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Being secure with your own style/sound - especially as a group jam

Oct 9, 2021 - 6:22:16 PM
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7175 posts since 2/14/2006

I haven't posted here on banjo hangout in a while.  I guess I haven't had much to say really.  But tonight I got to thinking about how musicians eventually learn to respect their own sound and style, and not spend so much energy in sounding like the pros.  And I'm kind of leaning toward how banjo pickers and groups you find jamming at festivals tend to feel the compulsion to sound like or play it like some of the current pros who are getting the spotlight and attention of other pickers and musicians and fans as well.

I guess I've asked the question, (because I've done this "idol" worship myself, hopefully I'm through with it) why am I trying to sound like Sammy Shelor, Ron Stewart, Ron Block, Terry Baucom, etc..  and trying to play it exactly like he/she did on the recording??  What am I getting out of the experience?  Why is playing my own break/solo not as satisfying?  What's the real point of a whole band mashing it just like Lonesome River Band?  And if the guitar player in the group decides to play G without the 2nd string fretted on the 3rd fret, why does everyone snicker in the background and get a different guitar player?  You can apply this to banjo solos as well.  I've played perfectly awesome songs that get my creative juices flowing but I'm "banned" from being myself because it wouldn't be "mashing" it and playing just like so and so.

And what has to occur before you don't mind people snickering at you for playing it your own way?

Being secure with your own sound is a step forward in appreciating the music, instead of hoarding the glory and attention you're getting from being able to sound just like another pro musician.  I really miss the creative jam sessions.  Music and festivals have been slow in returning to life here where I live.  People are just beginning to get out more after the pandemic.  But even when the festival season was alive and well, more often than not the hot jams were mostly jams of copying other pro bands, and not the creative jams.  

Although you can play like whoever you really want to, and the whole group is entitled to do the same, the music is too predictive, in my opinion.  It brings a lot of turning of the eyes and glory/attention to the hot pickers who can sound like so and so, but the beauty of the music has been bypassed in a way.  Improvisation has been shut off.  Freedom to experiment is frowned on.  

I think it simply takes tasting the waters of creative jams to see the difference, and to be creating music not for your own attention but for the sake of the music, and not caring about "copying" other sounds as much.  

I'd be interested to see what others think about this.  Have you become settled and secure in your own sound, willing to insert it into a creative group jam?  Are are you still struggling like I did for years of wanting to sound like the pro pickers in the circuit?

 

 

  

Oct 9, 2021 - 7:18:27 PM
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100 posts since 5/8/2021

I'm still a beginner when it comes to three finger style banjo, but this isn't my first time learning an instrument (unfortunately, I have a few degrees in music). Music is about creativity, and when you're just copying one of the "heroes," then what are you doing? What are you creating? Well, you're not doing anything and you're certainly not creating anything.

Don Reno is currently my favorite banjo player and I've been trying to learn his particular style, and that process is going to involve copying his playing to an extent. But if I go to a jam, and drop in a break exactly as Don played it from a recording, I'm not bringing anything at all to the table.

I wish more people in bluegrass (and other genres) had your mentality.

Oct 9, 2021 - 7:19:45 PM
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roydsjr

USA

749 posts since 5/17/2007

I know that I will never sound just like any of my favorites so I just try to be myself. I totally agree with what you said. Just glad to be able to play since there are a lot of folks that can't play at all.

Oct 9, 2021 - 7:39:24 PM
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7175 posts since 2/14/2006

It really drives in the idea that the whole experience has to be fun, or I’m not sure if I am in it anymore.

Oct 10, 2021 - 4:08:28 AM

6293 posts since 10/13/2007

quote:
Originally posted by banjo1971

It really drives in the idea that the whole experience has to be fun, or I’m not sure if I am in it anymore.


Maybe sometimes you just have to allow for people's inability to see beyond their own limited scope, enjoy what you are doing, and be  comforted knowing their is a bigger world out there than what others see.

ken

Oct 10, 2021 - 4:25:32 AM

6293 posts since 10/13/2007

quote:
Originally posted by From Greylock to Bean Blossom
quote:
Originally posted by banjo1971

It really drives in the idea that the whole experience has to be fun, or I’m not sure if I am in it anymore.


Maybe sometimes you just have to allow for people's inability to see beyond their own limited scope, enjoy what you are doing, and be  comforted knowing their is a bigger world out there than what others see.

ken


And also be patient and know that when things get back to normal you will be picking with a lager pool of people.

ken

Oct 10, 2021 - 4:45:52 AM
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2897 posts since 12/4/2009

Hello,

Bela Fleck came to Cincinnati with the new dream team in acoustic ensemble. Michael Cleveland, Brian Sutton, Sierra Hull and her husband Justin Moses, and Mark Schatz are the members. Mark related that he lost his wife during this COVID-19 period. He did not say it was.

