of the 114 issues that I will never part with, I have placed extra copies up for sale on my website www.fretmentor.com.  Since the magazine is no longer available, each copy is a collector’s item for music students, players, and fans of the monthly featured artist.  You can find a gallery of the copies available at the Fretmentor Store.

So while I wonder what happened to my “Frets”, maybe one day, they’ll bring it back.  In the meantime, I will be thumbing through my issues from 1979 to 1989 and reliving some fond memories of some great players.


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Fretmentor’s Second Annual Banjo & Guitar Workshop Featuring Jens & Uwe Kruger – March 26-27, 2011 in Lake Worth, Florida

Jens & Uwe Kruger … They’re Back for a Second Time.

Jens & Uwe Performing For The Crowd

Two of the great performers, instructors and entertainers of the banjo and guitar will return for an encore.  On March 26-27th, 2011, Fretmentor will host the Second Annual Banjo & Guitar Workshop Featuring Jens and Uwe Kruger in Lake Worth, Florida.  Details of this event are posted at www.fretmentor.com.

Some people have yet to learn about just how wonderful these two gentleman are as both performers and as individuals.  After the Kruger Brothers Palm Beach concert in 2009, I was able to encourage Jens Kruger to come down to South Florida for a banjo and guitar workshop for all interested music students.  We have discussed making this an annual event that may one day grow to include other notable instructors and performers.   South Florida is a wonderful location to visit and this venue offers many an opportunity to take a vacation during the spring and learn something at the same time. So I am excited to present the Second Annual Jens and Uwe Kruger Banjo and Guitar Workshop.

Here are some of the comments that were posted at the Fretmentor Forum after last year’s event:

“The word Musicality keeps ringing in my head over and over. I am walking around humming tunes, and I keep smiling. The time spent in the presence of Jens and Uwe was wonderful, and enlightening.”

“I was impressed by the breadth of both Jens’ and Uwe’s knowledge of music. To be able to play bluegrass, blues, rock, country and classical, among others, just floors me. But their personable nature just made it so much fun to be around them during the workshop and during the concert.”

Jens Teaching One on One

“Truly a wonderful experience. It was motivating in the musical venue but uplifting in a broader sense. The workshop far exceeded my expectations and I was sorry that it was over.”

“Today was one of the most memorable days of my life.  A classmate who had met them previously said last week how personable they were and wow were they.”

Fretmentor with Jens & Uwe Kruger

“Kudos to the Krugers for a great workshop and to Fretmentor for setting up such a well-run, informative and even inspirational event.”

“It’s very clear that the weekend was amazing. Jens talked more than about music. He talked about being aware and connected to life. What a great break from the mundane life. I knew it would be great but it far exceeded my expectations.”

So please come and join us on March 26th and 27th.

This event promises to be just as good if not better than when the Kruger Brothers visited South Florida for the first time.

Posted in Banjo, Classes & Workshops, Concerts & Festivals, Fretmentor News, Guitar, News & Events | Tagged , , , , , , | 15 Comments

Fretmentor’s Acoustic Christmas

Yes, its that time a year again.  The time we go into the attic and pull down the Christmas lights and ornaments.  It is the time we go to our local retail store and hear Christmas tunes from the past.  This year, however, it is also a time to start learning some of your favorite holiday tunes on the banjo, mandolin (fiddle) and the guitar.

After working for over a year and a half on a compilation of Christmas tunes to be learned and played by acoustic instrumentalists, Fretmentor has just released “Fretmentor’s Acoustic Holiday“. What is special about this collection is that the music is written for all acoustic instruments and even the lyrics are included for each selection.  Since the music is in both standard musical notation and tablature, no one is left out in the cold.  Fiddle players can learn the same tunes as the mandolin player.  An entire band can learn each piece and play together, since music is standardized for each instrument.

The collection can be purchased at www.fretmentor.com.  You can contact David (Insert @ Symbol) Fretmentor.com for instructions on how to pay for the materials.  Once you make payment, you will receive Christmas member authorization to download the Christmas songs right to your computer the same day  No waiting for mail delivery mail of your materials.  In addition, by downloading the free Tef viewer, you will be able to play the entire song in a computer generated midi format.  This is perfect for learning the song at your own pace.  In fact, you can even slow the tempo of the midi file or repeat a given section while you are practicing.

