Tip Jar Jam: Bouncy, Bouncy, Bouncy

Murphy Henry

Murphy Henry

I wish I could use one of Betty's colorful expressions about her banjo playing for the title of this blog, but she would kill me. In fact, right after she said what she said, she looked right at me with a steely glare and said, "You better not use that in the blog!" To which I could only reply, "Yes, ma'am!"

Some of Betty's frustration centered around John Hardy. She has been playing it slowly and without inflection, as Casey and I both insist that beginning students do. But, as Betty said, when she hears the rest of us play John Hardy in the jam it sounds like a completely different tune! I know what she means. And it's not the speed that makes it sound different (although the speed does play a part), it's more the inflection or the bounce, as we say in the banjo world.

Let me try to explain. 

When you play a tune "straight," without inflection or bounce, all the notes are even. Of course the 16th notes are still fast and the 8th notes are still slow, but the spacing between the notes is even. You might say this makes the song sound boring and lifeless---it has no soul, no color, it's drab and gray. Many students first experience this with Banjo In The Hollow and they say, "Mine doesn't sound like yours!" To which I reply, "It's not supposed to! You're doing fine. This is exactly like I want to hear it. Now, play it again!"

Now, why in the world would I want you to play a tune that sounds lifeless and boring? It's a timing thing. When you first take up the banjo, there is no way that your hands and fingers can make the incremental movements that bounce and inflection require. They can't move that fast. And they are not (yet) that accurate. Because what "bounce" and "inflection" require is accuracy. Pin-point accuracy

The other problem, as Betty recognized, is in "hearing" the tune. It takes a while to be able to "hear" what the tune is supposed to sound like. In the beginning, of course, it's just a rush of notes. But as you work through the tune, learning it note by note, and phrase by phrase, the notes start to make a certain amount of sense. But, still, as Betty demonstrated last night, she could play the notes---she really could. But they hadn't yet "revealed" themselves to her as the actual tune. But she was getting there. And, yes, part of getting there is being able to play the tune faster. So the achievement of inflection and bounce is somewhat dependent on speed. And I don't mean lightning fast speed, just a good steady lope.

And some tunes are harder to hear than others. I think John Hardy is a hard one (no pun intended!). I like my arrangement of the tune a lot, but I do understand that those first three pickup notes (2, 3, 1) and the slide and forward roll that follow (also part of the pickup notes) are hard to "hear." I have to teach them slow, so that you can learn them, but then when you put them together with the rest of the tune, they are played fast (16th notes) and the downbeat doesn't come until you hit the first note in the C chord and blah, blah, blah......and, arrrgh, it makes no sense on paper!

So you just have to keep plugging away, playing it slow without bounce, until one day---it's sort of like magic---everything comes together---your ears and your hands---and you "get it." Everything falls in place and all of a sudden, John Hardy sounds like John Hardy. But there are no short cuts. Sorry, Betty! You really are doing great.

One of the problems I have to deal with as a teacher is when students try to make the tune bouncy before their hands and ears are ready. Because in trying to add "bounce," the timing gets all screwed up. One of my most tenacious students and I dealt with this problem for weeks. He couldn't get the bounce out and it was wrecking his timing. When he finally understood how I wanted him to play it (Banjo In The Hollow) he said, in mild protest, "But it sounds so labored." "Labored!" I said. "That's it! That's exactly how I want it to sound. Labored! Great word!"

From then on, when the bounce started creeping back in (throwing his timing off), all I had to say was, "Labored! Labored! Give me labored!" And that has made a world of difference in his playing.

The absolute good news is that the Tip Jar Jam made it possible for Betty to hear John Hardy played by a group of banjo players, with bass and guitars providing rhythm. And she was paying attention to the sound, so she heard the difference in what she was playing and what Ben and Kasey and Kathy and Scott and Dan were playing. She wasn't just sitting home, practicing John Hardy by herself, wondering if she'd ever make it sound like a song. You'll get there, Betty!

We also welcomed Jon, a new jammer last night, and one of Casey's new students. But since I've taken so much timing blogging about Betty and John Hardy, I don't have time or space to talk about Jon. So you are off the hook. (I think you owe Betty a great big THANK YOU.) We enjoyed having you and hope you'll come back. The jammers were on their best behavior for you last night, but don't expect that every week. If you come again, you'll be considered part of the family and all bets will be off!

NOTICE: There will be NO JAM next Wednesday, April 2. I will be driving to Chapel Hill, N.C., to give a talk about my book, Pretty Good For A Girl, on Thursday April 3. The talk (at 4:30) and my noon performance with my sisters Nancy and Laurie are both open to the public. Y'all come!

4 thoughts on “Tip Jar Jam: Bouncy, Bouncy, Bouncy

  1. Jon Christensen

    A great big thanks to Betty. And thanks all for letting me crash the group! I learned a lot – and had fun.

  2. David Meece

    Nice blog Murphy. I remember having the same type issue with John Hardy, but it was on the D chord/lick. You know…the one that has sort of a “Ragtime” fel to it? (at least that is how it sounds to me) Anyway…the notes just wouldn’t bounce as you describe, so I needed to figure out something before I lost my mind. So…on a business trip to San Antonio with iPad and your lesson download, I watched it over and over again on the plane. I also utilized my basic ability to write Tab ( I know…I may have violated an essential rule of the MM by writing it out) and actually annotated the inflection on the respective string/note. So once complete, I simply played the roll pattern/phrase silently on my seat tray until I could feel the bounce and inflection. My first crack at playing this once I got home was scary because I was not sure how it would sound, BUT it worked!! As always, thanks for keeping us motivated and encouraged to stick through the challenging aspects of banjo playing! You’re the BEST!

  3. Betty Fisher

    Murphy you always have the darnedest way of making me feel better…….and not with phony, sickly sweet crap. (Of course I don’t think you could be phony or sickly sweet if you tried!) I will have to say that what David did with Tab was interesting, but I SWEAR I won’t do that. You’re right, when I think about my first songs like Cripple Creek especially, it just seemed that I would never get the one part to sound right and finally it did. (Though It’s still got a ways to go.) I still can’t make any sense out of the way Roll’n in my Sweet Baby’s Arms sounds so I don’t know why John Hardy freaked me out so badly. As usual everything you said makes so much sense. (Now don’t let your head swell). Playing it with you did help so since you don’t “do dogs” I guess I’ll have to just go home with YOU for a few days……..LOL. Thanks again this was sooooo encouraging and helpful……..By the way, you know darn well you COULD NOT have used what I said about my playing that night as your title………you would have had to give your blog an X rating……..I keep trying to clean up my mouth!

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