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Random Thoughts on Random Tunes 2: The Humours Of Glendart/Pay The Reckoning

We all arrive at the pub - myself, guitar player, bodhran player and blue-chip flute player - just before 9.00, when the session is due to kick off.

The football's on.  "Sorry, there.  Should be over by 9.30 and then you can pile in with the tunes."

Grrrrrrr!  We head outside for a fag and commence ruminating ... as you do.

Somehow the conversation comes round to banjo tone rings.  I make the comment that, in my opinion, a  heavy tone ring can make a banjo "sound" quieter.

"Really?"  Eyebrows arch...

"Yeah ... in the sense that a banjo without a tone ring can sound tinny and "echo-ey" and "boing-y" ..." (Technical terms, these!)  "Whereas, a heavy tone ring - although it can boost the overall volume, has a tendency to remove the annoying overtones.  And so because it tends to blend in with the other instruments better, it can have the effect of making the banjo not be heard "above" the other instruments and therefore, it appears quieter ..."  QED!

I'm not sure whether my logic convinces everyone, but there is a general nodding of heads.

The match over, we have a last quick fag and head inside.

"Start us off with a few jigs, there ..."

I begin to pick out the first few notes of "The Humours of Glendart".  The guitar-player leans over and says "I see what you're saying about tone rings ... your banjo's really quiet."  After a few more bars, he leans in again and adds "VERY quiet ... a bit too quiet, actually."

Now ... often in sessions, I have difficulty hearing my banjo over other the massed assembly of other instruments.  It's designed to project forward, I'm sitting behind.  Occasionally I have to lean in really close to hear what's going on.  So I'm not overly concerned.  It's a big pub with a rake of loud punters.  Sometimes the music just doesn't cut through ...

To my right, as I make the change into "Pay The Reckoning", the top-drawer flute player appears very disconcerted and leans at an improbable angle to hear what I'm playing.  She shakes her head and throws me a quizzical look.

At this moment a lightbulb appears above my head; if it wasn't so dark, my blushes would have been obvious.

Surreptitiously, trying (without success) not to interrupt the tune, I reach inside the banjo head and dislodge the rolled-up t-shirt which I'd inserted last night as a mute.  As fast as I can I ball it up and chuck it into the corner.  Flute player has her eyes closed and hasn't noticed what's going on.  Suddenly the banjo rings out (and by now, obviously, rings out of tune as the pressure on the head is released ... but too late to re-tune before the next set, so I play on anyhow).

We reach the end of the set and top-drawer flute player says ... "God, that was funny.  I couldn't hear you at all and then suddenly there was heaps of volume.  How do you do that?"

"Don't ask ..." I said.  "Just don't ask!"

The guitar player, seated opposite me, grins.  He's seen everything.  "Just a question of hitting your stride, eh?  That and a "quiet" tone ring …"

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February 2010


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