Speak Through Music

by Barry Hunn

We’ve all heard the expression “music is more than the notes.”   But what does that mean?

When you pick your banjo strings, you can pick a note exactly on the beat, before the beat or after the beat.  You can play the note fretting on the correct fret or you can “slide” up to or down to the fret.   You can vary dynamics of volume; playing softly, very hard and aggressively and anywhere in between.

The angle of attack on the strings will change the tone.  If you pluck up on a string it sounds a little different than when you pluck sideways.  Finger pickers work hard to make their thumb pick  and fingerpicks sound the same.

It is the same when we speak with our voice.  We don’t usually speak using one note without varying our tempo.  That is usually considered monotonous.   So, we don’t want to play the banjo with the same intensity, volume, timing or tone through-out an entire song or that will also sound monotonous.

So what is in our artistic arsenal of techniques to enhance the emotional and general beauty of our banjo picking.

  1. Playing near the bridge:  If you are flatpicking, finger picking or bare finger picking, playing near the bridge gives you a sharper, snappier tone.
  2. Playing near the neck:  Picking the strings near the neck makes your banjo sound fuller, rounder and a little deeper.
  3. Playing between the neck and bridge: Where you pick the string varies the tonal character of the banjo.
  4. Sliding to a note:  playing a note solidly while fretting it has a precise feel to it.  Sliding from either below the note to the note or from above the note down to the note changes the feel of the note.
  5. Bending the string:  some players like bending the string while it is fretted to play the note sharp for various dramatic effects.
  6. Playing a note slightly late:  Sometimes playing a note just after the beat creates a kind of emphasis that can enhance many different emotions.  On a slower piece of music, hesitating can create a brief suspense that when resolved, can stir up the listeners by emphasizing a few notes in the melody.
  7. Playing a note slightly early:  I’ve heard this approach used to create great excitement through “surprise” and sometimes it is used comically.
  8. Playing softer: Some parts of a song can be emphasized by playing them slightly softer than others.  A soft musical phrase just after or just before a string of strong, intricate notes can make the softer section “jump out” at the listener, emphasizing the “feeling” of the softer section.
  9. Playing harder:  A string of notes followed with a louder, more instense strum or picking of several strings can create a big dramatic effect.
  10. Letting the strings ring:  Some music sounds great when the notes of the melody ring out and sustain.
  11. Stopping the strings from sustaining:  It is a wonderful contrast when some notes sustain and other notes are quickly prevented from sustaining.  Fretted note sustain can be stopped by picking the note and then raising the fretting finger very slightly which stops the string from sustaining.  The right hand can be used to stop the open strings from ringing.
  12. Hammer on:  Picking a string and then tapping the already vibrating string with your fretting hand adds a quick, extra note that has a slightly different intensity than a picked string.
  13. Pull off:  Plucking a string with your fretting hand just after you’ve been holding the string on a fret, like a hammer on, can create a quick, extra note that has a lighter intensity than a picked string.

How do I use these techniques to enhance expression?

If you think about how you “feel” when you are sad, angry, joyful, melancholy or confused, imagine how your face feels when you are experiencing these emotions.  Do your lips purse? Does your brow squeeze in a frown? Does your jaw open as you inhale quickly? Do you feel your shoulders droop when you’re sad or melancholy? Do you feel vibrant inside your intestinal area when you are joyful?  Can you feel your shoulders and gut tense when you are angry?  Do you feel “light as a feather” when you are happy and full of joyful exuberance?

Applying musical techniques to communicate or elicit these feelings is what motivates us all to play the banjo and listen to music.   Movie makers have known this since the inception of movies.  They use music to enhance the actions on the screen.

When you are playing a lively bluegrass song, try varying your picking position between the spot where the neck joins the pot and as close to the bridge as you can.  At first you might feel you are just arbitrarily changing the sound, but after some time, you will “sense” that the song “needs” more sharpness of sound here or more mellowness there.

When playing a passage high on the fret board where the notes are very high and bright, experiment playing them softer or harder.

Try sliding up to a note instead of just playing the note by fretting it solidly and picking it.  Or, maybe, bend the string on the note just before the solidly played note to create a bluesy lead in to the next note.

You can play with the rhythm by moving the melody slightly off of the beat.

For example: the song “Georgia on my Mind”, written by Hoagy Carmichael, is originally written in 4/4 time (4 beats to the measure) and goes something like this:

Georgia, 2 + 3 + 4+ / 1 + Georgia, 3 + 4 + / 1+ 2 the whole day / through 2 + 3 + 4 + / ....

But, when the great Willie Nelson sang it, he waited longer between words and played with the rhythm a lot.

Listen to him sing it below:

He made use of the “space between the phrases” and waited till the last moment which added dramatic suspense to the song.

Some Irish banjo players will play a melody and play a note just a little ahead of the accompanying instruments, which adds a nimble excitement to an Irish Jig.

Plectrum banjo players will often slide chords from first position to the highest frets of the neck creating a wonderful suspense that culminates in a flash of fast strumming.  It’s irresistibly exciting.

Putting it together

Think about how your body moves when you are happy, relaxed and care free.  Smooth movement, effortless, with little or no tension.  But when you are crying from emotional pain, your body shudders, sharply contracting your diaphragm, eyes partially closed, your movements possibly clumsy and tense.  When you are melancholy, you might be relaxed, but maybe distant, distracted and slow moving.

When a song is happy, use techniques that represent that joy… clean fingering, play a few notes ahead of the beat, jump from sharp tone to mellow tone and let your banjo ring brightly.

When is song is about a tragic moment, use techniques that are sharp, blended with notes before the beat and notes after the beat and some so far from the beat as to sound almost out of place (but not quite).

When you are playing a melancholy song, you might let the notes sustain, but maybe more slides would make the music more “sad but dreamy”.  Bending notes would add a bluesy sadness that could be very moving.

Try applying these techniques to some songs that you already play.  See what you can do to better represent the “feeling” of the song.  At first, this may seem pretty darn arbitrary but with practice and more familiarity, you will start to see how you can make each song more your own.  You will enhance your ability to communicate “feeling” by using a variety of techniques.

You will speak through music.


Kristin Scott Benson chooses the Deering Golden Series banjos
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