May 222009

A few months ago, someone asked me what style of banjo I play when I perform. I thought for a moment, then answered, “I don’t perform with the banjo. I play some clawhammer, some three-finger, but it’s always been just once in a while at a jam. Never a performance.”

When I was recording my first CD in late 2007, the friend who was helping me get things done asked me if I was going to record anything on the banjo. “No,” I said, “it’s going to be all guitars. I haven’t been able to work up any banjo arrangements that seem to fit for my songs.”

I have ruminated on this lack of banjo performance for a while. Why don’t I take the old 5-string out and put some of my songs to it? I have my own personalized arrangements of some fiddle tunes, and I have even composed a few fiddle things of my own. I have put my own unique guitar styles onto my songs and on the covers that I perform. Why can’t I do that with banjo?

Well, I think I am starting to understand my “banjo block.” It’s like a writer’s block, where a writer just can’t get words to come out. I just can’t get interesting notes to come out of my banjo. I can imitate styles of banjoists that I admire, with varied success. I can approximate an Earl Scruggs tune here, a John Hartford tune there, and a few Pete Seeger, Bob Carlin, Doc Watson, Adam Hurt, etc. things. But I have a banjo block. I can’t find my own unique feel and style, my own notes that are not an emulation of someone else’s style.

Each of the banjoists I just mentioned has a unique banjo voice. And there are so many others that I admire–Alison Brown, Bela Fleck, Ken Perlman, Tony Trischka, Mike Seeger–each of whom has a unique banjo voice. That’s what’s missing for me–my own banjo voice.

For a long time I had a similar block for the ukulele. But I started working up some alternate-thumb bluesy picking on the uke for a few songs, including a couple of my originals. I have one song called “Nickels and Dimes” for my upcoming CD that will have some of this bluesy uke stuff on it. Once I hit that little thing on the uke, I was ready to pack up and take the show on the road. I wasn’t satisfied just adding another instrument to the caravan. I had to wait until the new instrument brought something strong to the music, then I was ready to take it out for the world to hear.

So I need to open up my creative instigation techniques and attitudes for the banjo to see if something starts flowing. I have a decent banjo, a gold Tone Maple Mountain, though it’s not outstanding. Maybe all I need to do is just spend a little more time with it and make friends. I tell my students not to get stuck playing everything from tab, but maybe I’m stuck there now. Maybe I need to get a little more of the freer banjo sounds that you here from people like Fleet Foxes, Sufjan Stevens, and even the Beach boys for heaven’s sake.

One last thought: I’m not complaining too much about my banjo block. Having a banjo block, a writer’s block, or any other creative block means that you have standards. Just because a person spends money to buy a new instrument doesn’t mean that he should afflict his audience with a bunch of crap. “Oh look, I got a banjo, now I am creative because I play some boring nonsense on it for a couple songs.” Nope, a block is a good thing. It means I ain’t putting some junk out there to waste an audience’s time. I will work on the thing until it’s ready, then I will bring something strong and worthwhile for people to hear.

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