April 03, 2005

#101: Career as a banjo player

The father of an unusually talented 14-year-old banjo camper from North Carolina writes:

Hey Pete, Wanted to tell you thanks for checking out and commenting on J’s (not his real initial) picking from the cd we sent you. It always means a lot to him when it comes from you. I hope he starts doing what you advise him to do....as far as making the effort to play the melody better. He works hard on playing clean and smooth, but I'd sure like to see him start taking pride in being able to play the melody where you can recognize it better. I wish I would have stressed that when he was first started out, but I didn't realize how important it is. We listen to XM radio a lot and most of the banjo players you hear on there play the melody just like you've always said to do. He’s kind of at a point where I don't really know how to give him any direction as far as what to practice or who to take him to to learn. He plays with the metrodome a lot and also with cds of pro bands. There's a ton of fiddler conventions around here, so that helps keep him motivated.

Motivation is really not a problem though.He still wants very much to play banjo for a living, but I don't know how you to help him out there. Steve Huber advised him this week to go to college and get a job. I thought that was good advice. I told him to practice to be a pro so if the opportunity ever presents itself, he'll be good enough, but have a good degree to fall back on. Kids grow up way too fast. Anyway, thanks again.

Rob

That's all excellent advice, in my opinion, Rob.

Only a relatively few people ever have made a full-time living as a banjo player. Scruggs, Fleck, Reno, J.D. Crowe, Sonny Osborne, Doug Dillard, and probably a few folks nowadays like Jim Mills, Ron Block, Rob McCoury, Steve Dilling of IIIrd Tyme Out, Barry Abernathy of Mountain Heart, and sort of surprisingly, Dave Johnston of Yonder Mt. String Band. Of those, possibly only Scruggs, Béla, Dave J., Ron, and Sonny have gotten to make what would be called a really nice living. Almost all the above have had hard times, and even Scruggs lived in a trailer most of the years he was laying down his style in the 40s and 50s, as a star of the Grand Ole Opry. Some of the above are multitalented in terms of being bandleaders, singers, and writers of notable songs and tunes. All those extra talents bring in extra money. Ralph Stanley's banjo playing was a big part of his career, but it was his singing that made him rich.

If Owen is serious about the goal of professional picker, he will also need a day job (or a rich wife). If he works at it, he could maybe have a related side job, such as Steve Huber and his banjo building, or me and my teaching and creating instruction materials (Tony Trischka does that too), running a recording studio (like Scott Vestal), or something like that. Ben Eldridge has managed a great career as a performer with the Seldom Scene without having to quit his day job as a mathematician for the Defense Department.

More and more bluegrass performers are making a full time living, but it's still a pretty small number. The work is quite seasonal, and involves a lot of traveling, not the best thing for family life. Understanding spouses are not always easy to find!

J should note that all of the above players can and do sing. A few have been lead singers and writers of good songs. As I mentioned in the previous email, they all have a very strong sense of melody that comes out in their playing without any effort.

If he wants to show how serious he is, he should start singing, and eventually learning how to sing harmony (as people like Scruggs, Crowe, Osborne, Reno, and about all the rest can do, and very well). He will certainly have to know how to put carefully chosen melody notes into his breaks.

As I've mentioned before, he is a very special player with his excellent tone and rock-solid right hand. The metronome practice really shows. He is creative, but still leans on licks more than a truly creative player would. He needs to write tunes, to be taken seriously as a unique player.

I'm sounding awfully strict, especially making suggestions for a 14 year-old. But if he really wants a career, even as a non-full-time player in a very respected touring band, he will need to expand his skills.

Playing in the family band is good for him nowadays. He can learn how to make up really nice solos featuring the melody, on all the songs in the band's repertoire. His younger brother can help him learn some melodies. He can learn baritone singing and learn how to arrange a trio harmony. He can scout around and try to get some gigs for the band, and he can learn to set up a sound system.

If you don't have the book How to Make a Band Work, J should get it and read it, as the book is quite realistic about skills that are needed, and the realities of the music -- I mean entertainment -- business.

If he loves the music and playing in groups, he will, and a serious career may or may not take shape. Many non-musical skills are needed by someone trying to make a career in music. It’s a business, after all. I will certainly be available for advice when needed, as I'd like to see him take it as far as he can, though not so far as to diminish his chances of making a living if a music career doesn't work out.

Hope that helps. Please tell J I'd like to hear some more recordings, but not if he's not playing the melody. (I'm tough!)

Pete

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