If you are a banjo player, you may already be afflicted by the "vellum pluckers' disease". A disease which leaves you constantly asking yourself, "It's not quite sounding right, is it? "Or is it?" If you haven't yet been afflicted, the following hints, adjustments and modification will help you through some of the traumas. A banjo is different from most other stringed instruments: you could think of it as a mechanical "drum", with many adjustable parts. So, as a banjo player, it will help you to develop your D.I.Y. and mechanical skills, along with your musical ones.
1 The skin, vellum or head
This can be adjusted and tensioned like a drum. The choice of skin and tension applied will give a different sound to the banjo.
a) Clear plastic
b) Plastic head spray finished
c) "Fiberskyn"plastic head
d) Calf or goat skin vellum
All the above heads and vellums are stock items.
2 The bridge
The bridge can alter the tone and the volume of your banjo. If you change your bridge from 1/2" to 5/8" you will get more volume. Don't forget that this might, depending on your instrument, make the "action" (that is the distance you have to push the strings down to the frets) higher and more difficult. If you sand a bridge to give less area contact with the head, the tone will be "snappier". You can also taper the bridge from the bass to the treble end to try to eliminate unwanted overtones and harmonics. Compensated 5 string bridges are also available. Maple and ebony bridges are supplied in various heights, also with bone inserts for a clearer sound. Remember, the bridge must be positioned on the head the same distance from the 12th fret as the 12th fret is from the nut. The bridge can be slightly angled to compensate for the heavier fourth string on a tenor or plectrum banjo, the distance at the fourth string thus being slightly greater than at the first string.
3 The tailpiece
The tailpiece plays a very important role in the tone and volume of your banjo. Its prime function is to anchor your strings. Its secondary function is to angle your strings to exert maximum pressure on the bridge in order that the bridge transmits sound into the banjo head. Adjustable "dam shell", "Scruggs" type, "Kershner' and "Nashville" types are available. Please enquire for prices.
4 The resonator
If you fit a resonator to your banjo, it will have more volume and will project the sound forward. Without a resonator, your banjo will be quieter and sound more mellow. A "frailing" banjo would not have a resonator.
5 The armrest
How can the armrest affect the tone of a banjo? If an armrest is fitted to your banjo, it can keep your arm from deadening the movement of the head, which could lower the potential volume of your instrument; also, it can he adjusted to alter the angle and position that you "attack" your strings, which brings in the...
Strings come in many different grades, materials and gauges, each of which gives a different sound and "feel" to your banjo. Experiment with all aspects to find your preferred tone and volume, but remember this brief note: thinner steel and nickel for more "clang" and 'twang", heavier wound bronze or phosphor bronze for a "warmer" sound with more body. Note that custom gauge sets can be made up at no extra cost
Last but not least, the position that you strike your strings, what you strike them with and the pressure that YOU can exert accounts for much of your banjo's tone and volume.
7 Plectrums, picks etc
If you are a plectrum player, experiment with different shapes, thicknesses and materials. The nylon picks give a softer sound, the harder the pick the "chunkier" the sound. Remember this brief note: the closer you pick to the bridge, the harder the sound. The further you pick from the bridge, the mellower the sound. The "old masters" prefer to use a tortoise shell plectrum: I prefer to see the shells on the backs of the tortoises!
Fingerpicks and thumbpicks likewise come in all shapes and forms. Again, experiment, although you don't have as much choice as you have with plectra. Bluegrass players go for metal fingerpicks for attack and volume.
I hope these brief notes help and explain some of the "black magic" of the banjo.
HOW TO FIT A VELLUM TO YOUR BANJO.
Please note - these instructions apply to natural skin vellums only! Fitting a plastic head is much simpler. Basically, all you need to make sure of when fitting a plastic head is that you apply equal tension gradually, all round the circumference of the head, tightening up hooks evenly and symmetrically.
Now to the fitting of the natural vellum:
The first thing to do is strip the instrument---and you might find this a good opportunity to thoroughly clean all plated parts and remove all dust and dirt from inside the hoop.
When the hoop is ready to receive the new vellum, soak the unstretched skin in clean cold water until it is soft and can be rolled-about five to ten minutes should prove sufficient-then lay the wet skin flat on a soft clean towel or cloth and roll it up so that the towel or cloth absorbs all superfluous moisture.
Then lay the skin face side up (a rough side andlor a name stamp will be inside the banjo and thus facing down) on the spread-out towel or cloth, seeing there are no wrinkles in evidence. Place the vellum-wire on the vellum (leaving an even surplus all round) and start to fold the vellum outside the wire over the wire, placing the banjo bezel in position as you go, to hold it. Then lift the vellum and bezel together and place on the banjo hoop.
Gently ease into place and then fit six tension hooks in position-one each side of the tailpiece, one each side of the neck, one the centre of each side of the hoop. Now that the vellum and bezel are held in their proper position, gently ease the vellum up under the bezel; see that no folds or wrinkles appear where the vellum goes over the edge of the hoop. A well-fitted vellum should also have no folds in evidence where it laps around the vellum wire. You should now slightly press down in the centre of the vellum to allow a little "play" for subsequent tightening. Now slightly tighten each tension book, seeing that the bezel goes down evenly all around the hoop.
After re-checking to see that no folds or wrinkles have appeared in the vellum under the bezel, tighten the tension hooks so that the vellum is evenly stretched across the hoop. The bezel should be a little higher on the hoop than it will be when the banjo is later assembled.
Lay the components aside in a cool dry place for not less than twenty-four hours. If it can be left longer, so much the better. Under no circumstances should artificial heat be applied.
When the vellum is thoroughly dry-and here it should be emphasised that the exposed part of the vellum will dry quickly but the part under the bezel will take considerably longer - undo the tension hooks and remove the vellum from the hoop. If there are any signs of stickiness when removing the vellum, it indicates dampness and the vellum should be put on one side to allow for further drying. Trim off the surplus skin and sprinkle a little french chalk on the top on the hoop where the vellum rests.