He played his style. Brian Sutton played his style. When the group covered a specific New Grass Revival song, Sierra and Justin sang it their way. Michael Cleveland was fantastic doing his best his way mashing it up.

Bela explicitly stated that he was covering a Bill Emerson style and song. By the time Bela was Bela, Bill Emerson was forgotten. I enjoyed their cover version.

What I saw was the roles of now deceased or out of the picture greats. Tony Rice is gone. Mark O’Conner is crippled. Mark Schatz is a recent widower.

But, each player played their way. No one covered their respective roles playing decisions.

Being banned is common these days of culture clashes. The leader of every jam has a look and feel they are seeking to achieve. This is our responsibility to ask which role and style was are to mimic when in such a jam.

If we are good enough, we could do both. This allows us to bring something fresh.

JamKazam has been refreshing. There, having anyone show up is a treat. There, the Werner method is encouraged. The jams explicitly state Werner. Asking the type may uncover a Werner method.

So,

1. ask before joining the role being sought
2. Play the hero’s style and your style
3. Look for Werner Method Jams, and ask if not specifically stated.

Being banned is too easy these days. Other options are available.

Edited by - Aradobanjo on 10/10/2021 04:47:53

Oct 10, 2021 - 4:51:56 AM
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Texasbanjo (Moderator)

USA

26500 posts since 8/3/2003

I've never been one of those who worship the pros; however, I do have a very good respect for them. I listened, learned and copied some of their style for years and slowly but surely developed what worked for me. I'll never sound exactly like Earl or Ralph or Sonny or Reno but my style is a little bit of each one. It suits me and if others want to snicker or tell me Earl didn't do it like that.... I listen, smile and continue to do my thing. I'm happy, content and sure of myself.

Oct 10, 2021 - 7:21:21 AM
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12407 posts since 6/2/2008

quote:
Originally posted by banjo1971

And what has to occur before you don't mind people snickering at you for playing it your own way? 


Sounds like I should count myself fortunate for never having played with anyone -- in a band or jam -- who would do that.

I'm not a deep student of the instrument, and in particular have not listened to enough recordings of enough of the early greats -- Earl, Sonny, Ralph, J.D -- to recognize and know (let alone ever have learned) how they played anything. In fact, for all the decades I've been playing, and compared to many or most other banjo players, I haven't really "learned" very many songs. I'd say I know them or are familiar with them. In jams I improvise almost everything I play. Songs that I get to play a lot may have pieces that I almost always use. But nearly everything I play comes out different each time.  I think that's true of many banjo players -- which only further confuses me about this notion that others expect us to play songs certain ways.

If a new-to-me song or tune comes up in a jam, I do the best I can with it. Then I go home, search out recordings and tabs to get the gist of how others actually play -- especially artists associated with the reference or standard version. I might actually spend time learning most of a version. But if it ever comes up at a jam again, anything goes.

I will say that whenever I'm in a band, there will be a certain number of the songs for which I do try to work up composed intentional parts that come out close to the same each time. I want that for consistency and to help my bandmates know what to expect. But whole songs played the way someone did it on a record? Not likely.

If the people I've jammed or gigged with care about me playing it the way [fill in the blank] played it, they have never said anything.

The closest I've come to experiencing jammers who have a certain version of any song in mind is when they'll call some vocal number from the bluegrass canon and then ask me "can you kick it?"  I guess in their mind, that "song" (and not just the recording they want to copy) starts with a specific banjo intro.  Usually I don't know the reference intro. If I know the song, I'll ask what part do they want for the intro -- verse, chorus, last line of one of those? Then I do it, and we're good. Other times, I just say no, and they settle for another banjo player or another instrument doing it. And, surprise surprise, we all live to play the next song.

Oct 10, 2021 - 8:01:50 AM

6293 posts since 10/13/2007

quote:
Originally posted by banjo1971

It really drives in the idea that the whole experience has to be fun, or I’m not sure if I am in it anymore.


AND it is hard for me to fathom anyone snickering at anything you play. I asked a banjo player I met (who Michael Cleveland offered a job to, so gooood talent level) if he knew of your playing, because I told him I liked your tone. He said he remembered when you were out there full time and that you were very creative.

Here is a clip of you and them Butch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lszu1O1Zkes

Ken

Oct 10, 2021 - 3:36:20 PM
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2666 posts since 4/5/2006

I haven't jammed at a big BG festival since leaving So Ca. There was a time, however, when the tradition was to play it straight (like the original recording) the first time around. Subsequent breaks were no holds barred.

