The past few years, although I have not been a regular band member, I have been playing a little more often on my own. The benefits of a regular set aside practice time are potentially great. If you are like me though, it’s tough to stick to such a schedule for long. Regardless of how regular your playing time is, I’ll just repeat my most common bit of advice; Play until you are well warmed up and then go a little longer. The extra time you commit is when you’ll actually improve. The next time you play, do it again and you’ll start noticing new things appearing in your playing.
Beyond the obvious benefit of impressing your picking pals, Your quest for improvement will certainly train your ear to be a better judge of sound. As you continue to play you will continually fine tune your sense of pitch so that tuning becomes easier. You may however find that as your ear develops pitch sensitivity, you are tuning more often or requesting that others recheck their tuning more frequently.
As a player of almost 50 years and a builder of more than 30, I still need to spend some serious time playing my creations, so that every nuance of the sound and feel becomes noticed, and ideas form about ways to improve it. I wonder how builders that don’t play are able to decipher the level of professionalism that it takes in today’s banjo world. I am impressed with the playing of banjo building buddies Rob Bishline, Jaroslav Prucha and Glenn Nelson. Geoff Stelling and Steve Huber have also long been been known as good pickers. Deep down I consider myself a player ahead of being a builder, but the building pays the bills for me in this universe. My obvious point is that the best players tend to build the best instruments due to their years of study of the sound of the instrument through playing in various settings. My intention is not to question anyone’s talents as player, listener or critic, but rather to stimulate awareness during your own playing that can refine your ears in the quest for sound perfection, and the perfect playing experience.
In an effort to make sense of this, let’s talk about the concept of satisfaction. Musical satisfaction is first and foremost dependent on the concept of perfect pitch. Each note of your instrument, both fretted and open must be aligned perfectly with the corresponding notes played and sung by the other musicians in the group. It takes considerable effort and time to achieve harmonious tuning in just one instrument, let alone a whole band. The instrument must be built with particular attention to its ability to come in tune with its own harmonics. In other words, the fret scale must be accurate, the bridge and nut must be placed precisely and compensated for discrepancies, the string heights and gauges must be taken into consideration, and the general construction of the instrument must be stable. You likely have experienced the satisfaction of a well- tuned instrument, and you know the amazing potentials that can be reached when 2 or more great instruments achieve matching pitches and are held by great players.
If satisfaction were only as simple as reaching perfect tuning, I think we would hear a lot more great music than we do now. It also requires a great deal of skill from the player to maintain cohesive tuning throughout a performance. Even slight variations or finger position or holding pressure can throw an instrument out of tune. Therefore we buy the best instruments we can afford, and practice until we have mastered the art and skill of perfect pitch, (also sometimes called tonality).
To complicate the picture a bit more I now introduce the concept of tone. Being completely different from tonality, our ears are so amazing that we can hear extremely minute changes not only on the pitch of notes but in the character of sound (tone) produced by an instrument. Yes, satisfaction first depends on great pitch tonality, but assuming we have fulfilled that challenge, we now must look toward our aesthetic sense to discover just what we imagine our perfect tone to be.
I think it is safe to say that most Bluegrass players, for example have developed their sense of tone by listening to their role models. The masters who inspired us to play are quite normally dictating to us what our tone should be like. With the vast popularity of Scruggs, his iconic banjo sound still echoes as the tone many of us want coming from our banjos. Likewise, you may have noticed that the general tone of much of Bela Fleck’s playing has a different and perhaps darker tone that his followers may wish to emulate.
If the total purpose of the banjo were to preserve and protect a pure form of music such as bluegrass, we would need nothing but old Mastertone copies set-up to sound just like Earl. We all know however, that is not the banjo’s purpose. It is a modern musical instrument known for its distinctive voice and suitability for playing complex fingerstyle melodies and patterns. Its sound is highly evocative and creatively inspiring for musicians in widely diverse forms of music. Happily for us creative types, the banjo exhibits a unique ability to produce an infinite number of subtle changes in tone. This touches on the greatest benefit of my own Nechville instruments. With just a small amount of training, you can learn to alter and transform your Heli-Mount sound to fit whatever artistic visions you carry in your head. It might be Scruggs, Fleck or Kruger. But more importantly, it might be you!
Please continue your exploration into the world of personalized banjo tone by exploring the Nechville website. Our site is undergoing some major changes, so you will want to check back often. There is always something new and interesting to discover and we invite you to subscribe to our free banjo info hotline with insider deals and special opportunities.
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