Replace the vellum on the banjo hoop and fit all the tension books and nuts, taking great care to apply tension evenly all round the hoop. Note that if tension is applied to the vellum whilst there are any signs of dampness, the skin will split
The correct tension of a vellum to give best results is for it to be as "tight as a board", just giving to hard pressure of the thumb. If in doubt leave some give in it and consult an experienced banjoist. After a new vellum is fitted it will stretch slightly for a few days. Proper tension may be maintained by a quarter turn on each nut until the skin has its proper give.
If you feel you need more help, don't hesitate to call us on 01274 879768.
WHAT KIND OF MUSIC DO I WANT TO PLAY?
These instruments come in all kinds of different types, suited to all types of music. If you want to play Irish, Scottish or English dance music (jigs, reels and the like) or Morris dance music, or European folk music, or Cajun music, or even song accompaniment, there's an instrument here for you. So here are all the different types of squeezeboxes we stock, along with the uses you might put them to. If we give you the right advice here, we're sure your partner won't use it for lighting the fire!
MELODEON OR BUTTON ACCORDION - IT'S ALL A QUESTION OF GEOGRAPHY.
There is a lot of confusion around as to when we should call one instrument a melodeon or another a button accordion, or indeed whether we should spell the word accordeon instead. For those of you who are new to the instrument, the purpose of this brief introduction is lay down what we hope will be the foundation of your squeezebox vocabulary and understanding. To those of you who are not so new, we can be safe in the knowledge that we speak the same language.
As a rule of thumb, in Ireland, an instrument with one row of treble buttons and two bass is usually called a melodeon, while all other button instruments (with the exception of the concertina and bandoneon) are known as button accordions.
In England both 1 row and two row instruments would be classified as melodeons. The two row variety is further divided according to keys into diatonic (D/G, G/C, C/F and A/D) and chromatic (B/C and C#/D being the most popular).
Accordions with buttons are then further divided into those instruments which
(a) play different notes on the push and the pull of the bellows, usually with 8 but sometimes 4, 12, 14 or 16 bass buttons, and are known as button accordions, and
(b) have buttons that play a different note in to out on the right hand and the same notes in to out on the left hand or bass end. These are known as button accordeons (note the spelling) and are often refered to as British chromatics, magnificent in the hands of maestros such as Jimmy Shand and John Kirkpatrick.
A third instrument within the same branch of this squeezable family is the continental chromatic button accordeon, recognised by having anywhere from three to five rows of treble buttons and two to six rows of bass buttons. These play the same note on any given button regardless of the direction of the bellows.
THE KEY TO BUYING A MELODEON OR BUTTON ACCORDION.
Over and over again we meet people who get button key instruments from shops where there is neither the range nor the expertise necessary to help them choose the instrument best suited to their needs. Realising that they have been sold the wrong instrument, they bring their problem to us.
There's no need to become convinced that it is your 'own fault'; that you are not musical, when all that was needed was some proper advice and guidance to begin with. Here are just a few of our suggestions to help you answer the questions above.
SO YOU WANT TO PLAY ENGLISH TRADITIONAL MUSIC.
Usually a 2-row diatonic instrument is best to start on. Don't make the mistake of thinking a 1-row instrument is easier to play. They are specialist instruments, which in the right hands sound wonderful, but are not advised as a starting instrument, their limitations far outweighing their advantages, especially when it comes to joining in with other musicians at sessions etc. In England, D/G is the most popular tuning, whilst G/C and to a lesser extent C/F are the preferred keys in the rest of Europe. And don't think that a D/G is limited to those keys. It is possible to play to a greater or lesser extent in D, G, A, E minor, B minor and C, although the really good players can find more.
Very cheap instruments are available as starting instruments, but most people can see just how quickly these are put together and opt instead for either the basic Czech-manufactured Delicia, the Weltmeister Laurel or better still the more popular Hohner Pokerwork. The Pokerwork is still the prefered choice of many musicians, notably John Kirkpatrick who firmly recommends this as the best instrument for English music.
The Starter Pack
A D/G Hohner Pokerwork melodeon, together with either Dave Mallinson's 'Absolute Beginners' book and tape, or one or both of John Kirkpatricks series of videos 'How to play the English melodeon' are all you need to get you off and started. Add a padded melodeon shoulder carrying bag (Mally Bag) or, if you prefer, a rucksack, and you have the full works from the beginning.
If your budget will stretch that little further, and you are sure you are going to take to playing the melodeon, consider the Dino Baffetti Carnival II, representing Italian craftsmanship at value-for-money prices.
Phone the shop for our current best starter pack prices.
With proper dedicated practice, progression can be quite quick, and you will be surprised just how soon you could be sitting in one of the many informal pub sessions that are to be found at most English Folk Festivals, or perhaps joining in with the local morris side.
NO, I PREFER IRISH TRADITIONAL MUSIC.
As a point of interest, it is a commonly held belief that it is easier to play Irish music on a diatonic than it is English style on a chromatic. It is perfectly possible to play Irish Traditional Music to a very high standard on the D/G diatonic melodeon; in fact until the 1940's and early 1950's the D/G and 1-rows were highly favoured. If you want to sound like one of the older traditionalists, a diatonic is the one to choose.
It wasn't until players like Paddy O'Brien came along that the modern Irish accordion style developed. They realised that switching to the B/C system had several advantages. Firstly, the fact that the C row comprises of all natural notes and the B row is all sharps and flats. By using a combination of notes from each row and playing across the rows, more keys were available and a smoother bellows action acheived. Secondly, the grace notes, triplets, runs and fills etc which are characteristic of modern Irish music are more readily available and fall to hand easier than on a diatonic. Another difference is in the bass work. This differs from the English bouncy rythmic style, which depends on changing bellows direction to play notes in the same direction of the bellows as their accompanying chords. Irish music on the other hand has very little bass accompanyment, placing more importance on the melody notes and ornamentations, rather than making sure these notes fall in a particular directions to make the basses fit.
The Irish style is still evolving, and other keys are finding favour, especially C#/D, with exponents such as Jackie Daly popularising this tuning. Basically, the aim is to be able to play in the main fiddle keys of D, G and A and relative minors. Using the C#/D allows you to play more or less up and down one row for most of the time, generating a more rhythmic effect.
