California Report: Luke Abbott on California music, Strum Machine, and more

Luke Abbott is a product – some may say prodigy – of the California bluegrass world from the first wave of CBA youth players. He was born in Santa Cruz and now calls San Luis Obispo home. You may have seen him backing up Keith Little, Kathy Kallick, or Molly Tuttle. He sings, plays banjo, fiddle, guitar, and mandolin, and focuses on bluegrass and old-time styles. He’s a mainstay instructor at camps, and his latest project, Strum Machine, is an online subscription service site that serves as your own personal bluegrass rhythm section.

Hi Luke. You’ve been exposed to this music for quite some time. Talk about your journey into the bluegrass fold.

Sure! I got started playing music – though not bluegrass per se – very early, thanks to my parents. They could sing and strum various folk and country songs at a basic level and really wanted music to be part of our family. The strategy was to have lots of instruments around the house and to have regular family music nights where the only rule was that you had to be in the room. It didn’t take long for my brother Kyle and me to join in with whatever we could figure out to play. I learned recorder and harmonica with books/audio tapes and piano with a computer program, although most of my learning was trial-and-error experimentation and discovery. We were having fun, but we were playing by ourselves and without much direction.

Then in 1997 we went to our first bluegrass festival and everything changed. It wasn’t our first time hearing bluegrass – we’d had a Flatt & Scruggs LP that I loved to listen to – but seeing how jamming works and meeting some of the community gave us a whole new context for it. After that we focused our music exclusively on bluegrass, going to lots of festivals and jams and eventually starting a family bluegrass band.

How many instruments do you play?

We obtained all the main bluegrass instruments soon after we went to our first festival, and I’ve played and performed on them all at various points. These days I mostly play guitar, fiddle, and banjo (clawhammer and Scruggs), and I’m re-learning piano as my “quarantine instrument.”

You’ve played with some greats including Molly Tuttle, Keith Little, Kathy Kallick. How do you prepare for different acts so you fit in well with the players?

Lots of listening. I’m fortunate to have a very strong auditory memory, so repeated listening goes a long way. I try to adapt my playing to fit the style of whoever I’m playing with, at least to some degree. The more out of my comfort zone that takes me, the more focused practice I need to get up to speed. 

What interests you when you are not playing music?

I’m still pretty obsessed with improving Strum Machine, so that is mostly what I’m focusing on these days. But I also like walking, biking, cooking, listening to books and podcasts, and creative projects of various kinds. My newest project is going to be putting together a recording studio in our new house in San Luis Obispo: building bass traps and other acoustic treatments, adding sound insulation, etc. 

Your solo album Take Me Home is ten years old now but sounds timeless. Talk about that project.

I started arranging some old-time songs for solo performance – including singing with the fiddle – when I decided to make a solo album. I didn’t have a specific vision for it. I recorded and re-recorded tracks for months. I always thought I was recording the final cut. And I recorded dozens of songs that ended up not getting picked for the album. It took many, many iterations to get to where I wanted to go, but everything came together in those last couple of weeks.

What eras of bluegrass are your favorite?

All of them, for various reasons. I spent several years listening only to the classics, especially the Stanley Brothers, and traditional bands like the Johnson Mountain Boys. It was a good foundation for jamming. But I also dig the later folks that honed and evolved the music and took it in new directions. These days I listen to Punch Brothers, Crooked Still, the Steeldrivers, Bruce Molsky, and plenty of not-bluegrass-at-all music. But I still lean on all the classic bluegrass material in jams of course.

What non-bluegrass/old-time music do you enjoy?

Lots! Blues, jazz (especially on piano), and traditional music from various cultures, like Middle Eastern music, which I used to play with friends in Santa Cruz. Mostly though I listen to whatever my wife puts on – my favorites include Ben Folds Five, The Decemberists, Grandaddy, and the Wallflowers. And I’m finally learning some of this Beatles music everyone keeps talking about.

What’s your routine when you pick up your instrument?

Tune it. Then noodle for a minute.

What tunes always seem to be under your fingers?

