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Six-Year Reflections

Posted by Rich Weill on Monday, March 16, 2009

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Today marks my sixth anniversary on the banjo.  So it's as good a time as any to reflect on the most important things I've learned along the way.

The most important thing, I believe, was developing an understanding of how banjo music works.  When I first started, I amassed a lot of instructional material that told me what to do -- but never why.  It wasn't until I read a copy of Jack Hatfield's "You Can Teach Yourself Banjo By Ear" that I got my first bit of understanding of how melody notes fit into a roll, the function slurs (slides, hammer-ons, etc.) serve, what a lick really is, and so forth.  Roger Sprung's "Play Along" CD taught me more about rolls and melodies.  Other bits and pieces I've picked up elsewhere.

In that vein, I believe it's important to learn that:

1.  The roll you play at any particular point in the song ideally accomplishes three things simultaneously: (a) it's your rhythm section; (b) it connects the key melody notes in approximately their correct location in the measure; and (c) it plays enough on the inside strings that you can hear the chord behind the melody.  [The (c) part is most important when you are playing an unusual chord.  Choose a roll there that plays the 5th string less, and plays the other strings more.]

2.  Melody notes are best inserted at particular places in particular rolls.  For example, in a standard (TM TIM TIM) forward roll, they are the 1st, 4th, and 7th notes of the roll, while in an FMB roll, they are the 1st, 3rd, and 6th notes.

3.  More often than not, you play no more than 3 melody notes per measure.  If there are four, feel free to drop one (usually the second).  It's also not particularly important to play repeating melody notes within the same measure.  [I learned this last bit from Harold Streeter's Banjo II course.]

4.  There are three basic ways to accentuate a melody note: (a) play it louder (often by playing it with the thumb); (b) pause (i.e., eliminate the roll note) either just before or just after the note you want to emphasize; and (c) sliding, hammering, etc. into the note. 

5.  The farther up the neck you go, the less precise the melody needs to be.  [I'm not sure why, other than the fact that up-the-neck breaks tend to be played later in an arrangement, after the melody already has been established in the listener's ear.]

6.  If you learn 3 or 4 different vamping patterns and 3 or 4 different backup rolls (i.e., rolls that don't play the 5th string), and you know your I-IV-V chords in the important keys along the neck, you probably can play decent backup to most songs in most keys without a capo.

7.  The Circle of Fifths is the Rosetta Stone for understanding most chord progressions.

8.  When listening for chord changes in a I-IV-V song, if the melody goes up at the change, it's probably going from I to IV; if the melody goes down, it's probably going from I to V.

Beyond these kinds of things, the other major thing I've learned is that songs are best learned in layers.  Play a simple version first.  Just a forward roll over the chords with the single-note melody inserted.  No licks, no slides.  Then experiment with other rolls.  Add a lick where the melody pauses.  Slide into, or hammer onto some melody notes.  [It's all in Janet Davis' "Splitting the Licks."]  Doing it this way:  (1) you can hear the tune the first time through and every time thereafter; (2) you can play as much as you can handle, and still play the song; (3) you learn how to play by ear.  Trying to play full arrangments from tab accomplishes none of these three things.

Those are my pearls of wisdom for the day.  I just wish I could apply them better myself.



3 comments on “Six-Year Reflections”

twayneking Says:
Monday, March 16, 2009 @8:18:39 PM

You guys are such hard workers.

No wonder I sound like the Wreck of the Old 97 - the real wreck; lots of screaching and tortured metal sounds.....

captin2521 Says:
Sunday, September 27, 2009 @7:13:53 PM

Thanks for the blog. I'm about to hit my one year mark using tab and
dvds and your blog kind of tells me where I need to go next.
I need all the help I can get to someday take my banjo out of the basement.
Thanks again.

Joe Jakonczuk Says:
Tuesday, November 10, 2009 @5:58:11 AM

Some very good observations.
Joe

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