Bass – One Year Later

Almost exactly one year ago, I took delivery of a Gold Tone MicroBass. Thus began a new phase in my life as a musician.

Now there might be some of you who might wonder why I would want to play bass. To those few who think that, I’m tempted to say, stop reading now and go away! But no, I’ll just say that if you’re grooving to a song, it’s really the bass and drums that you’re grooving to. It’s the bass and drums that you’re dancing to. Bass and drums are the backbones of most bands. I can attest from the jams I participate in that the other musicians really appreciate the presence of a bass player.

In a previous installment, I discussed how over the Summer I borrowed a couple of full-sized bass guitars from the local musical instrument lending library to gain some experience with that instrument. However, when practicing and jamming, I was still reaching for my M-bass since it was so much easier to play. But when my M-bass was out of action for a couple of weeks, I had to jam with my borrowed Yamaha. It was just the push I needed to get over the hump. Within days, I was playing that Yamaha with confidence. I was even taking the Yamaha to jams after I got my M-bass back from the shop.

I liked that Yamaha bass. The quality of instruments from the MILL varies quite a bit, but that Yamaha was a good choice. I was even leaning towards buying a Yamaha of my own. But then back at the end of August, I visited the local music store.

For those unfamiliar with bass, Fender is THE name in bass guitars. For many bass players, the Fender is by far their instrument of choice. But due to their price, I never expected that I would own a Fender. However, the music store had this used Fender Jazz in spotless condition offered for an affordable price that I just couldn’t pass up.

The Fender isn’t as light as the Yamaha, but it’s rock solid. The neck is smooth with absolutely no sharp points on any of the frets. I’m not a big fan of the classic sunburst color scheme, but then again, when buying a used instrument, you don’t have the luxury of choice. Besides, I’ll take playability and sound quality over the color any time. And it’s an instrument that will keep it’s value over time.

These days, I participate in as many as three jams per week primarily with my new J-bass. The first jam of the week is at the local Senior’s Centre. For the second, I bring my M-bass to the ukulele jam in Gananoque. But the third jam is the one that offers the most challenge, and is the one I look forward to the most.

On Thursday afternoons, I jam with a group of people at the Collins Bay Legion, often with a bit of an audience. There’s me with my J, a tenor banjo player, a fiddle player, and the rest play guitar. They say you should always play with better players, and these guys are good. I’m always stretching my skills, and I often leave as a noticeably better bassist.

I’m really enjoying playing my Fender J, but sometimes it does feel intimidating. It’s a no nonsense instrument used by musicians in the big leagues. It often feels like that instrument demands as much from me as I expect from it. It’s a challenge, but it’s a challenge I’m gladly stepping up to.

Cheers! Hans

 

I Am A Musician

There are times when I look at my bass and wonder: “How the heck do I play that thing?”. I then pack up my gear, head to one of my regular jams, and still I pound out some decent bass lines. I’ll never be as good as Geddy Lee or Bruce Thomas, but I’m doing fine, and getting better each time out.

Back when I was young, I took piano lessons. I hated it! Later, in my teens, I tried my hand at guitar. While I was more motivated to practice, it never really stuck at the time, and I stopped playing. Fast forward to 2007 when I turned 50. That December, Sylvana asked me (as she usually does) what I wanted for Christmas. I said that I wanted a ukulele. After all, at the time, the ukulele had been gaining in popularity, and I was indeed curious. She did get me one, and I loved it! I had finally truly discovered the joy of making music.

Over time, my collection of ukuleles grew, and I branched out into other instruments, including banjo, and more recently, bass. I’ve found that choice of instrument is important in maintaining an interest in making music. Ukulele, in particular, is a wonderful introductory instrument since it doesn’t take a lot of practice to get it to sound like it’s supposed to. But with practice you can still do a lot of interesting things with it. And while I learned a bit of music theory during those painful piano lessons, ukulele can help bring the music theory into a practical focus.

