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Be your own favorite banjo picker.

Posted by Don Borchelt on Monday, July 23, 2012

like this

Personally, I have always felt that we should all strive to be our own favorite banjo picker.  As the years go by, and we keep at it, we borrow what we like best in other folks playing, and maybe add a new lick or stroke of our own making here and there. After awhile, we don't sound quite like anybody else, and even if we are not near as technically proficient, we would still rather listen to our own picking more than anyone else's, warts and all, because it has all our favorite stuff right there in it.  I know that sounds like I am promoting egotism, but I'm not, I'm promoting growth and fulfillment as a musician and artist.  Honoring our heroes is fitting and just work, but we should not think their achievements can substitute for our own journey.

It does not have to be complicated to be great, or even real good.  I think Earl, like some of the other pioneer bluegrass pickers who came right after him, knew enough to maintain the purity of his own style, and not clutter it up with a lot of extraneous technique that- even if he knew how to play it- he didn't feel a need to use it all the time himself.  Sometimes style is defined by what you don't do, as well as what you do.  Perfection, as Saint-Exupéry once famously wrote, is achieved not when there is no more to be added, but rather when there is no more to be taken away.  I can pick Earl out of a crowd of airplays.  Ralph and Don, too.  And Alan Munde, Don Stover, Doug Dillard, our own Jim Reed, and lots of others.  All of them are, or were, selective in their choices.

Having said that, I think Earl did learn a lot of his notes from earlier players like Snuffy, but he picked those rolls with a clarity and drive like no one had done before him, and showed all the rest of us the way.  No one else can or ever will be able to say that.  Once the door was opened, it cannot be shut again to be opened by somebody else.  Some say that if Reno had not joined the service, he would have been the first three finger picker to work with Monroe, and we would all have given him the gold medal, instead of the silver.  As much as I enjoy listening to Reno, I don't believe that.  It was Earl's smooth, elegant roll that put bluegrass on the map, plain and simple.  Without Earl, bluegrass would still be just the name of Bill's band.

7 comments on “Be your own favorite banjo picker.”

Wills Creek Says:
Monday, July 23, 2012 @12:16:36 PM

I concurr with most of what youv'e said Don. With my struggle to play better I'm amazed at the pure simplicity of Earls picking and style. Seeeing and listening to most of todays banjo pickers It's good to know that nobody picks exactly the same Just think if we did how borimg the banjo would be. I like your Occupation statement which I think I'll adopt also Retired and picking more banjo. I like that 1 See ya Don. Frank

Guy Says:
Monday, July 23, 2012 @12:48:28 PM

There's a lot of truth in what you say Don. Many years ago I used to strive to sound like my favourite pickers. That is, until I realised I could never sound exactly like them, with this came a second realisation, why would you want to? We already had one Doc Watson and one Earl Scruggs, what's the point of having two? From that point on, I have worked on sounding like me. I write my own arrangements to my own choice of tunes and write as much stuff as I can. I get so much more out of it and rarely find myself wanting to go into someone else's territory.
Sure it can be enlightening to learn from someone else's playing but you should keep the bits you like and discard what you don't. That's what makes you an individual. Hopefully at some point, people will recognise your own playing in a crowd. Even then, it's more important that you yourself are comfortable in your style than what somebody else thinks.

Meles_Meles Says:
Monday, July 23, 2012 @7:27:29 PM

A couple of months ago I was shopping in a large-ish music store when a salesman approached and asked me, "What guitarist do you want to sound like?" (He must have thought that I was one of those idol-worshipers who buy the overpriced instruments and accessories that their favorite rock stars use.)

My response: "Why would I want to sound like anyone else?"

JanetB Says:
Tuesday, July 31, 2012 @8:43:59 AM

Lots of wisdom in what you say, Don. The first part validates the idea that we evolve our own style and that's good. The second part validates the bluegrass style in particular and indicates that within that genre there's still room for individuality and creativity.

My own style has evolved in spite of my best efforts. :)

f#dead Says:
Saturday, August 4, 2012 @8:01:01 PM

quoting, Don Borchelt
"we would still rather listen to our own picking more than anyone else's, warts and all, because it has all our favorite stuff right there in it. "I'm promoting growth and fulfillment". You always are promoting the joy Don and you sound good to me as well.
You're my second favorite player...right after me! I'm just sayin. thnx

BanjoFlyboy Says:
Sunday, August 19, 2012 @2:49:07 PM

Right on Don! The stars were aligned and Earl was in the right place at the right time.

OldTimeGal Says:
Monday, October 22, 2012 @9:55:49 PM

That's so true - I've always believed that to grow as an artist we must steer our own paths. "The greatest wisdoms are not those which are written down, but those which are passed between human beings who understand each other" - Salley Vickers. :-)

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