Questions from advanced players, professional players and aspiring pros

Matt writes: I am trying to learn to play things in closed position. I want to develop a cache of movable licks so I can play in any key comfortably. Right now I have decided to only play in the key of C# so I can’t play open strings. The problem is that without open strings, I can’t recreate the natural sound of a banjo played in an open key like G. The sustain of open strings creates a timbre that sounds banjoey. Everything sounds weak even though I can rip through the C# major scale. I can learn to play fiddle tunes note for note in these remote keys (C#, F#, etc.), but I can’t just sit back and roll and sound great like you can in the key of G.

My goal is to be able to improvise over ANY set of changes. I would like to be able to read a lead sheet like a jazz musician does. I would like to invent my own licks instead of learning other peoples’. Do you have any suggestions on how to make my closed position playing as natural sounding and possibly as physically easy to execute? Perhaps I answered my own question. I think I should strive (at least at first) for licks that are easy to execute. If they are physically easy to do they will probably sound more natural.

Matt,

I agree, that’s good advice to yourself.

I think the goal you’ve set is extremely high, and you would be better off asking somebody like Béla Fleck or Jens Kruger, or any jazz player, how to go about that. I personally have no aspirations like the one you’ve indicated, because I really do like the natural tone with a lot of rolling and open strings, that I feel the banjo is most at home with. Playing bluegrass style and my own variations is sufficient for me stylistically. Unlike Béla and some others, I don’t have the goal of being able to do anything and everything on the banjo. There’s an awful lot of playing I’d like to master in those Pete-friendly genres before I would worry about the key of C#.

However, I do play a jazz tune called “7 Come 11” with my band Flexigrass, and some of it is in Ab. The open 5th is a serious challenge, which I either avoid by going single string, or include, but only as a fretted note. That is difficult for me, and constrains my improvising a lot (as I’m used to the 5th string open being “ok”). So I have been trying to grow my bag of good-sounding vocabulary with those limitations, and to get fluent using that vocabulary.

Pete Wernick

Bruce writes: Pete, I’m looking to mic my banjo and would ideally like a dynamic mic -like a Shure SM-57 sound — but smaller and clipped on to my banjo. I was looking on-line at the Audio Technica Pro 35AX Microphone for example; it seems like most of the small clip-on mics are condenser mics. Have you tried any of them and can you recommend one?

I’m playing bluegrass and want to reproduce the unplugged sound as much as possible and would like to be able to go into an amplifier. As far as amps, I was thinking of trying a friends little Squire bass amp since it’s a full range amp and sounds pretty good.

Sorry, Bruce, I have no experience with the small clip-on mics at all, and don’t even know which ones are condensers, etc. Béla uses a Shure of some kind, I think, and Dave Johnston of Yonder Mt. String Band uses one, but I don’t know what it is.

I haven’t been tempted too much to use a clip on, though it certainly has its advantages. You can get pretty loud with a 57, even in monitors blasting at you. But you have to hug it pretty close, as straying tends to cause feedback. For my higher volume and “wandering” type situations (rare) I use my Prucha Elban, also prone to feedback, but a pretty convincing sound, other than the 4th which sounds fake by itself, but credible when part of a roll. It sounds more like a good banjo than any plug-in I’ve heard coming through an amp. And I like how when I want it OFF, as for tuning I have onboard control. A floor on/off stomp button would also work, but more gear is not my thing.

I did some careful shopping for amps, and the hands-down winner even over some leading “acoustic sound” amps was the Centaur Acoustic PA, a reasonably compact and light box with 3 inputs. This was also Jaroslav Prucha’s amp of choice when I first heard the Elban I now have. It’s a good ‘un, and not terribly pricey (though more than a Squire, I imagine). I like where you say “the Squire sounds pretty good.” Hey, this is all new technology for banjo players, and who knows, maybe you made a breakthrough. I have never heard or heard of anyone playing banjo through a Squire. As I like to say, if it sounds good, it must be good.

I don’t tend to like using any setup where I can’t modulate my volume by distance from the mic. Yes, the alternative is just lightening up/bearing down, but with most loud bands, lightening up fully loses you in the mix. Or working your onboard volume knob, which I still can do pretty well from my steel guitar days, when I did it while playing. For me, the “working the mic” is part of my banjo-playing internal system, you might say, and it certainly works, except in rare (volume or need to wander) situations. I’m just so used to it after over 40 years of performing!

Best of luck, and if you come upon something that’s just right for you, please share the info.