So what are you waiting for?  Go to www.fretmentor.com and order the entire collection.  After all, Christmas will soon be here and you can be rest assured that someone is going to request you to play a Christmas tune at that next holiday party of yours.

In the meantime, we wish you a

Merry Christmas & a Happy New Year

from www.Fretmentor.com

Posted in Banjo, Fiddle, Fretmentor News, Guitar, Mandolin, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Fretmentor’s Gretzky – Man’s Best Friend

Gretzky With One Of His Favorite Students

On June 26th, 2010, I had the sad misfortune to have to put my best friend to sleep.  Gretzky is my pet weimaraner and my best friend for 11 and 1/2 years.  This past month Gretzky became ill and headed to the music studio in the sky.  So why am I writing about him on my own music website and blog?

Well Dressed Pup

Well, Gretzky was more than just a pet and best friend.  He performed an integral function as part of Fretmentor’s business.  He was Fretmentor’s business partner,  cover model, finance manager and audience.  He modeled the apparel.  He collected and even on some occasions ate the lesson fees.  Gretzky entertained the students.  In addition, he is the cover star featured on Fretmentor’s Children Guitar instructional book on CD and the children would be curious to learn more about him.

Fretmentor's Best Friend

Many of my students became acquainted with Gretzky when they arrived for their lessons. He had many favorite students and knew which day they would arrive with treats. He would wait for their arrival and greet them at the door.  He also let them know when their hour lesson was over.

On at least one occasion, Gretzky grabbed the lesson fees and swallowed a portion of a $20 bill (he disregarded the singles)  If a student wasn’t careful and left their case open, he would steal a guitar, mandolin or banjo polishing cloth.  He came back with it just to show you that he could do it if and when he wanted to.  Yet, he freely returned the rag to its rightful owner.

When I recorded music, I sometimes forgot that Gretzky would walk in just as the recording was finishing.  Upon review, you could hear Gretzky’s collar jingling in between the instrumental breaks. So that so-called perfect recording had to be recorded over.

Children's Guitar Instruction CD

So it was a sad month as we lost a key member of the Fretmentor community.  I will miss my best friend dearly but he will never be forgotten. When it is time for me to leave this earth, I look forward to playing my guitar, banjo, or mandolin once again with Gretzky by my side.

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Bluegrass Legends

JD Crowe and the New South Perform at the Lyric Theatre

JD Crowe Performing On Stage, March 20, 2010, in Stuart Florida

JD Crowe Performing, March 20, 2010, in Stuart Florida

On Saturday, March 20, 2010, I had the pleasure of seeing JD Crowe, one of the greatest banjo players of all time, perform with his band JD Crowe and the New South at the Lyric Theatre in Stuart, Florida.  Prior to attending the show, I researched my archives of earlier Banjo Newsletter (see BNL September 1976 and 1982) cover stories of JD Crowe.  While JD Crowe’s appearance at age 72, has changed from those earlier issues, his music remains as tight and energetic as ever.

You see, when I started playing banjo in 1970, JD Crowe and the New South was one of my favorite bluegrass bands.  Next to Earl Scruggs, JD Crowe is one of the true masters of the five-string banjo who I studied and attempted to emulate in my early years.

Bobby Osborne & the Rocky Top Express

On this night, the crowd was also treated with the performance of Bobby Osborne & the Rocky Top Express.  Along with a variety of songs, Bobby Osborne showcased his original composition “Cherokee Lady” on the mandolin and ended with his grand finale “Rocky Top”, which he said was written in 1967 and released on Christmas Day. At the end of the concert, both JD Crowe and the New South and Bobby Osborne & the Rocky Top Express played on stage together.

After the performance, I had the opportunity to meet back stage with JD Crowe and ask him a few questions.  In particular, I wanted to know how he has managed to maintain a band of bluegrass musicians who are not only outstanding performers but have impeccable vocals.  The sound of JD Crowe and the New South is refreshing similar to some of his earliest work.  Yet, former band members such as Tony Rice, Ricky Skaggs and Jerry Douglas are obviously no longer part of the group.  JD Crowe explained to me that while he gets frustrated losing talented musicians, who have left the band to pursue other musical interests, he carefully maintains contact with potential replacements via phone lists and recommendations he receives from others.  As he stated “You really can’t have a great bluegrass band without excellent vocalists”.  JD Crowe and the New South have both.

