Friday, January 16, 2009

Ron Block – A Fresh Look at Bluegrass Banjo

For the past couple of days I've had a white DVD mailer from AcuTab on my desk. In it is a copy of AcuTab's latest instruction DVD, Ron Block – A Fresh Look at Bluegrass Banjo. I've been waiting for the weekend to roll around so I would have time to give it a good look. The weekend arrived so I popped open the mailer.

As I inspected the cover (no, you probably shouldn't judge a DVD by the cover, but I'm thorough) something immediately caught my eye. This wasn't just a DVD, it was two DVDs with, according to the cover, over three and a half hours of instruction! I consider my task, drag out the banjo, a notepad, and settle in for the ride.

First impressions are always important, and I'm instantly impressed with the quality of the production. The audio is good, the lighting is good, and everything just looks and feels good. The conversation between Ron Block and John Lawless is relaxed, but not so much as the pace feels slow. As a matter of fact nearly and hour goes by before any formal instruction takes place. “Was that really almost an hour?” I asked myself. It sure didn't seem like it.

There's a lot of information in that hour. John Lawless and Ron talk about his learning process. How he started, who is influences were (some may surprise you), and how he thinks about the banjo are just a few of the things he covers in that time. Listening to him discuss his progress from beginner to where he is today should be encouraging and helpful to any student of the banjo. I found this section of the DVD loaded with all sorts of tips and advice about practicing and playing. It was also great seeing Ron go through some of his practice routines, and to just see him think out loud musically. I think it was very important for Ron to take the time to explain his approach; I found it very helpful in understanding his style, and without it, I'd still be scratching my head over some of the licks, and wondering where he came up with the ideas. The explanation makes all the difference. Too many instruction DVDs just dive into the tunes with no explanation of the style. I think I could have turned the DVD off right then and felt that it was a great value, but there was more.

The balance of the two disks is made up of eight tunes: Cluck Old Hen, Tiny Broken Heart, Man of Constant Sorrow, I'll Remember You Love in My Prayers, Every Time You Say Goodbye, Bright Sunny South, My Poor Old Heart and Smashville. As with most instruction videos Ron plays the tune, then breaks the tune down bit by bit and then plays it at tempo, then slowly. This is where I noticed that I had more than one camera angle available to me. I had already thought the production was very good, now I'm really impressed. Each angle has a split screen with emphasis on the right or left hand, or both equally represented. I could focus on each separately making the learning process much simpler. If I was confused about a roll I could switch to the right hand angle; if the left hand was tricky, I could switch to it. Having a choice was helpful, and fun.

So, Ron goes through the first tune (Cluck Old Hen) and then John and he discuss the other takes they did with the tune, and then they show a couple of them. This was great. Each was a little different and you get to see that Ron isn't just playing back things he's worked out or memorized. The tunes happen as they happen, each time different from the last. This is where the previous discussion of his style begins to make sense. Ron's playing is in the moment and it's very improvisational.

There's just so much to take in. It's like having Ron Block move in with you for 3½ hours. The amount detail he goes into is substantial, and teaching style makes it easy to understand. As he explains each lick he also explains why he does certain things. So, you're not just getting the how, but you get a good dose of the why. In my opinion, the whys are often more important than the hows. Knowing why something works, or why a player chose a particular sound or lick helps you use those ideas in other songs.

Final Thoughts

The two DVDs are packed with all sorts of advice and concepts. It's not something you'll absorb in an afternoon, or a weekend, or even a month. Some of the things just take time to sink in, and that's just part of learning the banjo. Just because you know how, and can play through the tabs provided doesn't always mean you understand the why. Honestly, even though I'm in the process of internalizing some of the ideas presented here it will take a while to really assimilate them and populate it into my own playing. Even some of the things Ron covers that I thought I knew, I've discovered even more depth to the ideas, and I hope to apply those ideas somewhere too.

So, who is this DVD for? That's a fair question. The tunes, while they're presented in a very detailed manner, are not geared for the beginner. I'm not trying to suggest that a beginner wouldn't get something from the instruction; Ron's ability to articulate his ideas so simply should leave a good impression and be a sense of encouragement to the beginner. However, for the intermediate and advanced players there's a plethora of ideas, concepts, licks and tunes to work on. However, don't expect to sit down with this set and rush through it; there's enough material here to keep you coming back again and again.

I feel like I should mention the band assembled for the DVD. Kenny Smith, Sierra Hull, and Zak McLamb provided remarkable backup for Ron. The group was a treat.

Finally, if you're a fan of Ron's playing you'll enjoy watching him play and listening to him talk about his approach to learning and playing. That said, I feel very comfortable recommending this DVD set to anyone interested in Ron Block's playing style, or anyone looking for a fresh approach to bluegrass banjo.

Ron Block – A Fresh Look at Bluegrass Banjo is available at and other stores that carry bluegrass instruction material.