To start playing Irish music, we would recomend a Hohner Double Ray, if you can possibly stretch to it. Make sure the basses have been altered to suit Irish music at the time of purchase. These well-proportioned instruments are easy to maintain and tend to hold their value well. A reasonable alternative would be the Delicia B/C, but a good second hand Hohner may prove better value for money in the long term. The hottest-selling Irish style box in this country at the present time is the Saltarelle Irish Bouëbe. Available from stock in B/C and C#/D. More expensive than the Hohner, but a very useful mid-priced instrument featuring a flat, enclosed finger board with a very fast action.
Irish traditional style starter packs are available. Why not contact us to discuss your requirements and best price deals?
CAJUN MUSIC APPEALS.
You can learn Cajun music on any diatonic box, but really a one row 4-stop is needed in the most popular Cajun key of C. The same instrument will also allow you to play in G in much the same way as a blues harmonica player would use the second position to get G from a C instrument. A great deal of myth and folklore surrounds this type of instrument, ranging from the type of woods used in the construction to the direction the reeds are laid in. A genuine Louisiana box would in fact have 2 of its 4 reeds laid flat on the soundboard and 2 upright on a block. A standard Hohner 1-row 4-stop will get you off and running, but better still, Hohner manufacture the Cajun box, which is all black, and with improved bellows. Tuned slightly drier, this is the best sounding entry level instrument we have come across. This, together with the video by Dirk Powell "Learn to play Cajun Accordion - Starting Out" is all you really need to make a success of things.
EUROPEAN MUSIC IS BEST, ACCORDION TO ME.
G/C and C/F are the most popular tunings for European music, and incidentally these are also among the best keys to use when singing. Hohner supply the Pokerwork in G/C and C/F, but the more authentic instrument is the Le Bouëbe by the French company Saltarelle. The UK does not have a wealth of tuition material, but Musique pour la Danse Bretonne is useful.
Glossary of terms
Voices. Refers to the number of reeds sounding. E.g 1 voice = 1 reed, 2 reeds = 2 voices, 3 reeds = 3 voices. etc
Stops / Registers. These are knobs or switches to allow certain reeds to be switched on and off.
Dry. When one reed is tuned in concert pitch and the second is tuned to the same pitch.
Wet or tremolo. When one reed is tuned in concert pitch and the other is tuned very sharp - far enough to set up a fast beat between the reeds.
Swing. When one reed is tuned in concert pitch and the other is tuned slightly sharp. Somewhere between Wet and Dry
Looking to start the accordion but don’t know what instrument you need?
Whenever you start a new skill it is vital that you have the best tools for the job. Here at The Music Room we have put together a comprehensive guide to the choices you need to make before you start and then some ideas of what instruments to look for. Read on and make a fully informed choice, with all the risk taken out!
Accordions come in all shapes and sizes, some with buttons, some with keys, some large some small, the choice is bewildering to the new player. Before diving into the details you need to firstly decide what you are looking to play on your accordion!
There are two distinct styles of accordion out there, the piano-key and the button-key accordions, and although it is possible to play all styles of music on both, this is perhaps the most important decision to make at this stage. It is possible to change later, or even play both systems but it is a good idea to start with all the information at your fingertips!
The piano-key is the most recognizable style of accordion and is the one probably the most common in the west. With a range from 2 octaves to nearly 4 the keys are laid out in exactly the same way as a piano and as a result is the quickest for many people to start with. There is a wealth of material available giving advice on good piano fingering and this is vital for the beginner. Particularly well suited to traditional music you will find many of today’s artists playing on beautiful compact piano accordions. The one disadvantage however is the physical dimensions. A 4 octave accordion is very large and therefore heavy and many people are now trying to downsize. If you are only wishing to play traditional music and do not need a huge range of notes, then this is not a problem but if you are looking to playing classical repertoire you will need a full size instrument, or you need to look at the next section!
The button-key is at first glance a frightening idea, with a keyboard coated in buttons with no clues as to how to start! It is however worth a second look as this is perhaps the best way to layout a musical keyboard! Unfortunately to make matters more confusing there are a number of different layouts and you will find even more opinions out there as to which is the best! Here at The Music Room we would like to set the record straight once and for all so here goes!
There is no best button-key system! It’s not what you have it’s what you do with it!
If you haven’t started playing yet then there is no best system! Lets look at the 2 main systems, B system and C system. The principles are the same, notes laid out in a diagonal chromatic pattern, and both systems have many of the same benefits. The main gain over a piano-key is the compact layout gives you a much greater range in a smaller instrument. This is true no matter which key system you have! You will come across opinions the one system wins over the other, because of hand position or maybe finger shapes, but this is really not the case if you learn using sensible fingering and posture. If you don’t believe us have a look at how many top professionals play each system! You will find the breakdown is roughly equal, with the finest recognized player on any system you care to mention. So there you have it! Try both systems yourself and see which works for you the best then make your choice. Don’t be forced into someone else’s choice of system, make the right choice for you!
So should you play piano or button key? Well here are some simple thoughts to help you make the decision.
1) There is more material out there for Piano key. This may change and we will of course let you know whenever a new book for button-key arrives!
Once you have chosen the right hand you still have another decision to make.
There are a few different systems but they split into two distict styles. The traditional left hand keyboard is usually what is called the ‘Stradella’ bass, a wonderful system of prefixed chord buttons combined with a range of 12 semitones of single notes. These buttons create a simple accompaniment style or as you progress more complex chords and styles. This layout is the same no matter how many buttons you have, the bigger instruments just have more.
Below is a diagram of the traditional left hand keyboard, just click on the link to download it!
The other style of left hand is the classical or ‘free-bass’ system. This accordion has individual notes allowing you to play classical repertoire as a two manual organ. The layout has a number of different versions, similar to the chromatic button right hand keyboards. Click below to have a look at a few of the different systems out there.
Both the traditional and classical left hand systems can be paired with either a piano key or button key. Most free-bass instruments are so called converter bass, giving the player both the free bass AND the Stradella keyboards.
Voices? Do accordions speak now?!
Well although we think the accordion does speak in its music the word ‘Voices’ has a different meaning!
