Marjorie Thompson Hands-on Presentation, September 19, 2011

The Rochester Guitar Club hosted a Hands-on Presentation by Marjorie Thompson at our September 19 club meeting. The event took place at Bernunzio’s Uptown Music, a well known emporium for vintage and new instruments and avid supporter of the musical arts in Rochester. Marjorie was accompanied by her friend and frequent accompanist, bassist Greg Franklin who hails from Rochester. They met more than a decade ago at the Fur Peace Ranch, a guitar camp/music academy in rural Ohio operated by legendary guitarist, Jorma Kaukonen, former lead guitarist for Jefferson Airplane. An interesting and informative session was enjoyed by about twenty attendees.


Marjorie Makes a Point!

The Music Business: a Midlife Miracle?: Although the first half of the evening was the hands-on segment: “Up the Neck: the Fingerstyle Guitar Toolkit,” I am going to write first about the second part wherein we got to know more about Marjorie and “How she became a professional musician.” Her story was unusual enough to get her an invitation to appear on the Oprah Winfrey Show in a segment called “The Age of Miracles: The New Midlife” about “women who are changing the definition of middle age. Marjorie was selected for this due to her unusual feat of creating a professional music career while maintaining her position as a PHD professor of biology and Associate Dean of Biological Sciences at Brown University. This after having previously run a catering business and raised seven children. Her first comment of the evening was to mention that we had several ladies in the audience and that this differs from her usual experience where she is the only female in attendance. She offered her appreciation for their presence.

What Marjorie’s career is all about is passion, passion for science, and passion for her music. She was a youngster in the sixties when folk music reigned and she began playing, finding special interest in blues licks and runs found in the playing of Rev. Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt and Jorma Kaukonen who then was playing with Hot Tuna. Real life got in the way of her musical pursuit until she took the opportunity to attend workshop sessions at the Fur Peace Ranch. Inspiration was soon to follow, and as she puts it “quite by accident” she wrote her first song in 2001. Like flood gates opening, she has unleashed a torrent of songs—four CDs, 3 DVDs and more to come.

This session opened with the song “Cordelia,” with lyrics describing a dichotomous person who was ”everywhere and nowhere,” but “I thought she was mine,” Perhaps Marjorie feels this dichotomy applies to her–-at least to her career(s). On one hand the security of academia (and a good, steady salary) while on the other hand the trials and tribulations of a professional musician at risk on the road. She spoke of the paralyzing fear of stage fright she experienced even though she spent many years lecturing classes. She said open mikes are a great help in getting over this. Marjorie took every opportunity to open for other performers. In the first year of performing she had ninety-three gigs. She and Greg told numerous hysterical stories of the road–-terrible gigs they played and crazy experiences they had. There was also quite a bit of conversation about the Fur Peace Ranch and how it inspired her playing and songwriting. She finished the presentation with her arrangement of the Beatles “When I’m Sixty Four.” Fortunately for the rest of us she has a decade of songwriting and performing to go before she gets to sample that age!


Guitarists Learning New Techniques

Up the Neck: the Fingerstyle Guitar Toolkit: Her teaching skills are apparent in the workshop-like environment. She is friendly, outgoing, talented and knowledgeable. She spoke a bit about Greg Franklin and the importance of a bass player being careful to complement the acoustic player and take care not to overpower the acoustic line. Greg is highly accomplished at his art, and the combination of sound from her Collins OM-2 cutaway and his custom Lehmann Instruments bass was wonderful! The workshop began with a song, (Dropped D tuning) “The So Long Blues.” An unusual mix of bluesy, country sound and somewhat morbid lyrics asking “How long is this journey, How long is this ride” and ultimately deciding that regardless of how you live your life, you ”end up cold and stiff one morning in your bed.” In the break of this song she traveled up the neck to add color and interest to the tune and she pointed to this later as the reason for this session–-to be able to make your playing more interesting by finding chords that have fuller sound and follow the melody as it rises and falls.

To make it easier to find these chords she uses the “CAGED System.” Because the guitar design has two octaves in the open-string tuning, and an octave along the neck by virtue of the first twelve frets, a base chord such as the “C” chord can be found in at least five places along the neck. The base chord is in first position using notes within the first three frets. The next place you can find a “C” chord is using the “A” chord fingering configuration at the third through fifth frets. Next occurrence is using the “G” configuration at the fifth through eighth fret, then the “E” configuration at the eighth fret and finally the “D” configuration at the tenth fret. This type of repitition works starting from any of the base chords (CAGED) and just continues through that rotation. This makes it easier to find that chord you need to move your melody along the neck and add interest to your music.

There are also a couple of connectors that can be used between chords that create an easy transition between chords and add significant color. These are two note pinched pairs, partial chords sometimes called double stops that can walk up or down, which serve as the basis for “licks”. She showed us two of these and several applications and variations of them. By the end of the first hour we had seen ways to use these connectors in several blues licks and incorporate them in songs like “Alice’s Restaurant” and “Keep on Truckin’ Mama.”

Both segments of the presentation were enjoyable and informative. Check Marjorie’s website and grab the next opportunity to attend one of her concerts or workshops. You’ll be glad you did!

~Jeremy Carter
Photos: Ruth Fine

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