Bringing Out the Best

One of my banjo pickin’ buddies and I were talking a while back and the discussion turned to musical goals. I mentioned some of mine: things like wanting to explore more jazz, record a CD and the like.

In turn, he mentioned but one goal: to be able to bring out the best in any banjo.

A rather simple task on the surface, you might think. But let’s look closer and you’ll see what a grand and demanding goal, indeed!

On the most visible level, to bring out the best in any banjo means to be able to play any style. This includes Scruggs, melodic, Reno, clawhammer in its’ many Varieties. And what about 4-string banjos? Tenor and plectrum banjo, played with a flatpick, demand their own styles which vary with Dixieland, Irish and Celtic, among others. Add those to the grocery list.

Don’t forget the various tunings as well. Even though open G is the most prevalent, clawhammer especially uses several different tunings.

You must know what all kinds of banjos there are. And there are plenty. What do players normally do with a piccolo banjo or a mando-banjo? Is this banjo set up for bluegrass and if so, is it set up properly?

Does the banjo have historical significance? How would you play a banjo that had belonged to, say, Stringbean, or Don Reno, as opposed to Earl Scruggs? They were contemporaries, but you must know their history.

Furthermore, to play any banjo to its’ fullest capability means you have to have a very keen ear for what any banjo really sounds like. There are beginners’ banjos and top-of-the line pre-war Gibsons. There are also banjos set up for hard-driving bluegrass or for quiet mountain ballads. Skin heads and plastic heads, tone rings and resonator wood choices. Each of these will influence what that banjo sounds best for, according to our generally-agreed-upon set of standards. (bright and loud equals bluegrass, skin heads equals clawhammer, etc.). These rules can be broken, but you must well know the rule before you break it!

Lastly, to bring out the best in any banjo means you have to have a repertoire large enough to accommodate each style. Some songs just fit more naturally in one genre than another, but other gems also await our discovery in porting them into another style. Remember ‘Love Hurts’, written by Boudleaux and Felice Bryant, of ‘Rocky Top’ fame? The rock group Nazareth recognized this songs’ potential for them and reaped the rewards for their discovery. So it is with choosing which song to play in what genre.

Now, the grocery list is quite lengthy!

In a nutshell, if you want to bring out the best in any banjo, you have to balance playing style, history, instrument quality, kind and sound, be familiar with the body of songs in that genre and know when you can bend or break the rules.

Quite an undertaking, but what fun the journey can be, if you’ll just let it be!

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About Phill Gibson

I'm from Huntsville, Alabama where I work as a Systems Engineer and part-time banjo and mandolin instructor. I've been playing various instruments since my teen years. I started mandolin at about age 17 and banjo at 20. I love just about all kinds of music. In terms of banjo styles, I play Scruggs and melodic and am working on becoming more advanced with single string. I'm also working on 4-finger banjo, which is way off the beaten path. I would like to see more jazz techniques integrated into bluegrass situations; counterpoint, especially. So long-term, that's what I'm doing. I'm also very keen on astronomy, ATM (amateur telescope making), birding, christian homeschooling, martial arts, organic gardening and about 30 other distracting hobbies to a (mercifully) lesser extent.
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