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 Playing Advice: All Other Styles

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Rick McKeon - Posted - 06/20/2017:  17:17:22

A lot has been said about "finding your own style" but how do you do that?

I'm sure this is not the case for everybody, but it seems to me like a three step process:

1.We start out trying to emulate the sounds we like. After all, that's what brought us to the banjo in the first place. We learn roll patterns, licks and beginning level songs. And at first, we try to play them note-for-note, with the "correct" fingering, etc.

2.Then we find that we can substitute some of our favorite licks and embellishments in a familiar song. Also, after we learn to play a song "straight up and down" on the beat we discover that we can push notes around and create some interesting syncopations and variations on the basic song.

3.Finally we say, "I don't have to play this song exactly as written. I'm going to play it like I like to hear it!" Now, that's the beginning of playing in your own style.

An important saying to consider is, "You have to know the rules before you can break them." In other words, you first need solid skills and timing, then you can start changing things.

In Philip Toshio Sudo's book Zen Guitar (p.162) he says, "enter by form, exit from form"

I would love to hear your thoughts. Maybe your path has been different from mine.


BanjoGil - Posted - 06/21/2017:  05:44:27

Hey Rick, this is a very important subject you've brought up. I totally agree that you should get a good, solid understanding of the original song and then, if you want, you can come up with your own licks or way to play the tune. I think that whoever you listen to the most is who you will most likely sound similar to. If you listen to a LOT of banjo players, then you will come up with something from each of them and a new style will develop. I personally love to imitate Earl almost exclusively. Although many people would tell me not to do this and that everybody starts with his stuff, there is so much more than just "learning his songs". Ask any professional player and they will say it's impossible to sound just like him, and they are right. It's a hobby that I enjoy and I think that's the whole point. Find the way to play that is fun, relaxing, and that suits you and that is where a style will develop. Even though I try to sound like Earl, it's never going to happen exactly because I'm NOT Earl. No one can be. But, it's sure fun to try! Remember, just have fun!

WayneConrad - Posted - 06/21/2017:  15:51:38

I didn't sound like any of the players I admire, and that depressed me.  Then I listened to some Adam Hurt recordings.  Although he's a world apart from me in skill, some of his playing reminded me of mine.  That eased my mind--if Adam hurt can make a sound sort of like I do, and he's well regarded, then I must be alright.

Since then I stopped worrying about who I sound like or whether I can imitate someone's sound.  I still like borrowing sounds or trying to imitate the style of  those I admire; however, I no longer care as much whether I can do it.

I'm slowly developing my own style.  It's a combination of all these little things.  How much swing do I use?  How hard to I pluck the fifth string?  How many strings, and how hard, do I strum?  Dynamics (or a sad lack thereof).  Etc.  It's kind of cool to be at the point where I can start to hear some "me" in my playing.  I'm still getting there, though.


Rick McKeon - Posted - 06/21/2017:  16:06:38


Very insightful comments! I know it takes a while to get there, but you are at the point where you have self confidence enough to break out of a rules-based approach. Sadly so many players are intimidated by thinking they have to do things a certain way. I think that idea actually prevents them from trying new things.


Rick McKeon - Posted - 06/21/2017:  16:09:23


I agree completely!


Jim Yates - Posted - 06/21/2017:  18:39:41

I don't necessarily agree with the statement, "You have to know the rules before you can break them."  Developing your own style can be harder if you learn the rules.  I have a friend who is a wonderful banjo player, but who does not play Scruggs style, clawhammer, melodic or Reno. . . He has his own way of interpreting tunes and songs.  He did play guitar for many years before taking up the banjo and was quite accomplished, but developed his own style of banjo playing over the last 30 years or so.

My son and his wife gave me a Filipino banduria a few years ago and, knowing very little about the traditional ways of playing (or tuning) the instrument, I developed my own style of playing it, borrowing from my guitar, mandolin, banjo skills and applying them to the new instrument.


steve davis - Posted - 06/25/2017:  05:43:13

For me it just kind of happened because of lack of contact with bluegrass players up here in Maine.
A lot of it I made up as I went along.

Lots of different ways to learn.I started with a flat pick.

