Creative Intent, Part Three: Mystery, Mastery, and Banjos


I’m currently engaged in a discussion, called Perfection vs Communication, on another site, where there are some with an extreme view who say that what’s important in music is feeling, raw emotion, that communication is the point. Others stress the significance of disciplined study (especially me at times), though none of us say expressing emotion isn’t the point of all the study. For my part, I’m continually stressing the balance of the paradox.

Learning to play banjo, guitar, or any other instrument involves work. Enjoyable work, much of the time, but work nonetheless, requiring focus, determination and patience. It take study to really play a banjo; I mean it takes years of digging into the masters, especially Earl Scruggs, to build a good foundation of technique, to develop a solid right hand, to get the timing very even and regular. Bluegrass is a precision music, and has been for the most part from the time its radical innovations exploded onto the American music scene back in the 1940’s.

As banjo players, we build precision. Timing. Tone. Making sure the space between our notes is very even and regular, insuring our right hand has power in reserve and can sustain a seamless sequence of notes through song after song. I’ve used drum machines and metronomes since around 1980; I have Reason on my laptop so I can use it as a drum machine. I’ve played with records with good timing for years; Flatt & Scruggs and Jimmy Martin recordings especially. There’s one record in particular, called The Bluegrass Album, with Tony Rice (guitar), J.D. Crowe (banjo), Doyle Lawson (mandolin), Bobby Hicks (fiddle), and Todd Phillips (acoustic bass) that I have played with thousands of times. I wore out one LP, bought another one, and then cds came out. I have two copies on cd, and now of course it’s in my iTunes.

But really, inside all this technical mastery and study, what is the banjo all about?

Passion. Convictions. Anger. Beauty. Excitement. Strength. Power. The banjo is to the bluegrass band what the electric guitar is for rock. It’s a passionate instrument, with a strong attack and not a lot of sustain. Explosive. That passionate part, that raw emotion, that human experience coming through metal strings, wooden bridge, and banjo head, is the mystery of banjo playing.

Then why all the focus on timing, drum machines, and technique? Can’t we just play with raw emotion right off the bat? Why bother with years of study? Why not just pick one up and flail away with passion?

The timing, tone, and study part is about the Mastery of banjo so that the Mystery can come through it. Dorothy Sayers compared the creative act of the artist in The Mind of the Maker as a mirror of the creativity of the Trinity. The infinite mind and purpose of the Father; the Son, working out His incarnation in sweat and blood; the Spirit, manifesting God through human experience, and in that manifestation causing a response in others. Music can be studied forever and still not be fully explored or mapped; that’s God, infinite in His knowledge. That’s partly why we study the Bible, to gain a deeper knowledge of who God is and how He thinks, and ultimately, if we’re thinking rightly, to be led on into working out deeper expression of God Himself – which is the Son and Spirit part of the process. We “work out our own salvation,” which is the sweat and blood of the faith choices we have to make daily, “for it is God in you who works to will and to act according to His good pleasure.” The Father in us, working by the Son to express the Spirit.

We study music for the same reason – to gain a deeper knowledge of what music is (Father) and to be led on into working out a deeper here-and-now experience (Son) and expression (Spirit) of what it really means to be a musician. Study of musical fundamentals can help us express Mystery in a deeper way.

Now, there are people who study the Bible and use it primarily as fodder for reminding themselves that they are so much better than ordinary, common rabble. Their desire is mastery, yes, though not in order to incarnate; it is a means to dominate. Likewise, there are people who study music, have notebooks full of scores and theory and lines and charts and graphs on music, and never use all that as a means of incarnation; they never take it to an instrument, or if they do, they’re more concerned with what and how much they know than with how they use what they know. Technical mastery of an instrument can become the End for some. But, as always, wrong use of something does not make the thing bad in and of itself. Perfectly good doctrine, like anything else, is something neutral that can be used rightly or wrongly. I’d rather talk with a grandmother who has no schooling but years of practical Christian life experience than someone who can quote the Bible, read Greek and Hebrew, and knows everything Calvin ever wrote but has not worked what he knows out into expression – into reliance on Christ working itself out in “Love God and love your neighbor.”

