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Accompanying the fiddle club

At the Tuesday Catacol session it came to light that the fiddle club are playing their competition entry for the Whiting Bay Music Festival this coming Friday. Normally Nick the gardener would accompany them, but he’s off down south to see a man about a guitar amongst other things. So Carol and Sandie asked if I would accompany them. So I found out on Tuesday night and had to be at their rehearsal last night, giving me all of no time at all to figure out some chords. Thankfully I had my iPod and mic with me on Tuesday so I got a recording of the tunes and messed around with my guitar in the back room at the Post Office for half an hour when it was quiet. I figured out a few chords and then headed out last night to the rehearsal which I’m pleased to say went all right.

The gig is on Friday night. We’re playing three tunes in A, Am and Bm respectively. I have some nice modal chords for the Bm tune (basically Am with a capo on 2) from the Frank Kilkelly accompaniment book and I was thinking of trying some DADGAD chords for the A and Am tune. I’ve got something that works in standard, but I’ll try the DADGAD stuff tonight and see how it goes.

So, that means I played last Tuesday, Saturday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and I’m playing again this Saturday. Things are definitey looking up! 🙂

Mandolins and guitars

Nick the gardener came round to ours last night for a jam and it was a great wee night. He brought his Fylde mandolin and Lowden O32 guitar. He’s been playing mando for about a year and has some serious chops. He plays often with a fiddle player so usually gets to play accompaniment with little chance of knocking out some melodies, so playing with me gave him that opportunity. He also showed me some basic chords on the mandolin, something which I’d just never got around to learning. He played a 3-tune medley that I recorded so I could learn to play along, but I did attempt to accompany him while the recording was under way, so I’ve included that recording on this post.

We played a good few tunes and I enjoyed playing his Lowden for a while. It recently had a refret and proper set up and it plays like buttah. My only complaint about it is its lack of bottom end, but that’s only really noticable from the player’s perspective; it sounds great from out in front.

I hope we get to play together more often as I think we could work out a few things together and have some real fun.

It’s also nice to meet a fellow sufferer of guitar acquisition syndrome! He’s off down to see Roger Bucknall of Fylde to see about getting a new guitar. There is, of course, no cure for GAS!


Guitar playing: a tale of evolution

This was partly inspired by my missing the annual UK gathering of the RMMGA newsgroup and partly by reading Duck Baker’s notes on Facebook. I had a lesson and concert with Duck back in Luxembourg and his mentioning in his notes that he could do with a few more students got me thinking about how much I would enjoy becoming one student!

I started getting serious in 2002 when I got my first nice acoustic (a Lakewood M14). It was round about that time that I started posting on the Acoustic Guitar forum, and then on a variety of other forums. Eventually I even started my own, Celtic Guitar Talk, which is still going well on its own with very little input from me.

Through the Internet I met Doug Jones (Little Brother) and flew to Atlanta to attend his annual acoustic jam in Conyers. There I got to meet some of my online acquaintances and formed some of the most meaningful friendships I’ve ever formed in such a short space of time.  Since I was already in the US, I took the opportunity to fly to El McMeen’s place in Sparta NJ for an extended lesson with him. [El McMeen]

I also met another bunch on the RMMGA newsgroup and started going to the annual UK gathering at Hargate Hall. It was similar to Little Brother’s jam in the way that great friendships were formed in a very short space of time. There’s just something about getting together with a bunch of like-minded players and escaping the humdrum with them for a few days. It’s the most wonderful thing.

At the first Little Brother jam I met Dave Skowron of Red Bear Trading (maker of the fabled Tortis Picks) and he suggested that I attend Steve Kaufman’s Acoustic Kamp and I could sell his picks in Europe to help pay my way. So I agreed and spent a fantastic two weeks at Maryland College in Tennessee playing, studying and listening with some of the greatest players. I even played on stage with one of my heroes, Tony McManus.

Learning wise I was sitting at home with tab books, online videos and DVDs. I even got to the stage where I was doing Celtic workshops at the Little Brother jam and teaching the daughter of a friend of mine.