Bobby Osborne, David Jakubiak, & JD Crowe

David Jakubiak (center) with Bobby Osborne (left) & JD Crowe (right)

I was surprised to learn that two members of JD’s band, Mark DeSpain on dobro and Cal Perkins on bass have only been with the group since December of 2009.  The entire group has only performed since January 2010 with Dwight McCall and Ricky Watson now being the senior members dating back to 1996 and 1998 respectively.  Yet, with JD Crowe’s eye for talent, this group performed flawlessly and proved to be an audience favorite.

JR Crowe with Ricky Watson (left) of the New South

JD Crowe with Ricky Watson (left) lead guitarist & vocalist of JD Crowe & the New South

That leaves me with the impression of the master himself.  While performing 50-52 shows a year, JD Crowe hasn’t lost a step.  He still drives a bluegrass band with passion and when you see him playing the five–string banjo on songs like “Fireball”, Scruggs’ “Flint Hill Special” or his own standard “Old Home Place”, you recognize that you have truly seen one of the best in the business.


David Jakubiak has produced six books on CD for banjo, mandolin and guitar.  He has been playing banjo since 1970 and has over 40 years of experience in playing, performing and teaching music.  Check out his site at www.Fretmentor.com


Posted in Banjo, Concerts & Festivals, Mandolin | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Jens & Uwe Kruger & Fretmentor’s 2010 Workshop

Jens Kruger on the 5-String Banjo

Jens Kruger on the 5-String Banjo

April 9-10, 2010

Jens & Uwe Kruger’s

Banjo & Guitar Workshop

For months now, I have been working out the details for Fretmentor’s First Annual Banjo & Guitar Workshop  – Featuring Jens & Uwe Kruger, to be held in Southeast Florida.  In April 2009, I first approached Jens Kruger about the possibility of establishing what I hope will become an annual event for banjo and guitar (and in the future mandolin) community living or visiting Southeast Florida.  For those who are not familiar with Jens Kruger, I encourage you to read my article that was published in the August 2009 issue of Banjo Newsletter or you can access the article at the Library section of www.fretmentor.com.

Guitar Player - Uwe Kruger

Guitar Player & Singer - Uwe Kruger

Jens Kruger is not only a unique and talented banjo player but I find him to be quite personable.  Uwe Kruger, is an excellent guitar player and as the lead singer, establishes the foundation for the Kruger Brother’s warm and soothing sound. In fact, the entire band (which includes Uwe Kruger on guitar and Joel Landsberg on bass) is a special group of musicians.  They engage their audience with a personal approach to their music, which includes not only bluegrass music but European flavored chamber style music.  Once you go to see them in person, you will discover what a wonderful musical blend they have and will grow to admire their talent.

Fretmentor’s 1st Annual Banjo & Guitar Workshop – Featuring Jens & Uwe Kruger, will be a wonderful opportunity for banjo and guitar students to not only learn beginning through advanced technique on their instruments, but for each student to get up close and personal with two of the finest European born musicians to visit Southeast Florida.  If the workshop was not enough, each attendee will also have the opportunity to win some prizes, which include two banjos donated from First Quality Musical Supplies and the Deering Banjo Company.  Others sponsors, including Intellitouch Tuners, Banjo Newsletter,  Homespun Music Instruction, Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine and Acoustic Guitar Magazine, will be giving away prizes as well.

In addition to the weekend workshop on Friday and Saturday, workshop attendees will also be able to purchase some of the best tickets in a block that I have reserved for the Kruger’s Brother’s Sunday concert in Palm Beach.  If you are a Kruger Brother’s fan, you will not want to miss this opportunity and if you do not know much about them, you will soon become a fan and follower after attending this special event.  I look forward to seeing you all in Lake Worth Florida on April 9th and 10th, 2010.

Feel free to contact me at david (Insert @ symbol) fretmentor.com for registration details.


Posted in Banjo, Classes & Workshops, Fretmentor News, Guitar, History, Mandolin, News & Events | Tagged , , , | 9 Comments

The Right Way to Build a Chord Vocabulary

Knowledge of Theory Helps to Build Chords

Knowledge of Theory Helps to Build Chords

When an aspiring musician buys their first banjo, guitar or mandolin, they also usually are talked into buying a pictionary chord book.  Such a book, lists chord after chord, in charts that are in alphabetically order.  Without knowing any better, each time the student  comes across an unfamiliar chord in a song, he or she scans the book in an attempt to find the correct chord position on the fingerboard. To learn chords in this manner can be equated to memorizing phone numbers in a phone book.

