This one was not asked as a question, but I felt the topic is important enough to share my post in response.
Bob writes on [email protected]:
A guitar player (a fellow programmer) I met here at work once played with a group that had a banjo — his comment was — the banjo was too #$&#* loud! Obviously, this banjo player wanted to be a star instead of a contributor.
I think this is probably the biggest complaint about banjo players in general, as well as the biggest reason for the continued popularity of banjo jokes, and the subtle downplaying in some quarters of the role of the banjo in bluegrass.
I can’t understand why so many banjo players speak so glowingly of *volume* as one of the primary desirable characteristics of a banjo. (“It can peel paint at 50 feet,” etc.) When does a banjo *need* to be really loud? The only time I can think of is, “when performing unamplified”, a pretty rare circumstance, though not unheard-of in my case, anyway. I love to practice loud, but that’s for my own self, and to work out my finger muscles.
If people are jamming and a singer or soloing instrument can’t be heard, generally the thing to do is for everyone else to *quiet down*. In many high-energy jam sessions, it seems people are reluctant to do this. They would rather get their instrument the loudest. I’ve seen jams where the Stellings “win”, but the music sounds awful. Usually, the better musicians leave. If as is sometimes true, the banjo is truly not loud enough, in many cases, the player can learn to dig in harder and get plenty of volume.
But mostly, the rule is, “If you can’t hear the singer or soloist well enough, get quieter.”
When I teach this to people at a jam camp, everyone quiets down, sure enough, and I become aware that a fair number of people weren’t even *listening* to the person singing or soloing. In that case, the need to listen to the group and yourself simultaneously is the main challenge.
Probably the single biggest, most important factor that causes unawareness of a banjo being too loud is: (drum roll) Where the player is listening from.
The player is *behind* the instrument, and everyone else is in front of it. A lesson I always teach at banjo camps:
Try this highly educational experiment: Play a few simple phrases on your instrument. Now, lay your instrument on your lap, facing up, and play the same simple phrases. Wow, didn’t they get LOUD? Guess what, that’s how loud you REALLY ARE. It’s a huge discrepancy, more so than with any other instrument (our resonators really project the sound directionally more than other instruments).
It’s hard to remember when playing that the mix of the sound a banjo player hears is much more banjo-light than the sound everyone else hears. If what you’re hearing is a perfect mix, you’re probably too loud. This is especially true of anyone you’re pointed at. It’s natural to point at the lead singer in a jam, or even on stage. Watch out.
I once saw a video of a band featuring a great singer who was in a wheelchair. Right next to him, a very skilled banjo player was playing a ton of backup, too loud even on the TV, but worse yet, he was standing right next to the lead singer. He was essentially playing right in the singer’s ear. I was amazed at the singer for looking unrattled and singing so well anyway. Some time later I met the singer at IBMA. I told him how good I thought he sounded, and about what I saw on the video, and how amazed I was at the banjo player’s obliviousness. The singer guy responded, “Oh yeah, I don’t work with that guy anymore.”
Take warning, banjo players! Respect your lead singers and your fellow instrumentalists. Keep reminding yourself, you’re *definitely* louder than you think. If other musicians come to realize you’re tasteful with your volume choices, you’ll be a lot more popular at jam sessions, I promise.