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Allen Shelton and banjo speed limits

Posted by spurtalisterous on Tuesday, February 19, 2013

I sent my friend Jay who's just learning banjo the song "Y'all Come" by Jim and Jesse from their classic 60s recordings with Allen Shelton.  It's in open F, the 5th string tuned up to A.  What a tune.  It's nice and bouncy but, like all these recordings, no one is showboating.  All ensemble playing, everyone in their place doing everything beautifully.  Shelton's opening is really great.  After the pinched pickup notes, it's mostly forward rolls, with a couple of those MIMT rolls to hit one of the melody notes correctly.  You can follow his playing by listening closely to your left channel in stereo.  What a terrific player.

I've determined that for me there is an upper limit to how fast a banjo can be played and still be coherent.  That limit is about 160 bpm.  Above that, you can be as even as you like and still sound like mud to me.  At 160 or below, you are optimizing what the ("my?") human ear can process to sound musical.  My goal now is to be able to play cleanly, evenly at 160 bpm.  I think it's also a good goal to aim for clean and even at much lower tempos, say 100 or even 85 bpm.  This seems to single out the good players from the others.

I love and almost worship what J.D. Crowe has done for 5-string banjo, but over the years I have seen/heard live performances where he exceeds this limit.  I have to say that nearly every time it just sounds fast, but not "exciting" fast, just fast.  He does not make this mistake often.  Ronnie McCoury I have heard exceed this limit often enough to say "yeah, that's not for me."  And he's a good player, excellent.  A good player can turn me off when they go beyond musical.  I guess you cannot learn your limits without trying to exceed them, and that's valid.  But go back and listen to your favorites and find how many are significantly above 160 bpm.  Then ask yourself:  "Is this musical, or am I simply hot for this because it seems cool and I can't quite do it?"

All these players have my undying respect, I promise.  I simply have to put these things into examples.  Then, someone can go back and listen and make a decision based on the evidence of their ears, not just "yeah he's right" or "he's simply wrong."  Ears don't often lie.

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