Likewise, when learning bass, I started with a Gold Tone Micro-bass. Although it’s bigger than a typical U-bass, the M-bass is sometimes classified as a bass ukulele. The M-bass is a lot of fun and easy to play. In fact, I was jamming with it after just six days of practice.

This Summer, I’ve been making an effort to learn how to play the full-size, solid-body bass guitar by borrowing instruments from Joe’s MILL. Since the M-bass is so much easier to play, I tended to grab that first when practicing and jamming. However, an accident with my M-bass forced me to bring my borrowed Yamaha to a jam, and I managed fine with it. The full-sized instrument has additional challenges in technique, mainly in the realm of limiting fret noises and muting the unplayed strings. But once I broke the ice with that first jam, I’ve been jamming mainly with the Yamaha since then.

(When I return my borrowed Yamaha to the MILL, I’ll probably buy a Yamaha bass. Of the basses I’ve borrowed this Summer, I like this particular instrument the best. It feels right and play well. From what I’ve read, the Yamaha’s are considered very good value.)

My point in this tome is that, while I’ve been making music now for almost a dozen years, I still sometimes find it hard to call myself a “musician”. Some artists describe the creative process as if there were some supernatural spirit controlling them. And sometimes I too feel like it’s not really me playing an instrument. But that ignores the dozen years of experience and practice I’ve gone through. I’m fundamentally a lazy person, though, and I have difficulty focusing on things that I don’t enjoy doing. But I enjoy making music. What I’ve done over the past dozen years doesn’t seem like practice at all since it’s been so much fun.

With what I can now do with ukulele, banjo, and now bass, there’s no reason now for me to avoid saying this: I am a musician.

Cheers! Hans

The Making of “a walk in the woods”

Part 2: The Video

A few days ago I posted a description of how I created the music for my video “a walk in the woods”, which you can view here. Today, I discuss how I made the video.

While composing the tune, I had a vision of accompanying it with video of walking through the woods, with the shots becoming more frantic as the tune progressed. Since the weather had been so rainy, it took a few days before I had a chance to venture out into the Lemoine Point Conservation Area. I hoped to spot the trilliums in bloom, but it was too soon for that.

This is a time of year when I love taking pictures in the woods. The trees are still bare and you can see much of the interior landscape unhindered by foliage. And the Spring weather is still comfortable.

I quickly had some good video of walking along the paths, with forward and side shots, as well as some shots of my feet walking. Not planned in advance were the shots of the squirrels and turkeys. Also unexpected were the stretches of muddy path along the eastern edge of the park. Unfortunately, at one point I got confused about when I was recording and when I wasn’t, and missed some shots of a couple of deer.

Back home, it was back to the computer. Just as I used free open-source software to create the music, the rest of the process also used free software. First, to capture the audio output from MuseScore, I used the program Audacity, a powerful multi-track audio editor and recorder. I made extensive use of Audacity for our Christmas video. But this time, I only needed Audacity to capture the audio. No additional tweaking was needed for the sound track.

The video was edited using the powerful open-source program Kdenlive. This is similar to Audacity, but for video. You can edit and combine video clips, applying various effects if needed. At any time you can play the video to see how things look. I used two video tracks, one with the audio muted. Regarding the effects, there are literally hundreds of different effects to choose from. I used only two: Greyscale and speed.

Before rendering the video, I needed to use one more piece of free open-source software, the GIMP, a powerful image-editing program. This is comparable to Photoshop, but of course, several hundred dollars cheaper. I used GIMP for the titles.

One design decision I mulled over for a few minutes was whether or not to desaturate the video. But choosing black and white was really a no-brainer. Often, monochrome is considered pretentious and stilted. But color can often be a distraction from the essence of the image, especially if the colors of the scene are boring. In a wooded area, the colors are mainly browns and greens. Well, mainly browns at this time of year. By leaving aside color, you can concentrate on other creative factors, such as the textures, lighting, and composition.

In conclusion, it’s truly amazing what kinds of tools are available to us for little or no cost. This video was produced using only open-source software available for free, running on a budget-priced computer I bought about seven years ago.