Oct 11, 2021 - 6:37:13 AM
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320 posts since 4/26/2007

This has always been a longstanding dilemma for me, as sometimes playing it just like (or close to) the more widely-known recordings can be very fulfilling. On the other hand, getting to put my own spin on things can lead to some really cool reactions from those I'm jamming with, as they weren't expecting to hear it like that. Gives me a chance to play it like I've always heard it in my head.

After twenty or so years, I've boiled it down to two concepts:

1. If I have both a kickoff and a break, I'll try to keep the kickoff close to the recording. It just seems to help the other pickers follow the song and get into a groove better. Then, I can save my personal improv for the break. As a result, I get the best of both worlds.

2. (And this is where it gets controversial, so please bear with me) I truly believe that sometimes, not all the time mind you, that playing just like the pro's recording can be more impressive than doing your own thing. Because it came naturally to them and might not necessarily come that way to you, so if you can replicate it, it becomes all the more impressive. How many of us banjo pickers had to sit and practice the Pike County Breakdown lick over and over until they got it down? It certainly never felt natural to me, but it's how the song goes so I had to learn it.

Now, any good pro worth their salt will tell you to find your own style, and they're completely correct. At the same time, if I'm in a jam with like-minded pickers and they're expecting to hear a certain Earl or JD or whoever's signature lick, I'll try my best to give it to them.

Oct 11, 2021 - 8:36:20 AM
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760 posts since 10/28/2003

I am a firm believer that as long as the tune can be recognized, play it your way. 

Many years ago in a jam, the song being played was 'Earl's Breakdown'. When it came to my break, I played a half Scruggs, half melodic break. When my break was finished, one of the jam participants leaned over to me and said, "that's not how Earl played it."

I replied, "I'm not Earl."

Edited by - 5 String on 10/11/2021 08:50:41

Oct 11, 2021 - 8:49:51 AM
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12407 posts since 6/2/2008

quote:
Originally posted by monstertone

There was a time, however, when the tradition was to play it straight (like the original recording) the first time around. Subsequent breaks were no holds barred.


Right.

And in a jam with more than one banjo, if someone else has already played it straight or the way "famous artist" did, why do that again when your turn comes around? At my local jam, there's usually so many people, there are no seconds. You get one shot per song -- unless you were the one who called it, in which case you can do a kick and a final solo. Or first and last solos if it's an instrumental.

Still waiting for this jam to resume.

Oct 11, 2021 - 10:03:21 AM
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4190 posts since 10/18/2007

In my 30 years of playing I've never been in a jam where you are required to play it just like the pros play it. Maybe that's an East Coast (US) thing.

Oct 11, 2021 - 1:06:20 PM
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670 posts since 1/22/2004

Came across this photo of Butch Robins and caption the other day...


Oct 13, 2021 - 5:59:05 AM
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7280 posts since 11/4/2005

banjo1971wrote: "...tonight I got to thinking about how musicians eventually learn to respect their own sound and style, and not spend so much energy in sounding like the pros."

This describes an important epiphany that every musician- even banjo pickers- must come to if they want their instrument and their music to be a true window into their soul, not just a reward for their ego. I am reminded again of a quote I came across almost forty years ago; it was the epigraph at the beginning of a book by John Rice Irwin, who was founder and director of the Museum of Appalachia, in Clinton, Tennessee. The book was a catalog of all of the old instruments in the museum's collection, most of them hand-made. Included were a good number of banjos, made out of cigar and cheese boxes, various types of tin cans, and whatever else the mountain musician could find to make into a serviceable pot. Under the picture at the beginning of the book of an old fellow (the subject of the quote), fiddling on the porch of one of the museum's cabins, Irwin wrote:

When I asked my cousin, Horney Rodgers, several years ago how he rated himself as a fiddler, he paused for a moment and replied, "I'm the only man that I ever heard that played the fiddle jest exactly the way I wanted to hear it played."



True words, however shocking they may first sound, and I took them to heart.  Having said that, I do think a novice banjo picker today, especially if learning to play bluegrass, is well served by first carefully studying the techniques of the masters, in order to well understand the large body of tools that have been developed by those who have come before. A big part of the process of developing one's own style is to choose which of those techniques to use and adopt as central to one's toolbox. Eventually, the maturing player will begin to add his or her own ideas to the box, however modest or astounding they might be. I am reminded of another quote, something the great fiddler Lester McCumbers said to fiddler Erynn Marshall, when she interviewed him for her book "Music in the Air Somewhere," about West Virginia fiddlers. When she asked if he played one of the signature tunes of another great fiddler, McCumbers replied, "I don't like to play it like he did. I try to play it the way I play it."