In short, my playing was progressing at a reasonable clip; I was enthusiastic to play, to learn, to teach and to chat online about guitars with my friends all day long.

My daughter was born a few months before the first Little Brother jam and I was pleased that fatherhood didn’t seem to be curbing my enthusiasm as seems to be the case with so many people I’ve met on my travels. Even after my son was born in 2006 I was still going to the US once a year and to the UK gathering.

We left Luxembourg in January 2008 and here I sit over one year later feeling the need to write about my playing now and how it has changed.

It wasn’t the kids that curbed my enthusiasm, it was my new job. I don’t even log in to my own forum these days and that seems to be a sign of the deeper malaise. I tell myself that I’d rather be playing that ‘chatting’ so I don’t bother logging in, but the truth is that one feeds the other. I know that from experience. I’m hardly in touch with my guitar-playing friends at all and have just missed the second UK gathering in a row (I also missed the LB jam for the first time in 5 years last year).

I didn’t play at all for the first six months of being in Arran. The job was just too tiring and overwhelming. When I did get the guitar out its case, it sounded so sweet and, much to my surprise, my chops were not actually all that rusty. I spent a few evenings in front of the coal fire with lights dimmed getting to know my instruments again and it was wonderful.

Soon after that, I began going to the weekly folk nights at one of the hotels on the island and enjoyed playing there. I’m still doing that now and thankfully have just found a few tunes from my back catalogue that I haven’t played there a thousand times, but that’s partly why I’m writing now: I haven’t learned anything new since I got here. I haven’t sat with my theory books, I haven’t opened a tab book, I haven’t done much of anything new. It’s all I can do to maintain my level and not let it slip too far.

There are some things on the horizon. I’ve met a lot of good players here and there are murmurings about getting a bluegrass band together, something I’ve wanted to do since I first heard the garage sessions at the first Little Brother jam. The Catacol sessions have also given birth to the Pirnmill sessions and I’m going to that as well and having fun. The scene on Arran is actually very healthy and it’s exciting.

What I miss is sitting with a tricky tune in tab and learning it to a performable level. I don’t record or do videos now and I miss that too. I miss travelling to play with my friends. I miss the hunger to learn the theory and to sight-read and to fly across the world for a lesson – okay, so I couldn’t afford that now anyway but it would be nice still to want to do it! I’m sure that if there were a good teacher nearby that I would sign up and attend lessons. I find that I need homework or something to work towards, but more than that, I need the energy and that’s what I guess I miss the most. The job I’m doing now is not physical but it’s mentally draining and bringing in very little money, and I find being skint also mentally draining in its own way. I miss all my online friends too.

I suppose I’m not really in a bad place over all. Firstly, I am playing at least once a fortnight. I need to try harder to get the guitar out its case between sessions though. And although I’m not learning new stuff of my own, I am accompanying others a lot more and learning more about how that works.

I suppose what is happening is that my playing is evolving to fit naturally around the environment and my own commitments and there isn’t really a whole lot more I could ask for. I’m determined not to become one of those players who give up until the kids fly the roost, although I now understand why that is so common, so in that sense I guess I do have something to be pleased about: we’re through the hardest part of moving and taking on the new business, and I managed to keep playing, even just enough.

Arjun rocking out

Arjun playing my guitar in the living room
Arun and Marina were here for New Year

Arjun treated us to a post-bells tune. W1ck3d!

Music on Arran

Man, it’s been a while since I last posted an entry. Such is life right now and I miss the socialising on Vox.

Anyway, I’m just back from a great night of playing music at Pirnmill Village Hall on the other side of the island. Just a few folk, seven in total, and an array of acoustic instruments and it was truly a wonderful night. I knew that there was a lively music scene on the island before we moved here, but it’s taken me a while to figure it out and become part of it. It’s finally beginning to happen though and the scene is getting better than it ever was. It’s a great time for music on the island and hopfeully I’ll be able to expand my business in this area. I do stock some guitar strings and Tortis picks, but I should like to expand a bit into fiddle and mandolin strings, maybe banjo, more picks and that sort of thing.

