Wednesday, April 2, 2014

“The fiddle plays the melody rhythmically, and the banjo plays the rhythm melodically”

Recently, Dwight Diller asked me what I thought of this saying that someone had once pushed forward as a helpful way of looking at old time banjo/fiddle music:

“The fiddle plays the melody rhythmically, and the banjo plays the rhythm melodically.” 

My guess is that this is one of those symmetrical phrases that sound wise, make a good bumper sticker, but don't explain very much. 

I associate melodic banjo playing with a lot of notes.  I see Ken Perlman as an accomplished, impressive practitioner of this approach, though a lot of banjo players have taken a page from Bill Keith's great efforts to render fiddle tunes in three finger melodic (or chromatic) style.  Both those terms might not actually be very descriptive or helpful in identifying what Keith and others who use single note or single string playing do. 

I confess to having learned a lot from Keith’s great Homespun instructional video, and to also trying to use some of his approaches to achieve what I need to do from time to time on the banjo in clawhammer style.

So, I'm no purist.

I see several different roles a banjo player can perform in relationship with a fiddler. 

The banjo player can duplicate note for note what the fiddler is playing.  Ken Perlman and Alan Jabbour come to mind, as do Bill Evans and Fletcher Bright. 

A banjo player can play his own inventive rendition of the melody alongside the fiddler, in a way intended to blend and mesh with the fiddler, to make beautiful music together.  Walt Koken and Claire Milliner stand here, but they also fit into the above grouping too. 

Or a banjo player can make the decision that the banjo's best role with a fiddler is to find the pulse behind the melody, identify the rhythm, and push that forward, serving the fiddler and propelling the tune.  I keep thinking of Diller’s approach, at least his approach when he was tutoring me, that emphasized the importance of getting behind the fiddler, putting one's hand at the small of the fiddler's back and pushing ever so assertively to support the trajectory of the tune.  

“The fiddle plays the melody rhythmically, and the banjo plays the rhythm melodically.” 

The phrase might make a great tattoo.  It might have use as a fine embroidery, a pillow decked with suitable symbols and icons of the music that would sell well at Clifftop or other festivals.  However, it leaves me wanting to spend less time coining great phrases and more time playing music.

Play hard,


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