I'm watching a great YouTube video of "Whispering," and marveling at the banjo player's strum and how he really drives the band. The group is playing a dance-band style arrangement, so it's in strict tempo, no fooling around with tempo or note time values, no rubato, etc. The banjo is laying down a straight 4/4 beat, four strokes to the bar.
My question is, what exactly is he doing? I've tried doing four straight downstrokes to each bar, but that sounded very harsh, regimented, overkill and overly simplistic to me, all at the same time! Then I tried a "figure 8" stroke, which seemed to fit a little better, but it didn't have the same power behind it. I also tried a combo stroke -- a tap on just the first (C) string, followed by one full downstroke, then another tap and another downstroke -- to create the four beats in each bar. That worked too, but it's really just a variation of the figure 8, and it's obviously not what's happening onscreen.
So the question is -- what IS Arnt Arntzen doing? Whatever it is, it also appears to be effortless!
Edited by - sethb on 06/18/2021 18:33:21
I think mostly the video isn't monotonous because the other instruments are doing other things over the banjo's steady pulse. Take away the melodes and countermelodie and I think the banjo would sound dull and regimented.
After carefull listening, though, I think the banjo is throwing in an upstroke between the downstrokes in a random manner. It happens just occasionally, but it adds to the variety without disrupting the steady driving beat.
" I also tried a combo stroke -- a tap on just the first (C) string, followed by one full downstroke,"
This is close. Here is what I hear:
-- Most strums are equal 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4
-- Occasionally there are a couple of measure in a row where the 1st and 3rd beats are still full strums but slightly lower in volume, and the 2nd and 4ths are slightly higher -- creating accents but still providing the full strum pulses.
1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4
Thanks for all the good thoughts and ideas, guys, I appreciate it. Every little bit helps!
I also had two other thoughts as well. First, he's playing a VegaVox, and I wonder if that has anything to do with it. Although I've never played or listened to a VegaVox in person, I've heard that the deeper resonator produces a deeper, "tubbier," almost guitar-like sound. On the other hand, I have an ODE, which is set up to produce max volume and a very bright tone. In fact, I often have to put one or two dishtowels inside the resonator to tone it down when I'm playing in a group. So that might partially account for why his tone sounds so smooth and even, while mine just sounds rough and harsh when played in the same way.
My second thought is that it just might be partly a personal preference. I have never used a lot of full downstokes (a' la Eddie Peabody), preferring instead a "riverboat" stroke (one full downstroke followed by a 2-3-4 tremulo on the 4th (D) string to complete the measure), which is more like Dave Marty or Don Van Palta. So maybe my ear is just used to a lighter, smoother, less busy style of playing.
Let's also remember that this 4/4 beat dance-band style basically went out of vogue with the Two-Step and the Fox Trot; you don't hear it too much anymore, except for some Dixieland work in what used to be called "two-beat jazz," like the Firehouse Five would play. But of course, that's what caught my attention to the "Whispering" video in the first place! SETH
Edited by - sethb on 06/19/2021 06:58:49
Seth, I really hope someday you will get to own, or at least play, a Vegavox banjo.
I just got my first one a few years ago and it has done wonders for my playing.
It’s not really a guitar-y sound that these banjos have, and it is not “deeper” somehow... it is what I call “faster”....
These tone rings are really responsive to fast strumming somehow more than other banjos... think of it as being like a premium high fidelity speaker which can handle any load cleanly without distortion where a cheaper speaker might sound distorted and dirty.
That’s why Peabody-style players who are real fast strummers are attracted to these banjos.
So now, after playing the instrument for nigh on fifty years, I’m only beginning to get my right hand to do that fast strumming... I can now do it for brief periods but am still amazed to see players like Brad Roth, Buddy Wachter and Georgette Twain who seem able to do it effortlessly for as long as they choose!
Part of my embarrassing tardiness in this area is the fact that I am left-handed but playing right handed. I had somehow convinced myself that my right arm was physically incapable of doing that fast strum, dammit!
But as the principal of a school where I once taught once taught me,
“If you think you CAN'T do it--- you’re right!
If you think you CAN do it--- you’re right!”
Well, it turned out I probably could have done it all along, dammit!
IF ONLY... I had bought a Vox-style banjo a lot sooner!
So that’s why I encourage you, and anybody else who is interested in developing their RH strumming, to buy one!
PS I will be real interested to learn from some of the longtime plectrum players whether my experience with Vox banjos is unique to myself or shared by others...
Edited by - guitarbanjoman on 06/19/2021 08:39:29
Will --- Thanks for the interesting VegaVox comments. As soon as I win the PowerBall lottery, I will definitely start looking around for one! Not only do they play beautifully, but they are also works of art all by themselves.
But seriously, I had another thought on the fast strum, which involves picks. I remember reading somewhere that for really fast strumming or picking, you need a pick that's not too soft. That's because the pick needs to return very quickly to it's original straight position after it hits a string or strings, so that it's ready for the next hit. A soft pick can't/won't do that. On the other hand, a pick that's too hard won't have enough flexibility to give you control over the pick and/or the strum. So you need a pick that falls in that happy soft/hard range for you.
Fortunately, picks are pretty cheap, so it's easy to experiment until you find what you like. I often start a gig with a relatively soft pick, and then move to a harder one as I get warmed up. Nothing says "amateur" faster than having a pick fly out of your fingers, even though it happens to almost everyone once in a while. That's why I also keep one or two spares nearby, just in case. SETH
Edited by - sethb on 06/19/2021 11:31:58
And after watching that YouTube video a few more times, I agree that, especially on the last chorus, starting at about the 4:50 minute mark, the banjoist is using some type of combo stroke, because it's not a straight up-and-down vertical motion anymore, there's pretty clearly two different parts to it.
So it's back to the drawing board and figuring out something similar that works well for me. But I'd sure like to take a lesson or two from that guy! SETH
After watching the video again, I had another thought. Arntzen is strumming the strings pretty far from the bridge --- in fact, he's just about at the juncture of the neck and the banjo head. That would produce a more mellow tone, and one which might be more appropriate and harmonious for such a constant beat. By comparison, I usually strum about halfway between the bridge and the neck/head juncture, which would produce a sharper, brighter tone.
The closer your strum gets to the bridge, the sharper the tone will be, and conversely, the further away from the bridge you are, the more mellow the tone will be. That's also why lots of electric guitars have two or three pickups -- one near the neck, one near the bridge, and one in between, so that the players can select and blend the tones to get the particular sound they want. And the bridge pickup is sometime labeled as the "lead" pickup because of its brighter tone. When I'm playing guitar, I almost always use the neck pickup, which produces a softer, deeper tone. Maybe that arrangement is also good for this type of 4/4 banjo beat, too. SETH
I found another good example of Arntzen's 4/4 playing style. When he's just behind a solo trumpet at the beginning of the number, he really helps to push things along --- and his solo starting at the 4:17 minute mark is excellent, too. Here's the YouTube link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DaFw8DdI44A&list=RDCMUC8Xj_3Djn97bzsjGwKyOBqw&index=16
Although his whole-arm strumming style is a little unconventional, you certainly can't argue with the results, which sound great. SETH
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