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." #fediversemusic
...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)
Follow-up on the Mel Bay "Plectrum Banjo Melody Chord Playing System" book, which I think is pretty much the only "how to play chord melody on #plectrumbanjo" 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 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 book fills that in. #plectrumbanjo https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HyADa6OpZ6c&list=PLblAdFPKwQmIBGq_E71J_A43hp3OEL0Jn&index=10
The Mel Bay 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 #leadsheet 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.
Brute-force memorization of the fingerboard has never really worked for me as a strategy, although working on the Mel Bay #plectrumbanjo #chordmelody 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.
Seeing Tuba Skinny earlier this week has rekindled my "if I want to play banjo in a trad-jazz/jug/hokum band I'm probably going to have to start one myself" madness and I've gotten the Grimshaw and Mel Bay books back off the shelf.
I really was making progress before my detour back to electric guitar land, and the collab I've been easing into over the last month or so has been illuminating in terms of finding a way to straddle the guitar/weirdo 5-string banjo/weirdo 4-string banjo worlds.
I'm poking around for "local" (haha, nothing is ever local) trad jazz/jug band groups and goings on and there's still mostly-bupkes, although there is The Great Northeast Jug Band Festival on the 30th 👍
The 'New England Jazz Banjo Festival' is happening this weekend, which is bad timing. I'll keep it on my radar for next year, but from what I know of that one it's still kind of a "guys in red vests and boater hats, furiously strumming bye bye blues as fast as humanly possible" scene
No red vests here, but that whole weird "early jazz filtered through Very White mid-19th-century nostalgia for the early-19th-century" banjo-as-flashy-solo-instrument thing is still A Lot
(and I say that as someone whose brain was irreversibly rewired by exposure to live banjo at a Shakey's Pizza Parlor in the late 1970s) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b_yVCySN41I
Finally got off my ass and reached out to an open jam that's run by a jazz school to ask whether they ever play older numbers and if so, how welcome/unwelcome a banjo might be.
I've reached out to various 'community jazz band' type outfits about banjo over the last several years and the response, if any, is aways "uh, no? What are you, some kind of pervert?"
Also finally re-requested a Worldcat interlibrary loan of the David Frey book, which i did 2-3 years ago and then somehow missed all "hey your book is here, pick it up" notifications.
(It was a self-published book, it's out of print, the author has been deceased nearly 10 years, it doesn't show up used very often and when it does the two volume set goes for like $500)
Would be a shame if a digitized copy ever found its way online
Shout out to the main branch of the Carnegie library for sending these a third of the way across the country. Glad they're rebound in hardback!
Alas, the CDs are not with them, but that will be a fun side quest #plectrumbanjo 🪕
Feeling a little bit haunted by the phenomenon of "musician with a longtime online presence and cottage industry dies (or maybe just retires) and their domain expires within a year, and the stuff they used to sell is impossible to find"
Meanwhile some guy in Canada is selling PDFs of Don Van Palta's extensive #plectrumbanjo chord melody arrangements which... maybe he has Don's permission but I don't get that impression. (Don's still alive as far as I know, but in his 80s and his website's gone)
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