Playing banjo… Making music

by Barry Hunn

Playing banjo is both a metaphor and a living experience for self-discovery. To quote the great jazz musician, Miles Davis, “it takes a long time to play like yourself.”

I really like this quote because it expresses so clearly a description of our musical journey when we are playing banjo.

Being a beginner banjo player

When we start playing the banjo, we are learning to maneuver our fingers to the proper frets and to the proper strings to play a certain chord or to play a certain roll pattern or a plectrum pattern or a claw hammer technique. We move slowly, with very little certainty what will happen when we strike the strings and fret the chords. In time, without us even realizing it, we are able to accomplish these basic techniques much more easily. Unfortunately, we seldom see the progress. In fact, sometimes when we make progress, it can also become a frustration because the progress is not “fast enough”.

Still, we persist. We often look for things to inspire us: going to a concert; downloading some new music or buying a CD; or reading an article about banjo playing. Being inspired is very important. It helps us to remember why we are playing banjo and why we want to.

Being an intermediate player banjo player

Since we have persisted, we can now play a song or a few songs. We learned some techniques by repeating them slowly and with as much control as we can. We have been successful in achieving enough patience to bring us to this level. Still, we are looking for “something” that we consider “encouraging” and inspiring to help us stay motivated. Our good friends are wonderful encouragements telling us how we’ve progressed and how we sound “pretty darn good”.

In fact, were feeling so darn good about our progress now, we go to a great source of inspiration: a new banjo. We earned it. We have spent some time and we love playing are banjo. But our new banjo, is so much better than our first one, that we are beside ourselves with joy and this propels us forward for a long, long time. We’re learning more songs now. We’re starting to recognize chord changes, picking patterns, and we are just beginning to recognize some of the similarities in music of many different styles.

This new banjo is fabulous. Man… We just touch the strings and the sound jumps out of the instrument; beautiful, lively, and we still sound “pretty darn good” and possibly “a little better yet.”

Being an advanced player banjo player

Now, we can play songs and were doing pretty well at improvising. We’ve learned most of our favorite songs and we’re playing with some friends and sometimes we go to an open mic and play a few solo tunes as well as play with our friends at the occasional church or Saturday evening gig.

Our banjo is still really wonderful. We enjoy playing it so much and now that we can play a lot more songs and more licks etc., we’re reaping the rewards of the investment in our professional grade banjo.

We’re feeling still, that we sound “pretty darn good” and yet, something is nagging at us. We can play the songs we want, we can sit in with other players and certainly not embarrass ourselves and some of the players we respect acknowledge that they enjoy playing with us and they have fun when we join the group.

So, what is this nagging, “something” that we are feeling?

When we were learning as beginners, we were very much focused on where to put our fingers for our left-hand as well as how do we use our right-hand (this is reference for right-handed players… The opposite is true for left-handed players).

As intermediates, we “imitated” our favorite, famous banjo players. This provided much needed guidance about “musical expression” or “artistic” or “aesthetic” expression. The transition from being a beginner to intermediate was more of a physical ability to manipulate the instrument with a certain amount of comfort; so our technique was starting to sound more “musical” and less “mechanical”.

But now, we can imitate much of what we hear, but… Is that all there is?

Amazingly, this level is really more of a beginning of a musical journey from the standpoint of “making music” as opposed to “learning to play the banjo”.

When a player can manipulate an instrument exactly as they intend to, the question then becomes, “what am I trying to say…with my music?” By this, I’m not necessarily referring to only a musical or poetic theme. I am referring to a connection between the player and the banjo that translates to a kind of character of expression or “feel” to the music they make. Some players turn to composing their own music. Others look for new songs or new genres of music to explore. Many players do both.

This is why the Miles Davis quote is so appropriate. It’s very difficult to verbally describe what it means to “play like yourself.” But great familiarity with the banjo opens a creative part of each of us allowing the “who we are” to “form” or “color” the music that we make. It is the “who we are” that draws audiences and other players to us. Throughout history musicians have created distinctively unique sounds. Bach’s compositions were very different than Mozart’s. Doc Watson’s guitar style is completely different than Tony Rice. Earl Scruggs inspired thousands of banjo players as did the great innovator Eddie Adcock and yet these two players styles are extremely different and unique. Jens Kruger, Tony Trishka, Larry McNeely, Peter Wernick, and Bela Fleck are a few examples of giants in the five string banjo world and yet each brings a wonderful uniqueness to the music they play both in tone and musical expression.

Playing banjo… Your way

Whatever style of music you are pursuing, remember that excellent technique is just a stepping stone toward musical expression and “playing like yourself”. If this concept of “excellent technique” doesn’t make sense to you or makes you feel pressured to work harder than you are able to, just remember that if you approach every new banjo learning situation with enjoyment and enough patience to allow your hands to catch up with your enthusiasm, your technique will improve whether you want it to or not and, believe it or not, it will happen sooner than you think. This kind of learning has a way of appearing in a big dollop. You work and work and work and it may feel like you’re not getting anywhere, then all of a sudden… Boom… Your skill level seems to “automatically” improve.

It sure seems like your “style” or “unique approach” also falls into your lap the more you play. You find yourself hearing other banjo players and in your mind you start to hear how “you would have played it” differently.

What you heard was beautiful. It inspired you. But now, you know more about how you would play the same piece of music

And that is:

Playing banjo… Your way.



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