Playing Banjo 4-Finger Style – Some Observations

Intro | Background | Observations | Benefits & Challenges | Getting Started | More Getting Started | Applying it to a Song

Now move forward in time to today. A few banjo players, seeking new boundaries to push, have started to use not only two fingers (one way to do single string style) and three fingers (Scruggs, melodic and single string styles), but 4 fingers as well. Not surprisingly, some of the changes brought about by going from 2 to 3 finger style also apply in going from 3 to 4 finger style. Notably:

1) Speed increases by roughly 33% over 3 finger styles. Again, this assumes the same amount of effort is expended for either style.

2) The cadence changes once again, although I think a bit more subtly. Here, I’m thinking of 4-finger style not as a replacement for 3-finger styles, but as a supplement; much the way single string and melodic style licks can be interspersed in a Scruggs-style tune. To me, Scruggs style is the ‘glue’ that binds everything together. So it is more subtle a change in cadence. Also, we aren’t converting everything from 3-finger to 4-finger style – just what’s needed.

I suppose someone could convert the whole song into a 4-finger style, but I don’t see enough ‘return on investment’ to warrant that, normally. We can already do just fine with incredibly rich musical expression within Scruggs style for the majority of technical requirements. Why reinvent the wheel when the end result will be pretty much the same? In other words, use 4-finger style for licks that will indeed showcase it, not for things better done with 3 fingers. Yes, speed could be a valid reason, what with approximately a 33% increase using 4 fingers. Just remember though, as you learn to pick with 4 fingers, it is going to take a little while to actually see that speed come to fruition, especially with more detailed rolls and licks.

Notice in the two-point list above, I didn’t include point #3 from the last blog (tunes could be reworked to take advantage of the new 3-finger style). That’s because I don’t see 4-finger style as being as revolutionary as three-finger was: with 4-finger style, you can fit more notes (so that it sounds faster) into some licks with a subtle new cadence that gets noticed. And, it also fits well into your existing songs – no need to rework everything from scratch.

Next blog, I’ll start detailing the benefits and challenges of 4-finger style. After that, I’ll look at how to get started, plus some of my own thoughts, perceptions and choices in learning 4-finger style banjo playing.

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Playing Banjo 4-Finger Style – Background

Intro | Background | Observations | Benefits & Challenges | Getting Started | More Getting Started | Applying it to a Song

Last blog, I gave a brief introduction to the topic of playing bluegrass banjo with four (right hand) fingers, rather than the usual three. Now, we’ll go over a bit of historical perspective.

Some Background & Other Observations
1946is a year bluegrass banjo pickers will always remember. That’s when Earl Scruggs, at the Grand ‘Ol Opry, introduced the world to 3-finger style banjo playing, when a lot of folks were still playing banjo with either two fingers or clawhammer style. As many banjo players know nowadays, 1946 was ripe for just this quantum leap in banjo technique. Several other players, among them Don Reno and Snuffy Jenkins, were also starting to play 3-finger style, especially around the North Carolina area that Earl Scruggs came from.

3-finger style banjo was revolutionary for several reasons.
1. Physically, it allowed the use of one more finer in rolls, thus making it roughly 50% faster-sounding for the same amount of effort with two fingers.
2. It created a totally new cadence to rolls. Combined with the existing syncopated sound of the 5th drone string, no wonder it was such a fascinating new sound.
3. Given the speed that was now possible with 3 finger style playing, songs could be played with a more exciting drive. Old songs could be reworked and new songs written just for a fast bluegrass feel.

Since that day, we have added several new and exciting techniques and styles, including Reno style, which embodies single string playing, melodic style which emulates note-for-note fiddle tunes and many new techniques that extend these styles into not only bluegrass, but also jazz, country, rock and other genres.

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Playing Banjo 4-Finger Style – Introduction

Intro | Background | Observations | Benefits & Challenges | Getting Started | More Getting Started | Applying it to a Song

Have you heard of this yet? Picking a 5-string banjo with 4 fingers instead of the usual 3, as in Scruggs style. Greg Liszt is one banjoist who is experimenting with this new style and it sounds very interesting to me. After all, Earl Scruggs popularized three-finger style playing at a time when two-finger and clawhammer styles were the norm. I’ve been playing banjo for 30+ years, mainly Scruggs and melodic, along with some single string, clawhammer and two-finger styles, but I’m just learning four-finger style. Hopefully, I’ll have some good lessons learned to post here as time goes by.

