Former banjo camper Paul asks (on the Intermediate Banjo Camper discussion list):

Is the tab in “Bluegrass Banjo” a completely accurate transcription of what PW plays on the record? I’m hearing quite a few differences.

[and in another post the same day, wrote:]

Here’s a story that sums up my recent experience with this instrument.

A year ago, in the absurd hubris of a complete rookie, I decided I was going to learn Bela Fleck’s “Snakes Alive” from the Dreadful Snakes album. I hammered away at it for weeks, only making enough progress to drive my wife insane. In the end I was able to play the whole 3-part first break at about 80bpm. I put it aside.

A week ago, I decided to come back to it and make some progress. After a week of practice, I was able to play it clean at 120bpm. Plenty pleased, I was (as Yoda might say, if he played the banjo). Then, just to show how mightily I was nipping at Bela’s heels, I loaded up the original recording on the Amazing Slowdowner at 73% of real speed so I could play along with the guys.

I couldn’t play it. I couldn’t play at 73% of what Bela plays it at. I think I set a world record for how quickly you can go from beaming pride to cringing humility. (At least I’m fast at something!)

But that’s not the end of the story. The end of the story is I went upstairs to where my wife was watching a movie and told her the whole sad story. She turned to me and said, “It sounds really good at 120.”

Then she went back to her movie.

I’m figuring there’s a lesson in there somewhere


Well, I did the Armadillo Breakdown tab in 1973. Maybe the recording has changed since then. Maybe not.

In cases like this, which of course come up with some regularity, it’s just fine with me to fall back on the “if it sounds good it must be good” adage.

Let’s not forget, if I had played another take on that tune, the break would have been different. Why not fill in the blanks as you see fit, and just make it sound good when you play it.

It is possible to get a bit too focused on exactly duplicating something. There is value in taking a solo you really like, and make sure to learn every single note that a player played (even the mistakes, which can be informative), but it gets kind of abstract when the *important* thing is to sound good and basically know the tune. If I had played some thing that you think is so cool, you want to know every note in the correct order, well, go for it. (You can use your slow downer to slow the solo down and find the notes on your own (time honored practice described in my book’s chapter Using Records to Learn) But I kind of doubt that it’s that important.

Likewise, though speed is important at times, I think you should adopt appropriate goals, and listen to your wife. She already told you it sounds good (big improvement over driving her insane with the same tune). Of course, if it sounds good it must be good. You’re already playing 8 notes a second if you’re at 120. That’s pretty fast! It’s good to be a certain amount dissatisfied with your playing, but your reactions make it sound like you’re too hard on yourself. Make friends a little better with your instrument and see how much you can just LOVE Snakes Alive at 120. I promise if you play it a bunch, it will get faster all by itself. And keep sounding good or better.

Haven’t you heard that old expression, stop and smell the snakes?

One last word: The *best* thing for you would be to get out and play with some people on a regular basis. It can change your attitude and help you really get into the essence of music making.

Best of luck, Paul. I’m rooting for you. So are the other listers, right gang?