My accompaniment is starting to sound quite good and I’m getting a bit better at using the capo so that I can play different chord voicings from the other players. And I’m enjoying playing the mandolin a lot now too.

There’s a folk night every Tuesday, also on the other side of the island, and the Saturday thing is every other week. It’s the same people that go to both so I’m really getting to know them and to feel comfortable playing with them. And it can only get better 🙂

Goodbye Chris

A friend of mine died today. I met Chris at the first UK gathering of RMMGA that I attended back in 2005. He was large as life and a wonderful and talented musician. He was the driving force behind the UK gatherings and did a lot for acoustic music in his local area. He was playing right up until the very end and played a great gig just two weeks ago and he was in great spirits right up until the last couple of days.

He was recently diagnosed with prostate cancer and was given a year by the doctors. He had planned on marrying his long-term sweetheart this coming July but it wasn’t to be.

Here is how I remember Chris. This is a video I shot the last time I saw him at the UK gathering in 2007. I sadly couldn’t make it this year because of my new business and I’m now really sad about that. Oh well.

Gan canny, Chris.

UK10: Chris, Malcolm – Doggone lowdown good for nothin blues



Our Leaving Do

We have three more weeks left in Luxembourg before we head back to my native Scotland. My good friends and playing partners threw a farewell bash for us at a friend’s house in a little village down on the Moselle river that forms the natural border between Lux and Germany (and whence some very nice wine comes!)

We made the event to be similar to the open mics (or speakeasys) that we have in an Irish pub in Lux City regularly. The host had a PA that sounded really good and there were several players. It was a really fun day and it was great to have it in the afternoon so that Lorraine could finally get to hear us play. She’s normally home with the bairns while I’m out playing you see, so it was a real treat for me to have her there. Of course the compliments she paid me on my performances were more than welcome! It’s been literally years since she last saw me perform and it’s not quite the same thing as playing at home.

The highlights for me were playing two duets with a friend of mine. Our we had some nice vocal harmonies going down and it was a treat for me to find someone to play the Beatles’ The Two of Us (from Let it Be). I did record the whole thing on my iPod but I was coming out of the headphone out on the mixer to a line-in feed on the iPod and the volume on the headphone out was maxed out, so the whole things was clipping all the way through and sounds pretty dreadful. Shame.



Looking for lyrics for Tell me What is True Love (Bert Jansch)

I’m working on Bert’s beautiful song, Tell me What is True Love and am having trouble figuring out all the lyrics. Google has been uncharacteristically unhelpful.

Here’s the tune and the lyrics that I’ve figured out.

Tell me what is true love

Tell me how shall I learn?
Shall there be a sign like autumn
That brings the winter and snow?

Well love is like a little boy
Building castles in the sand
And the higher he builds them
The longer they stand

Well if someone lets you down
The white snow [CAN’T FIGURE THIS BIT OUT]
Then your heart is filled with sorrow
With the pain of true love

Any takers?


I posted this question on my own guitar forum and discovered that somebody had asked the same question fairly recently (The forum is unviewable to unregistered users in an attempt to keep spammers and bot signups at bay).

So here, in all their glory, are the complete lyrics:

Tell me, what is true love?

Tell me, how shall I know?

Shall there be a sign, like Autumn

That brings the Winter her snow?

Now love is like a little boy

Building castles in the sand

And the higher he builds them

The longer they stand.

And if someone did shoot down

The white snowy dove

Then your heart is filled with sorrow

Like the pain of true love.

I’ve got the picking pattern down and the chord changes are coming along. There are just two rather pesky chords, but it’s coming. A deceptively difficult tune to play, but ultimately worthwhile!

Little Brother’s Acoustic Jam

Little Brother of Little Brother's Acoustic Jam
Little Brother

Every year my good friend Little Brother hosts Little Brother’s Acoustic Jam at his home in Conyers, GA. This year’s was the fifth such jam.

