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Dec 21, 2022 - 6:12:26 PM
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7361 posts since 2/14/2006

What’s your pickin style?

Do you play conservatively as to minimize mistakes by avoiding risky riffs you hear in your head?


Do you go for it - what you hear in your head you attempt to put on the fretboard, whether you’ve ever done it before or not?

Answer for 1. impromptu jams and for 2. stage work during a performance and for 3. recording.


Edited by - 5stringrules on 12/21/2022 18:18:48

Dec 21, 2022 - 8:34:40 PM
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839 posts since 8/28/2011

if ive picked for a couple hours and feel good, you know, kinda in the zone, i'll try anything. i have finally learned not to do risky stuff if ive just pulled the thing out of the case. as a whole, i play melodically most of the time, well, its really just a mixture of stuff. i always improvise, i cant play anything the same way twice, and i refuse to be in a band that wont let me improvise. such a thing just shuts my mind off. i do play conservatively on recording and can usually have success in one take. i may not like it much, but it works. Tony

Dec 21, 2022 - 8:51:54 PM
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13957 posts since 6/2/2008

This is a great question.

The level at which I can play live, whether in a performance or jam, has always been some amount below what I can do at home in practice.

Sometimes it's nerves. Sometimes lack of confidence. Sometimes it's actually going for something, missing, then playing conservatively -- or safely -- the rest of the song, set, or night.

There were certainly times in my performing and jamming life when I was really on for the night and hit all or most of what I was after. But let's keep that in perspective: my best doesn't equal the best of plenty others I've heard.

"Safe" or even "conservative" for me means sticking to familiar and comfortable right-hand patterns and then finding the best sounding notes I can with the left. Some stock (overused?) melodic, chromatic, pentatonic, or bluesy patterns or phrases are in my comfort zone and I can usually pull them off.

My biggest recording challenge is my inability to get through a clean take in my home recordings. I have no studio or professional or any kind of serious recording experience.

Dec 22, 2022 - 3:39:53 AM
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5112 posts since 11/20/2004
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For me, jamming is practice where I try things. Performing is not a time to venture into things I feel unsure about. My goal is to limit mistakes in front of an audience. As I get older, it gets harder to accomplish!

Dec 22, 2022 - 4:30:55 AM
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3762 posts since 11/8/2010

I have just passed the point in my learning where I spent most of the time worried about playing the wrong stuff. I now have brain capacity to divert to things such as "who's going to play the next break", "what's the lead instrument doing and what should I thus do". I still play mostly rolls and have a very limited command of licks. I get better about switching from one chord inversion to another in order to follow melody. This means that my "style" is still very limited and my breaks don't sound much more fancy than my backup. Surprisingly I seem to be the one that minds this most. Sometimes I feel like I will never get to where my playing starts to really sound like legit bluegrass banjo. I feel like I am faking it all the time. I sometimes plan ahead to use a certain lick I learned only to find at the end of the evening that I completely forgot about it. I couldn't think about something risky I might do and then decide on the spot whether I will do it or rather play something more conservative. All my playing is rather conservative or perhaps defensive. I feel lucky enough if it works out at all. There isn't much difference between a jam and a stage presentation (which I rarely do anyway). For the stage presentation I would avoid more challenging material for obvious reasons.

As for recording something, I simply play the piece many times in a row until I kind of forget that I'm recording myself. Usually when I am like ten times through, I will get a cut I am content with.

Dec 22, 2022 - 4:55:28 AM
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Texasbanjo (Moderator)


28496 posts since 8/3/2003

When I was on stage, I always tried to play my best and not try new things. I wanted to sound good to both myself and the audience.

At jams I'm liable to try almost anything that pops into my head. If I goof, so what, no harm, no foul. I found out what wouldn't work and can try something different next time.

At home I practice whatever I want to and add and/or change as I feel like it. I usually let my head and hands take over and just enjoy picking and singing.

Dec 22, 2022 - 6:09:55 AM
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203 posts since 2/18/2018

It is a comfort to me to see so many other experienced pickers with the same problem I have. When I’m practicing alone I can throw in all kinds of licks and embellishments and they usually work really well but put any kind of an audience in front of me and the deal is off! I guess I still lack the confidence to take risks when there is any chance of embarrassing myself. Funny thing is most people won’t even notice that you made a mistake. And that’s how you improve at any skill, by taking chances and experimenting.

Dec 22, 2022 - 8:59:39 AM
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2533 posts since 7/18/2007

When I'm playing on stage in front of an attentive crowd I try to keep it fairly conservative and tight. When I'm doing a jam or maybe a private party where your treated as mainly background noise anything goes! For some reason I get more nervous in a recording studio probably because expectations are very high to get it right. The older I get the harder that is unfortunately. 