So I’m starting a series of blogs here on playing a 5-string banjo in 4-finger style. What I’ll do first is examine the historical background, then blog on the practical challenges and benefits of playing a 4-finger style of banjo and finish up with looking at how to get started and some of my own experiences in learning a new style, coming from a Scruggs, melodic and single-string perspective.

Next blog, I’ll go over some background and other observations.

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The Banjo 50 Years from Now

We’re so used to technology these days. Many of us make our living from some part of it. Even if you don’t earn a living at it, you know how to use Facebook, cellphones, iPods and so on and so forth. We’re also used to seeing visioneers and sages offering up forecasts for future technologies.

But the banjo?

I see the contradiction here; something like technology stirs the imagination and sets us wondering what’s in store for us in the future. Something like the banjo represents, in many ways, just the opposite. Something plain, steady and reflective. Both joyous and plaintive. “Banjos know their place” to totally misquote Mole in “The Wind in the Willows”.

To be somewhat truthful to the title, I do see banjos using small on-board computers to help keep the instrument in tune. Gibson already has one or two instruments like this out as of 2009, from what I recall reading. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see some new styles become popular; maybe some old ones being revived, too.

And now, to address what I felt in writing this title. No, there will be no changes in the banjo, technology, styles and such lesser attributes aside. The banjo will remain the same in everyone’s hearts, whether highly esteemed or scorned. The banjo has it’s own side of the tracks on which to dwell, neither definitely right nor definitely wrong. What we make of it today will be what we continue to make of it tomorrow and always.

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Posting Your Blog on Facebook

Recently, I figured out how to make my blog postings show up on my Facebook page.

If you are reading this on Facebook, you might not realize that what I usually write about banjos, learning and music are in actuality blog postings. Here how to do it:

On your Facebook page, click on Notes (the icon at the bottom). Under Notes Settings near the top right of the Notes page, you should see a “Edit Import Settings”; click this and you’ll see a new page with a form field for specifying a RSS feed. Just put your blog RSS feed here. For instance, mine is https://blog.phillgibson.com/?feed=rss2.

Afterwards, your blogs should start showing up on Facebook!

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The Nashville Numbering System

The Nashville Numbering System was around long before Nashville became known for music. I’ve seen it called by several other names and it is a basic part of music theory. I’ve heard several bluegrass musicians call it this, so I’m following suit here. As a beginning banjo, mandolin, guitar, etc. player, you should be familiar with this concept and how it works in playing music with others.

Whenever we are playing a song, we are (or should be) aware of what chords we are playing. Either we are playing lead by playing a melody, or we are backing up, usually by playing chords. Either way, there is a chord structure to the whole tune that we keep in mind as the song progresses. Those chords can be referred to by their usual letter designation; here is the usual chord progression for the first few measures of Cripple Creek in the key of G, without regard to the length of each chord: G, C, G, D, G.

One thing to notice very quickly here is that most folks play Cripple Creek in the key of A, not G. To play Cripple Creek then, we then have to transpose the chord progression to the key of A. This chord progression now becomes: A, D, A, E, A. Now this example is easy enough to do, but what about transposing something complex?

Musicians have found an easier way to represent chord progressions. Let’s let the root chord (G for the key of G) be a roman numeral I. That C in the key of G is IV, and D is V. If we transpose this into the key of A, then by definition, A is now the root, so it is I instead of G, D is now IV and E is V. The whole chord progression then becomes I, IV, I, V, I. Notice that this is now independent of which key you are in. I is G in the key of G, and I is A in the key of A; likewise for the IV and V chords. BTW, “I, IV, V” is pronounced as the numbers: “one, four, five”.

If you are wondering how this could possibly make your chord-playing life any easier; trust me – as you progress in musical skills there will come a day when you realize that seeing and playing “I IV V” means a lot more to you than seeing “G C D”, and “A D E”, and “B E F#”, and “C# F# G#” and a whole lot of similar things that are all really saying the same thing: simply “I IV V”.

