Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Amazing Kala U-Bass

   The other day, I saw a used fretless Kala U-Bass on sale on E-Bay at a reasonable price, so I bought it.  It's an amazing instrument, the same size as a baritone Ukulele, but it is tuned like a bass.  Most people would not imagine that an instrument this small would put out that kind of sound, but it does. 

   Now it is not the same kind of powerful sound that comes out of an upright bass, which physically shakes your body and  instrument, almost forcing you to stay on the beat and in the right key.  But it is way more sound than you might imagine just looking at it.  

   I first found out about the U-Bass on the internet, and later got a chance to try a version with frets at Fawley's Music, a great music store in Morgantown West Virginia. For me the unfretted version is way better because the frets seem to get in the way and create a kind of buzzy sound.  

    One of the cool things about having a short fretboard is that you can easily slide up and down creating all kinds of different sounds.

    My sense is that it might be fun to take further advantage of the short scale length by tuning the instrument like a violin:  GDAE, instead of like the upright bass EADG.   The GDAE tunings  is by fifths, which makes some chord positions an enormous stretch on an upright bass.  But for the U-Bass, it should be a piece of cake.  Plus your normal 1-5 1-5 pattern is easy--both strings held at the same position. This would make the open string positions somewhat higher than on the upright---two tones higher on the lowest string, and six tones higher on the highest string.  That might be a more natural range to play in, anyway, at least in an acoustic jam.  This way, in a jam,  I might be supplementing the bass player, sometimes playing a fifth higher or even an octave higher, rather than always playing the same notes.  So I'm going to try that.   

    The strings are what makes the whole thing possible.  As a hack physicist, I am interested in problems like that.   Back when stringed instruments were invented, most instruments were based on strings from animal parts, cat gut being an industry standard. Accordingly, to get a string with reasonable tension to vibrate at a low pitch, you pretty much had to design an instrument with an enormous scale length; hence the upright bass and other similar instruments.  Wound strings are a recent invention, and make possible  much lower pitch without the sound getting too flabby. 

   Thus, in medieval times an instrument with low pitch really had to be huge.  I'm convinced that even today, much of our intuition about stringed instruments is based on the the world of Renaissance times.  In particular, some people flat out disbelieve that a small instrument can have a low pitched sound.  But they can, honest. 

   Kala strings are even more different.  These strings are made from a polymer, and are very fat, and low tension (i.e., low modulus, meaning that you don't have to pull too hard to make sound).  You have to turn the tuning keys quite a bit to affect the pitch.  Yet they have a reasonable sustain, which in physics terms means that the vibrational energy is dissipated at a fairly slow rate, and the strings will vibrate for a long time.  The strings also have a good creep resistance, meaning that they hold their pitch for a long time and don't need to be constantly re-tuned. 

    I can't wait to try this out at a jam.  See you there soon!


Saturday, March 2, 2013

Long Journey Home (Two Dollar Bill)

 Photo credit: Paula Hunt

   One of the highlights of the Worley Gardner Music Festival was Ray Hicks leading the Percival Pickers in Long Journey Home (Two Dollar Bill).  It's a great song, and Ray is a great singer, and the Pickers are a great jamp group.  To me the best part of it was that Ray and the Pickers got the entire auditorium to sing along with this one.  That was a thrill, to have so many people involved with the song. 

     As described elsewhere in this blog, the Pickers are a group of Old Time music enthusiasts headquartered in Percival Hall at West Virginia University who have been playing every week for the past 35 years or so.  In fact, you can join them each and every Tuesday night around 730 or so.   Likewise, the Worley Gardner Winter Music Festival is held in Morgantown every year in February.  Y'all come now. 

     This song is a variant of the Carter Family's Worried Man Blues, and tells the story of a Depression era fellow who managed to lose all of his money except for a two dollar bill.  Two dollars was worth something in those days; nevertheless we should understand that this was an economic disaster.  But somehow the song remains upbeat, and maybe that's how we relate to the song.  One of the functions of music is to keep people moving forward even in the face of great misfortune, including deaths, romantic disappointments and financial reversals like this one.  People have a need to sing about their lives, both the good and the bad.  

 Video Credit:  Kathryn Madison.

The Stanley Brothers recorded an early version of this song. Also on youtube is a version by Bill Monroe and Doc Watson.  I really think that it works a little better the way Ray does it however.  Namely by slowing it down a tad, it allows the rhythm to give the song a little punch. 

Bill Monroe and Doc Watson. 

[G]Lost all my money but a two dollar bill
Two dollar bill boys, [C] two dollar [G] bill
Lost all my money but a two dollar bill
[D] on my  long journey [G] home
Cloudy in the West and it looks like rain
Looks like rain, boys, looks like rain
Cloudy in the West and it looks like rain
I'm on my long journey home

It's dark and a raining and I want to go home
Want to go home, boys, want to go home
Its dark and a raining and I want to go home
I'm on my long journey home

Homesick and lonesome and I'm feeling kind of blue
Feeling kind of blue, boys, feeling kind of blue
Homesick and lonesome and I'm feeling kind of blue
I'm on my long journey home

There's black smoke a rising and it surely is a train
Surely is a train boys, surely is a train
There's black smoke a rising and it surely is a train
I'm on my long journey home