These days I mostly pick up the guitar, and my favorite key is E, with the capo on the second fret but holding down only five strings; the low E string is not capoed. It’s kind of like drop D tuning, but better. My go-to tunes change with the seasons; right now they include Ginseng Sullivan, Body and Soul, Winter’s Come and Gone, and Won’t You Come and Sing for Me, which I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of singing. And yeah, I sing all of those in E.

How long have you been an instructor?

I started by teaching workshops and classes with my family around 2004 and then started teaching at music camps in 2006. I started teaching regular private lessons around 2013, and gained a whole new level of experience and feedback once I started teaching one-on-one, and wish I’d started that sooner.

What’s the key to being a good instructor?

One thing that applies to music as well as other pursuits is listening: watching, hearing, and being in the moment with the student. Where are they physically, emotionally, skill-wise, and so on? What pieces are they missing? What do they want to learn? Is the approach you’re taking, which may have worked for other students, working for this one? Every student is giving you feedback on your teaching all the time – all you need to do is listen. This also helps immensely with the #1 challenge of effective teaching: the “curse of knowledge,” where you forget what it’s like to be a beginner.

And all that feeds into the second thing, which is the ongoing development of your craft, and avoiding the temptation to just coast your way through lessons. One of the best things I did for my teaching was to give lessons to an experienced school teacher and expert in pedagogy who then (at my request and in lieu of payment) gave me pages of feedback on my technique, which was extremely helpful.

What are ways students can overcome their musical challenges?

If we’re talking about a difficult piece of music, I’d say first, slow down. Focus on relaxation. How can you execute this passage with less effort? Make sure you can play it in a steady solid rhythm before you speed it up again. The times I’ve broken through a certain musical plateau on an instrument, it’s always come down to finding a way to be more relaxed in my playing.

Can you share some tips for players to continue to improve?

Hard to give one-size-fits-all advice; players will have a better idea of what they need to work on than I will! But making music isn’t just one skill. It involves many skills, and they can be split into two categories: knowing what to play, and knowing how to play it. Each category of skills requires completely different strategies to improve.

To know what to play might mean doing tons of active, critical listening. It might mean unlocking new possibilities by playing a certain break over and over, forcing yourself to play it differently each time, which sends you in new and novel directions. As for knowing how to play it, that involves both a mental aspect (how do I translate what I hear into finger movements) and a physical aspect (how can I play faster, cleaner, more relaxed, etc.). You can work on things in a focused way if you’ve identified your weak spots. Of course, many of these things will improve of their own accord even if you don’t focus on them specifically, but sometimes we get stuck in certain areas that can benefit from deliberate practice. Be your own guide! Or even better, get an experienced guide to help show you the way.

What’s the best way to practice?

You should ask someone with good practicing habits! [laughs] I’ve had to figure this out this late in life. As a kid, I got so much playing time in – we played music as a family for an hour a day for years, plus I was going to all sorts of jams and festivals and such – that I was able to get to a semi-pro level without much solo practice. I was constantly challenging myself and being challenged to keep learning and improving. I kept pushing toward musical ideas that were just out of reach, and I played with people that were better than me whenever I could. 

Now when I pick up an instrument to practice, it’s so easy to just coast on what I already know. Challenging myself (what they call “deliberate practice”) feels much more like hard work when there’s no playing-with-others context, so I tend to just play in a more relaxed way that’s quite enjoyable but doesn’t help me improve much – not that there’s anything wrong with playing for the enjoyment of it rather than constantly striving for improvement! And actually, playing with Strum Machine has helped because I can recreate some of that jamming feeling, which naturally pulls me to step it up and give more to the music, which leads to improvement that feels a lot more fun and effortless.

How did you start the Strum Machine website?

For years I looked far and wide for an app or website like Strum Machine. I knew about iReal Pro and Band-in-a-Box, but I wanted something easy to use that sounded like real bluegrass accompaniment, where you could choose a song from a list, pick a speed and a key, and hear realistic backup right away. Mostly I wanted my students to have access to a tool like this. Instead, I was recording custom backing tracks as needed, which was tedious and not ideal. Eventually, in 2016, I figured I’d try building a prototype of my idea for my students to try, and it just snowballed from there.

