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Time To Move On, But Where?

Posted by Richard Dress on Thursday, September 10, 2009

 After playing for thirty years I stood back, took an honest look at my picking, and had to admit I didn't at all like what I was doing on the banjo.  I had learned tons of tab in all styles, learned as much technique as I could and practiced it every day, jammed everywhere.  Did all the stuff most of us do.  I had a lot of bookshelf space devoted to the cassettes, books, VHS tapes, and DVDs.

The rule I had followed "the more you learn, the better you will sound" was clearly not working for me.  Lessons from some of the top banjo players in bluegrass helped a little bit but didn't pull me out of my rut.

Looking back, I see that I had focused on only one aspect of banjo playing and neglected the other.  The successful banjo package contains a good mix of technique and art.  Too much technique and not enough art equals bad picking.  Most pickers who are dissatisfied with their progress fall into this category--at least, that is my experience over the years of teaching and helping.  Learning more technique is not the way to go.

[As an aside, let's say that sufficient technique would be something like: learning a couple of rolls, knowing where the G-scale notes are on the fingerboard, and the fingering for the C & D chords.]

Well, what is the right way to go?  Many of us are wondering about that very question, and our concerns often show up on the HO in various ways.  The usual advice given in response is: learn more technique, jam more, or maybe learn some theory.  This is the wrong advice for many frustrated pickers.

I encourage people to put up a sound file that represents the kind of playing they are dissatisfied with. 



Questions an expert should be able to answer after listening:


What's holding me back? Am I doing something wrong?  Am I leaving something out?  Are any of my techniques inadequate?  Do I lack basic musical skills unrelated to the banjo?


What do you recommend?



So, put up an MP3 on your home page and announce that you are looking for a critique.  There are some really top-notch banjo players on the HO who will give you some good advice.

This is probably the most useful thing one can get out of the BHO.

13 comments on “Time To Move On, But Where?”

Banjov1 Says:
Thursday, September 10, 2009 @11:00:26 AM

Interesting post Richard

I'm at the stage now where I find myself playing so much with others that I don't get to spend a lot of time concentrating my technique. But I sure would like to. I don't think I'll probably ever play like Mike Munford, but at this stage in my banjo journey I think I still have a few plateaus to reach before I hit a rut like you describe.

I have been working a bit more on linear single string riffs and maybe if I don't make any progress on that front in the next 6 months, I'll take your advice and post some sound bites.

Again, good post... makes me think

Richard Dress Says:
Thursday, September 10, 2009 @11:32:18 AM

Thanks, Tony. I've been there and it was a lot of fun. But if you are there, then you know more than enough banjo already.

But think about this for a minute, because six months is a long time:

How much single string stuff has Ralph Stanley recorded?

I used to lust after being able to play like Adcock or Emerson or Reno. But reality sets in and I think well what about Ralph, that should be easy. If I could just play like Ralph, no fancy stuff, I would be happy.

But Ralph is just as hard to get right as any virtuoso. No matter where you go you end up back where you started. You learn all that neat stuff and you haven't advanced any further in terms of playing music. This is the trap that I warn about. There is a way to get to that next plateau. Finding it is difficult.

Good luck on your journey, and let me know if I can help steer you.

Banjov1 Says:
Thursday, September 10, 2009 @12:24:35 PM

I hear you Richard, I still find myself working on simple reverse rolls and classic Scruggs patterns. I often find myself getting frustrated when I play faster tunes and I can't pull off a well timed simple reverse roll.

Case in point, my playing in the following video has a couple reverse roll muffs that continue to dog me. but I tend to think most of the mistakes in this were due to a lack of warmup...

I don't have much else in the way of recorded media to critique at this point, but if you notice anything... let me know.


Richard Dress Says:
Thursday, September 10, 2009 @1:02:45 PM

The reason you muff those reverse rolls is because you have layers and layers of repeated bad reverse rolls bound up in your technique--sort of like the way a samurai sword is forged. You can overwhelm this tendency (which everyone has) by taking a firmer command of the rhythm. You have a good rhythm guitar player to keep you on track (don't lose him), but I suspect that without support like that you might drift off the beat when a tough spot comes up. This is only my guess because I was very impressed with your great timing plus your ability to sing while picking.

What I can tell from watching your performance, is that you have all the technique you need to fill the role of banjo player in a 2nd tier band. A 2nd tier band is one that can play on Saturday at a major festival and actually get paid a few bucks. They put out CDs and play a lot of local gigs.

To actually shift yourself to this place, you need to put a little work into creating rhythm and putting it into your right hand. Your technique will not improve very much no matter how much you practice with a metronome until you build up this particular musical strength. It's easy to talk about it but much harder to prescribe exact steps to follow without knowing more about your banjo picking resume. In other words, you don't have to go far at all, but which direction is it?