Edited by - banjoez on 12/22/2022 09:02:42

Dec 22, 2022 - 10:49:29 AM
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59 posts since 8/14/2018

For better or worse, if I’m reasonably confident with the arrangement I tend to go for broke with reckless abandon (within the context of my limited abilities).

Sometimes this backfires spectacularly, and when it does, I’ll own up to it and give my bandmates the “look of shame”…

But I’m also not playing any major or highbrow gigs. We do breweries, bars, local events… Folks are there to have a good time with or without us, and there's not a super high likelihood of encountering judgey bluegrass “cork sniffers” there solely to nitpick our playing..

I think there’s an honesty to it that, if you can let go of the fear of failure, can really draw people in.  Some of my best gig moments have come on the heels of an awful solo or break… you look out at the audience, share a laugh, and suddenly they’re rooting for ya — hooting and hollering when you (hopefully!) nail the next one!

Edited by - TimFoster on 12/22/2022 10:59:21

Dec 22, 2022 - 4:57:53 PM

118 posts since 3/31/2004

My picking style is fairly lame.

Dec 22, 2022 - 8:27:23 PM

4041 posts since 9/21/2009

I play the 3 finger Scruggs style and have always been very conservative on stage or at jams. I never got to the point that I was comfortable on stage. Practicing with the band or playing at home, I could get rid of the nerves and play much better. I now play very little and almost always at home by myself.

Dec 23, 2022 - 4:06:07 AM

15088 posts since 6/30/2020

Originally posted by wanttopick

What’s your pickin style?

Do you play conservatively as to minimize mistakes by avoiding risky riffs you hear in your head?


Do you go for it - what you hear in your head you attempt to put on the fretboard, whether you’ve ever done it before or not?

Answer for 1. impromptu jams and for 2. stage work during a performance and for 3. recording.


I have learned multiple versions of every song that I can play well. When I practice at home I spend considerable time mixing and matching elements of all of the versions to a given song as I play through it, both on a break or backup. When comfortable enough with that material I can play it straight up (Like Earl or ?) when it’s expected of me, or I can run heavily outside the box and improvise. When the opportunity arises I really enjoy whipping out a seriously intense tag ending, sometimes several measures long. 
On songs that I am just learning, I stick close to the basics on a break but change up my backup chops as needed. 
So, to address Doug's question, I must say that I play conservatively when needed or required, but my real joy comes through improvising in any situation. I also play guitar which is where I developed my style and it has carried over into my banjo playing. 
Good topic Doug!

Edited by - Pick-A-Lick on 12/23/2022 04:08:53

Dec 23, 2022 - 7:54:13 AM
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2601 posts since 11/3/2016
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My style used to pretty much match everyone else's who has replied , keep it together on stage & loose elsewhere . Today @ 84 , my style has no definition  smiley
In 1976 at the Corinth Fest in upstate NY while playing w/ a local group , we entered a band contest there but didn't win , possibly from some of us getting nervous from the judge in the audience 2nd row , Ralph Stanley !
This maybe is not relevant to playing style , but some how this thread reminded me of the occasion .

We've been to hundreds of fests & the Corinth memories remain the best that ever were !    

Edited by - heavy5 on 12/23/2022 07:55:20

Dec 23, 2022 - 10:20:34 AM



463 posts since 3/26/2004

I copy Jim Mills a lot I have over 12 hours learning How great thou are sitting in front of a computer copying his every note fret position and finger position it took awhile I finally have it down. I also play mandolin and fiddle I can do a lot of Bill Monroe songs I became obsessed with his style for over 20 years. In his own way he was a rock star the Beatles had to meet him I play a lot of guitar songs on the banjo and a lot of mandolin songs on the banjo Tennessee Hardwood is a great Haynie song i can also do claw hammer merrry CHRISTMAS

Dec 27, 2022 - 12:35:58 PM

3176 posts since 2/10/2013

I work steadily on trying new licks. and just work on one new lick for each key when I practice. In my case, using those few new licks more often helps me memorize and be able to use the licks more quickly when improvising. I try to have standard versions of tunes, and versions which contain licks which are not as commonly played. Trial and error when playing gives me a "feel" for where licks will "fit in". The simpler standard version has the melody stand out better and preparers a listener for the version which contains the less commonly used licks.

I enjoy hearing variations in tunes. I especially like minor pentatonic licks. Lots of effect for little effort. Only 1 note difference from a blues scale but sound just about as good.

Dec 27, 2022 - 12:57:28 PM

60163 posts since 12/14/2005

Since I don't wear finger picks, I can change styles in the middle of a song.
It's all good.

Dec 28, 2022 - 12:17:25 PM

77332 posts since 5/9/2007

I don't get the "risk" part.I just play what I know.I invent what I think will sound good in the moment.
Sometimes I'll play something that I worked hard on getting a certain way and nobody notices.
Other times I'll play something I'm not particularly proud of and get compliments.

You never know how something will be received or not.Just be true to yourself.

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