You’ve heard the cliche “pickin’ and grinnin'” since you were knee-high to a grasshopper. To non-musicians it’s more-or-less a hint that you’re in for a night of good old-timey music fun. But what does it really mean? And why do certain musicians, especially Bluegrass banjo pickers grin while they pick? As a banjo picker who has dabbled in Bluegrass, I can tell you.
On most up-tempo songs, banjo pickers play over four notes a second, throughout the entire song. You occasionally hear thrash guitarists or Jazz players do that (or more) during a solo, but hardly anybody else does that through the entire song (unless they’re playing chords, which isn’t the same thing). There is just a fantastic amount of energy going into those fingers at any given time, especially when pickers are soloing, playing complex melodies on top of the hailstorm of notes they usually play. Not to mention the concentration it takes to keep the tempo exact – anyone who’s ever jammed with a banjo picker will tell you that a few milliseconds off in the banjo part can throw the entire ensemble’s timing off.
From the early 1900s through the mid-20th century, string bands usually played at dances and other venues where the audience could see the pickers up close. Sure, the band was there to play “up-tempo,” “high-spirited” music that would get people out onto the dance floor. But they were also there to entertain, and their stage presence and lame jokes were just as important as their tunes. Audiences were there to have a good time, and a stage-full of pickers frowning at their instruments just wouldn’t do. So young pickers learned to smile and try to make eye contact while they were playing, even if both the grimace and the appearance of looking into the crowd were essentially fake, and all the musicians’ attention was really on what their fingers were doing.
“Pickin’ and grinnin'” became a standard practice among string band players. And Bluegrass picking could be even more demanding. Remembering to smile at the audience while your fingers were firing off a Gatling gun’s worth of notes was even more important. This is true whatever instrument you’re playing in those styles of music, by the way – I just have more experience with banjo than I do with, say, mandolin, fiddle, or Dobro, each of which is demanding in its own way.
This seems foreign to people who grew up on Rock and Roll. Having the lead guitarist scowl at his instrument when he gets to the “really hard part” of the solo is standard practice. Otherwise, how will the audience, most of whom really know next to nothing about guitar, or even music in general, know that he’s playing a “really hard part?” Never mind that the guy could play that part in his sleep – it’s all about audience perception.
Back to banjo – at this point in time, people know next to nothing about banjo, and most banjo solos go by too fast to make faces on the “cool notes” or “hard parts” like Rock players do. I personally was not trained from an early age to grin when I picked. So when I play complex banjo solos, I have to remember not to stare dumbly into space or some such when I’m playing the “hard parts.” Sometimes adopting a fake smile is the the only alternative to staring open-mouthed at my Deering the way I saw a neo-Punk band stare at their Epiphone Les Paul clones in the 1990s.
The odd thing about this is that – while a lead guitarist’s scowl focuses the audiences’ attention on his or her hands, grinning idiotically focuses the audience’s attention on the string band picker’s face. Frankly, I’d rather people were watching my hands and going “holy cow!” But I play banjo, and most banjo player’s fingers move too fast for me to watch. I guess I have to keep showing my audiences what a thousand dollars’ worth of orthodonture could buy in 1968.
Best of luck, all and remember to grin when you pick. 🙂