I have some instructional videos I recently put up on my MobileMe Gallery to help someone else get past this place. Watching them may give you the nudge that you need.

You are actually very lucky. You might have some ingrained rough spots, but you don't have years and years of layers of crappy playing standing in your way.

Banjov1 Says:
Thursday, September 10, 2009 @1:21:01 PM

Wow!! Thanks for the assessment Richard. I guess I'd be interested in taking a look at that MobileMe Gallery.

I'll send you an email later tonight.


Wes Lassiter Says:
Friday, September 11, 2009 @7:17:47 PM

Nice post Richard. I like you have spent many hours on many things and am finding the right hand is what it is all about. I can say all the technique I have learned becomes very valuable when writing a tune of your own. All that technique does give you a large tool box of brushes in which to give your sound its own color.

Richard Dress Says:
Saturday, September 12, 2009 @8:57:55 AM

Thanks, Wes, for stepping in and giving some respectability to my blog. Right now the art/technique balance on the HO is heavily tilted toward technique. I guess that is natural because technique is easy to teach and talk about. The art (or right hand, as you put it) is hard to put into words and thus teach.

I am so happy to finally be able to play the banjo, rather than just string together technique, that I have no aspirations further than a nice forward roll. I still wish I could just play TIMTIMTIMTIM... like Adcock--forget about his eye-bulging innovative licks, just let me have the roll.

I think you got a 'handle' on the right hand much sooner than I did, so you have had the time to work on technique and benefit from it. I still fool around with Adcock and Reno licks I tried to learn 40 years ago--but it is just for amusement. I doubt I will ever play them right.

Ukeridge Says:
Tuesday, September 15, 2009 @7:53:39 PM

Where do we find this MobileMe Gallery. Maybe I should have a look at it before I set myselfe up for judgement . . .

Ukeridge Says:
Tuesday, September 15, 2009 @7:53:48 PM

Where do we find this MobileMe Gallery. Maybe I should have a look at it before I set myselfe up for judgement . . .

Richard Dress Says:
Tuesday, September 15, 2009 @8:20:14 PM

It might not be appropriate for your situation. Might even scare you--it is by no means a professional video. Pretty rough, actually, but I think it makes the point. Put up a sound file so I can tell if it can help you.

rickshunter1 Says:
Thursday, February 18, 2010 @10:42:03 AM

Could you watch my videos and see what you think I just started teaching myself december 2009

Richard Dress Says:
Thursday, February 18, 2010 @12:44:47 PM

I listened to your video clips and was really surprised at what you have mastered since December. In a year you ought to be good enough to play in a band. You must already be proficient on some other bluegrass instrument.

Here is a lesson plan I give my students. You are welcome to try it. It runs on your browser.

Good luck

stanger Says:
Sunday, March 14, 2010 @1:43:32 PM

Hi, Richard...
I understand what you are struggling with. I've been there myself. There comes a point, I think, of been there, done that where the music you know has become so familiar that it now lacks the level and challenge it once did, so it's all kinda stale. Breaking out of that condition for me was a long detour into guitar playing over the banjo- I always played both, but concentrated my explorations on the guitar. Eventually, I realized that I was deeply missing the satisfaction my banjo gave me and dropped the guitar, but not the music I learned on it.
For me, trying to find what fit the banjo outside of it's most common music became a real challenge. I'm not a great jazz player, and probably won't ever be, but I can play some good jazz tunes. To play them on the banjo, I had to learn how to be comfortable playing in F and Bb on the open neck.

I developed a real thing for Celtic music, and that led me to deep explorations of playing in D open necked, out of open G tuning.

I heard some movie and show tunes that I thought would sound great on the banjo, and I had to learn how to approach them- to do so required learning the pleasures that come from playing extended chords like a flatted 9th that would have once set my teeth on edge, and did, for a while.

Eventually, I realized that I could have done it all on the banjo. I never needed the guitar to learn any of it- the guitar was just the tool that opened the door.

Last September, I had a long conversation with a very good player about this. He had spent most of his life getting J.D. Crowe's style down stone cold, and was now having the same angst as you. I showed him a couple of tunes, and he re-wired his head as to what he thought was valid or not. When I saw him again recently, he still sounded much like before, but he was tackling new music in his way of doing things, and felt good about it.

For me, it required going way back- 20 years or more- to some of the hard stuff I once mastered, and getting the rust knocked off some of those old songs. There are other good ones I've lost forever now. Once I did that, I found many old techniques that served well in the new music I'm making now. I'm so happy with just playing the banjo only that i may never go back to the guitar again.

Whatever the path is for you, after all these years, it's probably right underfoot. It may need to be cleaned up, or you may choose to re-surface it with new material, but it's the same path underneath it all. I hope you can find it- if you do, I hope you can run down it, full speed.

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