Thanks for writing,

Pete Wernick

Rob, the father of an unusually talented 14-year-old banjo camper from North Carolina writes: Hey Pete, Wanted to tell you thanks for checking out and commenting on J’s (not his real initial) picking from the cd we sent you. It always means a lot to him when it comes from you. I hope he starts doing what you advise him to do….as far as making the effort to play the melody better. He works hard on playing clean and smooth, but I’d sure like to see him start taking pride in being able to play the melody where you can recognize it better. I wish I would have stressed that when he was first started out, but I didn’t realize how important it is. We listen to XM radio a lot and most of the banjo players you hear on there play the melody just like you’ve always said to do. He’s kind of at a point where I don’t really know how to give him any direction as far as what to practice or who to take him to to learn. He plays with the metrodome a lot and also with cds of pro bands. There’s a ton of fiddler conventions around here, so that helps keep him motivated.

Motivation is really not a problem though.He still wants very much to play banjo for a living, but I don’t know how you to help him out there. Steve Huber advised him this week to go to college and get a job. I thought that was good advice. I told him to practice to be a pro so if the opportunity ever presents itself, he’ll be good enough, but have a good degree to fall back on. Kids grow up way too fast. Anyway, thanks again.

That’s all excellent advice, in my opinion, Rob.

Only a relatively few people ever have made a full-time living as a banjo player. Scruggs, Fleck, Reno, J.D. Crowe, Sonny Osborne, Doug Dillard, and probably a few folks nowadays like Jim Mills, Ron Block, Rob McCoury, Steve Dilling of IIIrd Tyme Out, Barry Abernathy of Mountain Heart, and sort of surprisingly, Dave Johnston of Yonder Mt. String Band. Of those, possibly only Scruggs, Béla, Dave J., Ron, and Sonny have gotten to make what would be called a really nice living. Almost all the above have had hard times, and even Scruggs lived in a trailer most of the years he was laying down his style in the 40s and 50s, as a star of the Grand Ole Opry. Some of the above are multitalented in terms of being bandleaders, singers, and writers of notable songs and tunes. All those extra talents bring in extra money. Ralph Stanley’s banjo playing was a big part of his career, but it was his singing that made him rich.

If Owen is serious about the goal of professional picker, he will also need a day job (or a rich wife). If he works at it, he could maybe have a related side job, such as Steve Huber and his banjo building, or me and my teaching and creating instruction materials (Tony Trischka does that too), running a recording studio (like Scott Vestal), or something like that. Ben Eldridge has managed a great career as a performer with the Seldom Scene without having to quit his day job as a mathematician for the Defense Department.

More and more bluegrass performers are making a full time living, but it’s still a pretty small number. The work is quite seasonal, and involves a lot of traveling, not the best thing for family life. Understanding spouses are not always easy to find!

J should note that all of the above players can and do sing. A few have been lead singers and writers of good songs. As I mentioned in the previous email, they all have a very strong sense of melody that comes out in their playing without any effort.

If he wants to show how serious he is, he should start singing, and eventually learning how to sing harmony (as people like Scruggs, Crowe, Osborne, Reno, and about all the rest can do, and very well). He will certainly have to know how to put carefully chosen melody notes into his breaks.

As I’ve mentioned before, he is a very special player with his excellent tone and rock-solid right hand. The metronome practice really shows. He is creative, but still leans on licks more than a truly creative player would. He needs to write tunes, to be taken seriously as a unique player.

I’m sounding awfully strict, especially making suggestions for a 14 year-old. But if he really wants a career, even as a non-full-time player in a very respected touring band, he will need to expand his skills.

Playing in the family band is good for him nowadays. He can learn how to make up really nice solos featuring the melody, on all the songs in the band’s repertoire. His younger brother can help him learn some melodies. He can learn baritone singing and learn how to arrange a trio harmony. He can scout around and try to get some gigs for the band, and he can learn to set up a sound system.

If you don’t have the book How to Make a Band Work, J should get it and read it, as the book is quite realistic about skills that are needed, and the realities of the music — I mean entertainment — business.

If he loves the music and playing in groups, he will, and a serious career may or may not take shape. Many non-musical skills are needed by someone trying to make a career in music. It’s a business, after all. I will certainly be available for advice when needed, as I’d like to see him take it as far as he can, though not so far as to diminish his chances of making a living if a music career doesn’t work out.

Hope that helps. Please tell J I’d like to hear some more recordings, but not if he’s not playing the melody. (I’m tough!)

Pete

Scott writes: A few months ago I wrote you asking for your recommendation on a microphone, which you kindly gave. Since that time, I have determined that a microphone isn’t going to work. I play in a bar type setting with other musicians who all play plugged-in acoustic instruments. With a microphone I am simply underpowered, and any attempt to achieve the volume levels I need result in feedback. The other musicians refuse to turn down or go unplugged.

That said, is there a transducer mic you could recommend that makes a banjo sound like it should, and not like Buck Trent’? I currently own a “Jones Acoustic Plus” pickup, but I am not satisfied with the metallic sound it produces. Please let me know if you know of a better one. Also, any pointers you have would also be appreciated.

Thanks for the gift of your knowedge and your music!