The accordion makes use of reeds to make its sound and the simplest accordion has one ‘bank’ of reeds only. This means you get one reed sounding when you play a note in the right hand. As you look at higher specified accordions you will see the number of voices increasing. This means that for every note you can have one, two, three etc reeds sounding. This means we can build different sounds and colours out of the combination of reeds and this is a very important way of increasing the choice of sound from your accordion.
There are three types of voice available, one at the pitch of the note, one an octave higher and one an octave lower. You will also find some accordions have more than one of a particular voice, usually the one at the pitch of the note. These different sounds are then combined by use of ‘registers’ or ‘couplers’. These switches connect the voices together in combinations to allow you a choice of sounds.
So what is meant by ‘musette’ or ‘double octave’. What about ‘Cassotto’ or ‘Double Cassotto’? Lets look at each one by one.
Musette originally meant small French bagpipes and perhaps the name was meant to imply the sound was similar. The tuning used in accordions, also called "wet" tuning, is where two or more sets of reeds are tuned slightly off pitch from each other, giving a vibrato effect. True musette tuning uses three reeds, one "on pitch", one slightly below, and one slightly above; however, many accordions now only use two sets of reeds tuned slightly apart from one other to save weight. The degree of "wetness" is determined by how far apart the reeds are tuned.
Double octave tuning describes the use of both the upper and lower octave reed banks giving a two octave spread. The central ‘at pitch’ sound is also usually available. This sound is often described as a bandoneon sound, the Argentinean accordion used so much in tango music.
Cassotto or Double Cassotto describes a wooden chamber within the accordion where a reed bank is placed to soften and warm the sound of the reeds. If two banks of reeds are placed in the chamber then this is a double cassotto instrument. The banks usually placed in a chamber are the ‘at pitch’ and octave lower banks.
Here we have a varied and versatile group of instruments. People come to these instruments for all sorts of reasons, and they each have similar, but slightly different jobs to do. So....
WHAT KIND OF MUSIC DO YOU WANT TO PLAY?
English, Scottish, Irish, any kind of music really, up to and including Italian and classical, song accompaniment, tune accompaniment, you name it. As well as that, different makers call similar instruments by different names. So lets get the terminology understood first:
Who uses a mandolin?
Who uses a mandola?
Who uses an octave mandola?
Who uses a cittern?
Who uses a bouzouki?
So you should ask yourself what your musical priorities might be in choosing such an instrument. But rest assured that there is enough crossover between instruments in this group that you'll be able to do quite a lot of experimenting, whichever one you choose!
OUR MANDOLIN FAMILY BRANDS.
Of the above instruments, only mandolins and bouzoukis are readily available in factory-made, value-for-money beginner's versions. We have many excellent brands of factory mandolins in stock, including our own Tonewood and Heartwood brands. Our own Acoustica Romanian-made bouzouki is unbelievable value.
An Italian-made, high-quality, solid-top Musikalia octave mandola is available at a higher price, but all the other instruments we sell are made by small, dedicated, British craftspeople's companies. They come with a higher price tag, but exquisite workmanship and construction with solid timbers throughout. Here are some of our makers:
Oakwood is, of course, our sister company, a well-established Leeds business. Their stringed instruments are played by many discerning professionals. Their popularity means that most instruments go straight from the makers to the customer, but we always have one or two new or second-hand Oakwoods to show you.
Fylde is a long-established small company specialising in their own designs, both standard and high-spec, flat-top and arch-top.They offer a wide choice, and are usually either in stock or available at short notice.
Our own Acoustica Heartland, Elite and Carrington series feature stringed instruments from various well-established British makers.
We also stock hand-made instruments by several single instrument builders. Notable amongst these are Andrew Whale, who makes a very responsive basic range and a more "hearty" high-spec range, Phil Davidson, who has produced an exquisite special design mandolin just for the Music Room, and Paul Shippey, whose carved-top mandolins rival vintage Gibsons for quality.
As with all our instruments, we also have a wide variety of second-hand mandolin family instruments. Keep your eye on our second-hand lists for a bargain!
If any instrument symbolises the freedom of choice that happened in popular and folk music from the 1950's onwards, it's the guitar. We stock many excellent electric guitars, but our role as a traditional instrument shop means that our selection of acoustic guitars is outstanding.
The guitar's versatility makes it a great idea for someone who doesn't yet know exactly what they want to specialise in. Solo classical music, flamenco, song accompaniment, lead melody playing, dance music accompaniment - there's a guitar for all those jobs.
Acoustic guitars can be fairly easily categorised. We have nylon-strung (also known as classical, flamenco or Spanish) and steel-strung.
We have purely acoustic, or electro-acoustic (with pickups).
We have laminate-topped instruments, and solid-topped instruments, and guitars made of solid timber throughout. We have various body shapes and sizes, conventional and with cutaway (to let you get up to the top frets, otherwise known as "the dusty end").
A WORD ABOUT THE TIMBER USED IN GUITAR CONSTRUCTION.
You may have noticed mentions of solid tops and laminate tops. Generally, the cheaper guitars have laminate tops, as they are quicker and easier to make. The way they sound on the day of purchase will be the way they will sound all through their lives.
Solid tops, on the other hand, cost more to make, as the choice of pieces of wood is crucial, and the construction has to be more accurate to stop the top bending. But they generally sound far more resonant and exciting - and as the wood matures, the
sound matures too! About 90% of the sound of a guitar comes from the top, so we often find solid tops and laminate back and sides. This is a good compromise between price and sound quality.
So what do YOU need? Read on...
We always have a varied stock of modestly-priced beginners' guitars of various makes, including smaller sizes for children. These are of the classical guitar shape with a wide, flat fingerboard. They are easier on the fingers than steel-stringed
instruments, although the wider fingerboard means more stretching. The wide string spacing and nylon strings make these instruments especially suitable for solo melody fingerpicking styles - fingerpicking is where the tips of the fingers, or the fingernails, play one or more strings at a time, rather than strumming all strings at once.
Moving up the price range, we find guitars of the same style as the above, but better-made, perhaps with solid tops or even solid timbers throughout. Some are hand-made in Spain itself. We have no regular stock brands, just always a varied selection of reputable makers.
