Paddle Faster, I Hear Banjo Music

For those of you who don’t get the title, I’m referring to the movie Deliverance released in 1972. It was about some city boys who ran afoul of some hillbilly’s, way out in the hoots and hollers of nowhere. (It’s a great movie by the way. If you haven’t seen it, you should check it out.) Anyway banjos food, here are some factoids. The song ‘Dueling Banjos’ from the movie was written in 1955 by Arthur ‘Guitar Boogie’ Smith. The song first received national attention in 1963 on the Andy Griffith show. It was played by the bluegrass family group ‘The Darlings’. In Deliverance, the song was redone by Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandell. It was a smash hit, but never knocked Roberta Flack’s ‘Killing Me Softly’ out of the number one slot. Unbelievably, they never got permission from the songwriter to use the song in the film. He successfully sued them in court. Even though the song was called ‘Dueling Banjos’, the movie featured a guitar with a banjo. (Hmm. Are you like me, beginning to think the camera lens pointing at the inbred hillbilly’s was pointing in the wrong direction?)

Okay, on with the show (this show). I want to ignore the urban legend mythology about hillbilly’s going medieval (mixing movie analogies here, thank you Pulp Fiction) on way faring strangers. In the movie, Ronnie Cox played guitar while some hillbilly kid plucked happily away on his banjo. They shared a musical moment. The city boys converged with the hill people. It was a melting pot. It was a mixture. It was a blending. I want to take this idea and expand on it. I want to show you how you can expand your own personal musical enrichment, if you are willing to go exploring into a diverse musical landscape.

America has been known as the great melting pot. For generations, America has seen a great infusion of immigrants from all over the world. It’s not insignificant then that America has also been the birthplace of many original musical forms. Right off the top of my head, I can name half a dozen; jazz, blues, rock & roll, country, bluegrass, and rap. People brought their musical instruments and musical heritage with them when they came to America. They also started mixing with other people with this same divergent background. There was this great inter-mixing. This great blending that was going on. I said original musical forms, but it was really often like old forms that had been transformed, changed, rearranged, and mixed with other forms.

In regards to this intermixing, this blending, the playing field is wide. In fact, it is practically infinite. Think of a scale rating from A to Z. The Z at the end of the scale would be a complete immersion in some particular style. For example, consider Paul Simon’s album Graceland. Paul Simon was exploring African musical influences. I would say this example is leaning towards the R in that scale. How about U2’s song ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’? It was a song with an old spiritual flavor. They brought in a gospel choir for backing vocals. Yet it still had the U2 sound. Would this be an E or an F in the scale? I know this is subjective. The point I’m trying to make is that is not an all or nothing proposition.

Let’s consider playing techniques. I know of some cross-over between shredders and classical guitar players, believe it or not. Van Halen was classically trained. Flat picker Brad Davis emulated Van Halen’s tapping technique by using a flat pick. (At the time, he didn’t know any better. He was just sounding out and playing along.) Same type of thing happened with Al Dimeola. He started emulating with one pick what one guy was playing with multiple fingers. Blues players started playing slide guitar in order to emulate the human voice.

Blues players also excel at bending, phrasing, and rhythm. Guitar players have been copying riffs from saxophone and blues harp (harmonica) players for a long time. How about bluegrass? Have you ever checked out bluegrass music? The joke is there are only two kinds of bluegrass music; fast and faster. Those players can pick. How about country pickers? They are excellent note benders and some of them really excel at superior right hand technique. The country composite (major sixth pentatonic with a flatted third) scale is also a great tool to know and use. Again, I want to restate my comment about the analogy to the A-Z scale. If you are a metal head, you don’t have to start wearing a cowboy hat and cowboy boots, etc. to pick up some valuable techniques from country guitar players.

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