What would you say the typical person uses the site for?

Some people use it to help them work on timing and rhythm, like a metronome that’s way more fun to play with. A lot of people just like to jam with it. Most users have incorporated it into their daily practice routines; they make a list of the songs they’re working on in Strum Machine and go down the list practicing their breaks, singing, backup, and so on. Other people use it to write songs/tunes (you can make it play any chord progression quite easily), back themselves up while busking or live-streaming, play rhythm for Zoom jams, and make nicer click tracks for recording.

What’s new and exciting in Strum Machine since it was first released?

A lot! It’s grown up a lot these past five years. It’s way more polished, stable, and user friendly. I’ve added a ton of features along the way, but it hasn’t gotten more confusing or overwhelming. That’s a big selling point for lots of people: it’s simple enough that they can be up and running with it right away. 

There are now over 1,400 mostly bluegrass and old-time songs built in. This past winter I did an overhaul of the song editor, making it easier and more intuitive for folks to add their own charts, and adding a bunch of oft-requested features like slash chords (where you specify the bass note), more jazzy/extended chords, and more flexibility in how charts are created. Song lists can now be shared with others in a community forum. There’s an integrated notepad where folks can store notes about particular songs, including lyrics. It works great on phones and tablets now. You can enable offline mode and use Strum Machine in your wifi-free woodshed if you want. And there’s so much more to come: more strumming styles, banjo, medley support, and about a hundred other things on my list!

What interests you when you are not playing music?

I’m still pretty obsessed with improving Strum Machine, so that is mostly what I’m focusing on these days. But I also like walking, biking, cooking, listening to books and podcasts, and creative projects of various kinds. My newest project is going to be putting together a recording studio in our new house in San Luis Obispo: building bass traps and other acoustic treatments, adding sound insulation, etc. 

I think there’s a lot of home recording going on these days. Is it possible to do home recording well on the cheap?

Yes. There’s definitely lots you can do at home on a small budget. For example, I recorded my solo album at home with a $100 condenser mic, a $100 mixer/preamp, and a $100 portable sound recorder in a mid-sized room with a bunch of shelves and stuff to diffuse the sound. I mixed and mastered it at home with Reaper ($89 and comes with my highest recommendation), headphones ($50), some Nearfield monitors I borrowed from a friend (probably $200), and a bunch of free plugins. 

The audio quality would have been better with better equipment, and if I were to upgrade one piece of equipment, it would have been the mic; $300 can get you something much more neutral and accurate-sounding. Recording in a studio would have led to richer-sounding audio, but for me, the benefits of recording from home far outweigh the downsides. You can record whenever you want as much as you want. There’s no way I could have pulled off a solo album in a studio. Way too much pressure! Sacrificing a bit of audio fidelity in exchange for that freedom is well worth it in my book.

Any last thoughts?

I’m filled with gratitude for my family who set me on the musical path early on, for the hundreds of people who played with me and mentored me, especially as a kid, for all the volunteers and organizers who ran the many festivals and events I’ve attended over the years, and for countless other ways in which I’m fortunate and blessed, from my good health to my wonderful wife Bronwyn, who’s the light of my life and a damn good harmony singer and up-and-coming bass player! And as I count my blessings, I recognize that many people don’t have the opportunities that I’ve had. I hope we as a culture can do more – lots more – to improve equality and help those who’ve had the deck stacked against them.

Thanks much for your time Luke.

Thanks for interviewing me! I’ll admit it’s a bit strange to talk about myself for so long, but hopefully your readers find some of it interesting.

Copy editing by Jeanie Poling.

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About the Author

Dave Berry

Dave Berry is an avid mandolin picker, singer and songwriter who writes an interview column for the monthly California Bluegrass Association (CBA) members publication featuring California regional and national artists who tour California. He grew up in bluegrass country on the Ohio River right between where the Big Sandy and Big Scioto Rivers dump into the Ohio. The columns are also featured on the CBA website at www.cbaweb.org.