You might call these acoustics, jumbos, dreadnoughts, folk guitars - basically a steel-strung guitar nearly always has a larger body than a nylon-strung, is well-suited to strumming with a plectrum, and has a narrower neck for fast chord changes. These are the guitars mostly used for folk, pop, country and jazz music. Here are all the types we stock:
In the absolute lowest price range, but still full-sized instruments and definitely not toys, we always have several makes such as Hohner, which we are happy to put together with other basic essentials to make a starter pack.
Just because a guitar has a laminate top doesn't mean it's not worth playing! We have a fine selection of guitars in the next price-bracket up from the beginners' range. Typically, they would have a better finish, better machine heads (for tuning) and some have a simple pickup installed.
The vast majority of our stock falls into this category. A few short years ago, solid top instruments were produced in small numbers in the USA and Europe, and were beyond the means of the hobby guitarist. But a host of new companies, first in Japan, then throughout the far east, changed all that. Now we have an enormous selection of excellently constructed, affordable, great-sounding solid tops at unbelievable prices. Our own Tonewood and Heartwood ranges represent the best value of all. Not only that, but western manufacturers, such as Seagull of Canada, have risen to the challenge, and are also producing very affordable solid tops.
From hand-crafted British made instruments like Oakwood and Fylde, through to the American legends like Martin, Guild and Taylor, we always have a good selection of these "thoroughbred" instruments, which can only grow to sound better with age, and even to appreciate in value in the long term - although you should buy for playing rather than investment! The arrival of Taylor on the top-class guitar scene, with their amazing consistency of quality and modern manufacturing techniques, galvanised all the other top makers into action, so there really has never been a better time to buy a guitar!
Some steel-strung guitars, and a few nylon-strung too, are supplied ready-fitted with various pickup systems, so you can plug into an amplifier or PA system and get a louder, but still acoustic, sound. They will often come with a cutaway, because increased volume means they can be used as lead instruments in true rock'n'roll fashion. You'll find electro-acoustics at all price levels. You can also buy a purely acoustic guitar, then have it adapted for amplification in various ways. See our section on AMPLIFICATION (CLICK HERE) to find out more.
Some of our stock brands are:
Tonewood - Entry Level Playability And Quality At The Right Price
The Tonewood series of musical instruments are the product of a collaboration between our Leeds craftsmen and some of the world's lesser known but respected musical instrument manufacturers. Our prime aim with 'Tonewood' is to supply the beginner and intermediate player with musical instruments that offer playability at the keenest price. All 'Tonewood' instruments are finally inspected and individually set up in our Leeds workshops.
Pair Up For Life With A Heartwood
To see larger pictures of the instruments, just click on the small picture of your choice. To buy an instrument, just click "Add to Basket".
The Heartwood natural series of guitars are the product of a collaboration between our Leeds craftsmen and one of the world's leading Korean musical instrument manufacturers. Our design and quality specification has been adhered to with fine detail. The electro-acoustic models are fitted with the latest world class Fishman prefix eq system. Most models feature solid spruce tops.
All 'Heartwood' instruments are finally inspected and individually set up in our Leeds workshops.
Tanglewood, Hand Crafted
A comprehensive range of quality Korean manufactured guitars. The range includes solid top acoustics, electro-acoustics, and full electric models. The full range of Tanglewood guitars is available from The Music Room.
Seagull, Hand Crafted in Canada
Seagull guitars are hand built in La Patrie, Canada, using timber from 900 year old trees. Our special offer for Spring 2000 includes a FREE semi-rigid custom Seagull case. Electro acoustic and 12 string models are available...please enquire.
Simon & Patrick, Hand Built Electro Acoustic Guitars
Simon & Patrick guitars are hand built using the best quality Canadian tonewoods. A range of acoustic and 12 string models is available...please enquire.
These excellent Japanese and Korean instruments are justifiably renowned for the sound of their pickups - but the acoustic sound and build quality of their top models rivals some of the top USA brands.
The Japanese company Yamaha was one of the first eastern companies to start building quality instruments. They have a justified reputation throughout the price range - and like Takamine, they are now producing some excellent high-end guitars.
Taylor Guitars, Hand Built In El Cajon, USA
Bob Taylor and Kurt Listug began building Taylor Guitars in Lemon Grove, California in 1973. Their designs, choice of materials and quality of build has put them in the super league of USA Luthiers. The full range of Taylor Guitars is available from The Music Room.
Squeezebox players are notorious for having rooms full of redundant instruments, in their quest for the Holy Grail. But in ALL branches of acoustic music, we find people who have cupboards full of wiring spaghetti, purchased at great expense and then discarded, purely in the attempt to get their beloved acoustic instruments amplified in a sympathetic way. We would like to give you the advice you need to get it right first time.
THE SOUND ENGINEER'S NIGHTMARE.
WHAT ARE WE TRYING TO DO HERE?
Most of us come to folk music as a welcome relief from the excesses of rock'n'roll. But sometimes we find ourselves needing to operate at just such levels of volume. You start out playing the fiddle down the pub, and, the next thing you know, you're booked with your ceilidh band to play at the Late Night Extra at Sidmouth festival, in an acoustically disastrous marquee full of 1000 drunken revellers. You need to be LOUD!
You start off playing the fiddle down the pub, and the next thing you know, your Celtic band is booked to play a tour of American Fine Arts auditoria, in front of discerning audiences who also frequent the opera and classical music concerts. You need to make every one of those people experience your music as if they were sitting next to you.You need to sound GOOD!
You start off playing the fiddle down the pub, and the next thing you know, the word gets round and you need to amplify what you do in that same pub, to keep the hordes of drinkers happy. This is by far the largest group of musicians needing amplification - you just need to be HEARD!
We aim to supply everything you need, to get where you want to be in the amplification stakes. Mostly, your requirements fall into two categories - first, a way of getting the sound from your instrument to the amplifier, then, getting the right kind of amplification for your, and the venue's, needs.
Let's look at the types of instruments we sell, and how best to amplify them.
