Friday, February 10, 2012

Developing Individual Style Within the Folk Tradition

Being original does not mean you have to be different from everyone else.  In fact, to play with other folk musicians you must be sympathetic to what they are doing and keep your variations and ornamentation within the confines of the tune, rhythm and implied chords.  Despite this, most roots music players eventually find their own style.  Doing so often requires some kind of personal mission statement - knowing what you want to achieve or attain...and how you're going to get there.

In my case I primarily want to be an old-time jammer and Irish session player and learn the music via osmosis, immersion and exposure.  I want to be able to take part in any jam where Irish trad or old time fiddle tunes are played. You can always acquire more physical technique, music theory understanding and fretboard knowledge, but to play traditional music properly you mainly need to listen a lot, learn the subtleties of the style(s), learn the repertoire of the musicians in your area, and train your ear to pick up the tunes.  

My instrument of choice is tenor banjo.  I tune it in 5ths - GDAE - and flat-pick it with a plectrum.  The linear 5ths tuning is very orderly and intuitive.  Tenor banjo is closely associated with Irish music.  Irish tenor banjo players double the melody in unison with the fiddle and rely on a heavy use of triplets for ornamentation. This can sometimes result in a sound that is too busy and "notey" for my taste. I prefer a more minimal, non-tremolo, single-note sound.  I'll strip a tune down to its bare essentials with the hopes of re-building and refining it from there in my own way over time.
Tenor Banjo
Very few people today play old-time music on tenor banjo, but you can extrapolate some ideas by listening to flat-picking guitar players like Norman Blake and transferring that to your instrument for a creative arrangement.  In addition I like to listen to old time banjo uke players like Linda Higginbotham who provide solid "chucka-chucka".  Back in the day, tenor banjo held a similar role in string bands and when played in a more chordal style the tenor banjo can cover some rhythm along with snatches of melody. 

Irish bouzouki players incorporate rhythmic grooves based on strumming and chord construction to add tone color and variation, with bass-runs, fill licks and melodic fragments tying together sections of the tunes.  This technique is kinda similar to what a pre-Doc Waton country guitar picker might have done.   Contradance music - which draws from Celtic and Appalachian source material - is also a good place to listen to how rhythm, groove and harmony can find a contemporary home in this traditional material.

Another style of music worth drawing inspiration from is Jamaican mento.  Tenor banjo is its main instrument!  Mento requires a looser, more improv-based and bluegrass-like method of soloing that uses little snatches of chords and melody to deliver the rhythm.  These are things I  can then directly or indirectly apply to other folk music.

To find your own style you must ultimately trust your own opinions about what sounds good or bad and train your ear so that you can experiment and manifest your own ideas into music. Don't worry that much about stylistic rules that might inhibit imagination and creativity or dictate what you can or can't do.  With a sense of taste and temperance toward flamboyance you can definitely find your own niche within the folk music traditions.


  1. You don't really know what you're writing about, do you?

  2. Thanks for your comment Siobhan Long's sister. Part of my reason for writing a piece like this is because I learn a lot in the process. But, you may be onto something. I'm curious to know what led you to think that?

  3. What the feck's an old-time jammer ?
    Old-timey musicians don't 'jam' any more than ITM session musicians do. What they are trying to play together, both sorts of musicians, is the tunes, not some jazzman's idea of wandering around the chord progression and eventually back to the tune again.
    I think you have a severe case of sloppy thinking and sloppy terminology.
    And you're thinking too much as well.
    AND you play the tenor banjo.
    Three strikes and you're out.

    1. I have to disagree with Anonymous about the definition of Old Time musicians always playing to the melody. I think even a cursory listen to the reference points of Tommy Jarrell, Fred Cockerham, Gid Tanner, and especially someone like Charlie Poole will show that OT musicians are often playing around and through the melody, rather than simply repeating some rote set of notes they learned. In fact, I'd argue that there is no set melody, only many different permutations of them.

