Running With Wöyh!

Wöyh! is a Finnish group known for their absurd progressive rock who just released their 3rd album titled KRTKRTK. When I was asked to play on this album, I didn’t know what to expect except exciting experience (what a beautiful language) and a challenge that would stretch the boundaries of my banjo technique. The song was recorded in May in Hollola at Petrax studio. It's an old farm house turned into a top-notch recording studio, which you can see on this video. I think you can hear the laid-back atmosphere on the recording, too. So here it is. Hope you like it!

I talked about the bliss of getting to challenge yourself in weird real life situations in one of my earlier posts about the Kraftwerk - gig and this definitely goes to the same category! The arrangement turned out to utilise all the three basic flavours of banjo technique (Scruggs style, single string and melodic style). So, it’s sweet like a trio ice cream (but which flavour goes with each style?). 

I’m not going to go through every little detail, but you can find the music for the whole song at the end of this post. Here are some thoughts on my favourite parts of the song.

Melodic Licks

The tune starts in G major (definitely vanilla) and even though the melody is not your everyday bluegrass I got the A-part under my fingers surprisingly fast. Even the arpeggios outside G major are working out for the melodic style. Just one open string is often enough for the position shift so crucial for moving around the neck and maintaining the legato sound of the melodic style. Here for example you can find the open g- and d-strings used throughout Gmaj7-, Cmaj7-, Bbmaj7- and Abmaj7-arpeggios. Don’t you just love it when the arrangements fall in their place like that?

The A-part is featuring some cool Maj7 arpeggios

Another cool melodic style passage giving me great satisfaction is this whole tone scale passage before the second A-part. It took me a while to figure this one out. But while doing this I got so excited about the sound that I started playing old bluegrass tunes with whole tone scale. (I should make another post about those as they turned out pretty cool). 

 

A lick based on the whole tone scale
Scruggs Style

When I started learning this I had a demo with some midi instrument playing the melody pretty much the way it is here. I liked the fact that the composition was taking me away from the traditional stuff. On the other hand I still wanted to give it just a little banjo flavour with a couple of Scruggsy licks. The first one was very basic forward roll played as fast as possible in the context. 

 

When aiming for the speed, forward roll is your most loyal friend.

The second Scruggsy lick I threw in the middle of this part with sporty double stop pinches. I really like how it’s giving momentum towards the repetition.

 

Second Scruggsy lick leading to the low D
Single String Style

The third flavour, single string style, is the one that I only use when nothing else is working. Single string style has a sound that’s more even, kinda like a flatpicked guitar, hence not having as much of an exotic appeal for a musician with a background in guitar music. Nevertheless, it does have it’s moments. A good example is this chromatic ear bender part which I started with melodic style but had to soon switch to single string style. Chromatic stuff is possible with melodic style when playing higher when you get you use your thumb on the 5th string. I actually worked this part out octave higher like that, but that part never got used because the lower sound was preferred.

 

Chromatic passages can be challenging with the melodic style so sometimes you have to compromise

And here’s the sheet music:

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.

Starting Off With Some Melodic Style

So here we go. This is the first post of my new blog. It’ll start as a kind of a mix between personal practise journal and educational site. You can read about the initial idea in more detail from the Letter To Mick. So this is the starting point but I’m going to be open to let it evolve as it may.

For a while, I’ve been frustrated and disappointed at myself for letting all that valuable time to leak to office work, procrastinating and such. Even though I’ve been lucky enough to earn my living doing what I love, even many of the musical projects I‘ve done have been stressful because I’ve felt that I couldn’t give my best due to lack of time or energy or focus. So I did the logical thing, took a break from the teaching work and moved abroad to have minimum distractions. Now I had time. The easiest and most sustainable way to transform some of this time to energy is physical exercise, so I made sure I got plenty. To get better focus I’ve done meditation and occasional yoga. Even with no excuses left, I’ve felt inner resistance and it still feels like a huge leap to open the practise process and present this incomplete side to the public. (That is actually illusion in two ways, as the incompleteness is present in everything manmade anyway. And also the potential public exposure of this marginal subject might not be that huge. But illusion or not, that’s the inner feeling I’ve been struggling with.)

I’ve actually been so excited about finally getting this site going, that I had a hard time choosing my first topic. After a couple of weeks of procrastinating on bebop banjo, I finally decided to start with the melodic style. I've been fascinated by this technique for a while and I've noticed that often when picking up either a guitar or banjo without a thought, melodic style exploration has begun spontaneously so it seemed like a natural place to start.

If you’re a banjo player or otherwise know what melodic style is about, feel free to jump to the video/tabs. The basic principle in melodic style is to play melody so that you pick consecutive notes on different strings as much as possible. This will create a cascading sound that might remind you of the sound of a harp, kantele or kora. The term melodic style comes from the world of the banjo and is most strongly associated with a great picker called Bill Keith and is sometimes referred to as Keith style. With this technique he was able to play fast fiddle tunes note-to-note which wasn’t possible with the prevailing Scruggs style (I’ll explore this in the future, too). Same kind of approach exists in the guitar world as well and is called campanella. Thinking “melodic” might be tricky at first, but after the initial shock (which should be over within 2-10 years 😀 ), many of the fingerings feel more natural to play with fingerstyle and it might even be easier to achieve a beautiful legato sound this way. Melodic style is something that might give you a terrible headache in the beginning, but the more you do it, the better it feels and having put that time and effort in really gives you a different kind of appreciation towards your creations. In that sense you could think of it as a kind of reverse alcohol.

Later on I’ll get into more technical details, but to get in the mood I arranged a fiddle tune called Gold Rush for melodic style banjo and guitar. Hope you enjoy it! The tabs might be slightly different as I wrote them as standalone etudes while the video is a duet. All feedback is appreciated as my goal is to (in case you didn’t guess it yet) to advance my fingerstyle playing.