So several makers have developed miniature microphones which fit on, or even inside these instruments. This has two advantages. The microphone gets a lot closer to the source of the sound, thus making it even louder and less prone to interference from other instruments or feedback on stage. And of course, the microphone moves with the instrument, thus eliminating "quiet spots" as the bellows take the reeds away from a stationary microphone.
Microvox is a Yorkshire company which now sells its miniature microphone systems world-wide. They cheerfully admit that they didn't set out to make systems for demanding professional applications. Nevertheless, the quality is so good that lots of professional players use them. So, although there are quite a few more expensive systems around, we are happy to recommend Microvox for all squeezebox amplification purposes.
Phew! Add to this that some situations can be served equally well by various systems, depending on the sound preferred by the player, and we have the kind of minefield that leads to the aforementioned cupboards full of useless gear.
Amplification solutions divide into two types - those which require some installation or modification to your instrument, such as UTS pickups, permanently mounted mini-microphones etc, and those that attach to the instrument without any installation required, such as removable soundhole pickups, removable mini-mics.
Some form of permanent installation, even if it just involves the minimum modification (enlarging the lower strap button hole to accommodate a tailpin jack socket) is desirable if you're a frequent performer, who doesn't want to get tangled up in wires. Removable installation is preferable if you really don't want to change your instrument in any way at all - it may be worth a fortune, or it may be a very delicate instrument such as a fiddle, where even the tiniest hole drilled may change the acoustics.
FEEDBACK - THE ENEMY
But it's only funny for a moment, and it really doesn't reflect well on the performer or his/her choice of equipment. We talked at the top of this article about compromise, so here's the Catch 22 of the acoustic amplification game -
Here's a very generalised list of microphone/pickup types in increasing order of feedback resistance, or decreasing order of natural acoustic sound.
But, by careful choice of products, we can find microphones that resist feedback, or soundhole pickups that sound natural. Rest assured that we will try to work with you to get the sound you want at the price you want to pay. Now, rather than try your patience by going through each individual possible setup, we'll just give you three actual customer stories and you'll see what we mean.
WHISTLES, FLUTES, PIPES ETC.
All wind instruments present amplification problems. Some, such as tin whistles, give out a fairly low sound level by themselves, and so need lots of amplification to get up to, say, the level of a human singing voice. All wind instruments, because they are blown, give out the most musical volume at exactly the same place where the breath comes out noisily. And all, with the exception of some large reed instruments, can be amplified only with microphones, and not with pickups.
So what we need is microphone techniques which get maximum good quality sound level, with minimum breath noise. Now, a good amplification system will allow you to play a wind instrument into a conventional, vocal-type microphone such as the Shure SM58, and then "tweak" the sound until it comes right. But a good alternative for players who like to move around, or players who want a simple solution, is the new Microvox wind instrument system, which now puts a wind-shielded mini-microphone much closer to the sound source.
DRUMS AND PERCUSSION
The kind of sound produced by drums makes it almost obligatory to use microphones rather than pickups, although some performers have experimented with UTS stringed instrument pickups wedged in between the skin and the frame of their bodhrans. Luckily, most drums produce enough sound level that they can be amplified well with microphones. There are some excellent microphones available which can be mounted on the drum itself, freeing the performer from the need to stay put.
We're sure a lot of you have been to Irish music concerts where the bodhran, so exciting when heard close up, has been reduced to a dull rumble when amplified. Rest assured that this problem lies purely in the way the sound is adjusted, and not with the fact that a microphone is used. You just need to spend a bit more time getting the right sound.
THE OTHER END OF THE LINE - AMPLIFIERS, SPEAKERS, PA SYSTEMS.
How long is a piece of string?
Some PA systems that you can buy for your own use are better suited to acoustic music than others. Space restrictions in our shop mean that we can display only the most basic amplification - both combo amps (for individual performers/instruments) and small PA systems (for vocals/instruments/groups).
BUT we have the knowledge that comes from years of amplified performing in all kinds of situations - so please come to us for advice. Of course, we hope that you'll then order your amplification system from us, even though we currently don't have the space to display much!
DON'T BE PUT OFF!
If you've read this far, we hope you are still enthusiastic about amplifying your acoustic music. Just remember, advice is free, and if you find all this a bit daunting, just tell us your needs and we'll set you up. But we promise that we won't raise your expectations unduly, that we'll accurately describe the different jobs done by different pieces of gear, so that when you do get to that first gig and plug in, you'll get the best sound for your needs!
OUR AMPLIFICATION BRANDS.
Perhaps the best-known name in pickup technology, this American company has never rested in its quest to improve the sound of amplified acoustic instruments. We have chosen the state-of-the-art Fishman Prefix system, as used on the USA's most expensive craftsman-built guitars, for our very own Heartland series of instruments.
The Prefix is a combination of an excellent UTS pickup with a pre-amp set into the topside of your guitar, giving you a very wide selection of tone and dynamic control.
There are many other Fishman products which can be retro-fitted to your instrument to give that same quality of sound. Please refer to our price list/catalogue for details.
A little less expensive but used by many professionals, this range of British-made pickups is excellent.
A different concept altogether - this is a range of Yorkshire-made miniature microphone systems, specially designed for various acoustic instruments. Microvox has become the industry standard for squeezebox amplification. With sound quality and ease of use as their main aims, Microvox continues to bring out new solutions all the time.
We also stock several other types of pickups - see our price list/catalogue.
This is a range of German-made acoustic instrument and microphone amplifiers which have impressed us immensely. Incredible power, versatility and sound quality in a small box - a mini-PA system, really!
British-made acoustic amplifiers using the world-renowned Celestion loudspeakers. Versatility and value for money.
A German company which produces excellent products at affordable prices, by manufacturing them in the Far East. Their busking amps and foot-pedal pre-amps are great value for money.
We also stock, or can obtain to order, many other amplificaton solutions - see our price list/catalogue, or ask for advice.
"Ye can say whit ye like, the moothie's the thing for music!"
Thus spake Scotland's darling, Oor Wullie. Call it a moothie, a mouth-organ, a harp, a gob-iron, a vamper or any one of many fond nicknames - many people's first and favourite instrument is the simple and inexpensive harmonica. For as little as £2.99 you can make quite a pleasant sound - and should you progress to greater things, even the most expensive harmonica won't break the bank.
