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.



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