When Tunes Sound The Same

A melody is simply an arrangement of notes, and there are only twelve of those to go around. Without harmony, some creative ornamentation, good tone, and technical skill, all you have is single notes floating up like fart bubbles in the bathtub.

Wait. That isn’t fair to bathtub farts.

If everything sounds the same, it’s the musician and not the music.

This begs the question, why do so many of my contemporaries not only sound alike, but also play from what seems to be the same list of tunes?

Back in the 70s and 80s, every jam we went to exposed us to new music. Most of the players I learned from were trying to take frailing into bluegrass, blues, and country. Paul the Beatnik used to frail the banjo alongside Dave Van Ronk. Rodger Sprung pushed me hard, and I mean hard, to, in his words, “Think like a musician instead of a banjo player.”

The current old-time banjo scene has nothing to do with the traditions I grew up in. It’s the fantasy football of folk music. I cannot tell you how awful it was to visit Old Fiddler’s Picnic in the early 2000s only to find most of the jam sessions were suddenly limited to a pre-chosen list of tunes. Not only that, but these morons also demanded that we retune for specific songs.

I guess in ten years, they will move the jam into the outhouse, so they can tell everybody how to pee.

Take it from somebody with a lifetime of experience and roots in the craft far deeper than I have ever let on: conformity in true folk music happens about as often as straight lines in nature. When everybody sounds the same, even in the Internet age, it is a sign that the tradition in question is bullshit.

The problem is banjo tab. Instead of learning the craft, people memorize tunes measure-by-measure like a failing student cramming for a final. As a result, they are incapable of not only improvising, but dynamics.

I don’t think in measures, and neither did my teachers. The stress was always on basic musicianship, but in a flowing, highly intuitive and internalized fashion.

For example, to learn the concept, I did work out a few scales formally. Thereafter, I was expected to search for the patterns. First within the chord shape and then beyond that to simply picking a fret and moving through the whole and half steps by feel while in the middle of a jam. Genres were simply rhythm and lick references. We played everything, improvising as we went along, calling out chords to the beginners, and clowning around. There was never time to remember the notes, tab, or anything else. If we forgot a lyric, just la-la it or make something up.

This is that fluency I spoke of in an earlier post. You can’t fake it, but oh how they try.