But it can be quite a job deciding between the many different kinds of harmonica available. All harmonicas give you a different note when you blow or when you suck, but the notes are laid out in different ways. We can go into the technical details of various individual instruments elsewhere, but here is the concise information you'll need to make your choice. As with all our introductions to instruments, let's start with the most important question:
WHAT KIND OF MUSIC DO YOU WANT TO PLAY?
The single-reeded, diatonic "vamper" type is the one bought by most blues players. By careful practice, you can get a complete chromatic scale, including being able to bend notes in the authentic blues style. These instruments come in various keys - C is most common among cheaper instruments, but all keys are available so you can play along with any piece. There are two "positions" on such an instrument, so, for example, you can play in G on a C harmonica. Once you've mastered the two scales, you can play in any key just by switching harmonicas - just like a guitar player changes key by putting on a capo.
The ten-hole instruments are fine for general purposes, but you might want to consider a longer instrument for a larger spread of notes. You might want to consider a double-reeded instrument, slightly tremolo-tuned (where two reeds sound the same note, but slightly apart from each other, to give an "echo" or "tremolo" effect), especially if you like the sound melodeons make when playing folk tunes. Double-sided instruments are available in this type, so you don't need as many different instruments to get all the keys you want.
If you've ever been amazed by the playing of Larry Adler, Stevie Wonder or Toots Thielemans, well, they're playing chromatic harmonicas. These have a lever you can push in order to move, as it were, between the white and black notes of the piano - all sharps and flats in a given key are available. This may seem tempting to a beginner, but it is better to start on a simpler instrument, then work your way up to one of these.
Once again, there are no hard and fast rules as to which is the right type of harmonica for a certain type of music. And there is no "right" key either - you can learn on any key and use the same blowing for all other keys within the same type of harmonica. If you like Irish music, for instance, you'll find the keys of D and G useful. If you sing the blues, pick the key which goes best with your vocal range. And a harmonica should last for a long time, especially if you realise that you don't get any louder by blowing harder - you just break the reed!
OUR HARMONICA BRANDS
Starting at the beginner's end of the range - all these instruments are guaranteed to work - we have various very good value brands according to availability.
Moving on to brands we try to stock all the time, the cheapest is the Hohner Great Little Harp, a ten-hole available in various keys.
Then we come to lots of different harmonicas which are still very affordable, but of good enough quality for professional players. Among these are more Hohners, Tombo, Suzuki, all available in single reed versions, with some makes having tremolo versions too.
At the top of the scale come the chromatics from Huang, Suzuki and Hohner once again.
Look in our price list for exact listings, and on our tables to see note layouts for each kind of instrument.
Lots of people get into folk music, and especially Irish music, through the bodhran, that well-known Irish hand drum. To be in a pub full of enthusiastic session musicians makes it almost irresistible to join in, and for someone with no previous musical knowledge, but a reasonable sense of rhythm, the bodhran is the ideal starter instrument. But beware - lots of musicians spend years honing their talents. You enjoy listening to them. They're very welcoming people, or else they wouldn't be playing folk music in the pub, and they want you to join in. But please remember you have to walk before you run - buying a tutor book or video along with your bodhran will let you get over the initial stages at home, so you'll get a genuine welcome when you turn up at the session!
You can get a reasonable starter bodhran and beater for around £30. Prices then go up through various stages to around £200. As with all instruments, you get what you pay for. Move up slightly from the lowest price and you get into bodhrans with celtic decoration. These will be of similar quality, but nicer-looking. Then we move up to £50 plus, and you're into the cheapest of the genuine Irish made goatskin bodhrans. A bit more money gets you a hand-made drum, which has had its skin carefully selected and processed. All the bodhrans up to this point will be of a simple construction, with the skin (usually a goatskin) stretched over a simple hoop. Climatic conditions will affect the tension of the skin, so that on a cold, damp day, you'll need to warm up the skin to get it to sound right, or, on a hot dry day, you'll have to damp down the skin with a few drops of water to stop it "pinging". (Guinness is best used for altering the consciousness of the player.) But move a bit further up the price range, between £100 and £200, and you can get a tuneable bodhran. These have a system, sometimes using a key, sometimes a cam wheel adjuster, which lets you tighten up and slacken off the skin mechanically. "Tuneable" can mean tuning to a note - but the nature of the drum and its reaction to the atmosphere would make it drift off the note fairly quickly. By "tuneable" we really mean "adjustable", so that you can easily get the skin to the right tension. And by the way, if you go for a tuneable bodhran, a good tip is never to slacken it off fully after you've played. Continually taking the tension up and down puts too much stress on the skin - it's much better to keep your skin at a reasonable tension at all times.
At the Music Room, any bodhran you buy, even the cheapest, is guaranteed to do its job. As you move up the price range, our two popular makers are Howard (lighter-built drums) and, by far the most successful, Roddy Turner's heavier-built, beautifully finished drums. Both of these people are hand-builders who take great pride in their work.
A bodhran is an organic instrument which needs a little bit of care and attention. As mentioned above, we can't stress strongly enough that you should buy a basic bodhran book and/or video to help you get the most out of your instrument. After all, the instrument itself is reasonably priced, even for the best quality, so go on, invest in the tutor materials too.
Tin whistle is an ideal starter instrument for anyone wanting to get into folk music melody playing. Starting at around £3.00 to buy, this is the same price as a starter harmonica - but, unlike the harmonica, that same £3.00 instrument is the very one chosen by many professional players!
Of course whistles can be bought from craftsman makers for many times that price - but the essential earthy yet accurate tone can be got out of even the cheapest whistle. Indeed, the reason many professionals stick with the cheaper brands is to retain that slightly "dirty" or breathy sound.
So why buy an expensive hand-made whistle? Well, you may want a clearer or purer tone, or you may want the special sound a "tin" whistle made out of wood can make. But above all, the expensive hand-made whistles have that valuable characteristic - consistency. Every one is carefully constructed to sound good and stay in tune with itself. But, as with harmonicas, even the most expensive whistle won't break the bank, so it's good to try a few different ones till you find the sound you're looking for.