Cheers! Hans

The Making of “A Walk In The Woods”

Part 1: The Music

A few weeks ago, I woke up with a silly tune in my head. Normally when that happens, I promptly forget the tune. But this time, I quickly sketched out the tune on a piece of paper and put it on my desk. Later, I took that sketch and scored the tune for a trio of flute, cello, and bass. Once done, I shot some video at the Lemoine Point Conservation Area, and put together a short film. You can view it here:

Now, I’m the first to admit that I’m no musical prodigy. Far from it. But I know enough music theory to be dangerous. And so I fired up a program called MuseScore, and got down to composing. In this post, I describe how I went about creating the music.

To begin with, let me explain a couple of basic principles of music theory. First, a chord is defined as a sequence of three or more notes played together or in close succession. A major chord consists of three notes: the first, third, and fifth notes of the musical scale. In do-re-mi terms, those are the do, mi, and sol. For example, a C major chord consists of the notes C, E, and G.

Second, many songs fall into the category of the “three-chord song“. That’s true for literally tens of thousands of pop, folk, country, and blues songs. Those three chords typically are the major chords based on the first, fourth, and fifth notes of the scale. For a three-chord song in the key of G major, the chords are G major, C major, and D major.

Back to my silly tune, it’s basically a three-chord song in the key of G. Here’s the basic theme:

The flute, scored in the treble clef, carries the melody. The cello simply plays the notes of a major chord, one chord per bar, in the sequence of G, C, G, D, G, C, D, and G. The bass, played an octave below the cello, plays the root note of the chord.

MuseScore isn’t the easiest bit of software to learn or use. But it’s very powerful, and allows you to compose a score using pretty much any musical terms you want. You enter note mode, and then click on where you want each note to go. You can then play back the song and listen to what you composed. You can also tweak each track to get the sound you want.

Once the basic theme was done, I then copied those nine bars, and made slight changes to the theme. I repeated that process multiple times, each time diverging more and more from the original theme, changing mainly the flute and bass parts. Over the course of the entire song, the bass part in particular became more intricate. At certain points, I changed from 3/4 time to 5/4 time, and even to 7/4 time. The piece gets more and more frenetic, but returns to the initial theme at the very end.

Many artists have commented that often when inspiration strikes, it feels like there’s some spirit or muse taking over. That’s how it felt writing this piece. I was amazed at how quickly it came together. Even the intricate bass runs did not need much tweaking once I entered in the notes. In the past, this kind of thing required years of dedicated study and practice. And yet, with the right technology, this rank amateur could whip this out in a matter of a few hours.

If you think the software is expensive, think again. MuseScore is free open-source software. Downloads are freely available for Windows, Mac, and Linux.

In conclusion, I’ll just say this: If I can create a piece of music like, I’m sure anyone can. It just takes a bit of knowledge of music theory and the patience to learn a tricky but powerful piece of software.

Cheers! Hans

 

It’s All About The Bass

My musical explorations have taken a few twists and turns over the past decade. It’s now almost eleven years since I started playing ukulele. In the mean time, I also started playing a tenor banjo. Not a great stretch since I tune it like a low-G uke. But now, I’m a bass player.

While attempting to get other members of my family interested in music over the past few years, I borrowed a number of bass guitars from the local musical instrument lending library. But that only served to pique my own interest in the instrument. As a ukulele player, I was of course very tempted by the Kala uBass. But ultimately, I decided on a Gold Tone MicroBass, and I’ve been playing it now for the past month.

Why did I pick that instrument? I wanted something easy to play, and I think the MicroBass is just that. The polymer strings are definitely easier on the fingers than any metal strings. And I wanted something that sounded cool. Something suitable for folk and jazz. Paired with a Fender Rumble amp, it sounds great.

How have I been handling my new obsession? Well, so far, in the past month, I’ve played my bass three times at the weekly jam at the local Senior’s Centre. And I’ve done not too badly on it. Granted, I did some noodling on the borrowed instruments, and I did some research on how to play the bass before diving whole-hog into the instrument. But within days of taking delivery, I was pounding out some respectable, albeit simple bass riffs. Over time, with practice, I can only get better at it.

