Practice tip for the easily distracted: I frequently use a timer when I am getting too easily distracted. This is a half-hour timer, so if I am practicing something improvising on one string at a time I can roughly gauge five minutes per string in one key, and then use the last few minutes to play on all the strings. The trick is to do nothing else for love nor money while that sucker is going (Break this rule if there is a fire). I've used a phone timer, too, but this is cooler, plus I don't have to look at technology at all while I'm practicing.
Thoughts on Drive - Part II My first post on “Drive” was written originally to banjo players on Banjo Hangout, so it wasn’t necessarily meant to be comprehensive or apply to all instruments. Dan Tyminski brought out some good points in his comment: “Drive is a relationship between everything involved in what you are listening to and can only be truly achieved when people respond and react to each other properly. Also on one instrument by itself drive must achieved by a relationship of the notes compared to each other. Timing has little to do with what makes me feel like something is driving. People responding to each other is what does it. All my favorite banjo players might not have made my grade if it wasn’t for who they were playing with. I say it again IT'S A RELATIONSHIP where proper support by ones counterpart brings opportunity to kick ass!” The sound of bluegrass banjo has a lot to do with the quality of the rhythm guitar player. When I play with Dan, there is a spark or quality of “kick” in the guitar that prods me in all sorts of ways. And when a great bassist, mandolinist, or other instrumentalists are added to that, it makes for a driving band sound, a surging, dynamic thing that nearly has a life of its own. One reason I love playing banjo with Dan’s guitar is that he’s a banjo player. He understands it from the inside, and understands what to put behind it. If you listen to what Tony Rice does when Crowe kicks into the second solo of “I’m On My Way Back to the Old Home,” it’s easy to hear the point. Tony takes all of that guitar energy and supports what the banjo is trying to say. Everyone else in the band is listening and responding to all that sonic energy, surging, dropping with it. One thing they all have in common – they all have really solid timing. But it isn’t careful, it isn’t “perfect” as in having all the notes lining up perfectly on a grid. Timing is important, just as language is important for a writer. A writer who knows the language well can bend it, or even break it, where necesssary. Musicians who have a solid sense of time and at the same time have the sensitivity to the band sound can slow down together slightly on a chorus, or pick up a bit when the banjo solo kicks in. It isn’t about playing in perfect time, to a click or a grid. It’s about playing as one entity – one band sound. Without this, the slight tempo drop on the chorus gets really messy, and the banjo picking up into the solo sounds rushed. Learning to play with a good sense of time is a beginning, but not the end-all. Playing expressive music is the point - and music that is too carefully executed is often something less than expressive.
Thoughts on Banjo "Drive" Is "drive" the same as good timing? There are people who have great timing. Their notes are all in the right places, evenly spaced, with just the right amount of bounce. They play cleanly, their slides are just right, pull-offs are crisp, et cetera. What we call "drive" has some paradox in it. Good timing must be there for drive to be there. That's a fact. But when I look at some of my favorite players, taking for instance Scruggs and Crowe, I don't just hear "right note spacing," "clean playing," and all that. I hear something else. After all the care has been taken to play cleanly with good timing, after all those practice hours, what I hear in performance is carelessness. Think of Crowe playing "Crying Holy." It sounds like a souped-up Chevy ripping down the road, a little squirrelly. Tony has that carelessness. When you hear Ricky sing tenor, you hear that throw-it-out-there carelessness. Or think of Earl on all those live tapes, with his go-for-it mentality. Although you can't define "drive" exactly, we all know it when we hear it. And we know when it isn't there. It isn't there when playing is carefully, perfectly planned and executed, like a research paper. It's more as if the research paper is just the beginning, and then the player starts using the research to experiment and create on the fly. It's this seeming paradox of combining careful preparation with careless, devil-may-care performance that makes what we call "drive." When we practice, we can't be careless about it; we have to care - care about note spacing, evenness, and all that. But when we "zoom in" on the bits we want to improve, it's important to "zoom out" afterward to go back to that moxie, guts, throw-it-to-the-wind attitude. In performance, we can't solely care about playing in time; we must throw it all to the wind and be careless, trusting that our background practice will take care of the timing. Although we are to "zoom out" a lot of the time, we must "zoom in" for moments when we hear a consistent problem. We can't forget to take care to have good timing - the practice hours, the learning time put in, the metronome, making rolls even and strong. None of that is negotiable. But without throwing it all to the wind, drive won't happen. We not only have to have due diligence; we also have to "bet the farm." This is why people pay to watch J.D. Crowe bust it on the banjo, why they paid to see Robert Plant in 1971 to scream and rip off his shirt. People want to hear and see that combination of discipline bursting forth in freedom. (Photo of my 1926 Gibson Granada by Rob Webster)
I'm working on a new album with Damien O'Kane with our Irish/Bluegrass blend of two banjos. We recorded several tunes in April, with more to be recorded when I go over in November. I'm also touring with Damien in late September and early October. This footage is from Kate Rusby's Underneath the Stars Festival in Yorkshire, England, last year.
