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Helpful Hints

Copyright by Pete Wernick, 1991

  1. Good Tone Week. Mark your Calendar from next Sunday to the following Saturday: GOOD TONE WEEK. All week long, make a special emphasis on playing with good tone when you practice.
    1. Work on things that you already know how to do smoothly, with relatively few mistakes. Practice those things, thinking "Good Tone" the whole time. Go for a clean, smooth, rhythmic, and authoritative sound. Alternate practicing a pretty tone and then a strong, driving tone.
    2. Make sure your banjo is set up for best sound. Is the head tight enough? Are the strings reasonably new (less than two months)? Check carefully to see if you have a noticeable buzz on any string, any fret. If any string makes an unclear sound, check it out and get it fixed. (It might need cleaner slots in the bridge or nut, higher action, new frets. Or you may not have your capo or your fingers close enough behind the frets.) Experiment with head tension and bridges or different thickness for the sound you like best.
    3. At the end of Good Tone Week, assess your progress. If you don't sound as good as J. D. or Earl, mark the week after next on your Calendar: GOOD TONE WEEK.
  2. Make music with other people. As soon as you're able to change chords smoothly without stopping, you should find people to play with. Preferably a guitar player, but any instrument will do, even just another banjo. Use bulletin boards and musical events to hunt down prospects. Ask guitar teachers for recommendations from among their students. Even if you're shy, don't give up! Having another musician to play with will help you:
    1. Solidify your timing (important!).
    2. Develop overall musicianship, learning to sound good as part of a bigger musical whole. It's really the only way to learn to play backup.
    3. Learn new material and bluegrass style in general.
    4. Make contacts for borrowing records and tapes, driving to shows, general music information exchange, etc.
      "What really makes a good banjo player comes from playing with other musicians, not learning a lot of tablature out of books." ... Dr. Banjo
  3. Play the melody. Make sure to develop this wonderful and oft-neglected ability. Everyone likes the melody! Improvising is great, but it means more if you've given the listener a good sense of the melody first. For a sizeable but worthwhile project take the trouble to get every last note of a song.
    Any tune at all can be played on a banjo, without missing a note. Of course some tunes will fit better than others, or be easier to play, but be aware that it is possible to play any tune on a banjo. Often a Scruggs-style rendition of a melody will have a lot of notes to fill in between the melody notes. It can still work nicely IF the melody notes are all played in the right places. Try Jingle Bells, Grandfather's Clock or Happy Birthday. Wherever there are spaces between the melody notes, you can fill them up with background notes taken out of the same chord. Now try any favorite bluegrass song, The Star Spangled Banner, or any song at all you'd like to play a solo to.
  4. Experiment. After all, nothing but the melody gets boring. To expand your knowledge of your instrument:
    1. Learn note-by-note the cute or fancy licks that others do. There are many good audio and video tapes available from Homespun Tapes and books including Melodic Banjo and Hot Licks for Bluegrass Banjo from Music Sales. Earl Scruggs' book contains many tabs of his classics. The Banjo Newsletter is a bargain at $22/year with monthly articles and tablatures... Dept. PW, Box 3418 Annapolis, MD 21403. I offer the two video tape set Branching Out on the Banjo (Homespun), Music Minus One Banjo (tape/booklet set), and the Bluegrass Banjo book.
    2. Work up a new roll and try it with some of your favorite chords. Start with your index, thumb, or middle finger, follow it with one of the others, and keep going til you have eight notes. Practice accenting the first and fifth notes to set a beat. Keep practicing till it's smooth and comfortable.
    3. Remember, anything you do on one part of the neck is usually adaptable to another part of the neck behind a different chord.
    4. When you're playing a chord position, modify it to include the 6th, 7th or suspended 4th note of the chord, and see what it sounds like. When you get a nice variation, remember it.
    5. If you can do it, let your mind blank out while your fingers do the walking. See what happens, and if you run into something nice, remember it.
  5. Listen to the masters. I strongly recommend compiling a cassette tape of nothing but your very favorite recordings of your favorite banjo players sounding their best. Include tunes that you know how to play and ones that you want to learn. Make sure to include some good singing cuts for variety. Listen to the tape as much possible. If you're a commuter with a tape player in your car, or if you use a Walkman, have the tape as a regular companion. The benefits are immeasurable, including the deepening of your understanding of banjo sound and music in general, as well as getting closely acquainted with some of your favorite tunes and players.
    Some of my top favorites for sheer sound as well as content are Earl Scruggs (mostly up to about 1962), Allen Shelton, J.D. Crowe, Alan Munde, Bill Emerson, Sam Shelor, and Tom Adams. There are many other great players of course, but I recommend these because they are excellent models to follow.
    Much of Scruggs' best work can be found on a variety of Rounder and Bear Family reissues of Flatt and Scruggs, especially the material originally recorded for Mercury in 1948-50. The F & S instrumental album Foggy Mt. Banjo is a classic, and any of their Columbia material from the 50's show the master at the top of his form— outstandingly musical, versatile, exhilarating, and in total command.
    Allen Shelton can be heard on various records by Jim and Jesse and the Virginia Boys: re-releases of material recorded for Epic in the 60's, as well as some Rounder records from the 80's. He also has a good instrumental album on Rounder. His playing is always powerful, clear, creative, and tasty.
    J.D. Crowe's exemplary solid drive, timing, and tone can be heard on many fine albums, notably the several volumes of The Bluegrass Album with Tony Rice and other all-stars. His recordings with his band The New South have always included some, but not necessarily a lot of, his banjo. J.D. is on most of Jimmy Martin's early records, and their instrumental album Big and Country Instrumentals (now out of print) on MCA has lots of great picking on it, by J.D. and others.
    Alan Munde is one of the few melodic style players who is accessible and absolutely solid as well as fancy. He sounds great in the gently progressive bluegrass format of the Country Gazette (most of their albums are on Flying Fish) and on a variety of traditional to modern-sounding instrumental albums (mostly on Ridgerunner, with a reissue compilation CD on Rounder).
    If your local record store doesn't have them, these and all in-print bluegrass recordings can be ordered quickly and at good prices from County Sales, Dept. PW, Box 191, Floyd, VA 24091.
  6. Enjoy being yourself. Cecil Sharp once wrote: "All art is good or bad, not because it is unsophisticated or ingenious, simple or complex, but because it is, or is not, the true, sincere, ideal expression of human feeling and imagination."
    Roy Clark once said: "If I start thinking about it, I lost it."
    Moral: Don't worry how fancy your playing is, whom you're not as good as, etc. Go for the feeling of enjoying your instrument. Do whatever it is you enjoy most. That's what you'll get good at. That's where your personal style lies.
  7. Chin up! Don't ever be discouraged or think you aren't good enough. Django Reinhardt taught the world that it doesn't make any difference what your excuse is. (He could have stopped trying because of an accident that only left one and a half functional fingers on his left hand, but instead he became one of the most influential guitarists in jazz history.) If you want to learn, you'll put in the time and you will learn and improve, period.
    An hour a day or even just a half-hour isn't a bit commitment, but after a year or two it brings big results. Be patient. No one gets good overnight.

Good luck,
Pete Wernick

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