Saturday, April 29, 2023

lost my banjo thumb pick

Every since I started playing the banjo seriously I have been obsessed with all the details of how the machine actually works and what it takes to make a great banjo tone.

 A bit of an explanation for non-banjo players is that being an acoustic instrument, a lot the banjo's tone (or quality of sound) is created by all the elements that are required to make the actual sound. An example would be the tension of the banjo head (mine is tuned to G#) or the tightness of the screws and making sure there are no gaps where one part of the instrument joins the other.

 When I started playing I knew much less about this and would often get some of the local banjo gurus to guide me. The excellent bluegrass banjoist Chris Quinn was helpful and I continue to visit Grant at the 12th fret ocassionally. These guys know banjo.

 However, after close to 20 years of working on my banjo playing as one of my main musical focuses I have come to give less blame or credit to the instrument. That is not to say that it isn't important but a lot of things are as or more important and those can only be gained by hours of practise every day. For example, left hand technique is important on any stringed instrument but on the banjo, one's right hand technique is paramount to having good tone. This is also true on acoustic guitar. I remember hearing one of my favourite Toronto electric guitarists play the acoustic and sound so much less beautiful than their fine electric playing. (it is common for electric players to dabble in acoustic playing and I can usually tell after about ten seconds if they have worked on their acoustic playing)

 Anyways, one of the things I have always found somewhat mystical about five-string bluegrass banjo style playing is the picks. It was the closeups of Bela Fleck's picks on a concert DVD of him playin duo with Edgar Myer that opened the door for this joyous path for me decades ago. Since walking almost in a trance up to Long and McQuade that day and buying my first picks I have changed my picks a few times here and there. Generally the finger picks have stayed the same and are just the standard metal Dunlop banjo picks. However, the plastic thumb pick has been an ongoing experiment. (not everyone uses plastic thumb picks) Early on I read the the great Earl Scruggs filed down his thumb pick so I did that too. I liked the results and have had probably four or five main picks over the last ten years or so.

 It seems important to talk about tone again here. If you play a flat plastic pick against a string (banjo, mandolin or guitar) in a perpendiculr angle to the string it sounds quite thin and and you lose the low and low mid frequencies in your playing. There is a certain angle that needs to be achieved which is hard to describe in words. I don't think about this too much any more as I have spent many years working on it and have many other things in my playing that need work. However, I was forced to think about it too much this week as I lost my favourite (and only good) banjo pick. Of course it happened the day before I was to play a duo concert with my pal; bassist Andrew Downing. I was a mess.

 I had two thumb picks that were essentially identical and one of them broke right before a concert with the group So Long Seven this year. Of course I should have made sure to replace it but I did not. I keep my picks in a very specific place and rarely put them elsewhere. This time I put them in my pocket and the thumbpick went missing. I was scouring through my backup picks trying to find one that felt and sounded good with no luck. I spent much time practising, sanding, filing all to no avail. I couldn't believe how bad these picks sounded and felt. Was it all in my mind? Could these slight differences in angle, thickness etc. really make that much of a difference? I suppose it has to do with playing with only this one pick (or its near identical backup) for so many hours over the last number of years. I no longer thought about how I was attacking the string. There is a great Alan Munde quote; something like...if you your thumbpick doesn't hurt you are doing it wrong and I know what he meant for sure as my fave pick was not necessarily completely comfortable.

 Anyways, for days I looked everywhere for that pick and my mood was low. (It is bit sad that this affected me so but the Maple Leaf's playoff loss didn't help either). The duo concert with Andrew ended up being post-poned for various reasons and I kept searching for a pick that sounded good.

 Yesterday evening my wife Julie and I were going out for dinner and there it was, on our front walk up to our house. My little plastic banjo pick. Oh my god was I happy! I couldn't stop looking at it and then touching it in my pocket as we walked to a neighbourhood Korean restaurant. When I got home I played the banjo for hours with much joy. It felt and sounded so much better than any notes I had played in days.

 If you live in Toronto I will be playing every monday in May at the Rex Hotel from 530-730pm with my Jazz Banjo group featuring Andrew Downing (bass), Aline Homzy (violin) and Kelsely Grant (trombone)


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