Hi, Compass. Fast chording has always been easy for me not because I can do it but because I never liked full chords played all the time anyway. I also like a mix of chords with the melody when it comes to singing quartets - when all four singers don't always sing at the same time. To me the tenor banjo, especially, sounds best with a mix of single notes, double notes, triple and four string chords. I read somewhere that when Eddie Peabody performed in England he was criticized by some members of the banjo clubs there because he didn't play fast runs "properly" and played fast runs with one or two notes instead of four. So you and I are in the best of company! My first suggestion would be to just play a portion of any chord when needed to keep the rhythm.
Something else I've found that helps speed in making chords is to use the tips of fingers instead of the flat part of the finger end joint. I don't think that it is a coincidence that many of the fastest tenor banjoists, including Harry Reser, began by playing the violin which is played with the tips of the fingers.
A third suggestion that goes along with the fingertip approach is one given to me by Tim Allen when I took a private banjo lesson from him years ago. Tim said that I should learn to bend the joint of my little finger backward when I needed to cover two strings, as opposed to bringing down the wrist to bar the two strings. (I was already bending the joints backward on the other fingers but the pinky seemed impossible.) That advice alone was worth the price of the lesson - It took my little finger about 6 months to be able to do that but it made a huge difference in my speed. Without this backward bending capability when using the fingertip method you have to cover the two stings with two fingertips; Bending it backward instantly covers both strings. With tenor tuning using this technique makes it real easy to add a fifth to a root when the root is under the little finger - e.g., make a 1-5 chord.
This is an issue Cynthia brought up last week. I didn't get any specific exercises from her, but I'll bring it up next time I see her. I have a tendency to try to play a melody with full chords on every note, especially when I'm learning. She wants me to simplify by playing some notes, especially passing notes, on single strings. Cynthia has told me one time you usually don't want to use single notes is when you have a chord change.
I've been separating learning tunes into all chords and all single string, and then mixing the two into different combinations.
I have been using the backward bending technique, but I don't think I've used it with my pinkyI I can't think of any chord forms on plectrum where that would help Thanks for making me aware of it!
Improvisation is the ability to talk to oneself. ~ Cecil Taylor
Because of my background of playing standard ballads chord/melody style on guitar, I can do a decent job on tenor on slow tunes (sometimes even medium). On fast tunes, I tend to play 4-note chords most (if not all) of the time. I want to incorporate the single notes into faster tunes, but it is difficult to do so and keep the rhythm going. (Well, it is for me anyway.)
Tony, a good way to get the feel of single notes thrown in with chords is to take any piece of music and play full chords on anything longer than an 1/8th note. Then play 1/8th and lesser value notes single string. If you did this all the time it would begin to sound like a formula but it does help to get the feel of putting them in music and staying on task. Usually, I play full chords unless it is getting in the way of the smooth flow of the song then I use single notes in the arrangement to keep it going. Little single note riffs are also cool for those songs that have 2 bars of nothin' happening! :)
Those single note runs need to be practiced and counted out in the time of the music. Once you get it you'll hear it and sooner or later it will get easier. On single note one should be diligent about alternate picking to keep the sound and meter correct.....up, down, up, down, etc. no matter if you change strings. Can be hard to learn and make it automatic. There are quite a few pros teaching now using Skype and iChat, etc. for video lessons. These are very helpful and energizing.
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