Melodics and Soul

If you are a banjoist, you’re probably aware of the melodic style of 5-string banjo playing, whereby you are playing primarily melody notes, as opposed to fewer melody notes surrounded by ‘filler’ notes, as in Scruggs style. This style of banjo playing was invented in the 50s and 60s by Bobby Thompson and Bill Keith independently of each other.

Melodic style, or ‘chromatics’ as it was styled by some (a misnomer, though), is an electrifying playing style. When you first see a melodic scale played skillfully on the banjo up close, it really can be an eye opening experience. Its bold and brash presentation can contrast considerably with banjos at the other extreme, such as quiet mountain banjos as they are deftly frailed to tell a tale. No emotions in melodics, for the most part; this style is used for getting the point of technical skill across to the listeners.

But that’s not what it’s really all about.

True, the world does love the fast breaks and staccato notes of a great banjo break, in any style, for that matter. But ultimately, it’s more about musical expression of what’s inside us that about how technically skillful we can become.

Now don’t get me wrong – I love the technical, skillful, fast, bluesy, hot banjo breaks as much as anyone! I create a lot of them myself. And I can listen to them over and over. But I also see that that is just one very loved segment of the whole. You have to balance things, is what I’m saying.

Historically, melodic style has been solidly a technical style as opposed to a soulful style. Let me expand a little on those two categories of styles.

When I think of the blues, it’s not so much of brilliant solos, carefully crafted chords and complex rhythms as I do of meaning; or put another way, I think of the blues as a true musical expression of an honest cause.

Conversely, I think of melodic style as emphasizing technical prowess over conveyance of musical meaning. It certainly gets the job done of delivering the melody, but compared to the blues played on a old guitar – there’s just something missing when you step back and examine it as an end in and of itself.

I think I see what’s missing.

When I think of rock guitar, I think (among other things) of precise patterns and exacting melodies, much as I think of playing licks on a banjo, but it also has that blues influence in it. An electric guitar doesn’t have the filler notes of Scruggs style banjo, so it really is quite similar to melodic style banjo, just with more sustain when needed. So why not think of melodic style the same way we think of electric guitar runs and riffs; they can be precise melodies, but they can also emulate the blues. By introducing some blues techniques into melodic style we can add another dimension to our musical expression.

We can start by simply modifying out approach to creating melodic runs. It seems to make sense to just break them up a bit more, to add well-placed spaces into breaks more frequently than has been done in the past and to use dotted notes more. For more, just start listening to electric guitar solos and you’ll start to see both similarities and differences with respect to the banjo. These basic steps will help to set apart our melodic runs and can even help define our own styles in a better way.

Bottom line: yes, melodic style has certainly not been synonymous with soulful playing up until now, but there is nothing to stop us from adding more feeling to our melodic style playing.

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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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