In my recent blog Notes vs. Chords, I attempted to describe my new and growing understanding of just why scales (and single notes in general) are so much more important than chords. I am no longer approaching this from the opinion route, but now from the fact route—a fact that is backed up by my own breakthrough experience, common sense and by the example of countless Jazz and Classical musicians (they can’t all be wrong, can they?) who have gone before us. I’m still struggling with the concept (having been a bonehead banjo player all my life), but writing about it is helping. I truly believe that this—at long last— is the rabbit hole I’ve been seeking all these years; I’m determined to get to the bottom of it now that I’ve found it.
Perhaps I should qualify something here: There is absolutely nothing wrong with Chord Melody! If you are a strong chord melody player, and you’re happy with that, then go for it! It is the characteristic plectrum banjo technique, and one that can work well as a springboard to other things, if you don’t get bogged down by it like I did. I will however, dare you to dip at least your big toe into this pool, and see if chord melody still satisfies you once you’ve seen the light!
I’m no-longer satisfied with the music I’m able to play within the chord melody limitations, but that’s just me; there is music—wonderful music—that is trapped inside of me, simply because I lack the skill set to let it out. I’ve often thought that perhaps I chose the wrong instrument for this self-fulfilling purpose, but it is my most familiar hammer.
I also recognize that many banjoists have no interest in jazz improvisation; nothing wrong with that either! There are other types of music that require a scale-based approach, and of course all styles would benefit from the physical and mental workout. My goal with all this is simply to show that there is much more to the plectrum banjo than just chord melody (all I knew during my “developmental” youth)! Broadening the musical horizons for this underserved instrument may help save it from obscurity.
My most longed-for skill is to be able to improvise jazz—something that I truly believe is well within the historical and technical purview of the banjo (and not just for the rare, untrained savant). I can say with the confidant belief that this is fact: You cannot improvise jazz using chord melody! Been there, tried that, for too many decades. Single-string technique is the obvious route to playing a single-note style (which jazz most certainly is).
My dependence on chord melody (and chord shapes in general) as my primary musical voice/way of thinking has been a frustrating roadblock in my path to developing sufficient single-note technique! Thus, my excitement over this breakthrough in thought and action; what may seem obvious to some has been a battle for me (mostly against myself and my own limiting habits).
Perhaps the most difficult paradigm shift for me has been in hearing and understanding (and being able to play) the notes that go along with a chord; not just the obvious chord tones (1-3-5, etc.), but also the scale and chromatic notes surrounding them, leading to and away from them (and literally dancing around them in the hands of an accomplished improvisor). If good single-note technique is a prerequisite for jazz improv (how could you have one without the other?), then it would help if you can also hear single notes in your head. Thanks to chord melody, my default “aural concept” (how I hear music) is of chords, not scales.
This is a question of evolution; when jazz improvisation first came about, “ragging the tune” and arpeggiated runs (outlining the chords) were the focus. As players evolved and stood on each other’s shoulders, jazz became more and more scale-oriented; Bebop (which came along after the banjo had pretty-much stopped evolving) was the first culmination of this process.
I have had to go through this same evolutionary process myself! I started my banjo “career” in a banjo band at the age of 12, playing simple sing-along songs in chord melody style; I was good at it, which was a relief to this lazy teenager (no hard work required).
That’s all I knew, until I heard Buddy Wachter play; I was already 28 years old, and pretty set in my habits (and too busy with workaday family life to put the necessary energy into it). As I’ve written before, I now realize that I simply wasn’t ready for the necessary paradigm shift at that time; now I am!
I’ve always been amazed at Buddy’s skills; you can tune an instrument any way you want and hand it to him to play. Within a few minutes of experimenting, he will have learned all he needs to know in order to find the notes he needs. Maybe it won’t be the “best” tuning for him, but his comparative “struggling to play it” will still top the majority of us! This comes down to one simple fact: Single notes are much more important than chords! Plus, you can’t be afraid of hitting a “wrong” note, because you are never more than a half-step away from a “right” note!
He—and a few others—sees the four strings of the banjo as individual entities; the notes you need in order to make chords are there somewhere, regardless of tuning. Of course, the better you know and/or hear those notes, the quicker you’ll find them when needed. You will rarely hear him playing pure chord melody (which he calls “chord malady”; I have changed the name to “Chord Shape Dependence”—let’s call it “CSD”)—at least not more than a few bars at a time, before he’s off in a different, amazing direction. To a certain extent, he does it “because he can” (and I say “why not?” If you got it, flaunt it! More, please? I want to hear it!); most of the time though, I know he is simply playing what he hears in his head, using the notes necessary to accomplish it. That in a nutshell is my ultimate goal.
Having a bad case of CSD can be an impediment to allowing yourself to find the notes; a mental shift to “playing the notes you need for the situation” (using scale and arpeggio knowledge as the pre-learned route to those notes) is much more effective than memorizing hundreds of static chord shapes.
This is more a question of hearing the notes (and especially their harmonic context), than it is of knowing where they are by rote; having both skills would obviously be best. What to do if you can’t naturally hear those notes? Aye, that is the $64,000 question (and if I could answer it, I’d be rich)! I personally believe that anyone can be taught to hear music, at least at a basic level—but that’s easy for me to say since I can hear it!
Obviously though, if you can’t hear them, knowing where they are through practice and rote memorization is the route you must take until such a time that you can hear them. I’ve known plenty of great musicians who were non-hearing rote learners, and got where they are by sheer determination. For someone who doesn’t hear well, chords are what will allow you to do that.
So, let’s go with that: You are a strong chord player (or a relative beginner who has not yet developed CSD), but wish to go beyond your limitations. Well, let’s explore the single notes that make up the chord. Rather than go there in this blog, I will refer you to the scale and arpeggio lessons that I have already posted. Learning your scales and arpeggios—as physical technique—is the obvious first step, whether they make sense to your ear or not (just trust me, and do it! And eat your vegetables!). I must point out that those essential skills are what has led me to my breakthrough—so I’m not just blowing smoke.
I will soon be posting another lesson (which is actually easier than the previous ones), Scales = Chords = Scales, that will begin to attempt to connect intervals, scales, arpeggios, and chords together into one “aural entity.” I shall gallantly attempt to turn your CSD into a plus instead of a roadblock to progress; the required work of course is up to you.