I first met LB on the Harmony Central Acoustic Guitar Forum and soon after bought one of his DVD blues lessons. From there I learned of the jam and made my first trip over there in 2004. Since then I haven’t missed a jam and I have become firm friends with so many great people.

So why do I keep going back? There are so many reasons. Firstly, the people. Little Brother and his family are the friendliest and most generous hosts you could hope to meet. LB picks me up at the airport, puts me up in his home for the duration and takes me back to the airport when we’re done. His son even gives up his room for me and other jammers to use. His wife is the sweetest, too. She does the catering for the Friday and Saturday and somehow never looks stressed or tired out. We’re talking about 90+ guests here so it really is an incredible feat and we eat some of the best BBQ I’ve had anywhere!

The jam takes place through the house, in the garage and spills out into the back garden. There is a PA set up in the garden for the open mike performances on the Friday and Saturday night and that’s a lot of fun. There are also braziers and a camp fire in the garden and people dotted all around picking and grinning or just chilling out and listening.

I always fly out on the Wednesday and the best bit is the arrival when the early birds are there and we catch up and the whole jam is still ahead of us. I was met at the airport by Alan “Surreal McCoy”, Little Brother and SteveO. Unk and Carl were already at the house. The tradition is for the early birds to hit the Northside Tavern in Atlanta on the Wednesday night to catch Mudcat and friends. I did that the first year and had a great time, but it took me the whole jam just about to catch up with the time difference. So since then I’ve always skipped the Northside and got to bed early. This year I made it to bed for 10pm (so 4am according to my body clock!) and slept through, so I was pretty much set up for from the Thursday.

On Thursday we just hung out and chilled, did some playing and waited as folks started to arrive. Some of the regulars began to appear: Dr Mike turned up with Steve Tribbet and two newbies; Orsino rolled in with his kettle and chocolate guitars courtesy of Mrs Orsino; Randy Rick came by with his arm all fixed up. Some of us took a trip out to a new guitar shop near the LB household and it was quite a nice shop. It had some nice Santa Cruzes and Froggys.

I did an open mike spot on both Friday and Saturday nights. I hadn’t actually played all that much in the months leading up to the jam. My free time was pretty much going exclusively on learning photography and image editing. So I was a little out of practice when I got to the jam. Needless to say, by Friday my fingers were hurting! My first ever open mike performance was at the 2004 jam and each year I feel more comfortable there. I’ve since played quite a lot and have a repertoire that I can draw from without too much practice. So I was able to bang out a few tunes without too much difficulty. I do still get nervous but I don’t get scared. It always amazes me though how a song you have down cold can still go wrong when under the lights. For example, I got the words to Hurt mixed up and had to think of how to repair it whilst keeping going. I’m not sure that anybody noticed. So I guess you could say that I know pretty much that mistakes will happen and I just need to learn how to deal with them without drawing attention by stopping or apologising, etc. And d’you know what? It works! As I said, I played Hurt (the Johnny Cash version), Watching TV (Roger Waters) and The Queen & the Soldier (Suzanne Vega). Unk came up to me afterwards and said that he was blown away that I played The Queen & the Soldier. I’d never played it at the open mike before but did post a recording of it a long time back and it just so happened that he was telling someone that I do that song just before I did it! It was a nice moment.

All of the performances were great and they seem to get better each year. This was the first year that local maverick musician Myles Loud wasn’t taking care of the PA — he got to play this year instead, which was a real treat for us all! — so we worked with Little Brother’s personal PA and it went really well. LB and Kay really do have the organisation down to a fine art now, including not staying up jamming until 4 or 5, and everything just seems to run smoothly. Whilst staying up late always seems like a good idea at the time, it never really is and it means that one misses much of what goes on early the next day.

One of the standout performances for me was jam newcomer and local musician, Pat Walsh. As he played I was thinking to myself “John Lennon”. Then Orsino tapped me on the shoulder and said that he thought he had a real Liverpool sound. It also reminded me of Crowded House/Neil Finn and there was a definite Britishness to his sound. He did this one song called Umbrella Birds that just blew me away. I asked him to play it again on the Saturday, which he did, and he’s agreed to send me a recording and the chords as I really would like to learn that one! This is a track from the CD that he gave out at the jam.