DeanT - Posted - 06/25/2017:  07:50:50

I came form open G and D blues guitar finger picking. I was the only one in my group who knew open tuning, so when they wanted to add banjo, I got the job by default. I'll never forget what the group's leader told me, the first day I played a friends banjo (I haden't even got one yet) He said "just get the chords and play a lot of notes like banjo players do." I've been at it ever since, and have never known the rules. I got picked up by a second band, after a bluegrass jam some years back. I had to ask why me, when there were much more talented banjo players there. The reply was I played very tastefully, never used a capo, and could play anything, in any key, and they wanted to get away from bluegrass, and into other styles. I got the job, and we really had some fun.

gone - Posted - 06/25/2017:  09:54:43

I'm always amazed at how style often just sort of comes. For instance I learned Randy Lynn Rag note for note in the Scruggs book years ago. Over the years I never intended any changes to it but if I compare how I play it now it's not like the tab. I'm happy this happens. I'll never play like Earl so I'm glad to play like me and it sounds good.


L50EF15 - Posted - 06/25/2017:  15:05:44

Interesting topic. "Zen Guitar" is one of my favorite books. Let me add a statement by one of my favorite guitarists, Robert Fripp, that conveys something similar to what you've raised here: "We begin at the beginning. Therefore, we begin where we are."

I take that to mean that you can come in from any point on stylistic or technical spectrum, subject to what you want to hear yourself doing with the instrument. This has (as it must) pros and cons. In my case, the pro is that I'm adapting 34 years of guitar technique to the banjo, which I took up eight months ago. My goal is to improvise coherently and create my own songs. I've never been a "cover band" player; that's not what drew me to the guitar and it isn't what drew me to the banjo.

The con, of course, is the same. Not being a cover player, and using unconventional techniques will certainly limit my prospects for jamming: What I do is, emphatically, NOT bluegrass or old time. And, while there are jazz elements in what I do, I don't want to insult all the wonderful jazz players out there by claiming to be a straight ahead/Real Book-fluent jazz player.

These things said, I have been substituting the banjo for the guitar at my regular Sunday gig since October. People keep saying they like what I do, and that's encouraging. I know that lots of people would (and probably have!) rejected it out of hand. But that's okay.

"I'll learn to work the saxophone, I'll play just what I feel," sang Donald Fagen on the Steely Dan masterpiece "Deacon Blues". Substitute guitar (and now banjo), and that's how I'm finding my style.

steve davis - Posted - 06/27/2017:  08:44:37

I'm happiest when I'm figuring out a piece that I've never heard played on a 5 string.

Richard Hauser - Posted - 06/27/2017:  16:17:32

I think that each persons playing style is determined by their natural talent and the amount of effort they put into their playing. Talented players create new material and use more sophisticated material. Beginners and people who don't have that talent "fall back" on simpler techniques/licks. But if you are playing for your own enjoyment, just relax and have fun. Playing with that attitude improves the sound of your music.

trapdoor2 - Posted - 06/28/2017:  09:04:45

I'm in agreement with your list, Rick. I went thru a very similar process.

I think since I have always been very much 'into' music, I tend to get a fixed version stuck in my head (I hated 'live' albums since they rarely sounded like what was on the original studio album...sometimes vice versa). When I attempt to learn a piece, I simply cannot play what isn't in my head. I found that I would get a learning block until I made the necessary changes. As I have gained experience (aged?) that block has pretty much gone away (or I have internalized the process).  

Example: learning "Groundspeed", I disliked the little bugle-call quote. I could not get past that until I inserted my own quote (which is the first few notes of La Marseillaise).

I'm still very much a note-for-note finger-style player. Part of that is from playing Classic banjo via notation as a re-creationist...(going all 19th Cent, etc.). Most of the stylistic changes I make there are mechanical (fingering choices, etc.).

For CH, stylistically I started from ear playing along with a fiddler. He played the tune and I learned to play 'fill' (backup/accompaniment, etc.). I still prefer to play that way, although I've played long enough now that I am adept at throwing in melody lines occasionally (and I do know a bunch of 'canned' tunes). I guess I skipped to #3 right from the beginning (or at least as soon as I could properly use my RH).

Frankly, I don't really think of myself as having a personal 'style'. I play differently depending on many things. If I'm playing a historical style, I try very hard to eliminate any modern or personal touches. If I'm playing a fixed arrangement (notation/TAB), I will often make mechanical/fingering changes to suit my abilities but tend to play note-for-note as much as possible. If I'm in an OT jam, I'm howlin' and growlin' is almost all me.

johnedallas - Posted - 06/28/2017:  14:15:40


Originally posted by steve davis


I'm happiest when I'm figuring out a piece that I've never heard played on a 5 string.

I can really identify with that statement, Steve!

Looking at my banjo-solo repertoire, I see arrangements of Irish art songs, baroque fantasias, Carolan harp music, Playford dance tunes, Stephen Foster songs, Elizabethan songs, German folk songs, and classically influenced own pieces.