Edited by - Don Borchelt on 10/13/2021 06:00:46

Oct 13, 2021 - 8:34:26 PM
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125 posts since 7/22/2012

I like every post in this discussion. Some really (really) good banjo players will appreciate it if you can play your own way. They will enjoy listening to your banjo more (that way) than if they can predict/have already heard other performances of everything you are going to play.

Edited by - Banjfoot on 10/13/2021 20:42:16

Oct 14, 2021 - 3:14:10 AM
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4425 posts since 12/6/2009

few pros play it like they did the last time they played it or recorded it. its the beauty of bluegrass.

Oct 14, 2021 - 3:22:59 AM
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phb

Germany

3039 posts since 11/8/2010

quote:
Originally posted by Banjfoot

Some really (really) good banjo players will appreciate it if you can play your own way.


I'm not a good banjo player by far but I appreciate anyone who can play a banjo well. And also most who can't. 

Oct 14, 2021 - 9:00:53 AM
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125 posts since 7/22/2012

quote:
Originally posted by phb
quote:
Originally posted by Banjfoot

Some really (really) good banjo players will appreciate it if you can play your own way.


I'm not a good banjo player by far but I appreciate anyone who can play a banjo well. And also most who can't. 

 


Sounds like the right attitude and wisest way to be, I reckon. That fundamental attitude helps everyone win every time.

Oct 15, 2021 - 1:08:20 PM
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103 posts since 8/19/2008

I found my limited banjo talent ceiling years and years ago, so playing and learning every tune by ear sadly results in an end product of a so n so quality.

I haven't picked up masses of fancy licks to make my music sound interesting so I feel I
somewhat stagnated some 25 years ago. That said, I wouldn't want to play a page of tab through 200 times to ingrain it in my brain so I could sound impressive with others. I still play eagerly every day on my own but if I was a regular jam player I might feel I'd need to fancy up my tunes with a bit more variation somehow, probably by watching utube videos and picking up on subtle melody changes.

Do what makes you happy and doesn't make the banjo a chore I say.

Oct 15, 2021 - 4:32:50 PM
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670 posts since 1/22/2004

Quote from "Banjo1971:"
"And if the guitar player in the group decides to play G without the 2nd string fretted on the 3rd fret, why does everyone snicker in the background and get a different guitar player?"
You know what?! I don't LIKE playing a G chord like that on the guitar! I prefer the open B string! So, there. (Maybe that's why no one asks me to play guitar backup. I don't care, I like my G chord..."unfinished.") :D

Oct 15, 2021 - 6:11:13 PM
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727 posts since 2/15/2015

I was on a ship years ago with a guy who played a budget Yamaha flat top, had a terrible voice, he was just okay at chording, but he knew EVERY Dylan song that was ever recorded up through Blood On The Tracks... and in his own kind of old timey painful way.... he was hauntingly good.

Oct 15, 2021 - 8:31:29 PM

1818 posts since 7/4/2009

One answer to "Why am I trying to sound like X?" is "X is a better banjo player than me!"

No matter how closely you choose to imitate or not imitate another person's playing, you'll always have your own sound.

When learning to play, I would encourage people to try to play the song *the way the song goes* before trying to play it the *way they feel it*. Like a child learning to walk or talk. I know a lot of people who can't play *songs*, just launch into, at best, collections of licks, or, at worst, random sound.

Obviously, no musician wants to just slavishly imitate their musical predecessors, but I think there's a lot to be said in favor of creative fidelity to tradition. A little personal innovation goes a long way in old-time, bluegrass, and other styles of music so closely tied to traditional and vernacular styles.

Oct 17, 2021 - 6:10:28 PM

Tommy5

USA

3941 posts since 2/22/2009

It’s bluegrass, not the opera or classical. I never play anything the same way the master played it, I learned long ago my way was much better for me, . An example, FMB, the Scruggs G  lick he plays a hundred times in the song. After hearing this lick a thousand times at jams and playing it hundreds of times I’m done . I played FMB G lick with a Black Mountain rag sort of forward / reverse roll and it sounds way better, the average listener can’t tell the difference anyway, I even found a recording of Scruggs using a similar lick , on FMB, perhaps he got bored with this lick too,there are a number of melodic licks that can substitute for the Scruggs lick I play those too as do many others. I played Little Maggie just like Stanley did, urgh , the index lead forward rolls are addictive but boring so I added some other rolls and licks and the song sounds much better now although I’m sure Stanley heads would disagree. Lately I have been doing stuff nobody sane person would do like playin White Rabbit by the Airplane on the banjo l

Edited by - Tommy5 on 10/17/2021 18:12:11

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