Paul S., former Intermediate banjo camper, on
As we make the move into bandhood, it occurs to me that we might want to start making our breaks, backup parts and fills more predictable. Not that we play exactly the same thing every time, but that at least our breaks are the recognizable “breaks we do on this song.” This is what we seem to expect from bluegrass shows we go to — that the banjo player does the break people know and love, or some version thereof. To take the example of “Colleen Malone,” the live version of the intro banjo/mando break is virtually the same as the studio version.
Having more predictability in certain areas (without turning the
whole performance into a soulless machine) seems to have a few benefits. For one thing, if you have a set break for a song, you can work on it, make it better, cleaner, more interesting, while if you’re always doing something completely different, you don’t have as much opportunity to refine a specific break. Another advantage is that if the other pickers know more or less what you’re going to do, they’re in a better position to play off you, adding fills or percussive effects or even harmony lines. And of course, if everyone knows who’s doing what fills and what kind of backup when, there’s less chance of people stepping on each other.
Paul S., former Intermediate banjo camper
You’ve spelled out the advantages and disadvantages well. The planning part means everyone has to take the time and effort to remember stuff. Like other aspects of being more like a “real band”, this smacks a bit of “work”, which some hobby musicians want no part of. And some others want to see how close they can get to sounding “pro”. In bluegrass, there are few players with the improv skills to put out a really good and cleanly executed break that they’re just “faking” at the time.
I always recommend that band players (or even serious jammers) pick a song or two that they will really get down and polish to a fine sheen. Partly it can serve as an example of how good they *can* sound. Also, working through the technical problems to get the whole thing smooth and slick, may well force them to deal with some technical issues that, once solved, will cause a general upgrade of their playing.
To do the above means settling on exactly what the break will sound like, much like a composition. It’s a fixed thing that you can then go over with a microscope, slowly eradicating each and every difference between you and a “pro sounding player”. That can be a large job, but even when halfway done, the result will sound cleaner and better, generally, than an improv’d break.
The spontaneity factor is important though. As a member of Hot Rize, after several years of playing exactly the same breaks (quite cleanly, generally, even when nervous) I came to realize there’s a cost in predictability as well as a gain. Audiences tend to know when something is canned or made up just for them. Some energy bursts and other cool effects happen better when they occur spontaneously, thanks to everyone being responsive to each other. When it’s all planned, the effect may be a bit less delightful. Kind of the way photos of musicians taken “live” always look different from faked “live” shots. You can tell.
Re Colleen Malone, that’s an example of us wanting to do something “signature” for this song. We kind of ripped off our own arrangement of Nellie Kane (same key and tempo, another sweet love song, from the early days of the band), where the banjo and mando just unison the melody, plain Jane, just to salute it and to announce, this is a good old down home song, straight ahead. Sometimes a statement like that actually stands out. There are no licks, no flashy spots, just the melody, that’s unique to this tune. Most licks, especially common ones, have a big job to compete with a well-played good melody with minor nuances the way a singer would have.
My main recommendation is to do a “pilot project” song or two, and see what everyone thinks: Convert all the arrangements to “worked out” or leave some things to chance (assuming some general prep). Every band has that choice, and there are obviously many different outcomes, depending on personal taste, and how well the players can handle the requirements of the two choices.
Keep us posted!