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A New Year, A New Perspective

I almost never make new years’ resolutions. I figure if I want to do something, just go ahead and do it when you see that it really needs doing.

But I do see the logic in it. The start of a new year is indeed a good time to take stock of where you are, much like the sage advise of changing your smoke detector batteries when you switch to/from daylight savings time. A time for everything, and January 1st is a good time to reflect on your goals and accomplishments, among other things.

Something I have been pondering the last few days is mediocrity. Like 99% of all people, I have to watch this one. I realize that if it weren’t for mediocrity, any of us would be well-known for whatever our passion in life is. Perhaps your passion is playing the banjo. Better still in my book is a passion for God, I would be amiss not to mention. But whatever it is, do you see how our mediocrity holds us back from learning it better? If we really desire something, we will always be thinking of it, fiddling with it, turning it over in our minds. And thereby we overcome all the obstacles we encounter and enjoy the progress we see happening.

Of course, we all can, and do, have several passions in our lives. Hopefully, your job is one of them, I suspect if you play a musical instrument or sing, then this is one of your passions. Your family, your spiritual life, keeping fit – remember in all these: keep mediocrity out and watch yourself prosper.

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Sold: An Epiphone MB-200

I finally sold one of mine – a banjo, that is.

It was an Epiphone MB-200 I had bought used a few years ago. At the time, I thought it was just a small step above a beginning banjo, so I had paid a small price for it. But the more I played it, the more I realized this was a very good quality mid-range banjo. It’s been my second-most favorite banjo to play (next to my Stelling Red Fox) and I usually kept it in D-tuning, much of the time just right there on the couch and ready to play. It rarely got out of tune and was a bit soft in terms of volume. Quality of sound was good, not exceptional, and the playability was excellent.

I sold it to a fellow banjo player who really needed a better quality instrument, so I’m glad for that. But I do miss it, being the first one I ever sold. No, I don’t have that many banjos, but still, it’s hard to depart with temporal things like musical instruments sometimes. I tell myself perhaps I’ll use the money to get either a tenor banjo or a cello banjo one day soon.

On a larger scale than just the missing of an instrument you have gotten used to playing, I’ve noticed that musical instruments often go through a cycle of being played, stored, sold, played, stored, rediscovered, and so forth in various combinations. Eventually, they typically become very modified and then downright beat up to the point of being discarded. So sad.

Occasionally, a really valuable instrument finds its true value in life, many perilous years after having been built. Like pre-war Gibson banjos, or even pre-1960 Harmony Stella 12-string guitars. (No, mine is a 1960s, after they started being mass produced). These are valued as they should be, but still you have to wonder what the next owner will do with it; something wise or something not-so-wise?

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Merry Christmas!

I’m perfectly glad to use the word CHRISTMAS; as our saviour, Jesus Christ is the central figure in Christmas, as well as in all of history.

 

So here’s wishing you all a Merry Christmas!

 

Now if we just had some snow down here…

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A Tribute to Jimmy Arnold

Unless you keep up with a lot of banjo players, you may not know Jimmy. After all, Jimmy Arnold is certainly not a household name. What did he ever do? The answer: in all my years of banjo playing, I’ve heard few people with as much raw talent for distinctive, stunning banjo breaks as Jimmy had.

Obviously there are other, more well-known banjo players: Earl Scruggs, Sonny Osborne, Bela Fleck, and Eric Weissberg of Dueling Banjos fame come to mind as being recognizable to the general public. To bluegrass aficionados, you should also add the names J. D. Crowe, Vic Jordan,  Bobby Thompson, Bill Emerson, Alan Munde, Bill Keith, … the list is extensive.

But in my book, few others have that touch, that absolute skill with creativity, that Jimmy possessed, even thought they may have gone much farther and higher on the whole.

To my knowledge, he put out only a few records and never achieved great success with his music. I have his banjo album, Strictly Arnold, on vinyl and it has always been a special musical set.

Sadly, Jimmy died much too soon after a tragedy-filled life. Alcohol and broken relationships were a recurring theme in his life.

Today, we approach the 17th anniversary since he died suddenly in 1992 of a heart attack. I’ve heard the exact day as either Christmas Day or New Years day. Not sure which is right.

I just know I miss this good ‘ol southern boy and his music, as does everyone who knew him personally and professionally.

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