With mystery and mastery we have some quantifiable elements, absolutes. Timing: a drum machine is a direct line to Timing Headquarters. Pitch: if the band is tuned to A440, and we’re singing in A336, that’s flat. It may be only ‘relatively flat’, but it still sounds like Hell.

And then there’s the Mysterious. The way a particular line of melody makes us feel. How the chordal context of a note changes what the note means and how it feels. What pictures music produces in our heads! I remember first getting Fernando Ortega’s Shadow of Your Wings and listening to it driving to Nashville up I-65. One song started with Fernando’s piano, and the record’s engineer Gary Paczosa had captured it it so perfectly that for two seconds, rather than windshield and cars and road, I literally saw, like a vision, those soft felt hammers hitting the steel-wound, vibrating strings inside the piano.

The passion, the welling up of emotion, the deep thought and hope that great music engenders in our minds. That’s Mystery.

In Mastery, we have the knowable, the learnable, consisting of this scale, that scale, this exercise, transcribing this Earl Scruggs solo or that one. And we have the unknowable, the unteachable: Mystery.

When I practice, I think about the knowable and learn what I can of what is knowable. Instructional videos. My drum machine. Slow-down software that makes learning other people’s solos a lot easier than slowing 33 rpm LP’s down to 16rpm on an old record player, like I did as a teenager. In technical practicing I focus on mastery.

When I perform or record or just sit around doodling on the guitar or banjo, I forget about mastery. I listen, I feel the song, and I then just play whatever comes to me in that feeling. I don’t think, not a lot, anyway, about what notes I’m going to play in a solo; the first order of business is to listen, feel what the song makes me feel, to hear what the melody does, and play. Sometimes, many times, I come up with a moving solo this way. There aren’t many people who would accuse me of being too heady and soulless in my guitar or banjo playing; when I play on a recording or on stage, I’m interested in giving the listener an emotive moment or experience. But in practice I like learning new techniques, focusing on timing, and other mastery aspects of playing music.

We can learn about God. That’s good. It’s not only necessary; it’s commanded. There is much about God that we can know and understand and quantify to a certain extent (for instance, I can know “God cannot lie” is an absolute, knowable, Biblical fact). But we can’t stop there, at mere intellectual knowledge, like an overzealous type who likes to insult and beat other people down in Bible arguments and congratulate himself on what a great job he’s doing for Jesus ( It’s only a means to an end.

We’ve got to know God Himself, to experience Him. And in knowing Him as He means to be known, He incarnates Himself in and through us and gives the people in our lives an experience of Him. We are the instruments that He plays. His technical mastery is perfect. But, unlike my banjo, as instruments we are sentient, have a will of our own, and have a choice – will I allow Him through faith to express Himself through me, or will I follow lies and deceit and let the Devil play crappy, lame, out-of-tune, and badly distorted songs on me? But I’m wandering into another subject, and we were talking about music.

For me, mastery and mystery capture what it means to be a musician – human and divine, flesh and Spirit, the meeting together of two seemingly contrary things, the one being used as a container or manifestation of the other. The two are not contrary; as our human flesh becomes the means of Divine manifestation, so I focus on mastery in practice, and look to use that mastery as a means to expressing mystery. I’m not always successful at it, but the heart is there, the part that can’t be taught or learned, the mysterious part, and it comes through most of the time in performance or recording when I let go of everything I’ve learned and just fly by the seat of my pants in faith.