Why play bass? The obvious choices for people taking up an instrument are the popular ones: guitar and ukulele. They’re easy to learn, and you can play solo. However, when playing with a group, variety becomes important. Throwing a bass into the mix of instruments, the whole flavor of the sound changes. I know from experience that a bass player is very much appreciated in a jam environment.

How important is a bass? Well, recent studies determined that the bass was the most important element in any band. While not everyone may agree with that, others argue that at least the bass is more important than the guitars. And I think they’re right on that point.

So now, I begin a new chapter of my musical endeavors, on yet another four-stringed instrument!

Cheers! Hans

My Next Musical Instrument?

A couple of years ago, someone asked me what was the difference between the baritone ukulele and the tenor guitar. I couldn’t answer the question since I never heard of a tenor guitar before. Later, I did a bit of research and discovered the answer.

The tenor guitar is a slightly smaller guitar with the neck of a tenor banjo, originally made so tenor banjo players could easily play guitar instead. Like the tenor banjo, standard tuning of the tenor guitar is in fifths, CGDA. However, other tunings, such as DBGE, are also very common. Compared to a baritone uke, the tenor banjo is a bit bigger but with a narrower neck.

Like many other ukulele players, I have a modest collection of instruments. I’ve never really been a fan of the baritone, and so I’ve never been tempted to add a baritone to my collection. But I rather like the tenor guitar. Sometimes, you can find a tenor guitar made by Kala at the local music store, and I must say, it sounds rather nice. It combines the sound you’d expect from a guitar with the ease of playing of a ukulele. I really can’t justify buying a new instrument right now, but I find this instrument very tempting.

So why choose a four-stringed guitar instead of a conventional six-stringed instrument? Think of those two bass strings on a normal guitar, tuned to E and A. For many chords, these strings aren’t used at all. When strumming, many chords require that you don’t touch those strings at all, and yet, they will still vibrate and contribute to the sound. This is fine for some keys, but for others, you really need a capo to avoid dissonant notes from those two strings.

Like a ukulele, the only notes you get out of a tenor guitar are from the vibrations of the four strings. That is, you get a more pure sounding chord. Many guitar players who use just a strumming style of play would get along quite nicely with this four-stringed guitar.

Don’t get me wrong, I love guitar music. The guitar is a very flexible instrument, and can produce wonderful music from a skilled player. It’s no wonder that it’s such a popular instrument. However, many who try it get discouraged and give it up, never bothering to try playing music again. Like ukulele, the tenor guitar should be given more of a chance.

Cheers! Hans

Adventures in Banjo

Is the ukulele a gateway instrument? I suppose many kids who learn ukulele in school move on to guitar, and that’s great. An instrument as easy to learn as ukulele can easily give kids an appreciation for music that can last a lifetime.

As James Hill once said, for middle-aged folk like me, ukulele can be a second chance at music. I started playing uke about seven years ago, and I’ve loved making music ever since. I know I’ll never be good enough to play professionally, but that really doesn’t matter. Ukulele has also been a gateway instrument for me. Ever since I was young, I secretly wanted a banjo. A couple of years ago, I satisfied my long-held desire, and added a banjo ukulele to my modest collection of instruments. As fun as ukulele is already, the banjo uke is even more fun. More recently, I added another banjo to my collection, a tenor banjo.

When most people think of banjo, they think of the five-string banjo, a staple of bluegrass music. While I love bluegrass music, I didn’t want to limit myself to that genre. To me, the four-string tenor banjo offers more flexibility when playing, allowing both strummed and picked styles of playing.

However, the tenor is not as common as the bluegrass banjo. You just don’t find many to choose from in the local music stores, if you can find any at all. I found an inexpensive Trinity River tenor in a local pawn shop, but one poster in an on-line banjo forum recommended against it. But a couple of months ago, while visiting Renaissance Music, I found two tenors, one a used Gold Tone tenor, which I ended up buying.