      Furthermore, tenor banjo was an integral part of old time music of the 1920's and 30's (Skillet Likkers, Seven Foot Dilly, Madisonville Stringband, etc etc etc). As was 2 and 3 finger up-picked styles. There is actually very little claw-hammer on early recording as compared to tenor and other 5 string styles, so to tell Lanny that his choice of instrument is a strike only serves to further my opinion that you, Anonymous, haven't the faintest clue about what you're speaking.

      And, "jamming" and "jams" is what we call old time musicians playing together. It's an American idiom for an American art form. Either learn what it's called or don't expose your ignorance.


  4. Hi anonymous. I appreciate your comment and your use of a baseball expression. You do play baseball right? Jam is the word used here in the states to describe a "session" where players of old-time music gather to play fiddle tunes. I think you're getting hung up on the semantics of the word "jam" and thinking of it more in terms of a bluegrass or jazz jam, where there is a lot of improvisation and individual soloing. Players of old-time music make a BIG distinction between what they do and bluegrass, but they do still use the term jam in lieu of session, which is maybe the word that you use to describe the same type of thing? Old-time jams are fairly similar to Irish sessions - almost everyone plays the melody in unison, but quite often there is also a bass player. Instead of playing a tune a pre-determined amount of times (3 times through) as part of a set of tunes that may jump keys, old-time jammers tend to hang in one key for a while (for the clawhammer banjo players who would have to constantly re-tune if they switched keys). One tune might be played as many as 15 times through with slight variations, but not "jazzman" type variations as you put it. When done well you reach sort of an Appalachian-Zen type what is the sound of one hand plucking?

  5. I don't understand the hostility in this entry. I think Lanny says pretty clearly that he's learning to navigate the tricky waters of traditional music playing. This post really accurately articulates how beginning and intermediate players feel when they're trying to figure not only how to just play the damn tune, but also how to interact socially at a jam or session, understand the particular cultural rules and musical etiquette of any given context.

    I think for people who have been playing traditional music a long time, perhaps even since their childhood, or were taught by family, or have been a part of a music playing community for many years, its easy to forget that there are sets of unspoken social cues and music-playing etiquette that are unique to each tradition (like not noodling around in old-time or irish sessions, or knowing how to "lead" a song and "pass" the break in a bluegrass jam or swing jam), and even unique to each individual jam/session. Whether or not people sing. Where to sit. When to not play. If its okay to ask questions. As a newcomer, all those rules are overwhelming by themselves, but made even more so by the fact that often, no one tells you what they are or that they even exist, but instead choose to shoot dirty looks in your direction as you make musical faux pas after next.

    I'm now a seasoned old-time player, though I'd still consider myself intermediate when it comes to skill and virtuosity. But I remember being a beginner, and how confusing and frustrating I found the whole business of "jam etiquette" and interacting with experienced players. But I slowly figured it out, and I understand now that those rules are part of the culture for a reason. And when some of the experienced players took me under their wing, told me a few things and showed me a few things, I was able to start learning on my own. My sensitivity increased and I became a better player.

    Here's the point: this music is an aural and oral tradition. You learn by doing. You learn by trying to understand what's happening in the music. You learn by making mistakes, messing up, someone showing/telling you how to do differently. From everything in this post, it sure sounds like Lanny's is solidly in that tradition, and learning from it. Why jump all over him?

  6. Thanks Megan. Saw you at Cary St. on Sun. That was cool that you and the rest of the Beer Ticks showed up. That was only my 2nd time playing at that jam and I was in way over my head. But I am READY for Sadie At the Backdoor and Waiting for Nancy the next time those two tunes come around!

    About this post...I probably could have edited out the whole middle part and kept it more on topic but I kinda wanted to document all of the places I've been looking for inspiration as of late while trying to hone in on an evolving individual style. Thanks for "getting it" and it is learn by burn. I think those negative comments were by folks from this Irish site called The Session...a forum which is just as much about being a smart aleck as it is about being helpful, IMO.

  7. Saw you as well, but didn't quite make it over to greet... I was, how-do-you-say, preoccupied..

    That said: I'm all for smart-aleck-ery. But I've been the new-comer to a bunch of folk traditions, and learn by burn it is, and no shame in that. I just don't think people should sh*t all over one another about it.

    Looking forward to hearing those tunes next jam I make it to!