Goals/Intentionality (long) 

The thing I constantly struggle with as someone who is avid about music but for whom music is not my main job is figuring out what the hell I'm trying to accomplish; a lot of the time learning little tunes well enough to record a video clip and then move on is enough, but a long-running underlying tension for me is "dabble incessantly and be mediocre at a bunch of stuff" versus "buckle down and focus on something enough to get proficient."

The latter is a tough sell to oneself when there's no external pressure or reward for it, which is why I usually let myself skate (and keep accumulating different instruments that I play intermittently but never really go anywhere with.)

But the last fewyears I've had a pretty persistent daydream of putting together a low-stakes early jazz/country blues/hokum/turn-of-the-20th-century sort of outfit, without really taking any meaningful action to at least establish some conditions that might make that possible. Part of it is ADHD (I'm still very much interested in 5-string classic style banjo, and there are only so many spare hours in a day), part of it is impostor syndrome (feeling like I'm hopelessly behind learning repertoire/playing with jazz musicians who know what they're doing.)

Mostly it's laziness/avoidance. But, this weekend I had one of those periodic moments where I took stock of my experience & resources decided it's time to shit or get off the pot:

* I've got a good instrument
* I've got lead sheets (Get you a copy of the Firehouse fake book, it's on archive.org)
* I've got a helpful list of "60 songs every jazz banjo player should know" (Get you some lessons with Steve Caddick, he's great)
* I've got some sight reading chops in CGBD tuning thanks to years of early banjo stuff
* I'm getting a pretty good foothold with plectrum chord shapes
* There are thousands of old standards kicking around youtube

So I'm going to try and commit myself to a plectrum banjo "Song per week" personal challenge and just work down Steve Caddick's list of tunes, with the minimal goal of memorizing chords (for the week anyway), stretch goal of working out the melody. I don't really know what I'm doing in terms of idiomatic chord melody, but that's sort of the overarching goal as I work through the list; I just ordered the Mel Bay book and I'm going to see if I can't get my hands on Dave Frey's fanatically beloved but out-of-print "Ultimate Plectrum Banjo Player's Guide" via interstate interlibrary loan. Meanwhile, basic flatpicking will still be a good exercise.

And who knows, if I manage to stick with it, by the end of 60 weeks maybe it will be safe to attend jam sessions, and maybe I'll feel more confident about doing so.

Week one is "After You've Gone."

As of earler today a copy of the Frey book on its way to my local library via inter-state loan, so that's pretty cool

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...and an ebay seller just gave me a good offer on a copy of Emile Grimshaw's plectrum book, which was written in the really interesting interregnum as the classic 5-string fingerstyle was giving way to early jazz. Clifford Essex currently publishes a revised/updated edition of the Grimshaw book with tablature but I've been holding out for the original.


(that video is a good demonstration of how the scale length of an instrument affects overall timbre; you can tune a tenor banjo like a plectrum but it won't sound quite the same)

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Follow-up on the Mel Bay :mb: "Plectrum Banjo Melody Chord Playing System" book, which I think is pretty much the only "how to play chord melody on " book currently in print:

It's a good book if you're familiar with basic standard notation and know a little bit of theory, and have a general understanding of the *concept* of 'chord melody'.

It's frightfully terse in terms of instruction. I think it was probably written with the assumption that anyone reading it would have a teacher guiding them through.

And, there's not really a lot to instruct when it comes down to it; the titular "Melody Chord Playing System" itself is actually pretty simple. The bulk of the book walks you through the same concept applied to all twelve keys, gradually getting more complex rhythmically.

But yeah, not a book I'd recommend to a complete newbie.

I did a double-take when I looked at the last page and saw a January 2021 print date. Not quite on demand (printed a about a week before I ordered it) but probably "print in artisinal batches because we only sell 5 copies of it per year." The quality is as good as any other Mel Bay book I've bought over the years.

I've been applying the basic "Melody Chord Playing System" principals to St. James Infirmary, and it feels like maybe I'm unlocking some next-level stuff.

It's a long road to:

1. Memorizing chord spellings
2. Being able to sight-read a lead sheet and map the melody notes to the right chord, and the right shape for that chord
3. Getting a sense of common patterns in terms of picking the best/nearest shape to start with for non-chordal tones
4. Doing that all smoothly at speed

...but I've got that sense of having gotten past a conceptual hurdle.

Eddie Peabody's :ep: instructional record has some basic chord melody material and he mentions keeping the melody note on the 4th string, but doesn't get into how exactly you work those chords out; the Mel Bay :mb: book fills that in. youtube.com/watch?v=HyADa6OpZ6

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The Mel Bay :mb: system uses the I, IV, and V7 chord of any given major scale to harmonize it (i, iv, V7 for minor scales) but doesn't really explain how it derives those chords.

This 10 minute video by Tomasso Zillio handily explains how that works.

The Mel Bay system also has exercises for harmonizing a melody with a specific chord in mind (which is how I've been tinkering with St. James Infirmary, since the I've got already has chords) so between those two approaches, all of your bases are covered.

(As for how to harmonize an accidental, or non-chord tone, the instructions are literally "Pick the closest chord inversion you can find and raise or lower the 4th string note to match the note")

It seems simple enough now that I've gotten it through my skull... if I had been able to take another lesson or two with Cynthia Sayer a few summers back, she probably would have covered this.

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Brute-force memorization of the fingerboard has never really worked for me as a strategy, although working on the Mel Bay :mb: system I'm well on my way to knowing the 1st string; I'm slowly but surely burning the neural pathway to remember that the 1st string at the tippy-top 22nd fret (where you do see plectrum players go from time to time) is C.

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@mayor mel bay has an interesting setup: the place is tiny. I think they print in-house.

yes i annoyed my family by pulling off i-70 in pacific, mo to look at MB's place

@scruss Heck yeah! Do they have a store?

The plectrum book was actually printed in Las Vegas NV with a date mark, which is what made me think it was probably a short-run and/or on-demand service. This particular book doesn't even show up on Mel Bay's :mb: own web site, which was partly what prompted me to buy it; plectrum banjo resources seem to have a way of going out of print and then being hoarded and/or scalped. (I'm still waiting on the Dave Frey book to come in via inter-state, inter-library loan 🤞)

@mayor that's one of the standard POD printer's marks. Can't remember whose service does that. One of the low-end computer book publishers (Packt?) uses them for everything.

Mel Bay doesn't have a store (AFAIK), but POD makes perfect sense for them. How many of the plectrum books are out of copyright? This is an archive.org thing for sure.

@scruss There weren't many (any?) last time I looked on archive.org... Plectrum banjo is a weird critter. The earliest plectrum methods were written by old-school 5-string fingerstyle players, so they're a little more "musical" in their approach... still plenty of chordal stuff but blended with scales and not quite as formulaic.

I'm not sure if plectrum banjo got eclipsed by tenor, then electric guitar, before anyone got around to writing a seminal text, or if there might be been any number of really good plectrum-specific early jazz banjo books that nobody knows about anymore, or haven't been put on archive.org because we're still only up to 1925 public domain-wise. It seems like plectrum banjo has pretty much fallen through the cracks as an instrument; tenor players (at least, the vocal ones on banjo hangout) are snobby about plectrum, and people interested in early 5-string stuff are snobby about 4-string banjo altogether, so 🤷‍♂️

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