The greatest compliment I got at an open stage evening was by a classical guitarist: "I didn't know the banjo could be played classically like that!"



Richard Hauser - Posted - 06/29/2017:  07:06:34

johnedallas - my area once had an outstanding banjoist.  A little boy heard him playing, turned to his mother and said "How come when he plays the banjo it sounds like music ?".  That is about as big a compliment a banjoist can receive.

steve davis - Posted - 06/29/2017:  11:45:30

Once I learned some roll basics from Pete's Bluegrass Banjo Book I just started applying them to Country songs that I was familiar with.

I never studied one particular player's style other than picking up tunes from tab that I believed to be in the artist's style.Whoever's been in BNL since 1975.

monstertone - Posted - 06/30/2017:  14:57:09

"You can fool all of the people some of the time. You can fool some of the people all the time" PT Barnum It is not too difficult to impress non players, especially when liquor is involved.

"Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery" Unknown, at least to me.

"Eddie Sheton taught me to play music on the banjo" Alan Munde

Everyone has to start from somewhere. "Somewhere" being what brought you to the banjo in the first place. Most likely your ears were involved. You heard something that turned you on. That became the empidence, the driving force that kept rattling around in your head, wouldn't let you sleep at night, until you figured out how do get that sound out of the banjo. Imitation.

Like it or not, music has rules. Some of which can be bent, tweaked a little bit.  Beyond that it becomes undisciplined noise.

Style is subjective, to which I reference Mr. P.T. Barnum. Having gotten this far, you have undoubtably listened to a lot of music. If I may be so bold, your own style whatever that may be, could be thought a comglongeration of everything you have heard which has influenced your playing.     

Rick McKeon - Posted - 06/30/2017:  17:30:00

Just watched an interesting video with Jimmy Bruno answering questions One of the questions was about how and when he developed his own style. He said, "It just happens."

Great answer!


gone - Posted - 06/30/2017:  18:51:58


Originally posted by monstertone


"You can fool all of the people some of the time. You can fool some of the people all the time" PT Barnum It is not too difficult to impress non players, especially when liquor is involved.


Not correct. This is a portion of a quote from Abraham Lincoln. 


Dave5236 - Posted - 07/08/2017:  18:02:42

Hi Rick,

I am curious about your phrase {playing a tune straight up and down and on the beat)  Could you expand on that a bit. Is that where the melody note of the original song is always played "up front" in any two or four note rolls?  I have gravitated to a style like that because I do more group song leading with the banjo, and the singers need to hear and sing to the melody they remember.

Appreciate your thoughts,




Rick McKeon - Posted - 07/08/2017:  18:47:58

Hey Dave,

Great question! When I say "straight up and down" I am referring to playing all notes as written exactly on the beat. Frankly, if it is too perfect it sounds like a machine is playing or you are playing a MIDI file on your computer - no human expression. Of course our timing needs to be rock solid, that's the only way it will sound like music. But if it is too mechanical it is boring. Pushing some notes around and adding syncopation makes it sound more like a human and less like a machine. Also, tiny variations in timing (while still maintaining a solid beat) adds interest and an appealing swing feel. There are "jazz eighths" and "swing eighths." With the banjo we usually keep the feel a little more subdued than with blues guitar.

The most common way we add syncopation to bluegrass songs is to push a melody note ahead by an eighth note. I mean we actually move the note ahead (and you can see it in the tab) to catch the listener off guard and have some fun with the tune. That's why I usually start with the melody exactly as written. Then start introducing rolls and embellishments and then add in some syncopation. You will usually have to leave out some melody notes to make it work, but everyone knows where you are going with it.


johnedallas - Posted - 07/09/2017:  13:50:53

monstertone wrote: "You can fool all of the people some of the time. You can fool some of the people all the time"

I prefer the quote from British Prime Minister Harold McMillan: "You can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time."

In music as in politics, someone, sometime will not be fooled, so you'd better do it right all the time!


steve davis - Posted - 07/09/2017:  14:17:08

Who's trying to fool somebody?

Cleitus - Posted - 08/07/2017:  08:34:44

I find the style comes from the music itself - first you try and get it down as you heard it then all sorts of little things happen- notes get forgotten/left off and others get added, perhaps a more comfortable fingering subtly alters the passage etc. it's incremental and not always noticed until one day you hear the original again.

WayneConrad - Posted - 08/07/2017:  09:42:31

Rick, Good point on syncopation to add interest.   I've found that you can sometimes play a few notes of a song straight but syncopate the singing, or sing the song straight but syncopate the playing.  It's the devil to get your brain to do that, at least in melodic style playing.  My voice and my fingers very much want to do the same thing at the same time.  But sometimes I get out of a fingering pickle this way--I can't put the melody note where I want?  Just put it before or after.

