Banjo Update #4 — Going for speed with Foggy Mountain Breakdown

First of all, for clarification, that wasn’t me.  But here’s what Wikipedia has to say about the tune:

Many five-string banjo players[who?] consider “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” one of the instrument’s fastest and most rhythmically challenging pieces. Only very skilled five-string banjo players can play it at the same speed and beat that Scruggs can.[citation needed]

If I had read that before trying to play it I may have chosen something else for song #4 and day 90 something.  And yes, it’s only Wikipedia and some citations are needed.  I won’t let it go to my head, and I can’t yet play it near as fast or clean as Earl Scruggs or Steve Martin, but I have to admit it made me smile to read this.  I was expecting it to say something on how it’s a common song for beginners to learn.

Foggy Mountain Breakdown seemed less technical at a slower tempo than the last two exercises, but the last few weeks have been all about speed. When I first started going for speed I thought it may just be impossible, or I was approaching it all wrong. But, the age old idea of practice-makes-perfect is coming into play here and I’m beginning to impress even myself.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been listening to a lot of Earl Scruggs, for whom they named this style of banjo playing after. Even though this piece takes only a few seconds to play (if played fast enough) you can hear the Scruggs style throughout this song, as well as most of his other work. This classic bluegrass banjo turn-around is present in most all songs in his repertoire:

D| ----0--------0--------0-----0----- |
B| -------------|-------------------- |
G| -0--------2-3--0--------0-------- |
D| -------------------2-------------- |
G| -------0-----------------------0-- |
    I  M  T  I  M  I  T  M  I  M  T

For those not fluent in Banjo tab, it’s the part at around 0:15 in the Steve Martin video that goes “do-doot da doot do”.  I’m familiar with guitar tab, but when I first saw this section I thought it was a mistake.  When performing a pull-off on a guitar you don’t (often) simultaneously hit an open string simultaneously with target note as you’re playing with one pick.  But with the banjo you’re playing with three picks and this style of pull-offs (or hammer-ons) seems common and gives it a more bluegrassy sound.

To alternate picking between the thumb (T) and middle (M) or index (I) fingers is natural.  Alternating between the middle and index fingers is not.  Any useful banjo tablature I’ve seen so far provides fingerings for these passages and they go out of their way to avoid  too much middle and index finger interplay without a thumb in the middle.  Unfortunately in the passage above an I-M-I sequence is required as it’s far better than the alternative; using the thumb twice in a row.  I just made up all of this banjo lingo, but it makes sense in my head.  I assume this is not uncommon and that my index and middle fingers will get stronger and more accustomed to playing licks without a thumb in the middle.

Tin Man on a Tractor
Now I know I've got a heart, 'cause it's breaking...

I have a new tendency to clench my teeth when playing lately.  I notice it only after a few minutes of playing when my jaw begin to hurts, but am otherwise unconscious of the act.

I know what you’re thinking.

There’s an easy joke here somewhere connecting this habit of mine to the stereotype surrounding the teeth of the average banjo player, or lack of.   However, y’all just offended me.

Everything above was written on July 1, 2010 but I never got around to recording myself playing it.  I had a clever idea of finding a arrow-through-the-head hat, which isn’t an item you can find easily at Target I discovered.  I went as far as buying an arrow at Walmart and creating my own, but I just gave up.  Honestly, I think it was the arrow idea that kept me from writing this for so long.  So here’s the video of 4-months-good at the banjo.  You’ll just have to believe me that it’s about the same as 1-month-good…

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