That's Why He Sleeps At Night

It’s always a treat to hear Joe Jordan play and he played one of my favourites that he does, a Mac McAnally song called Barney.

He also played a tune called Caledonia that he learned from a friend of mine, George Duff. I’d heard him play it last year and it brought tears to my eyes. This time he dedicated it to me and the words were much more pertinent this time with our moving to Scotland in a few short weeks. The chorus starts:

Oh but let me tell you that I love you
And I think about you all the time
Caledonia you’re calling me and I’m going home

How about that! It was a great moment.

Towards the close of play on Friday, I walked in to the garage and heard Steve Tribbet playing a Warren Zevon song. He mentioned that there was one WZ song that he’d like to learn. “It’s not Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner, is it?” I asked. Turns out that it was. I just happened to have the chords and lyrics for that song with me so I toddled off to get them and we sat and played through the song. It was a blast and made Steve’s day!

On Saturday morning British expat Peter Ready asked Orsino if he’d like to try his part-graphite, part wood Rainsong parlour plugged in to check it out so we got ourselves a cup of tea and went out to the stage. We must’ve sat there for two hours as player after player got up and did a relaxed set on the Rainsong. It was a lot of fun and a really nice guitar to play, surprisingly so in fact. If I saw one for sale I’d snap it up, particularly if it were 300 dollars as Pete’s was. Great deal, Pete!

Oh, I forgot to mention that I took my kilt with me this year and got dressed up just before I hit the stage on the Friday night. Folks seemed to like it and it was a lot of fun, particularly on the Saturday night.

But back to the Saturday afternoon for now. I asked Steve and Alan if they fancied working on Roland to do at the open mike that night. They did, so we went upstairs to rehearse for a while. We got it sounding pretty good, even if I do say so myself! I then mentioned that I’d been looking for someone to play the Beatles’ Two of Us for ages, so we worked on that too and it sounded great! The Arkansas boys know how to harmonise and it was a real treat to play it with them.

So my turn for the open mike came on Saturday. My good friend and fellow jammer Joe Carpenter and I first met at the UK gathering in 2005 and since then have met several times on both sides of the Atlantic. It has become a bit of a tradition for he and I to play Rocky Raccoon together and this time was no exception.That tune always goes down well. I then played Strolling Down the Highway (Bert Jansch) and Blackbird (Beatles) then finished with Ye Banks & Braes. I got recordings of Saturday’s performances on my iPod so you can pick a track and have a wee listen.

Rocky Raccoon

Strolling down the Highway


Ye Banks & Braes

Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner

Two of Us

Then it was time for Steve and Alan to come up. Steve made some speech about wanting to play as well as I do so figured that he should dress the same. It turns out that he and Kay had been plotting this. He took one of Kay’s skirts and wrapped it around his waist, rolled up his shorts, put on one of LB’s flat caps and then put a pink handbag around his neck. It was a whole lot of fun and shows just how great a sense of humour everyone has at the jam. We then went on to play Roland and The Two of Us and did not too bad a job I reckon. It was a really memorable night for me, but not just for that.

Birthday Present

A bit later on, LB was on stage and mentioned that it was my and his wife, Kay’s birthdays so everyone joined together in playing and singing Happy Birthday to us while we danced together down the front. There’s nothing like having Happy Birthday played and sung by a bunch of musicians! Then they wheeled out my present — a Soundseat! You could’ve knocked me down with a feather! It has my name embroidered on the back (so that I can remind Lorraine whose chair it is!) Really, this shows just what a great bunch of friends I have over there. Thank you so much folks!

Two soundseats

Sunday was the tear-down, most of which SteveO did on his own. There’s a man who knows how to get a job done! By then most folks had left and there were just a few of us left. We chilled for a while in the garden and then went out for some Mexican at night. Thanks Bob!