Note that there are multiple ways to tune a tenor banjo. (Heck, there are lots of ways to tune the bluegrass banjo too.) The standard way is CGDA. But other common tunings include mandolin tuning (GDAE) and “Chicago” tuning (DGBE). The latter is also how you tune a baritone ukulele. When I tried out that Gold Tone tenor in the store, I had a hard time getting what I thought was the A string into tune. When that string snapped at home and I got a new set of strings, I realized that the instrument was tuned to DGBE, not CGDA.

I noticed that CGDA tuning is similar to standard ukulele tuning, GCEA. When I installed the new strings, I reversed the C and G strings, and tuned the D up a whole note. This allowed me to play the tenor using ukulele fingering, while keeping the same range of notes as a standard tenor banjo. But that tuning sounded odd. The difference between the second and third strings was just too great. So I then took the original B string, and replaced the third string, tuning the new string to C. And so I ended up with a banjo tuned exactly like my low-G tenor ukulele. In the future, I may experiment with re-entrant high-G uke tuning on this tenor.

I still have a lot of practicing to do before I play my new toy in public. The frets are further apart and the strings closer together, making left-hand fingering a bit trickier. Like the banjo ukulele, any time you touch the instrument, it makes noise, which has to be controlled. But also like my banjo uke, my new tenor has a resonator that can be removed, which can make the instrument a tad quieter, useful when practicing at home.

Most every month, you can find me performing with my banjo uke at the Kingston Sing-along Society sessions, normally scheduled for the first Friday of the month, at the Kingston Unitarian Fellowship. At some point, after more practicing, I’ll bring my new tenor.

Cheers! Hans

Open Mic Night At The Royal

The Royal Tavern in downtown Kingston has a history. Sure, there are lots of old 19th Century buildings in the city. But the Royal is significant historically for a couple of reasons. First, it’s supposedly the oldest continuously operated bar in the city. Second, the building was once owned by Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister.

Note that there’s no bronze plaque outside the bar noting the fact that Sir John A. drank here. Someone said that if there were a bar in the States once owned and frequented by George Washington, there’d be a line of tour buses waiting outside today. But here in Canada, we tend not to confer mythical hero status to our founding fathers. There are plenty of sites in Kingston related to Sir John A., such as his law office, grave site, and home. But apart from the latter, we don’t make too big a deal of them.

But getting back to the Royal, in addition to its historical significance, it has a bit of a reputation as a rough bar. The owner is trying to reverse that reputation, with success. And now, the bar is establishing itself as a good place for live music. Take Thursday nights for example, when there’s an open mic or open jam. Between songs by the great house band, usually blues or jazz inspired, others can take the stage. And yesterday, I was one of those, banjo-ukulele in hand.

What’s it like going up on stage at the Royal? The place is noisy. Although it’s a few block from the university, most people here are middle-aged. It’s a place to drink, talk, and generally have a good time. Few people actually pay direct attention to the musicians, but still show their appreciation of the music at the end of each song. I’m usually nervous on stage, however I found the environment pretty comfortable, probably due to the fact that there weren’t forty pairs of eyeballs staring at me. And afterwards, a number of people asked me questions about my banjo-uke, something few if any had actually seen or heard close up.

To borrow a 1960’s cliche, on Thursday nights, this is a “happening place”. And it seems to have gotten this way without much in the way of publicity. Or much in the way of choice in beer. There’s one beer on tap, Canadian, plus a modest selection of bottled brew. But considering the ambiance and the music, I don’t mind the limited choice. If anything, that’s part of the character of the place.

Cheers! Hans

The Song Remains the Same

Are you unsatisfied with current trends in music? Although good music has always been produced, does it seem to you that there’s less and less good music coming out these days? Well, you’re not alone. Joan Serrà and his colleagues at the Artificial Intelligence Research Institute in Barcelona have studied music over the past few decades, and their conclusions show that music has become more homogenous over time. And louder too. You can read about their research at The Economist.

