How to Get the Most Out of Your Banjo
Let's Look at Tone There is the tone that the
banjo makes and the tone that you, the player makes.
Banjo Tone Straight from the factory, banjos
are not set up for the best sound. There are several things that
should be looked at on a banjo. First, the neck
should be tight against the pot but not touching the tension hoop. Second,
the arm guard should not be sitting on the tension hoop. Third, the head
should not be too tight or too loose. Forth, the bridge makes the most
difference to tone. The type of material on the top of the bridge is
important, a soft material makes lows and a hard material makes highs.
The contact area on the bottom of the bridge also plays a big part in highs and lows. Small feet (high
tones) and large feet (low tones).
Your Playing Tone Once you feel that your banjo
is set up properly, your playing style is the next thing to study.
Close to the bridge for highs and toward the neck for lows. In all
cases, "tone color" might be the best way to describe these effects.
If you rest your little finger on the edge of the bridge, you can deaden the
sound and you will likely be in the habit of playing in that spot too much.
In that case, there are playing tones that you are missing.
For years I could not understand why all of my picking
sounded the same and other people's sounded better; they had volume and
tone. For the volume, if the banjo is not set up right, you will not have
full volume. One thing to realize is that your ears
are not in the path of the directed sound so others can often hear your
banjo when you can not. Tip! Tie your strap a little higher and it
will be closer to your ear, an inch makes a difference. If you are
lucky enough to have a large belly, it will even tilt back toward your face,
I now play with my hand in a floating position. Rather
than planting my finger in one place, I let it slide. This way I know
where the head is in relation to my hand but I have the freedom to move to
where I can get the best tone. My playing has improved very much after
learning that trick.
Getting More in There You can learn all of the
rolls and chords and be able to play smoothly but if you don't have all of
the connection runs, you playing will still have gaps and holes. The
best advise that I can give is to listen to Sammy
Shelor, the banjo player
for the Lonesome River Band. Sammy works the bass string so hard that
it is a wonder that it all fits. Those missing notes make the
difference in good playing and bad. These notes are used to fill in
dead spots and to let everyone know when a chord change is going to happen.
If you are playing the lead break, you will want to pick out the melody
notes as much as you can and let the rolls and runs connect everything
I do most of my practicing at the computer. I have all
of my mp3s and CDs. I use the Transcribe to slow the music down so I
can get all of the notes in. The program has the ability to loop any
section that I choose so I can keep playing without stopping between stops
and starts. As I get better, I speed it up until I can do it as good
as the person on the recording. To the musician this is heaven, to the
listener, it is torture.
One night I was working on a song and it was Sammy's banjo
playing that I was learning. I had been practicing it for about three
hours and I was getting good. I was excited and playing hard and loud.
Around 11:55 pm, my wife tapped me on the shoulder. I looked up and
she had killing in her eyes. Needless to say, I had gone too far.
In a soft voice she said, I have had enough, cut it off and put it away, I
am going to bed. Very quietly, I did. We laid down for the night
and she turned the TV on just for something to be on in the background to
go to sleep by. Everything was dark and quiet and I heard her take a
deep breath and let it out as if finely, no more banjo. The first
thing that came over the TV was Earl Scruggs and his banjo playing the
Ballad of the Beverly Hillbillies. I heard her tense up and I was
ready to be hit. The moral to the story is, remember the people around
you when you are practicing, it doesn't sound the same to them.
| The wash cloth is lightly wedged under the bridge to mute the sound.
This is done for several reasons. The first reason to for the
safety of the banjo player when in the same area as a family member with
a severe headache. The second reason is so the player can hear
tones rather than volume. The third reason is to learn to pick
hard with out having to hold back from any fear of being too loud.
|Many times you will want to use the reverse roll down
the neck in as backup. Let's try three of them. When playing
in the key of "G", the D is used in different sections of the song.
There are two chords that can be used at different times that use the
same roll. Also the G can be used with the same roll.
If your bass sounds like it just does not have the power
that it should, check the standard distance required for your bass.
Example: Some basses (3/4 size) should measure 42 inches from the nut to the
bridge regardless of the visual aid of the sound holes. If this
distance it too short, the string tension will not be tight enough to
produce the strong sound that you might desire. If the bridge is
moved, the sound post should also be adjusted. The sound post normally
goes under the treble side of the bridge and just slightly behind that foot
toward the bottom end.
Fiddle / Mandolin
|On my fiddle page, I
show how to play the major scale to get use to where the notes are.
The major scale is what is looked at as the normal chords. It
really means that the 1,3,5 triad makes up the chord. In time I
will lay out all of the different chord patterns on the piano keys and
you will be able to see it all clearly. The C major scale is
straight down the line on the piano.
Now let's try the minor scale and you will hear a classical sound.
By playing the scales in majors and minors, you will be closer to
being able to play the in between notes that make bluegrass hot.
There is a section that shows how close bluegrass and blues are on the
guitar. It would be worth a second look.
This exercise works with the mandolin as well.
|On my bluegrass guitar
page, I have added this section as well. This can be one of the
most used runs on the bluegrass guitar. This run was originated
form the Tony Rice style.
Listen to the example.
Tip! Pull off of 1 on to 2.
Slide from 5 to 6.
Pause on 14 and let it pass briefly. Then catch it up to end
on the finishing note.