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Developing Individual Style Within the Folk Tradition

Posted by sixwatergrog on Friday, February 10, 2012

Developing Invididual Style Within the Folk Tradition


Being original does not mean you have to be different from everyone else.  In fact, to play with other folk musicians you must be sympathetic to what they are doing and keep your variations and ornamentation within the confines of the tune, rhythm and implied chords.  Despite this, most roots music players eventually find their own style.  Doing so often requires some kind of personal mission statement - knowing what you want to achieve or attain...and how you're going to get there.

In my case I primarily want to be an old-time jammer and Irish session player and learn the music via osmosis, immersion and exposure to it rather than through reading the dots in the Fiddler's Fakebook, for example.  I want to be able to take part in any jam where Irish trad or old time fiddle tunes are played. You can always acquire more physical technique, music theory understanding and fretboard knowledge, but to play traditional music properly you mainly need to listen a lot, learn the subtleties of the style(s), learn the repertoire of the musicians in your area, and train your ear to pick up a tune in the moment. Picking up a tune in the moment can be as basic as playing an approximation of it and/or doing something that complements or lifts the melody.  

My instrument of choice is tenor banjo.  I tune it in 5ths - GDAE - and flat-pick it with a plectrum.  The linear 5ths tuning allows melodies to fall directly into place.  Tenor banjo is closely associated with Irish music.  Irish tenor banjo players double the melody in unison and rely on a heavy use of triplets for ornamentation. This can sometimes result in a sound that is too busy and "notey" for my taste. I prefer a sparser, more minimal melodic sound so I don't get as much from listening to Irish tenor banjo players as I probably should.
Very few people today play old-time music on tenor banjo, which I find puzzling since when I listen to old-time I hear more similarities to Irish than differences. (Keep in mind that tenor banjo does have a history in string band music that pre-dates the now ubiquitous clawhammer style). While there isn't an abundance of old-time tenor banjo players to listen to, you can extrapolate a lot by listening to flat-picking guitar players like Norman Blake and transferring that to your instrument for a creative arrangement.  In addition I like to listen to old time banjo uke players like Linda Higginbotham who provide solid rhythm and harmony.  Back in the day, tenor banjo held a similar role in string bands and when played in this chordal style the tenor banjo can be utilized like a banjo uke with the benefit of having more intuitively positioned melody notes at your disposal. 

A more nuanced approach to backup can be absorbed by listening Irish bouzouki players who incorporate rhythmic grooves based on strumming and chord construction to add tone color and variation, with bass-runs, fill licks and melodic fragments tying together sections of the tunes.  This technique is kinda similar to what a pre-Doc Waton country guitar picker might have been thinking.  I also like to listen to really good bass players because they strip a song down to its essentials leaving only remnants of the melody intact, and from there you can re-build the tune in your own way. Contradance music - which draws from Celtic and Appalachian source material - is also a good place to listen to how rhythm, groove and harmony can find a contemporary home in this traditional material.
Besides old time and Irish tunes, the other style of music that I want to play is Jamaican mento.  Tenor banjo is its main instrument!  Mento seems to require a looser, more improv-based and bluegrass-like method of soloing that uses little snatches of chords and melody to deliver the rhythm.  Even though there are fewer opportunities to play mento music with local musicians due to its obscurity, listening to recordings and playing it for my own enjoyment is great ear training and gives me ideas that I can then directly or indirectly apply to other folk music.

To find your own style you must ultimately trust your own opinions about what sounds good or bad and train your ear so that you can experiment and manifest your own ideas into music. Don't worry that much about stylistic rules that might inhibit imagination and creativity or dictate what you can or can't do.  With a sense of taste and temperance toward flamboyance you can definitely find your own niche within the folk music traditions.

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