Granted, it’s hard to find good music these days. And perhaps my age is showing too. The defining style of music for me was the New Wave of the late 1970’s. The early 1970’s featured a lot of good music, but nothing that really spoke to me the way the music of Elvis Costello, Talking Heads, Blondie, and B-52’s did. In the 1980’s, I explored other musical genres, like jazz and classical. But other pressures increasingly hampered my ability to keep up with current events in music. But most of what I did hear in the 1990’s and 2000’s wasn’t especially noteworthy, in my opinion.

Fast forward to Christmas 2007, when I got my first ukulele, an inexpensive Beaver Creek. I fell in love again with music. Sure, I tried my hand at guitar when I was young. But I lost interest after a while, especially once I tried practicing the barred chords. But the ukulele was something else. Four strings, four fingers – what could make more sense? The neat thing about the uke is that it’s easy to form the chords. And not just the basic chords. In many cases, more esoteric chords aren’t that difficult either. Practice helps immensely, of course. However, the success rate at learning chords, and the ease of playing barred chords, makes it possible for anyone to master songs that use more than just your basic chords.

What’s the point of today’s missive? I suppose it’s this: More musicians should learn ukulele. With it’s ease of learning and playing, I would suggest that it’s easier to explore different and original chord sequences on the uke. Have you ever wondered where the diminished chords have gone? They were very common in the early 20th Century. How come we don’t see them very often today?

Think of the songs of George Harrison, and note that he was a big fan of the ukulele. I wonder how many of his songs were inspired from just noodling on the uke? If you have a uke handy, try out this iconic chord sequence, one strum per chord:

Familiar? Should be. It’s from one of his most famous songs! And the rest of this song can be played just as easily. And not just the chords. The melody line of this song is easily played as well.

For some time now, I’ve been wondering what the next big trend in music will be. Will we ever again see some new movement as sweeping and refreshing as the late 1970’s New Wave? Is there enough cohesiveness among music fans to give a New New Wave a chance in today’s fragmented entertainment environment? Or will commercial interests continue to foist blandness upon us?

I call on all songwriters and musicians to turn back the tide. Let’s bring back variety and interest to our songs. Have all the songs already been written? No, of course not. There’s a whole slew of new chord sequences to explore. And the ukulele can help you to explore them.

Cheers! Hans

Busking in Support of Joe’s M.I.L.L.

Ever willing to push the limits of my comfort zone musically, I eagerly plunged into volunteering for a couple of busking sessions a few weeks ago. The idea was for area musicians to busk for a half hour on Kingston’s market square and donate the proceeds to the Joe Chithalen Memorial Musical Instrument Lending Library.

Now then, I’m the first to admit that I’m not the greatest musical performer. But I also admit to an ulterior motive, to try to raise awareness of the ukulele in this city. So I picked out about 20 of my best songs, and went downtown.

My first session was at 11AM at the corner of Brock and King, at the north end of the market. On market day, this is the busiest, and noisiest, corner. Most people just walked by, few willing to admit to the presence of a street performer. I was relieved about 40 minutes later by a guy playing blues on a resonator guitar.

I then signed up for another session, but at a quieter corner of the market. Fewer people walked by, but there were a few sitting close by listening to the performances, sometimes commenting on the songs. This time, Roger, the librarian at Joe’s M.I.L.L. joined me on acoustic bass for a few songs, which was much appreciated.

What did I learn from this? First, I’ll never make a living by busking on the ukulele! But more importantly, I now know first hand what it feels like on the other side. I’ve always enjoyed listening to street musicians, and generally, I always try to be supportive, even if I don’t have time to stay and listen. But most people just pass by quickly, not even wanting to risk the shortest eye contact. While I was performing, frankly, I didn’t care that much about the loose change thrown into my ukulele case. I just wanted at least some small acknowledgment from the passersby.

So my point is this: Be kind to street musicians. They’ve all practised for years to get to the point of being able to perform in public. Even if you can’t spare some change, at least say hi, or offer some sign of support. It doesn’t take much effort on your part, but can mean a lot to the performer.

Omnifariously yours, Hans