Bluegrass and Stuff

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How do you do, you all! Sit yourself on a nice comfortable chair or bed and immerse yourself in a fantastic world of— oh, who am I kidding. This is Bluegrass ‘n Stuff.

One of the coolest things you can do in music is incorporate dynamics into your playing. That’s like when the guitar picker whacks his axe all hard and twangy-like during the chorus and later settles down into an eerie soft brushing for a verse. Dynamics like that are so cool. The only thing that can rival coolness like that is… the right kind of hair. Del McCoury’s “Swoop-back” is something to behold. (I’ve been trying to get him to do an A.P. Carter two-chambered hair part but he’s yet to return my calls.)

Anyway, I can’t stress enough (so I’ll save myself the effort of trying) that changes in rhythm, tempo, and volume are important things to consider if you want your playing to stand out. Keeping your band (or yourself) interesting and unique will keep your band (or yourself) in the audience’s head when they have to decide between stages at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in SF (San Francisco for short). Keep in mind, you don’t want to get funky and change the tempo mid-song at a jam or else you might become a tad annoying.

Now, let’s move on to your equipment. Your plectrum, also known as a pick, is one of the main tools you will be using to create soft/loud dynamics through your strumming/picking. Obviously, this portion of the article is more dedicated to guitars and mandolins since fiddlers use a bow and all banjos can do is just *clang-clang-clang.* (Nothing personal against banjos; it’s just part of the universal, non-verbal banjo contract.)

There are a wide variety of picks out there to use. You may be saying, “But Kyle, how thick do I want my plectrum?” Well, it depends. Some people like really thick picks because they give off a full-bodied, rounded tone. Thick picks are generally regarded as those above one millimeter. Michel Wegen makes picks upwards of 3.5mm. I have a hard time using super-thick picks because for me, I have to really dig into the strings to make ‘em loud and when I quiet down, the pick gives off a kind of ‘blunty’ sound. Plus, somehow thick picks make me feel fat.

And then there are thin picks, which can go as low as .38 in thickness. Some people like to use thin picks because they give a thin, crisp sound. Plus, the picks are thin and malleable. When I was a little ‘un, I used to like using thin picks (well, let’s just say I did because I can’t remember back that far). In the beginning, a thin pick was good. When you start learning to play, you’re trying to get the strumming and picking and all in your muscle memory, so struggling with a thick pick that’s always getting caught in the strings ain’t always the best. So thin picks can be good for some people to start with. However, when you start trying to make louder sounds, you’ll end up getting a clicky sound from the pick (or a broken pick). You can’t really get enough volume out of a thin pick, so eventually you’ll want to upgrade to a thicker pick.

Personally, I like the best of both worlds. The ideal pick for me is thin enough that I can do quiet moody pickin’ (while keeping an edgy sharp sound) and strong enough that I can do hard fast thrashin’ n’ strummin’ without the clicky bending and without feeling like I’m playing with a hockey puck. This is the tortoise shell pick. They are amazing to play with. They can be made quite thin and yet they can have the strength and hardness of a plastic pick three times the size. Unfortunately, tortoise shell is a rare commodity—oh… and just a tad illegal—so your tortoise pick collection may not be the best conversation piece while you’re on a poacher sting operation with your buddies. Fortunately, there is an alternative: Tortis® picks! These picks are chemically similar to tortoise shell and are by far the closest thing to tortoise shell picks. They play like the real thing and the turtles love ‘em!

OK, you’ve got your ideal pick. Now, how can you use it to bring out the ‘feeling’? The best way for mandolins to put out a lot of feeling is to use lots of tremelo. Fast or slow, it doesn’t matter. Just don’t put a lot of force in it. It sounds extra good when the treble strings have a hint of bass quality so it doesn’t sound annoyingly tinny. Also, some quick tips on mando-namics. That ticky-ticky mando picking can get pretty old. I personally like to do lots of double-stoppin’ tremelo and use ticky-ticky playing sparingly. Double stopping is good. It gives the mandolin a fuller sound. For some pizzazz (depending on the song), you can add mandolinical ‘explosions’ by forcefully banging the pick down on the bass strings in rapid succession, using only down-strokes. That is cool. Ok, that covers mandolin. Now for guitar…

There are many things you can do to add dynamics beyond simply varying your strumming volume. One idea is cross-picking. This is done by picking out three notes over and over again in a 1-2-3-1-2-3 pattern. You’d think it’d get annoying after a while (and it does… –Luke) but it’s catchy and George Shuffler based his whole career on it. Plus, the cross-picking can start out quiet and increase in volume for a crescendo sound. Another thing you can do is add an ‘accent brush’ or an ‘explosion’. The former is the soft, sensitive soft strum. You execute this starting with your pick on the bass string near the bridge. You then brush the strings diagonally, moving your pick down the fingerboard, so that by the time your picking hand hits the last string, your picking hand is touching your chord hand. The ‘explosion’ or ‘Ya-ha!’ kind is all in the wrist. Just let out a quick snap of it on the downbeat (without breaking your wrist) and your strings let out a sharp, loud punch that gets the toes tapping and the heads bobbin’.

Let’s see… fiddles: it’s all in the bow. That’s about it. OK, moving on.

Now let’s talk about the looks. Even though you may be literally spewing dynamics out of your kazoo, the audience may not know it. That’s when you have to get physical. Let’s say you are playing a fast song and you’re approaching a really high-energy part. You can send the audience a signal by doing a few things: 1) bob up ‘n down as if you were riding a horse, 2) smile and look really pleased, which signifies that you did something really impressive or that you like the challenge of blazing fast speed, 3) stick out your tongue out of the side of your mouth (which many people do when they are really focused), and 4) yell out, “Yeah!” or “Yeehaaa!!!!” while you are backing up someone else. The rules are a little different for soft, feely parts. What to do? 1) Sway back ‘n forth, 2) bend your knees like you’re trying to absorb some of the Soul recoil, or 3) squint your eyes.

Sometimes, you don’t even need to do those motions. You can avoid thinking about signals altogether if you first cue the audience by saying something like: “All right folks, this next song kinda gets in a hurry,” or “The song you are about to hear is about heartbreak… it may be a little slow but please don’t fall asleep.” The audience is good at picking up cues like that.

OK, I’m almost at the end of my wordal wrope (if you know what I mean). I would cover dynamic singing but really, when you get down to it, it’s either high ‘n squeeky or low ‘n grumbly.

Let’s short the circuit with a Joke of the Month: An enthusiastic door-to-door vacuum salesman goes to the first house in his new territory. He knocks and a real mean and tough looking lady opens the door, and before she has a chance to say anything, he runs inside and dumps cow patties all over the carpet. He says, “Lady, if this vacuum cleaner don’t do wonders cleaning this up, I’ll eat every chunk of it.” She turns to him with a smirk and says, “You want ketchup on that?” The salesman says, “Why do you ask?”

She says, “We just moved in and we haven’t got the electricity turned on yet.” He

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