Old Hickory - Posted - 08/11/2017:  12:40:36


Originally posted by johnedallas

I prefer the quote from British Prime Minister Harold McMillan: "You can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time."

Apologies for the thread drift . . .

Since the 1880s, speakers and writers have attributed that quote to Abraham Lincoln.  Supposedly, he said:

You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all of the time.

But there's no written contemporaneous record that he ever really said it. 

However, something very similar was written -- in French -- in 1684 by one Jacques Abbadie:

ont pû tromper quelques hommes, ou les tromper tous dans certains lieux & en certains tems, mais non pas tous les hommes, dans tous les lieux & dans tous les siécles. 

One can fool some men, or fool all men in some places and times, but one cannot fool all men in all places and ages.

bigalguitarpicker - Posted - 08/16/2017:  15:11:23

When I bought my first banjo in about 1975, I knew nothing about Bluegrass, or Old time.  I liked folk music (I live in Northern Ireland) and the only banjo players I had seen on TV were Pete Seeger, Luke Kelly and Tommy Makem, all of whom were folk singers, and all of whom played 5 string banjo. So that's what I bought. I played banjo just like I play guitar - with a plectrum. I eventually found out about Bluegrass and Old Time, but never had any interest in either of them, although I did buy fingerpicks and tootled about with them. Now, roughly 40 years later, I'm starting to feel comfortable with a thumbpick and one fingerpick, though I usually put on 2 fingerpicks (just in case!) but I'm still happiest when I'm playing with a plectrum.  I had a comment from a Blue grass player about me trying to play The Ballad of Jesse James.  I wasn't trying to play it. I was playing it. Just differently to how he played it.  I've started looking at playing movable chords and making more use of that big long neck.  I think I have MY own style!

Bought 6 string lately. Bit of a change there! Not every song sits well on it, but those that do sound great.


Veerstryngh Thynner - Posted - 08/27/2017:  08:30:33

Interesting thread, this.

I'm mostly on HBO's 4-string jazz section, since that's where my musical history lies, for the greater part. And what strikes me particularly, in this discussion, is that many contributors seem to regard 'style', once attained, as something of a fixture.

As a teenager, I spent a lot of time and energy in perfecting mine, attempting  to reconstruct banjo solos (in which I often succeeded) as laid down on a very limited number of jazz records in the parental home. So one day I was asked to join a local dixieland band. Well, I suppose they hadn't much to choose from, really, since I was the sole banjo player in town anyhow! smiley

I got from pretty good to a little better, gradually, and even build up something of a regional reputation. Yet at some point I wanted more: dixieland began to feel like something of a straitjacket. By that time, I had been playing Trad for a couple of decades, but it was no longer challenging: a bit too predictable, if truth be told. And that, in fact, is still the case, to some extent.

Not (or, perhaps, not enough) taken into account, I think, in this discussion, is that individual 'style' CAN and DOES change, over time. At the moment, I'm looking at several inlets, originally from classical music, to explore. And I have Rob MacKillop to thank for this, essentially, since watching him, on YouTube, beautifully playing an ancient Scottish ballad on a vintage tenor banjo.

Veerstryngh Thynner

Edited by - Veerstryngh Thynner on 08/27/2017 08:37:44

Laurence Diehl - Posted - 08/27/2017:  09:15:52

I think when I went from playing 'banjo music' to 'music that sounds good on the banjo' it opened up my style a lot. Your banjo will tell you when you are playing something that works, if you listen

steve davis - Posted - 08/28/2017:  10:19:50

I've always bent what I've learned to fit my hands.

Paul R - Posted - 08/29/2017:  17:32:54

I think that, if you have one influence, that's how you'll sound. If you have many influences, you'll sound like yourself.

I used to go see Bruce Cockburn in concert every chance I could get. He seemed to change his arrangements constantly.

Funny how inspiration comes. I just dug out a photo of the late Jackie Washington (the old African Canadian guitarist and singer - 1909-2009 - from Hamilton, Ontario) the other day. One of his signature pieces was "On the Sunny Side of the Street". Looking at the photo, I decided to figure out the chords for finger-picking guitar, and it came pretty easily (not saying it was any good!). Thanks, Jackie!

As for banjo, I occasionally play three-finger at the BG jam (where I usually play CH or guitar). I wouldn't dignify it by calling it BG, but I think a fair bit of it fits the song.

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