Sorry to hear you are stuck in the situation banjo players sometimes get put in. I don’t think there is any “good” sounding acoustic pickup. The Jones and similar types seem to come the closest, but I’ve not yet heard a banjo sound like a “good” banjo through one, regardless of how good the player and the banjo actually are.

The solutions people have tried produce mixed results, always trading off “real banjo sound” for volume. One possibility is to play to the audience with a microphone, and have the people on stage, yourself included, hear you through your pickup. That means at least the audience will hear your better sound, even if the people on stage don’t. Less than satisfying, but a solution of sorts.

Then there is the solution of ear monitors, used by all on stage, where mics don’t need to create feedback because all the monitoring is done by headphones the performers wear (this is getting increasingly common, even in bluegrass). Quite a project to do, and not everyone finds this the best solution, as wearing earphones on stage has definite disadvantages. I doubt your band would be much interested in this.

Pete

Brian Writes: Pete – have you ever used a click track to record? What are your feelings on the subject.

Depends on a number of factors, Brian. If it’s a whole band, it depends on how well people can play to a click track. Some people are fine with it, some not.

Sometimes just one band member (drummer, mando player) listens to the click, and the other people just hear that person’s rhythm.

At high speeds, it’s great to have one person whose rhythm just stays put and everyone can follow. A click can be “that person”.

I think individual musicians should practice enough with a metronome/drum machine so that their timing is naturally reliable, and the band should play enough together (while listening attentively but not self-consciously) to where their rhythm typically “locks in”. Then just try to preserve that in the studio. Ideally you don’t want people to play slavishly to a click, but with one another.

Pete

Tye writes: Cool. Couple of questions about the “assignment”: The way I would approach it is to write out the measures and chords to a song on music (tab) paper,

WHOOPS, stop. No tab, no paper, unless you just can’t do it that way at first. But you must learn.

It’s between you and your hand, and your sense of rhythm and the sounds you like, and THE MELODY of course. See what kind of dance you can get your hand to do, and dance is not a set of instructions, it’s a PULSE, expressed by various limbs (like fingers).

then place the melody notes in the measures, then try to find rolls that will work — sort of like a puzzle. Is this the best way to go about it?

Yep, like programming. Nice results possible there, but you’d like to graduate to where you can do that without involving paper. You and the strings, no paper, just your physical/musical memory. The “feel” and the sounds.

(This is how I usually work out my breaks to harder songs, although I’m not particularly rigorous about getting every note in the right spot).

Try for that once you’re in the ballpark. It’s a great challenge and will expand your right hand, and your musical sense too.

It seems like it would require some melodic-type phrases in order to get the notes placed exactly as they would be sung — is that true?

They’re usually not that tight together, rarely as many as 4 melody notes in an 8 note roll. But sometimes the way they hang together is what’s tricky, such as two notes immediately adjacent within the roll to get a vocal “turn”. Have at it!

Pete

Bradah T in Georgia asks: We have started recording trying to listen to improve. What is a good mic for a banjo?

Dear T,

I use an AKG 414 in the studio, and also on stage with Flexigrass. It’s one of the most popular studio mics, large diaphragm condenser, and gets a good balanced tone with plenty of low and high end. On the banjo, we sometimes have to pull back some of the low frequencies (200-450) a bit to have it sound a little more clean and “transparent”. There are now various mics that are considered comparable to and a good bit less pricey than the 414 (about $1000 I think). I forget their names, but a good studio person would probably be happy to chat with you about that.

For stage work with Hot Rize, I use an industry standard mic, the Shure SM-57, an inexpensive (not much more than $100) dynamic mic that’s been around a long time, and which banjos tend to sound good through. They tend to be good at not feeding back, and almost every sound company carries them. They’re not “fine” for studio applications, but they’re indestructible and sound good. If you have Masters of the Five String, you’ll see a lot of players like them. Can’t go wrong having a few of those around, so many studios do.

Remember, if you play really good with good tone, it would take a pretty bad mic to mess that up. If you don’t play with good tone, there’s not much a mic can do to help. The percentage of “sound quality” that’s thanks to a mic is less than 10%, where the quality of the player is by far the biggest percentage, and the instrument’s quality is also important, but a smaller percentage. The instrument and the mic can be bought, the player has to work and listen, and work some more, for years. To me, there are a lot more really good mics and instruments in the world than really good players. They are not made in factories. Each one has to be carefully developed for many years.

It’s good you’ll be recording yourself and listening back. When a person is playing, they usually have to concentrate so hard, they can’t hear as much as when they’re just listening back. There’s a lot to learn.

One thing that’s always nice: Get the banjo right in tune and play something nice and easy, and make it sound extra good, as though it’s for the most beautiful person in the world. That’s a good way to get good tone!

