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PLECTRUM BANJO HELLTHREAD

I'm back on my bullshit and revisiting helpful links I've found over the years, and as links like this have a tendency to disappear I'm going to try and download copies of these materials as I add them here.

Plectrum banjo is a four-string, 22-fret instrument with a ~26-inch or so scale, more or less the same as a modern 5-string banjo, but lacking the short drone string it's typically played with a plectrum (hence the name, which was originally used to distinguish them from 5-string instruments. Tenor banjos came along slightly later.) They're tuned CGBD, also inherited from 5-string banjos as they were originally tuned. (Some people will also tune them DGBE like the top four strings of a guitar.)

I don't know who andy(at)olive13.net is, but I've had a print-out of their enormously helpful, public domain collection of chord shapes kicking around my desk for over a year now, and refer to it pretty much every time I'm working through a song.

13olive.net/chords/plectrum_in

The deal with jazz banjo "chord melody" is that as you play a tune, you try to map the melody to the highest string and find the chords that map most closely to it; so the goal is to

1) Memorize the different movable chord shapes in terms of which note of the chord falls on the 4th string (I, III, V etc)

2) Memorize the I, III/iii, V, and vii notes of the most commonly-played chords, so you can easily figure out which chord shape to play and where

I'm glad I saved a copy of this Shakey's Pizza ad a while back, because it has disappeared from YouTube and seems to exist nowhere else on the internet.

One of the reasons it's taken me so long to make a serious attempt at four-string banjo is the weird filtration that happened to early jazz music (what everyone thinks of as "dixieland" now) starting in the 1950s, where it went through a rose-colored distorting lens and came out the other side as what you see in this ad, the "bunch of dudes wearing good old days boater hats and stripey blazers playing the same dozen songs that everyone likes but is also kind of sick of" vibe. Four-string banjo players in particular seems to have willingly pigeonholed their instrument as suitable only for playing this specific kind of music, and suitable only for playing in this specific hyper-frenetic strumming style.

And I get it! My grandparents took my family to a Shakey's Pizza in Bethesda, Maryland in the late 1970s, and they still had a house band playing dixieland. I would have been about 5 years old, and it's the first time I can remember seeing or hearing a banjo.

It is not an exaggeration to describe it as electrifying. I never forgot the sound of that banjo (probably a tenor, might have been a plectrum, it was loud and bright whatever it was.)

But because we did not have Shakey's near us, and because my parents weren't into old jazz music, and because as a five year old kid it hadn't really yet occurred to me that you can learn about new things that you think are interesting (and I wouldn't have known where to even begin) banjo was just one of those things that I grew up accepting as a thing that existed, but not in my universe. The dixieland nostalgia phenomenon pretty well died out by the 1980s so you just didn't encounter them in rural whitebread Massachusetts.

It kills me now to realize that I had *two* childhood near-misses that could have set me on a path decades sooner; there was a guy at our church who was a trumpet player in a dixieland band. I think maybe they played a summer concert on the town common one time? He always seemed really nice, and we even had an LP of their music that I don't remember ever hearing.

Also, my grand-uncle was a plectrum banjoist during prohibition. He lived a few hours away and I only met him a few times, and that was always in the context of family gatherings which he mostly spent catching up with my grandfather, so I never really got to know him. I didn't learn he played banjo until years later.

Years later, when I realized that I, a grown-ass adult, could simply buy a banjo and learn how to play it, most banjo-related content and information on the internet (there wasn't much in the early aughts) was about 5-string banjo, and I rode the 'O Brother, Where Art Thou' wave into old-time music, which begat the 19th century stuff, which begat classic fingerstyle.

And then I went to a dear friend's wedding in New York City in 2016. It was an intimate ceremony, and an intimate reception with music provided by a pickup band comprised of half of the wedding guests.

I had no idea until I got home and looked them up that I'd spent the day hobnobbing with some of the finest young trad jazz musicians in New York. Like, no joke, those guys will inherit Vince Giordano's throne. There was no banjo that night, but the music got under my skin in a big way and it's been itching ever since.

...but jazz banjo remains an incredibly niche thing and most of the learning materials out there are firmly planted in that 1960s second-wave sensibility, and it's taken me a while to figure out if that's what I even want to learn.

When I got my first plectrum about 3 years ago I took a suuuuuper helpful lesson with Cynthia Sayer, but I couldn't make a regular thing of that because her rates are commensurate with her expertise and status as one of the only high-profile pro plectrum players around. But I should take another one once I get a bit further with chord melody, because I like her hybrid single-string/chord approach to solos.

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I'm finally checking out Ron Hinkle's book "Beyond Chord Melody: A New Approach to Advancement" and it's giving me whiplash... whereas most 4-string (and early 5-string) books begin with a pretty standard "rudiments of music" section (here's the staff, here are the notes on the staff, here's how the notes on the banjo neck correspond to the notes on the staff,) Ron's book has a "rudiments of tablature" section.

It's also written with the assumption that readers are coming to the material never having done any single-string playing, and that's blowing my mind a little bit; I know that chord melody is the predominant playing style for but I wouldn't have guessed that it was so firmly entrenched as to require a book to couch the introduction of single-string playing like it's controversial or heretical.

Anyway - Ron is a fine player who's made it his mission to elevate plectrum banjo beyond Eddie Peabody/stale dixieland mode, and this looks like the modern method book that the instrument has been missing. (I'll be interested to compare it to the early 20th century Grimshaw book; Ron worked on the revised modern edition of that one.)

"Beyond Chord Melody" and many additional resources and writings can be found at his web site, banjosnob.com

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