Banjo Music

Banjo Update #5 – Field Work

Now that Banjo Update #4 is out the door I wanted to discuss some additional Banjo-related activities that took place over the summer.

I spoke about the Ossipee Bluegrass Festival at length in July but I purposely omitted discussing the banjo as I felt it deserved its own blog.  This was at time when I had just gotten the hang of Foggy Mountain Breakdown, but any self-esteem I gained in my living room was quickly squashed by the virtuosic playing outside my tent.  I brought my banjo to the festival, but decided to leave all instruments that I am confident in playing at home.  In hindsight the accordion would have been an interesting mix to the late-night jams, but I certainly wasn’t special for reaching a self-described intermediate-beginner level at the banjo.

Proper banjo instructions start with pronunciation

Up to this point I haven’t had a proper lesson or instruction at banjo stylings.  It’s always my concern that I will get into some bad habits early on that I simply can’t break.  Fortunately for me my first lesson pulled up next to our tent in the shape of an 18-year-old boy.  He pulled out his banjo, and his lady-friend pulled out their fiddle, and I knew that I should leave my banjo safely in its case unless I casually approach him seeking beginner advice.  It would take me a day and a half to get the confidence I needed to walk over there.  As for the stage performances, I payed very close attention to the hands of the banjo players that were prominent in each band.  What I noticed was that their right hand was barely moving.  You could hear the speed that was being produced, but their right hand was oddly still and the pickin’ was not exaggerated.  This was the first bad habit that I found I had fell into.  My right hand was flopping all over the place, almost as if it was getting a running start before jumping in.  While it often allowed me to play more quickly, it usually made for more of a hit-or-miss approach.

As the final day approached I walked over to our 18-year-old neighbor to let him know of my banjo trials.  He was nice enough and offered me a quick lesson.   I nervously played my version of Foggy Mountain Breakdown expecting a surge of critique, though no hippie at a folk festival is capable of being that honest.  He warned against my flaring fingers but seemed to suggest I was on the right track and suggested I practice more rolls (basically the equivalent of practicing scales on the piano, basically the equivalent of boring).  He also noted I was surprisingly good for only playing for a few months, which was really I wanted to hear.

Whenever I buy a new instrument I’m always quick to blame the physical instrument.  While it’s always my skill that’s the issue there has to be a case where someone buys a defective beginner instrument and the frustration that this causes results in them quitting.  For this reason I always want an accomplished player to play my instrument so I know for a fact that it’s my fingers that make the instrument sound bad.  I handed my banjo to the 18-year-old who quickly played a little ditty.  This certainly meant my banjo wasn’t defective, but he did suggest that I get it repaired.  It’s been sitting in my closet for about 14 years, and before that it was sitting in a pawn shop for possibly longer than that.  Tightening up the head and straightening the neck should improve my sound as I did notice it sounded a bit too tinny.

Pickin' Lessons
My 18-year-old teacher and I

The next field work was for my cousin’s wedding.  While I was comfortable playing the piano during the ceremony I was also playing the banjo during a mid-ceremony Dolly Pardon song.  Though I simply picked some chords in the lucky key of G it was the first time I played the banjo in front of an audience and the first time it was played in a group of other musicians.  It most impressed my grandfather who was quick to brag that I was playing the banjo the “real” way and not just strumming it like a guitar.  If he had kept up with my banjo updates he would have known that this was the Scruggs style.  Here’s the video:

This bonus footage was a sound check before my cousin filmed the wedding ceremony.  His direction called for me to make a creepy face.  While the banjo playing is flawed, though saved slightly by the churches natural reverb, my creepy-face performance is riveting.

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