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10 August 2013

Adventures at the Speed of Formby

This week's obsession has been a lot of fun and it sort of grew out of nothing. I really didn't see this one coming. I'm calling this post "Adventures at the Speed of Formby" for reasons that will become apparent soon. There are lots of videos below. All of them are brilliant and linked in a beautiful synchronistic way.

George Formby - License to Thrill

Let me start this ball rolling...

You know that I have a bit of a soft spot for banjoleles. I've got 3 or 4 (or is it 5?) of the little beauties. They're all locked up in the attic with sagging vellum. Before I ever attempted to build my own ukuleles, I was buying the odd vintage banjolele and doing them up. Last week one of my colleagues on Google+ +Ed Sprake revealed that he was doing up a banjolele he'd bought on ebay. Unlike me, he seemed to have his 20s Riselonia souped up in the space of a couple of days. Check out the video of the final instrument. Looking good isn't it! Watching the video, I was starting to get a few banjolele pangs...

Take a look at this next video. It's one sent to me by someone who attended the Leyburn Festival on the 27-Jul-13. She was raving about this banjolele player she'd seen, but didn't know who it was. Neither did I... No banjolele player was mentioned on the Leyburn Festival website. I stuck the video up on youtube hoping that someone might help to solve the mystery.

Someone did!

I got a comment from a young man by the name of Angus Formby Lamont who suggested that the mystery Formby act is Paul Casper. I think he's right!

Introducing Paul Casper esquire – Great Britain’s top lookalike entertainer, bringing the legendary George Formby back into our hearts.

”Resemblance to the great man himself is just so uncanny in every way. Mr.Formby must have had a secret lovechild that we were unaware of ” – President of The George Formby Society

Having thanked Angus for the steer, I then got to wondering who Angus was and lo and behold if I didn't discover that he's a George Formby prodigy too! I guess the clue was in the name ;-) Ha ha

I clicked on one of his videos (the one below) and found myself wanting quite a lot to be playing some of the things that Angus is playing. It wasn't long before I'd pulled out my Tokyo Uke and was strumming along trying to emulate the wonder-boy. I concentrated on what looks to be Formby 101 - the Split Stroke - but try as I might, I couldn't get the bloody thing right. And then, when I thought I had it right, I couldn't play it anywhere near fast enough. Far from being disappointed... I found myself getting more and more obsessed. I must have sat in front of this video for close to 2 hours mucking about, playing and rewinding the same snippets of Angus's tutorials.

I realised that my obsession was becoming unhealthy at the point that I posted the video below on Google+ inventing the #formbysunday hashtag in the process. So far I think I'm the one and only person to use it. How can this be?!? The video is a classic bit of footage of the wonderful Peter Sellers being interviewed by Michael Parkinson in 1974. He then goes on to play a pretty good version of When I'm Cleaning Windows.

In the video above Peter Sellers hints at the snobbery that had grown up around George Formby by the 70s. Formby's era had passed by the time of this video, the vast majority of the Great Unwashed were simply unaware of the the magic that the man had woven. Even today, unless you're a fan of the banjolele, you are probably still unaware of the huge amount of skill and manual dexterity required to do what he was doing. He adapted and invented a technique that is often copied, but rarely emulated. And he made it look effortless!

Prepare yourself! This is what learning the split stroke is going to feel like!
Picture courtesy of Clifford's Soup

It wasn't George Formby that got me into banjoleles and save a ham-fisted rendition of When I'm Cleaning Windows (not as good as Peters' version), I've never attempted to play any of his songs before. In fact, I'm a complete novice when it comes to Formby banjolele technique! It's official... I KNOW A-NOTHING!

I really don't know where this came from. An idea popped into my head one day this week as I was driving home from work. I scribbled it down before I forgot it. It had me chuckling to myself for reasons that I can't explain. Sorry.

Up until this point in my strumming I'd resisted the urge to dig out a banjolele. This was soon to change; My Tokyo Uke was getting me so far, but I was struggling to raise my game. I began to wonder if perhaps I was missing something due to a lack of vellum. I was also thinking that perhaps playing with a C tuning was screwing things up. It seems that Formby requires predominantly a D tuning. Maybe a higher tension string was going to make a difference? I also noticed that Concert size was preferred rather than my tiddly Soprano. I could do something about everything except for the Concert bit... all my banjoleles are Sopranos.

