October 17, 2004

#89: Banjo in non-bluegrass contexts

Susan from Ontario writes an interesting email:

Hi Pete. As a banjo player, I guess I would be at the advanced end of intermediate with a fairly good bluegrass repertoire in hand. Lately, though, I have been jamming a lot with musicians outside of the Bluegrass world many of whom have no knowledge of bluegrass at all but like the sound of the banjo well enough to be interested in seeing what happens when I sit in. I have been playing a lot of acoustic blues, "bar" blues, motown, and (strangely) funk. I also sing in a community choir of 140 women and bring my banjo with me each week and find (I hope, tasteful and) interesting ways to accompany songs ranging from "Lean on Me" to "I Got the Music In Me" to "Save the Bones for Henry Jones".

Playing music outside Bluegrass may seem like a strange tangent but there isn't that large of a bluegrass community here (at least not in the winter) and I somehow kept meeting other kinds of musicians.

My reason for writing is twofold; First off I want to recommend this to any of your readers/students who want to stretch themselves. I have quickly learned a ton of new chords, different chord progressions, and am dealing with different expectations about how instruments (and vocals) can or should blend.

I am hoping, though, that you might have some suggestions about bands/banjo players I could be listening to (yeah, yeah BESIDES Béla) who play in musical genres outside of Bluegrass. I am not talking about bluegrass versions of pop songs - there are tons of those and some are interesting and some are not really.

I guess that, while I am incredibly pleased with my progress in experimenting with new sounds, I would like the reassurance and/or inspiration of hearing what others have done/are doing.

Susan,

What you're doing with the banjo is breaking new ground, and I understand how gratifying that can be. I've done a fair amount of playing with non-bluegrass musicians, and I can generally find a place to fit. In many cases it really can enhance the music, but I advise to keep in mind that that should be first in your mind, not just your own fun in experimentation. You seem to be doing this, but it's still worth a reminder.

I have played with rock bands (mainly on bluegrass-type tunes, but once in a wide-open "jam" situation with Phish), Dixieland, folk, Cajun, blues, jug band stuff, chorales, etc. In each case you have to keep well aware of what the band needs to make its music work, such as different ways of feeling the rhythm, which instrument is rhythmic center, what volume breaks and accents should be, etc.

As far as good examples of recorded music with 5-string included, I can recommend any of the old recordings of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, with Bill Keith on banjo (late 60s), and a relatively unknown guy from New York named Curtis Eller, who aims for a turn-of-the-century "circus" sound to his music. You can Google him and get one of his records.

Rogerio Santos and various others play Bach and other classical composers on banjo and a lot of it sounds great (but hard). Jazz, like Béla stuff in general, is scary because it really requires a thorough knowledge of scales and modes, chord substitutions, etc. to sound fluent. I think Bela does it really well, but I don't aspire to head that way.

Tony Trischka is another fearless character who can and does put himself in a variety of non-bluegrass settings and pulls together a lot of new and interesting music. His record World Turning is a masterpiece to me, covering an awful lot of bases. Then there's his Christmas record, Glory Shone All Around. At his live shows he does a Beatles medley and lots of wonderful stuff mostly outside the boundaries of bluegrass. And of course he's also a great bluegrass player.

You might want to check out my stuff with Flexigrass, or either of my two solo albums. There's a lot of stuff that comes out of my head, that I have recorded with bluegrass instruments (or not) that doesn't really sound like bluegrass. Flexigrass (formerly The Live Five) music does visit funk, old jazz, swing, and various as-yet-unnamed styles, and as you indicate, it's a thrill making it work and thus creating good new sounds.

I think the main thing you need is the right attitude ("If there's a way, I'm going for it"), which you clearly have; plus as much aesthetic sensitivity as you can muster while your main concentration is on following the changes. There's a lot to learn, and as you have discovered, you can learn a lot just by trying to make something happen.

When you do the above, then revisit bluegrass, you get a sense of how demanding bluegrass can be, especially to other musicians who aren't familiar with it. It's something you have to keep in your brain and fingers regularly, or it can get pretty rusty. But knowledge of and interest in other forms (such as Earl Scruggs has always shown, from back when he added Farewell Blues and Bugle Call Rag to the bluegrass repertoire) can do nice things for your bluegrass playing.

Keep it up, and have a ball!

Pete Wernick

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