As a teacher, I advise all my students that the best way to learn chord structure and build a “chord vocabulary” is to begin with basic music theory.  This theoretical knowledge begins with understanding the major scale.  The major scale (Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti, Do) is the backbone of music.  It establishes a foundation for a musician to play and understand chords, building melody lines and playing songs.

There are many types of chords and whether or not you use them will depend on the genre of music you play.   Unfortunately, some students of the banjo, guitar and mandolin only scrape the surface when studying chord structure.  Maybe they learn their open major chords and a handful of minors.  Open chords are partially fretted but use open strings as well.  Closed forms take the open chords further by moving them up the neck by barring the open strings.  Sadly, some students never learn their moveable chord forms up the neck on their instrument.

Finger Strength & Coordination Helps to Build Chords

Finger Strength & Coordination Helps to Build Chords

Studying chords is a process in itself.  You can start with a basic understanding that the major chord is built on the first, third and fifth note of the chord’s major scale.  The minor is achieve by modifying the major chord with a flatted third. Other chord forms are derived from these chord types and are termed extended or altered chords. Most importantly, the process begins with a basic understanding of the major scale and what notes make up a major chord.

In the future, instead of referring to that pictionary book of chord charts each time you come across a new chord in a song, turn your attention towards basic music theory.  Your efforts will be rewarded and you will come out ahead in the long term.

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Time is on a Musician’s Side

Use Your Practice Time Wisely

Use Your Practice Time Wisely

While most students of the banjo, guitar or mandolin recognize that learning an instrument will take both time and patience, there are a few who feel that they should progress further in a shorter period of time.  A student will say to me, “I have been playing for a year already and I’m just not getting better”.  To this student, a year seems like a long time.  Quite the contrary, a year of studying and practicing music (including taking music lessons), is an insignificant period of time.  In fact, a serious student can expect to play for many years before he or she becomes more comfortable with playing an instrument. It may take six or seven years before you actually feel you are reaching a level where playing songs is appealing to both you and an audience.

Practice Pays Dividends

When a students exhibits their frustration in this manner, a teacher such as myself, has to ask a few questions.  First, how much time are you practicing?  Second, are you practicing every day?  If you step away from your instrument for a week, it will show in your playing.  Similarly, if you practice a song for a period of time and then let that song sit for weeks, you will quickly forget the song.  You see, practicing a banjo, guitar, mandolin or any other instrument requires dedication and commitment.  Otherwise, the limited time you invest in practicing your instrument will not yield the results that you may expect.  I am sure you have heard the saying “You get what you pay for.” In musical terms, the saying is “You get out of your instrument what you put into it.”

So the next time you sit down to practice your banjo, guitar or mandolin, use your time wisely.  Do the hard work.  Play some scales. Practice a strumming technique. Play some rolls or work on your tremolo or vamping technique.  Take a small break but make sure you return and practice some more.  Practice a minimum of an hour a day and if you can help it, don’t go a day without practicing.  Remember ………

Time is on a musician’s side.

Posted in Music Technique, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 15 Comments

Digital Recorders – A Useful Tool?

Recording 101

Recording 101

Should you throw away that cassette recorder? What is a hand held digital recorder? How does a portable recorder differ from a computer’s music digital interface?  These are some of the questions you may have when you start exploring recording your own music.

Thanks to technology, a student of the banjo, guitar or mandolin has options for recording sound files.  To start, a student can record themselves using a digital mp3 recorder.  The files can be then transferred to the computer and then burned to CD.  Surprisingly, the quality of the recording is quite good.  I once recorded my entire band using a simple digital recorder and one condensor microphone. The condensor microphone (which is powered by batteries connected to the recorder) allows for a better recording option than using a computer’s built in microphone.  While some of the band members were skeptical that the recording would be useful for a demo, they were later surprised at the results.  We at least had a draft demo of some songs recorded at home from one of our many practice sessions..

mp3 digital recorder

mp3 digital recorder

When I started preparing instructional materials, I recorded sound files using a single hand held digitial recorder.  The quality of the recordings were surprisingly good.  Yet there are limitations.  You can only recording a single track.  However, for someone starting out, recording a single track, such as your rhythm or your lead, is a start in the right direction.  A student who records and listens to themselves play, will benefit from hearing what others hear.