Absent Friends

I should also give a thought to absent friends, of which there were a few, most notably my good friend Kelvyn. Kelv is a Welshman living in Hawaii and this is the first jam that he’s had to miss. Mike Crixell was there in spirit too. There absence was made up though by the large number of jam newbies that were there this year. I guess that’s just the way things go. I made a lot of new friends this year and the newcomers all went away as awestruck as I was the first time around. I’m sure they’ll be back if they can make it!

LB took me to the airport on Monday via a steakhouse where he treated me to a nice hunk of fillet steak. That set me up nicely for the flight home. I didn’t manage to sleep on the way back but thankfully the plane had a fairly modern entertainment system (not like the flight out though – it was rubbish!) and I watched a couple of movies and read for a while.

What really gets me about guitar events like this one is that there are no egos. It’s the same at Kaufman Kamp, the UK gatherings, anywhere where a bunch of people get together to play acoustic music. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, what you do, what car you drive, what guitar you play. It’s all left at the door on the way in and it’s the best feeling. The way that LB and Kay makes everyone so welcome in their home and the huge amount of trust that they show to, what is in essence, a whole lot of strangers, is simply overwhelming. It really gives me hope and faith in humankind when I go to events like these and share the music with others. I know that may sound trite, but it really is that way and the only way to experience it is to do it. So I come back not feeling sad that it’s over or disappointed, but renewed and invigorated, like I’ve had a few days where I was able to step out of everything into a world where everything is as it ought to be, and to experience something like that, even if only for a few days, is just the best tonic.

And now that I’ve been back for a couple of weeks the enthusiasm to play still hasn’t worn off and the Soundseat really is great for playing on. I always have the best time at the jam and each year it seems to get better. Thank you all for making it the greatest event of the year!

I’d also like to give a special thank you to Lorraine, who lets me jaunt across the Atlantic every year to have fun while she stays home and watches first one kid and now two. You’re the best Lorraine!


I took my Nikon D70s with me and managed to get a few half-decent shots which I’ve put together in a Flash web gallery for y’all’s enjoyment.

Duck Baker — Concert and Workshop

I was familiar with Duck Baker right from the very beginning. I bought my first guitar after seeing a documentary about Bert Jansch (called Acoustic Routes) back in 1991. Duck was on that documentary and also on the soundtrack. I then got the two compilation CDs, Ramble to Cashel and the Blarney Pilgrim, both of which have Duck on them. I then got another compilation which Duck is on: Irish Reels, Jigs, Airs And Hornpipes. I’d never seen him perform before though, so I jumped at the chance when I heard that he was playing a house concert not too far my my house. And better still — he was offering a workshop!

The Blood of the Lamb

So, two Sundays ago I drove down to the Moselle (river bordering Lux and Germany) with my guitar, all ready for a workshop with Duck. There were 5 of us in all, so a nice small group.

The first thing I really noticed about Duck was his sense of humour. He’s a funny guy and has a typically British sense of humour. He likes to talk as well and it wasn’t long before we were all at ease.

After he gauged our level, he showed us a picking pattern based on a tune of his called Holding Pattern. It was one of those patterns that looks easy but is far from it. It was quite challenging actually, but ultimately worth while for improving right-hand independence. We also went through his arrangement of Amazing Grace, which is actually amazingly graceful. Very nice indeed.

We stopped for lunch and then it was time for the concert. It was one of the most enjoyable solo guitar performances I’ve seen. I’ve come really to enjoy small and intimate concerts far more than I do stadium gigs. Seeing Duck play in someone’s living room was a rare treat. He played a mixture of old timey American folk, some blues, some jazz, gospel and traditional Scots and Irish music. He also explained the songs really well and used a lot of humour. I would go and see him again in a heartbeat and even spoke with him about visiting him in London for some lessons. Highlights for me were the Blood of the Lamb and 40 Ton Parachute (both of which are on the Acoustic Routes documentary, although 40 Ton Parachute is played by Davey Graham).

All in all, a great day!