Pete

Matt from Germany writes: I’ve found a habit which I can’t tell is good or bad. I will frequently cross over my thumb to the other side of my index finger to make a roll happen. For example, I’ll roll from strings 4 to 3 to 2 using thumb, index, thumb. It’s not comfortable and I’m not sure it should be. Should I make this habit second-nature, or try to avoid this kind of rolling where possible?

Matt,

Comfort and good sound are your two judging criteria. The roll you describe is doable (I use it sometimes), but you can also consider playing those three strings TIM. I do that a lot. It’s unconventional to play the M on the 2nd string, but I find it easy and comfortable. If you do too, I recommend that. The way you’re doing it is sometimes the better alternative (if for some reason you need to put in a note (M) after the first three, and then come with the thumb on note 5 of the roll). But whatever you come up with, weigh its do-ability against the do-ability of an easier alternative and consider whether the (ideally) better note choices are worth the extra effort to overcome the chance it won’t sound good under performing conditions.

Good luck!

Pete

Shirley from NY writes: Our group has been asked to do a wedding this fall…all the music, including the service. Have any of you done weddings?

I’ve probably done about 50. I love wedding gigs, generally. They give us a chance to be “bluegrass missionaries”, because many people will get their first exposure to bluegrass there, and some will really like it and maybe even want to start playing. Letting people come up from the audience to sing is fun, if it can be managed. You can also count on the wedding party wanting to use the sound system for toasts and such. You can facilitate by mentioning that ahead of time, and letting them know they’re welcome.

What did you use for processional, recessional, and special music during the service?

Music during service: Walk Through This World With Me (George Jones, and I think the Seldom Scene) is just a great wedding song. Joan and I do it trading off lines, going into harmony sometimes, quite effective. Processional: any dignified sounding music, probably not with the banjo in the lead. Needs to sound somewhat tender, but sturdy. A fiddle tune like Billy in the Lowground or Soldiers Joy, played slow and steady, would do fine, or any song, an instrumental version, played slowly. Needn’t be recognizable. Recessional: You Are My Sunshine is one of the best feel good songs ever. Except all the verses are about heartbreak, so just sing the chorus a time or two, with instrumental solo between (the crowd will keep singing over the instrumental solo, probably).

Did you do any neat songs that are good for the reception?

They’re going to want to dance, of course. They always need a slow-type song for the “first dance”, which tends to go on for a while. Blue Moon of KY, instrumentally, works fine. Songs with a bouncy beat (Hold Watcha Got, Sleep with one Eye Open, etc.) and any waltz (TN, KY, AL, Shenandoah, etc.) interspersed will keep them on the dance floor. Most people don’t have the knowhow or stamina to dance to uptempo bluegrass. But sometimes they will give it a try, and then watch them, and maybe shorten the tune if it looks like they’re about worn out. An absolute winner is a simple square dance or two, and especially a Virginia reel, which is pretty easy to call and not at all hard for the dancers, however inexperienced. Something like this becomes quite joyous, and maybe even helps the two families mix, and helps make the overall event a HIT. First is the announcement and call for dancers. Once you get the first couples, more can be shamed into getting up there. The caller describes the moves on mic to the dancers before starting any music, then the band plays any instrumental, endlessly, and can switch tunes while keeping tempo. Wedding gigs are rarely “career advancing” but can pay well, and lead to more of same. Or sometimes, people who hear you at the wedding become fans who come hear you at other places. There’s a section of my book, How to Make a Band Work, on weddings, where there’s more info yet!

Pete

Advanced banjo camper Gabe from Massachusetts writes: My band’s CD is coming out soon. They took almost all of the banjo back-up out, but I think it sounds good.

[How come your backup was mixed low?]

I have heard some of the music that the people who engineered our CD did (including their own band’s CD) and the tracks with banjo had almost no banjo except for the breaks. I also didn’t know the material that well (none of us did). The fiddler in the band wanted to make the CD to help him get into schools, so the band got together a week before recording and we started a whole bunch of new material, a lot of it was stuff that I had never played before. I think I would have done a lot better if we had been able to rehearse more.

Gabe,

I sympathize, as that kind of thing does happen.

For future reference, please note that the world of pro musicians is pretty competitive. ANY time you get a chance to play on a recording that MAY be heard by opinion-makers or people worth impressing, you can gain a competitive edge by going over-and-above. Same with a high-profile performance. Stay up late, do the work, and your chances of smooth sailing are higher.

You never know who will be listening and how the impression you make can be anywhere from exceptionally good to quite a bit less. They don’t know if you have an excuse (no chance to prep, you didn’t feel well, whatever) about why you could have been better. And they don’t much care either, as they’re focused on other stuff. But when you have a chance to be heard by people whose opinions count (which is almost any time you play), it’s worth taking whatever trouble it takes to be as prepared as you can be. Very often that is the difference between the very good and the great, the people who “get picked” and those who almost get picked.

Pete