Stay tuned for more in a series of blogs about technology in recording and the various equipment involved.  Next time, I will address the usb musical interface which takes home recording closer to studio recording sound.

Posted in Recording & Technology | Tagged , | 5 Comments

What Time is it?

“I played this much better on my own at home than in front of you.”

Music Theory 101

Music Theory 101

I often hear this comment from my music students.  It is their perception that they are playing well behind closed doors.  In actuality, the beginning banjo, guitar and mandolin student needs to address the timing of the piece when they practice. Otherwise, they may know which notes to play but their melody line will fall ahead or behind a group when performing with others.

The Time Signature (2/4, 3/4, 4/4 ect), which is denoted after the Clef sign at the beginning of a piece of music, indicates what time the musician will be playing.  The top number refers to the number of beats that exist in a measure.  The bottom number, indicates what type of note (quarter, eighth, ect) receives one beat.  For example, 3/8 time means that there are three beats per measure with the eighth note receiving one beat. On the other hand, 4/4 time, indicates that there are four beats per measure and the quarter note receives one beat.

Are you having trouble with keeping a good rhythm?  Do you practicing scales slowly and evenly with a goal to gradually build speed with a consistent beat? Have you practiced with a metronome or do you play along with sound files to build your confidence with timing issues? Let us know how you plan on practicing to improve your timing and rhythm.

Just remember – don’t be caught saying it sounded better at home.

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My Dog Ate My Music!

Whining About Lack of Practice Time?

Are Your Excuses For Not Practicing Justified?

As a teacher of the banjo, guitar and mandolin, I often hear the various reasons why someone is not able to practice.

After earning my BA degree, I first attended law school and then moved on to graduate school. My career soon required me to move eight times to four states. Yet, in all these moves and disruptions, I never took a break from my music. I am not claiming to be a poster child for practicing. However, I find it amusing when a child or an adult tells me they are too busy to practice.

When I teach my guitar class for children, 20 youngsters appear on the first day of class, ready and anxious to play. That number sometimes dwindles to a smaller number as the term goes on.  A few of the children soon realize that learning a musical instrument requires dedication and effort. When I ask the children to raise their hands if they practiced every day the first week, not many raise their hands. Yet, when I ask them if they watched TV or play video games daily, many of them salute in unison.

Adults are not much different. In the past, I had adults tell me that unlike me, music is not the way they make a living. Music is not their sole interest. They have a family or they have other obligations. My response to such comments is that if I had ever thought that way when I started playing music, I would not have reached the level in which I play today. I never considered practicing music in a manner which would generate income or as a means of making a living. I never let my job, family and friends, hobbies or other interests, or the various moves I made from state to state,  interfere with my determination to practice and learn music. I simply practiced because I enjoyed the music.

I guess my rationale is that if you have the time to take a shower (which I hope you do) then you have the fifteen or twenty minutes a day to play the banjo, guitar or mandolin.  If you can watch an hour or more of the latest reality shows on TV, then you can practice your instrument an hour a day. It is all a matter of how you prioritize your time.  In my case, music just became a passion and a high priority.  It was never intended to be a career.


Posted in Music Technique, Uncategorized | Tagged | 9 Comments

Frets & Math

Music Theory 101

Music Theory 101

In one of my guitar classes, I had a student mentioned that she never thought she’d have to learn algebra to learn music.  Algebra you ask? No .. we weren’t learning algebra.  We may have been applying a little geometry to our musical education.  We definitely were learning how to count (at least from one to twelve). We counted backwards and forwards.  Maybe we added or subtracted notes. Yet, algebra is not something that we were using.

You see, there is a certain amount of math involved in music theory. A student of the banjo, guitar and mandolin must understand numbers to truly have an understanding of the fingerboard. Not all musicians understand music theory and yet, they are great players.  However, the student who manages to understand the numerical relationships of notes, will have an easier time creating and playing melody lines and lead riffs.

