As a web developer by day, I often work with something called cascading style sheets, or CSS for short. On a web page, this is where you put all of you ‘look and feel’ properties for a web page, or even for the entire website. We banjo players also have our own styles. Not embedded in a modular little component, but rather, expressed throughout and integrated into every musical movement we produce. It really says who we are as musicians as few other attributes do.
I don’t know of anyone beyond a beginning level who would like to sound exactly like someone else. The closest we usually come to this is trying to sounds just like Earl Scruggs, a fairly common notion when we first start playing the banjo. Soon we realize that that impressive Scruggs sounds isn’t so much linked just to Earl’s style alone, but is found in a myriad of other players styles, thus opening a world of possibilities. I remember when that dawned upon me as a beginner and it felt really great to know that there was even more out there that needed to be learned. Not only just other styles, as in melodic, Reno, clawhammer and such, but also nuances within Scruggs style alone.
Take a pull-off for example. You could do a basic pull-off, or you could do a double pull-off. I like those double pull-offs; they’re very distinctive and they’re not heard all that often. J. D. Crowe does them some, so when I hear an unknown banjo, and a double pull-off comes along, I immediately wonder ‘Is that J. D. Crowe?’
That’s a good long-term goal to be able to develop your own style to the extent that a knowledgeable person could figure out that it’s you playing the banjo and not someone else. We can define our style by listening to and trying out a large number of different techniques and licks. Some we’ll ditch and others we’ll keep and integrate into our songs.
Where do we get these various musical motifs to test? Some we’ll get from fellow musicians, some from tablature. There are indeed whole books of just banjo licks to try out! But I think the best of all is when you create your own licks. Nothing says individual style as much as your own creations.
One last thing. Don’t expect style to develop overnight. This is a long-term goal. You have to be able to step back and reflect on where you are going musically in order to decide ‘Is this what I really want to do in musical expression?’ And that takes a lot of time. The fun part, though, is in exploring all the possibilities and finding that occasional gem that you can call your very own.