Can you guess who this 8-bit banjolele wonder is?
Keep on reading and you might just figure it out...

While my wife wasn't looking, I ventured into the attic and returned with my prized Dixie. It was the only banjolele that was still playable, and I kind of like the irony of me trying to learn some of the "outcast" Formby's technique on an "outcast" Dixie banjolele. Read my Dixie banjolele post for a bit more information about the Dixie and hear me rant!

I'm not claiming that I've got this right (Let's face it... There is no such thing as right in this instance), but here's the strumming technique I've been using to help me to get the hang of the split stroke. If you flick around the internet as I have done, then you will find all sorts of variants of the split stroke strum, but the important constant is the succession of "triplets"...  a repeating pattern of quick down-up-down strokes. The faster you go, the more you enter Formby's realms. Start out slow and speed will come once you get the pattern set in your hands.

With the first downward stroke, you play all strings. Then you pull up, plucking only the 1st string (the one closest to the ground), quickly followed by a strike down, hitting only the 4th string (the one furthest from the ground). Repeat 3 more times until the slightly modified ending.

How you hold your strumming hand is vital to getting this right. You mustn't touch the fretboard/vellum where you are strumming, or the strings... except where you're actually strumming. Start with your hand a good distance away from the strings and you'll find yourself easing closer as you start to get the hang of it. You're going to be strumming every stroke with your first finger. I've seen it done with a plucktrum and a thumb-finger-thumb combination, but for starting out, stick with the finger!

And that's the split stroke strum! Well, almost. The chords you choose to play using this strum can also be important...

Thankfully, the change in instrument did make a difference, but it wasn't all smooth sailing.

I explained some of my frustrations on Google+ and a number of people came to my rescue. It was great! For a while there we had a bit of a Formby self-help group going on. It seems that everybody has a split-stroke story to tell and my frustrations were by no means unique.

+Paul Redfern shared a tutorial of his own with me. I don't know what Paul does when he's not making youtube videos, but I reckon he'd make a pretty good teacher with his relaxed, calm delivery ;-) Brilliant.

The missing ingredient for learning the split stroke has to be the chords. Of course, you can play whatever you want, but there are a couple that stand out, that helped me at least to cement the pattern into my body...

Here's what's widely recommended as a good starting point in terms of chords to play when learning the split stroke. If, like me, you're more used to the gCEA tuning then you'll recognise these as C and G7. On the banjolele in the video below I'm tuned to aDF#B ("a full step up"), making these chords D and A7. Play the pattern once through with one chord and then repeat it with the other.

The only other thing to point out is the "embellishment" on the up-stroke where you can play the open string. Try it. I find it easier to do this than to keep the same chord throughout. Somehow, I find t he act of moving that third finger makes the rhythm easier to maintain. I've even seen the "embellishment" being to fret the 1st string higher up the neck. While you're learning, leave this kind of magic to the pros! ;-)

Here's a video of me doing the split stroke. I started to learn it on the Sunday afternoon, and this video is from Monday evening after work. And no, I didn't take the banjolele to work with me ;-)

I hadn't quite got it at this point, but I reckon it shows potential.

Since this video was taken, I've found it's been getting easier and easier and I've even started looking ahead to a few more tricks which have in turn helped me to return to refine and finesse the split stroke. I'm still no Formby yet, but I'll keep working on it!

Hmmm... I wonder what my next obsession will be?


  1. I expect you to be playing 'Camptown Races'
    by next week then.

    But a lot faster than Freddy Firestater in the above link.Freddy sounds a bit burnt out.
    He may want to try sitting further away from that campfire.-)

  2. Hey - I could do that! But I'm not going to ;-)
    Hold your horses Daz... I've got my own miserable cowboy ballad in the wings... It's only a matter of time before you'll be reaching for the whiskey! Believe me! ;-P

  3. Re:
    "It's only a matter of time before you'll be reaching for the whiskey!"

    Again,you mean?-)