Frets & Numbers

Every Fingerboard Has Numerical Relationships

When comparing the banjo, guitar and mandolin, you will find certain numerical similarities, as well as some differences.  The guitar, for instance, is tuned to fourths. This means that the note adjacent to another note you play on the next string is the forth note of the root note’s scale.  Confused?  Well, it is simpler than it sounds. The mandolin is tuned to fifths. The banjo?  It is a little more complex regarding scale structure. I do not mean to confuse you further but on the banjo and in one instance, the guitar, the pattern of notes shift.  It will be the shifts that alter a simple box relationship and make playing a scale a little more difficult.

Geometry & Music?

What about Geometry? Boxes, circles, angles and rectangles also exist on the banjo, guitar and mandolin.  If you study the fingerboard of each of these instruments, you will discover relationships between many of the notes. It is these geometrical relationships that open up the fingerboard for a student.

So when you go to see your music instructor, if they do not know the relationships of the notes on the fingerboard, then they probably can’t help to clearly explain the instrument to you. A good instructor will not only know how to play the instrument but will be able to provide a fingerboard map to a student, which will guide you towards better lead play.


Posted in Music Theory | Tagged , , | 9 Comments

Good Bye Les

Les Paul 1915-2009

Les Paul 1915-2009

Today the Music World Lost

a Legend & Pioneer

Earlier today, August 13, 2009, I received news that my friend Les Paul died at age 94. When I say my friend, I  should clarify that unfortunately, I did not have the chance to meet Les in my lifetime. However, every time I went to the music store to play a Gibson electric guitar or watch many famous guitar greats who played a Gibson Les Paul Custom guitar, I knew that Les Paul signified quality and greatness. This man touched many people and through the solid body electric guitar, many performers were in touch with Les.

Les Paul Was An Innovator

Les Paul Was An Innovator

Ironically, I just stopped at my local library yesterday to pick up a book called “The Early Years of the Les Paul Legacy”, written by Robb Lawrence. This is an excellent resource with a pictorial and written history of the man and a message from Les himself. I selected this book because of my interest in the history of musical instruments and the pioneers who contributed to the development of these instruments.  Les Paul not only played guitar (with his wife Mary Ford as his vocalist), but he is responsible for many of the innovations in the design of the solid body electric guitar and was a genius in the recording industry.

There are some notable facts that Mr. Lawrence documents in his book about Les Paul.  In late 1936, Les was one of the first guitarists to use a Spanish electric guitar in an orchestra on the radio.  In 1940, Les began to utilize inexpensive Epiphone Zephyr model guitars, where he experimented with the pickup configurations.  His experimentation led to incorporating a Rickenbacher vibrola (which was patented in 1929) and using them exclusively. Doc Kauffman, the inventor of the vibrola, would later team up with Leo Fender for the first steel guitars and amplifiers. Meanwhile, Les Paul continued tinkering with Epiphones to reinforce them with metal plate enhancements.

Les Paul - A Guitar Legend

Les Paul - A Guitar Legend & American Icon

You can also read about Les and his accomplishments in a book entitled “Gibson Guitar – 100 years of an American Icon”. The author, Walter Carter, explains that in 1951, Les would partner with Gibson to introduce the Gibson Les Paul Model solid body electric guitar, which featured  P-90 pickups and a cylindrical bridge tailpiece. Modifications were later made to include the stop tailpiece, tune-o-matic bridge, and coveted humbucking pickups. Decades later, as early as 1993, these guitars were recreated, and today are desirable reissues of the early original Gibson solid bodies. As early as 1941, Les Paul’s retrofitted 20 lb instrument with a Gibson neck, referred to as “the Log”, is considered the first solid body electric guitar.

Les Paul Was a Recording Pioneer

Les Paul Was a Recording Pioneer

While there are various books on this great legend, one notable program worth watching is a program PBS aired on Less Paul entitled “Chasing Sound”.  In this documentary, Les is noted as more than a musician or performer, he was recognized for his experimentation with sound and recordings.  His multi-track recordings, which he completed in a garage at his home in California, revolutionized the recording industry.  “Overdubbing” and “reverb” are terms associated with the late great Les Paul; a recording genius who experimented with the recording of sound, in a similar manner as he experimented with the guitar itself.

I think its safe to say that almost every young guitar player has a dream to one day own and play a Les Paul guitar. Everyone from BB King, Keith Richards, Buddy Holly, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Peter Townshend and more have not only played the Les Paul Custom guitar but credit Les Paul with his  major contributions to making the recording industry what it is today.

