Saturday, May 30, 2009

Playing the Banjo?

Songs? Technique? Fundamentals?

Yes... but.

I think folks get in too big of a hurry in general. Very few seem to really spend anywhere near the time they should polishing and refining even the simplest things they know. Sure, that sort of thing takes a while, but the results are worth it.

Knowing a few things, understanding why those things work, and how to take them apart and reconstruct is essential, and that's not something you learn by going from song to song to song - or roll to roll to roll.

For a clawhammer player just being able to play a bum-ditty or a basic drop thumb pattern isn't the end of the process. The same applies to a Bluegrass player; 32154215 isn't the end of that roll. You really need to know how to take those pieces apart and move things around. Memorizing patterns really doesn't get you there.

Wax on! Wax Off! Repetition is essential. Listening is essential. Take your time and have a finished product that you'll be proud of. Not only that, you'll have gained skills that you can utilize when you move to the next tune. Do that enough and you'll have skills that will help you in the jam when those tunes come up you've never heard before.

An analogy, and I'll shut up...

Imagine you have to build a step stool. What sort of tools do you need? I'd say for a beginner you could use a handsaw, a hand drill, screwdriver, and a combination square. Mind you, it won't be the most ornate step stool, but it would be recognizable as one. Furthermore if you built a couple hundred of them they'd look pretty sharp. You know, one could spend their life in pursuit of this sort of perfection right here - taking a few simple tools and becoming a master of them. Others like to try new things.

So, they buy a router. Suddenly there are a lot more options and you can do things that you just couldn't have done before. Your step stool now has nice rounded edges and the joining edges look great.

Some folks wind up building a nice wood shop with all sorts of tools: planers, joiners, table saws, band saws, and even a CNC lathe. :)

Imagine how fancy your step stool could be.

The tools, however, are only part of the equation. You need knowledge of each tool and a lot of practice.

Same goes for your banjo playing.

You have to decide. Do you want to be the guy with the huge shop? Do you want to be the master of a few tools?

It's totally up to you. Do you want to be Norm Abram or Roy Underhill? Or maybe you'd just be happy being Bob Vila doing a bathroom demolition? ;)

Spit. Polish. Repeat!

3 comments:

Gus said...

Wow! That is some good advise I have been practicing for the last 5 + years on scales and the different modes of the scales. Not to much with one particular song. I keep hearing work on the song and you can use those patterns in other songs. Well that is true but why not be able to play anything with drive and emotion in any key you happen to be in. This didn't come out the way I feel it but hopefully you will understand the meaning. I think that was excellent advise you gave. Can't wait to read some more.

Jordan said...

man that's some good advice when it comes to any instrument! I play guitar. Some of my friend try to pick it up and they get all excited trying to learn the hardest licks by the best guitarist. They dont take time to KNOW the guitar, to Know the neck. To me that's crucial when you are learning anything musical. Dont get carried away trying to be the best all at once, just enjoy making music! I am by no means anything close to mastering the guitar (or anything else for that matter), but I think the way we really learn is by knowing how to make music on your instrument. Not by being able to play all these different songs you like, but by being able to make up your own songs based on what you know about your instrument. i hope that makes sense haha. By the way, you may know my dad, Andy Davenport. Just askin'.

Jim Pankey said...

@Jordan: Thanks for the great comments, and yes, I do know your dad. :)

About Me

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Short version:

With over 30 years of experience performing and teaching banjo I am eager to share my music with you.

I'm also available for your school or community event where I can introduce the banjo and present a fun program that demonstrates a variety of banjo styles.

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More Detail than you probably want:

I started playing banjo in 1977. I'm self taught... the old fashion way.  I'm a firm supporter now of the listen and learn approach. I've ruined many records and needles by trying to hit that particular spot in a tune I was learning.  

From the beginning I loved teaching others to play the banjo. I've had as many as 50 students a week. One of the greatest opportunities as a banjo teacher came when some of my articles were accepted and used by Banjo Newsletter in an article titled "The Workshop."  I've taught a variety of banjo workshops including The Maryland Banjo Academy, Steve Kaufman's Acoustic Kamp,  and Banjo Newsletter's SPBGMA Workshop.

While in college in the early 80's I took up playing the clawhammer style of banjo playing. I worked from a book I got from Grandpa Jones. I learned the basics and then spent hours trying to figure out Soldier's Joy from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Will The Circle Be Unbroken Album. Years later and many hours of practice I think maybe I finally understand the style. 

I'm currently playing with, quite possibly, some of the best musicians in the world. The Lone Mountain Band, made up of Bobby Burns, Diana Phillips, Roy Curry and myself has been the most fun and challenging group I've ever worked with. I hope to see you at some of our shows!