Creek Don't Rise

Tab Question from a Classical player considering 6-string bj
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Author:  paulrace [ Fri Apr 03, 2015 2:08 pm ]
Post subject:  Tab Question from a Classical player considering 6-string bj

A reader writes:

I'm a seasoned classical guitar player (strong technique) and am considering buying a 6-string banjo to get to a fully different register but still not start from scratch.
I found your articles on 6-string banjo very insightful and this will help me pick the right instrument!
Now, here is my question: as my musical culture is not so much with country, blues or folk, would you advise me some good tabs to start with a 6-string banjo?

----Our Response -----Please log in and add your own ----------------------

Thanks for getting in touch. Here's an irony - nearly a century ago several folks in Britain were making a career out of playing more-or-less classical music on a banjo. In this case, they were 5-strings, often strung with gut, seldom with a resonator and NEVER with tone ring. The picking style as I can make it out is very similar to classical guitar (except for some "double-thumbing" to pick up the high string on occasion). Our article about Zither banjos has some links to sites with old recordings near the bottom. ... _banjo.htm

I mention this because Deering's new Goodtime 6-string banjo is built like the zither banjos (except for the string arrangement). I don't know the neck width, off hand, but that would be your biggest adjustment. Personally, I don't see any reason you couldn't play the same kind of music on a gut/nylon/silk-equipped 6-string banjo you are currently playing on guitar. So far MOST of the folks who swear they are "six-string banjo players," are transplanted lead, bluegrass, country, or folk guitar players. I've even seen "online lessons' for six string banjo which were really based on either common guitar patterns or Irish banjo (4-string) patterns. I'd be surprised if any books you bought would tell you anything you don't already know.

I use a technique that gives it a BIT more of a banjo sound, but I haven't documented it anywhere, so I wouldn't know where to tell you to look for it. I'll try to explain it if you want me to. Or send you a recording and I'm sure you'd figure it out for yourself in a hurry. Or Skype you. :)

Eventually, I'd like to put a "how to play 6-string banjo" section up on my site, focusing on the things it's uniquely good for, but I'm neck deep in other projects, plus that pesky thing called a day job.

For you I WOULD recommend going for the widest possible neck, and getting either an open-backed banjo, or one you can safely take the back off. At least to start. Steel strings are okay, if you prefer the sound, but don't be afraid to try nylon if you're more comfortable with them. If you try nylon, you might eventually get a good sound out of a backless banjo with a tone ring (yes there are a few).

Hope this helps. PLEASE keep in touch - Paul

Author:  paulrace [ Fri Apr 03, 2015 2:12 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Tab Question from a Classical player considering 6-strin

The reader replied:

Dear Paul,
I did not expect such a quick answer. Thank you. I really appreciate you took the time, despite the work day and all that staff... (I know to much what you mean!)
Actually, you're confirming some of my thoughts. I was very intrigued with the new Goodtime Solana 6 strings banjo of Deering. Price is still reasonable for giving a serious try and it has this nylon strings that are obviously a dream for a classical guitar player!
But does it still sound like "real" banjo, even with nylon strings? And why do you recommend to look for an open-backed banjo? I thought the back resonator would make it more powerful. But it may not be needed.

Last, my question was probably not clear enough, but I was wondering whether you would know about music sheet dedicated to 6-string banjo? There must be some traditional transcriptions of 4 or 5 string banjo hits for a 6-string one, I guess. Actually, I don't really know where to look for.

As for your own technique, I'll be curious to learn about it when I decide and buy my banjo! Your proposal to share is very nice of you.

-------Our Reply --------Please log in and add yoru own.

Here's a quick answer to something you implied.

If you want to play specific Bluegrass hits like "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" you need a 5-string banjo. I wrote the sheet music out for it once for a guitar player trying to play it on a six-string banjo and he just swore at me that I must have written it out wrong. Sorry I've lost the file. The Drone string playing a high G at least once every beat is an important part of any Bluegrass and many folk banjo parts.

My earlier response was based on my assumption that you wanted to try to broaden your tonal pallet, not necessarily to sound like any specific banjo player. Nylon-string banjos sound plunkier than steel-string banjos, and they don't "ring" or sustain nearly as long, but it's an authentic sound that some people like. Again, if you can find a steel-stringed six-string whose neck you can adjust to, you might prefer the sound of steel string.

As far as sounding like a "real banjo" is concerned, I pick my five-string in a style that was popular sixty years ago, before Bluegrass became popular. To Bluegrass fans today, I don't sound like I'm playing a "real banjo," even though it's the same instrument. So "real banjo" is relative.

One reason I recommend that guitar players lose the resonator when they go to a 6-string banjo, is that 6-string banjos go nearly an octave below 5-strings, and those low strings add a muddy resonance that isn't there on a 5-string. If you buy a 6-string with a resonator, try to get one you can take the resonator off of so you can try it both ways. You can't take the resonator off of a "pop-top" banjo without turning it into a deadly weapon.

One more thought - this week, I'm playing my 5-string in our current church for the first time ever. They're performing a Mumford and Sons-style song called "Build Your Kingdom Here" by the Rend Collective. The banjo player on THAT track (and Mumford and Sons and most other Celtic bands) plays continuous arpeggios, a technique adopted by several Irish bands in the 1990s. It gives equal emphasis to every quarter of every beat of every measure. I COULD do it but I'm more comfortable playing a folk banjo roll, which gives more emphasis to the first and third quarter of every beat. Only two people in our church are even likely to hear the difference, the song goes so fast. Even Americans who love and think they know Celtic music don't know the difference.

The irony is that once folks realize I play banjo, they always ask me to play "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" or some other Bluegrass hit. I can do it when I have my five-string, fortunately, but I prefer not to. When I have my six-string banjo, I CAN'T do it. And they always want to know why. I haven't gigged for years with my banjos (I mostly play "flattop" guitar), but if I ever start again and take a banjo, I'll probably have to take both - if for no other reason than to prove to banjo bigots that I really "can play banjo."

Sorry, that's more than you probably wanted to know. The point is that "sounding like a banjo" means different things, and you'll get into some weird cultural baggage if you worry too much about what your banjo sounds like to other people. Whatever you do, plan on making it your own.

If this doesn't make any sense, I apologize, it's been a VERY long day. But at least it ended with some banjo playing. :-)

Have a great rest of the week,


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