G Minor Pentatonic – Melodic Style Banjo – Part 1

Couple of weeks back I wrote about melodic style in general. Now it’s time to get into details. Pentatonic scales are useful for improvising in various idioms. Personally I’ve used these a lot on rock stuff with Electric Banjoland as well as on traditional bluegrass tunes for that high and lonesome feel, if you will. A couple of months back we made an arrangement of this old Paleface-tune Mul on lupa for Huolestuneet Kansalaiset and the banjo part turned out to have this cool African vibe (maybe reflecting my trip to Ghana last fall) and I got an impulse to go into more depth to be able to use this pentatonic scale to improvise more freely.

I’m a big fan of the melodic style so I figured out a few systems or positions where this G minor pentatonic works best IMO (as opposed to single-string style where you can have a position on every fret). Every one of these systems is a small world of it’s own and deserve some special attention and time to get internalised so I’m going to deal with only one at a time. This first melodic style position is the one I use the most, but it’s also the trickiest to get sounding clean. The biggest challenge for me with this position is to get the pinky on the 8th fret of 4th string consistent so that it’s got a solid touch to the 4th string but doesn’t mute the 3rd (unless drier sound is desired). You can achieve this in two ways. First one is similar to classical guitar where you bring your wrist down to gain a wider reach between your index and pinky. Second one resembles violin grip and has the neck deep in your palm. It requires a little more stretch from the pinky but I prefer it whenever possible because the wrist can be straight which feels more comfortable and sustainable to me. You can see this one in the video.

The exercise itself is just composed mathematically going through all combinations of adjacent unidirectional notes of the scale. The rhythm isn’t that important here, but, as always, it’s a good idea to use a metronome on a slow tempo. Meanwhile this is a good exercise of coordination and melodic style in itself, these combinations can also be used later in various ways to create different kinds of interesting, and often polyrhythmic, patterns. And most importantly they’re great for developing speed - the ultimate sign of great musicianship!

Personally I noticed that this worked as a muscle workout for the pinky as well. After a few repetitions I started to make more mistakes, which might be partially a concentration issue, but also I feel that the tired muscle isn’t as accurate anymore. And of course the discomfort of a worn out muscle would affect the concentration as well so it’s impossible to tell. The point being, take breaks and be patient and merciful towards yourself and give yourself time to develop that muscle strength as well. After a few days I already felt an improvement in the finger power as well as coordination.