Imitating and Creating

by Barry Hunn

I was in a conversation the other day where a musician said to me, “I decided not to play banjo in our band because we don’t want to ‘look like’ we’re imitating Mumford and Sons.”

Having been a professional entertainer, I understood his desire to find “their own sound” and “be unique”, but I had to disagree with the logic of this idea.

First, you can practice till you drop and you’ll never sound like Winston Marshall.   He plays the banjo HIS way.  Earl Scruggs played the banjo HIS way.  Mark Johnson plays the banjo HIS way.

Second, if you leave out a banjo because you don’t want to “sound like someone else”, then you had better leave out the guitar, the bass, the drums, the ukulele, the violin, the pedal steel guitar, the electric guitar and every instrument that has ever been played in history.

If you play ANY of these instruments, you will, according to this definition, “sound like another musician or band.” 

When Jens Kruger plays his banjo does he sound like Steve Martin?  How often do we confuse the brilliant guitar work of Django Rienhardt and the equally brilliant work of Chet Atkins?

True, there are some skilled banjo players who are pretty darn good at “imitating” other players. 

But no matter how skilled and clever they are, they can’t sound EXACTLY like any other player.

Isn’t that beautiful? No matter what you play, or how you play it, you always sound like YOU! No matter how you sing, you always sound like YOU!

Playing a banjo in a band will not make you sound like any other band if you relax and play the music YOU love and play the music you love YOUR WAY.

Playing a banjo, or guitar or banjo ukulele is automatically an act of creating.

When you apply YOUR FINGERS and YOUR MUSICAL IDEAS to your banjo, you sound like you… without even thinking about it.   

Playing with other “individuals” means your “band” is made of individual “ideas “  and “voices” that are just as individual as you.  Your band automatically sounds “unique”, because each member of the band is “unique”.

Ok…. I get it.  You want to have a “sound” that makes your band “stand out” like the great bands you admire.

Some of this comes from each band member developing their skills to the highest level they can so the “best of them” shines through with great individuality, and the band shines with a unique “sound” created by “unique” individuals.

Some of it comes from musical discoveries, happy musical accidents and the blending of musical ideas that happen when musician’s make music together.  The way YOU pick your banjo, the way your guitar playing friend plays HIS guitar, the way your bass playing friend plays HIS bass notes.  They are all unique, regardless of the music they play.

Think about this, when four individuals, with their own individual styles come together to make music, and if they are playing the music THEY love, THEIR way, it will have a unique sound.

OK….I get it, but “the great bands write their own music. That’s what makes them stand out.”

Oh really?

So, every orchestra that plays Chopin stands out because they wrote Chopin? Every well-known bluegrass band has ALWAYS only played original material?

The answer to that is a big NO!  By merely picking up your banjo, playing it to the best of your own ability, automatically “creates” your own sound, whether you want it to or not.

You can spend a lifetime trying to “imitate” your favorite banjo player.  Gee, that’s an effort if futility. What’s more important, it is not necessary or even desirable. 

The world WANTS to hear YOU!

The world WANTS to know how you would “interpret” Foggy Mountain Breakdown, or “I Will Wait”.   They’ve heard the original, now they want to hear how you will interpret it.

This is the great gift of music.   What YOU do is as individual as you are.

Ok, some people won’t like what you do…. MAYBE! But on the other hand, some people WILL like what you do…DEFINITELY!

Here are some tips for you to create a “sound”

  1. Learn your instrument as thoroughly as you can.
  2. Play the music the way YOU feel it.
  3. Encourage your band mates to do the same.
  4. Work to “blend ideas” with your band mates.

These simple philosophical ideas will startle you in how people appreciate your “sound” and what’s really fun about this is:

It will just come naturally.

Be yourself….. that’s who we all want to see and hear.


Kristin Scott Benson chooses the Deering Golden Series banjos
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