If I did happen to accidentally do some instructional videos of things I've recorded, for my website store, what would folks like to see on there? I'm not sure if I will do a full guitar course, or several separate tunes (guitar or banjo). But since I have some unexpected time off due to the rest of the August Wille/Alison shows being canceled due to Wille having some health issues, I thought I'd use the time wisely.
Practice Techniques My role in Alison and Union Station since 1991 has been to drive the subdivisions as clearly and evenly as possible, enhancing the timing and feel as much as I can. I highly recommend metronome practice on a daily basis. I still often spend time playing rolls very slowly with a metronome, paying careful attention to the level of tension in my movements and eradicating it where necessary. I do this especially if I've been playing more guitar lately, and need to re-start my banjo playing. I've had this habit since the beginning, when I read John Hartford's liner notes about J.D. Crowe's "space between the notes." There are four essential ways I practice: 1. Metronome or drum machine, various speeds. Rolls, scales, tunes. (Time Guru is especially great for this, as you can set it to go silent for a beat, two beats, a measure, or more, randomly, developing your own internal sense of time. You find out fairly quickly if you're staying in time). NOTE: A metronome is like checking in with Time Headquarters. It doesn't move, and it doesn't respond to you. 2. Playing with recordings. This is a great thing for feel, plus it's like having a band that will let you play your solo ten times until you start getting it right every time. Look for recordings with killer, kick-ass timing. Jimmy Martin, Flatt & Scruggs, and JD. Crowe have always been some of my go-tos here. NOTE: A recording's timing moves around a bit. It does not respond to you. 3. Playing solo. Recording yourself playing solo is a good way to check everything from your timing to pull-offs, clarity of notes, and whether that new lick sounds ridiculous in that tune. NOTE: You will move around (hopefully just a bit) and respond to your own timing. 4. Playing with people. If playing with great players, this is the absolute best and most fun sort of practice. Several downsides exist. Unlike a recording, they will not want to continually rewind and let you play your solo ten times in a row. They won't like being ordered around. But the upsides are usually worth it. NOTE: A band's timing moves around, and responds to your timing. This is why practicing timing is a critical part of a banjo player's practice time. A banjo player subdividing the beats in an uneven or possibly even a drunken fashion will make any band sound less than it could be. But here's the thing. Do the timing practice in your practice room. Work on subdividing the beats, playing with records, making it feel good, all that. When you are in a playing situation, a jam, doing a show, throw it all away and have the most fun you can. Don't freak out about your timing - just get into it and play with as much confidence as possible. You can assess it all later, especially if it has been recorded. When you are performing or recording, it's the time to throw caution to the wind and enjoy the fruit of working on timing and all the rest.
Since I'm home for a few days and can mind my own Store, I've slashed the price for my Online Banjo Workshop (over seven hours of teaching) from $159 down to $119. I discuss and demonstrate many elements of my playing and practicing. “I’ve just got to say, this workshop has been so much more than I expected….The effort you’ve put into this and the ground you’ve covered like a fog will keep me busy for years….Again, thanks so much. I call that a bargain, the best I ever had!” David W. "I did this workshop. It opened my eyes, and completely changed the way I see/practice the banjo. I high recommend this to any player, of all levels, who feel they reached a plateau and can’t seem to find a way over the next hump." Nate M. TOPICS: Just a few of the things I've covered: Releasing tension (the thing that puts a lid on our dexterity). How I work on timing and feel. Dynamics. Tone. Backup. The trick to learning the neck well. String bending, vibrato, and working it all into rolls. Single-string playing. Slow playing. Clinch Mountain Backstep. Mollie Catherine Carter. Man of Constant Sorrow. Learning from recordings. How to practice effectively. EXTRAS: By signing up for the workshop you'll receive free downloads of my banjo-oriented bluegrass record Hogan's House of Music, and a pdf of my long out-of-print The Traditional Banjo Workbook.
These Rickard Cyclone High Ratio Tuning Pegs keep my banjo in tune way beyond regular tuners. I've installed a set on my Rich & Taylor and have used them on the first leg of the Alison Krauss tour. Best tuners I've used for banjo. I'll be installing them on my 1926 Gibson Granada and my electric Banjocaster next - I like them so much that they're the first product (other than my own music and teaching) that I'm selling in my store. Available at RonBlock.Com/Store