Posted by Rich Weill on Saturday, March 16, 2013
Today marks my tenth anniversary playing the banjo. It also marks four years since I started this blog, on my sixth banjo anniversary. On that occasion, I reflected on some of the most important things I felt I had learned in those first six years. It was my intention today to bring that list up to date.
But as you can see, some of my intervening thoughts and discoveries already have made it into this blog as separate postings. And, to be frank, I probably had more “Ah, ha!” moments in my first six years than my next four – which primarily were spent trying to put what I learned into action.
Not that I haven’t learned a great deal recently, too. For example, I learned how to play by ear in keys other than G (which requires that you learn to find melody notes in relation to the three chord shapes, relationships that remain the same regardless of the key); to play up the neck (which again centers on chord shape-melody note relationships); and to transition mid-measure, up and down, between chord inversions (you simply have to get a feel for the timing, depending on the roll you are using and how many segments the roll has, divided by the 5th string). I also learned that playing songs in C is a great way to practice using more of the banjo neck. When a tune is played in C, it often has much of its melody on the 1st string. As that melody goes up the scale, you can’t play it unless you also move up the neck to higher and higher chord inversions.
But as I gave more thought to this ten-year-anniversary entry, it occurred to me that, in the last four years, I have started to think less about all the complexities of playing the banjo and more about trying to find a simple, unifying thesis that explains almost everything: boiling down all of the techniques and specifics to their essence, their common denominator.
I remembered a famous golf instructor from the past named Ernest Jones. Jones was born in England, lost a leg in World War I, but discovered he could continue to play golf on one leg as long as he maintained, without interference, the centrifugal force of the swinging clubhead. As a result, he developed a teaching method based on the concept “swing the clubhead” which some prominent golf teachers still use today. His method was summed up in one image: a penknife, tied to the end of a handkerchief, which Jones would hold and swing together with the golf club.
Jones moved to New York and gave lessons in a building on Fifth Avenue. Some years later, golf writer Charles Price wrote a profile of Jones entitled “The Pro on Fifth Avenue.” In his profile, Price wrote this:
“The woods are full of teachers with methods. But it is hard to find somebody with an eye-opening system, a simple hypothesis from which we can reason out our own mistakes instead of having to go to somebody else to iron them out for us.”
So, in recent years, I’ve asked myself: What is “a simple hypothesis from which we can reason out our own mistakes” on the banjo?
Here’s what I settled on:
Music = rhythm, harmony, and melody. Banjo music = rolls (rhythm) over chords (harmony) catching enough of the tune (melody). After that you may “season” with licks and ornament to taste. But the licks and ornamentation are the seasoning, not the meat of the banjo music.
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