No .. I never met Les Paul, nor did I ever see him play live.  Yet, as a fellow guitar player, I can’t help but consider Les a friend.

May Les Paul Rest In Peace.

Posted in Guitar, History | 8 Comments

Banjo Rap

Does The Banjo Get A “Bad Rap” At Times?

Hog on the Banjo - NYPL (Used with Permission)

Hog on the Banjo - NYPL (Used with Permission)

Is the banjo and instrument that sometimes receives undeserved or critical judgment from  non-musical observers? At times, I notice references made on television or in public, to the banjo or banjo playing.  These comments may include references to Dueling Banjos and mountain men.   Once I heard a late night show address the banjo in a comical manner, as though it is as they called it; a “hillbilly instrument”. Some, for effect, like to hum or whistle the first couple of notes of Dueling Banjos as though the banjo is not sophisticated.  Maybe some well recognized Scruggs tunes, such as the Beverly Hillbillies theme song or Foggy Mountain Breakdown (the theme song from Bonnie & Clyde), may have inadvertently stereo-typed the banjo with a biased or opinionated image of the rural countryside.

What the public doesn’t often hear are jazz and orchestral arrangements that are performed by some of today’s best banjo players.  Have you heard of Alison Brown or Jens Kruger?  If you haven’t, you are missing two of today’s most diversified banjo players, who aren’t afraid to extend the instrument’s reach to jazz, classical or chamber music.  Listen to Bela Fleck play his electric banjo with his band the Flecktones, or how his five sting banjo sounds in an album called “Perpetual Motion”, and you will be amazed at the unlimited possibilities this instrument has to offer.

As a performer of the guitar, mandolin and the banjo, I find it interesting that when you go to a local music store in many metropolitan areas, a customer is lucky to find one or two cheap and overpriced banjos, at the end of a long row of guitars.  The music store owner fails to recognize the instrument’s potential or promote the instrument to the public.  Sure, the guitar is one of the most popular instruments to play but even my first banjo class had fifteen registered participants with a wait list of ten. Yet, there were hardly any banjos to be found for sale at local music stores.

An Audience Is Captivated By The Banjo's Sound

An Audience is Captivated By the Sound of the Banjo

Ironically, when playing music in public, the banjo has a presence that is captivating.  I have played guitar for almost as many years as the banjo. I could sit with another guitar player and strum some of our best tunes without much recognition beyond a polite applause. However, when I put the guitar down and start playing the banjo, the audience comes alive and they are mesmerized. Children, as well as adults, are fascinated with the sound the instrument makes.

So what do you think?  Does the banjo get an unfair rap?

Posted in Banjo, History | Tagged , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Music Therapy

Each and every one of us experience stress in our daily life activities. Whether you have lost a love one, lost a job, are having financial difficulties, broke up with you significant other, or are facing other challenges in life; music can be your salvation. I am not trying to preach to you. I am just simply stating what I believe is a fact.

Playing Music Is Therapeutic

Playing Music Is Therapeutic

Music therapy, as a profession, is studied at a number of colleges throughout the country. According to the American Music Therapy Association, professional musical therapists help to promote wellness, alleviate pain, manage stress, enhance memory, and promote physical rehabilitation.  In fact, various studies have also found that music education can fight Alzheimer’s disease and assist others with brain injuries.

Talk to a professional musician and they might tell you that their music is like water or air to them. They might add that the thought of not having music in their life is unimaginable. I can attest that in addition to my family, music has been my therapy. To play or perform music is a means of healing the soul. When I play music, I am not overwhelmed thinking about daily problems. I am relaxed. I am in my zone, so to speak.

Now some of you may say that when you play music, you are anxious or uptight. You get frustrated with the way you play or perform. Yet, if you practice hard, you will reap the rewards that music has to offer. Your sense of accomplishment will be therapeutic. Not everyone has the benefit of utilizing this creative part of their personality though. After all, there are many who listen to music and far less who actually study and play an instrument on a daily basis.

I sense that other musicians feel this way. Their creativity is promoted through music, like an artist’s creativity is revealed in a painting. Others who are not musicians may seek outlets that are different than an artist or the banjo, mandolin or guitar player. For me, though, a life without music would seem empty. Its a lifestyle and a passion of mine. It is part of my body, mind and soul.

Posted in Fretmentor News, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 10 Comments