But first, a bit about the playing of a tin whistle. Lots of you will remember learning the recorder at school, with its half-holes and different thumb positions. The tin whistle is much simpler - it has just six holes on the front, and it changes octave by the simple method of blowing harder! Sharps and flats can be achieved in various ways, the easiest being just to slide the finger halfway across a covered hole until the pitch comes right. If you do this slowly, you can get that evocative effect beloved of Chieftains and Riverdance fans!
Because of their six-hole configuration, tin whistles are not chromatic - that means that if you want to play in various keys, you'll have to have several whistles. But just because a whistle has the key of, for example "D" marked on it, that doesn't restrict you to the key of D alone. By moving to "second position" you can easily play in the key of G as well. And its relative minor, E Minor. Here's a table of different whistle keys; main key on the left, other keys available listed for each whistle.
Details of fingering and blowing techniques can be got from many of the excellent tuition materials available.
Here are the cheaper types available:
Amongst the craftsman-made, more expensive whistles, you can find all sorts of combinations - one-piece metal, one-piece wood, metal with plastic mouthpiece and so on. Each has its own distinctive sound. Just try them.
A lot of the craftsman-made whistles are available only as LOW WHISTLES - exactly the same structure as the smaller, more common instruments, but much longer and hence a full octave lower in sound. Harder to play from both a fingering and breathing point of view, you're best branching out into low whistles after you've mastered the conventional size!
Our specialist whistles/low whistles include Chieftain, Overton, Kerry, Shaw, Sweetheart, Howard.
We hope you'll enjoy taking up the whistle, and, at such affordable prices, please be sure to investigate our tuition meterials too.
Concertina Care Suggestions – Gill’s Hints and Tips– especially for players of brand new instruments.
Are you thinking of buying a new concertina? This should give you years of pleasure and enjoyment, but, as with all new craftsman made instruments, a bit of extra tlc in the early days will pay dividends, and help both you and your instrument. The reeds on a brand new instrument take some time to develop their own tone and full dynamic range. It’s always a good idea to help them develop and play them in by not pushing them too hard in the early stages – I always suggest a wide range of tunes, in a choice of keys.
Aim to play in as many keys as possible (perhaps easier for an English than Anglo player!), and incorporate a full range of dynamics, and changes in speed etc. In other words – don’t go for the max all the time! Your concertina is a craftsman made instrument, and will repay you by developing a fine tone but you in turn need to be gentle at first – get used to each other, kindly but steadily.
Store your instrument with the bellows closed, and on its side (as if in playing position) - this prevents the leather valves from dropping and thus presenting problems. Try to avoid leaving your concertina in strong sunlight or exposed to other heat sources. In fact, avoid extremes of both hot and cold – remember – the concertina is essentially a Victorian instrument – and their homes were neither centrally heated nor draught proofed…
I always recommend keeping concertinas in a suitable hard case – but you will probably need to add additional blocking or packing to ensure the bellows remain closed and the concertina doesn’t roll around in transit. To facilitate carrying, the Music Room also offer soft zipped canvas outer cases, with shoulder strap, designed to fit over the standard and large size hard cases. Additionally, many people find a padded gig bag useful for ease of carrying – especially for taking to sessions. We also offer a Deluxe hard case, for “extreme protection” which already has D rings attached for adding a shoulder strap.
Please don’t squeeze the bellows without having a button depressed – the air will make its way out somewhere – and it should really only be going out through the reeds or the air valve.
Concertinas are valuable – please insure your instruments! The Music Room can provide the necessary valuation and advice for insurance purposes.
Beware: concertinas are addictive – you’ll probably find yourself wanting to buy another one to keep your first concertina company. As with many other orchestral type instruments, concertinas come in a full range of sizes from piccolo, (rarely found – and really only used in a Concertina Band setting!) through to baritone and bass. Most people start with a treble instrument, and perhaps add a baritone later on – although many are happy to add another treble or two – perhaps with metal ends instead of wooden, or vice versa.
The Music Room offer a wide range of tuition and playing material – books, cds, videos, and we can help put you in touch with other players too. The International Concertina Association (ICA) is long established worldwide group of friendly helpful people and offers many benefits of membership, including a lively newsletter and the world’s largest written concertina music archive.
The ICA can also help you find other concertina players in your area, and give details of people wiling to act as mentors. Most mainland UK players will be within easy driving distance of one or more of the local and regional concertina groups. If you have any queries, or want advice on any concertina matters, please contact me, and I’ll gladly help.
Happy Squeezing! Gill Noppen-Spacie
So – you think you’d like to play the concertina? A great idea!
Here are a few hints and tips to get you started:
Do you already know how to read music? Would you like to play in groups or ensembles, using a wide range of keys? YES? - then an English or Duet model concertina would probably suit you.
Do you want to use your concertina for song accompaniment or for solo work? Duets are very versatile - but Anglos and English have their champions too… and are very much easier to find – and learn!
Are you a “speed freak”, wanting fast flowing melody lines – if so, the key arrangement on an English means you can achieve this easily! However, for fast driving dance tunes, the Anglo is fantastic.
For budding composers or people preferring to play from music, the English or Duet fits the bill perhaps better than the Anglo. BUT - If playing by ear is your skill, or choice, then an Anglo is probably the system for you – many people find it easier to get started on this system.
BUT – these are just suggestions – there is no hard and fast rule – you may be influenced by the playing style of someone you admire e.g. Alistair Anderson, Rob Harbron, Sandra Kerr, Simon Thoumire, Dave Townsend, (English), John Kirkpatrick, Mary McNamara, Harry Scurfield, or Chris Sherburn (Anglo), Chris Coe, Tim Laycock (Duet). Many Morris dance musicians opt for the Anglo as it’s ideal for building up the punchy rhythms and beat - however, I use English for dance. Those wanting to play a lot of Irish music tend to opt for the Anglo – although you can play Irish style on an English…
Confused? - then ask for advice – ideally
from a player you know –
PS: English & Duet concertinas have the same note on push and pull, Anglos have a different note on push and pull!
Anglos & Duets have large straps which go over the hand, English have little straps for the thumbs, and a small rest for the little finger…
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