Know When to Drop a Bad Break

As you advance in your banjo-playing skills, you’ll often be coming up with your own breaks (and backups) to various songs. Maybe you’ve tried your hand at songwriting and like it. Maybe you’re simply adding depth to your own coverage to tunes – livening up your breaks with new embellishments, or even coming up with your first version of a song you’ve always meant to work up, and you’re finally getting around to it.

Whatever the route you’ve taken towards original works, you’ll inevitably come face to face with one – a bad break. You’ve created it – you get the credit, or the blame, as the case may be. Maybe you’ve even played it a good deal already, stubborn to the fact that it raises more questions than it answers, so to speak.

I remember the first truly bad one I came up with. I had been playing about a year or so and thought I knew it all. I did my take on Rocky Top. In looking back, it does over-do the whole concept of power on a banjo and makes the second half of the break (where the mandolin takes a lead in the Osborne Brothers version) into a tour-de-force of musical misunderstanding.

Well, I can look back on it and laugh. We all gain wisdom as we age. If we don’t, perhaps we don’t get older?

It takes a bit of humility to admit we’ve either missed the mark in what we were trying to convey, musically, or else we’ve hit the mark, but were wrong in what we were trying to convey in the first place.

Either way, that’s the time to back up and redo your efforts. Perhaps it needs further development, but I suspect if you’re like me, it really needs simplifying; I believe the ‘bluegrass banjo thought process’ tends to makes us want to fill all available spaces with too many notes, leaving out the well-timed rest notes that are so essential to syncopation. We banjoists could take a cue from guitarists and pianists in that regard; ofttimes, less is more.

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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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