The Christian life is the same. We study, gain knowledge of the Person who lives inside us, work that knowledge and that Person deep into our consciousness, and then let go and just be by faith, by inner reliance on Him. “Faith is the substance of things hoped for.” One of my old pastors put it this way: “Faith is the concretization of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Faith reaches into what is hidden and brings it down into concrete expression; it reveals a Mystery. That’s what Mastery of knowledge, whether Bible study or musical improvement, is really for – not to puff us up and make us feel “greater than other men, sinners,” but to make us better conduits and communicators of Mystery.

Winner of 147 Grammys (or so), Ron Block is the banjo-ninja portion of Alison Kraus and Union Station. When he's not laying down a bluegrass-style martial-arts whoopin' on audiences around the world, he's taking care of his donkey named "Trash" and keeping himself busy by being one of the most well-read and thoughtful people we know.


  1. Billy Marsh

    Ron, I really appreciate these discussions on creativity. I haven’t had the time to substantially contribute to them, but as I’m sure you already know, they have not been written in vain. What I want to comment on is your picture and comments on “The Bluegrass Album”. That particular album means a lot to me as well. Part of my early childhood was spent in Burnsville, NC where my dad worked in a sawmill and had built us a log cabin pretty much from scratch. Upstairs, dad had set up his old record player and he wore this album out. I remember him playing to me over and over on his guitar the song, “Blue ridge cabin home”. That’s definitely something he’s passed on to me. Bluegrass is my first love, and Tony Rice has captivated me since I was child. Now that I play guitar, I still play “Blue Ridge Cabin Home” around the house. I hope to pass on the legacy of that album on to my children someday. Thanks for mentioning it and its excellence, it brings back some good memories.

  2. Russ Ramsey


    Hey Ron,

    Man, I love hearing other artists talk about the “blue collar” part of the job– the grunt work, the heavy lifting.

    I make my living crafting sermons every week and then preaching them. And when you first start out doing anything like this, there’s a ton of mystery on the front end– how do I take a text, explain it, illustrate it and apply it in the space of a half hour or so, and then put it to bed by the end of the day sunday and begin again on Monday? How do I begin? How do I conclude? What goes in the middle? What looks good on paper but doesn’t translate “live?” Is the story I’m thinking of using effective, corny, self-indulgent? Does it clarify or confuse? Should I even tell a story in the first place with this text?

    In fits and starts artists take up their task. They hammer away. They try things out. They discipline themselves to do this and avoid that. They become judicious with the time alloted– if they work in the constraints of time. They opt to omit, they find ways to include, and they refine, revise, reject, reword, and repent (and by this I mean, discover that what they thought would work just totally didn’t, and for everyone’s sake, they won’t be doing that again.)

    And they do this as beginners, mere novices who really have a very limited grasp on what their craft entails and employs– like stepping into Bob Vila’s workshop. There’s a million tools for a million functions, but at this point they’re only familiar with the hammer, hand saw and sand paper. What lies ahead is a parallel journey of creating and discovering what the other tools do (and how to use them– and discovering on top of that that the tool must be weilded properly and skillfully to do what its designed to do.)

    So they hack away, learning the hard way at times and at other time discovering that the right tool for the job covers a multitude of ineptitude and inexperience. And they get better. They peel away layers of nuance and timing and tone and figure things out along the way.

    I guess my point is, you can’t paint a good painting without painting a hundred bad ones first. Same for songs. Same for sermons. Same for pieces of furniture. Same for the written word. So you work with the tools, learn to steady your hand, learn to imitate the masters, all the while listening and watching for the artistry, the unique voice you have to contribute.

    The creative process is such an honest process– revealing our limititations and our progress. If you don’t work, you won’t eat. But even the most pedestrain beginner, if they work, will progress and find their craft enjoyable and something that draws them near to their Creator. But only if they remain students of their craft, and learn to use the tools– and cooperate with creation.

  3. Chris Quinn


    Thanks for this insightful look. Realizing that there are knowable aspects to the creative process, and introspection gives the personal and artistic journey more elasticity. Having the truth as a a point of departure allows that stretch. Without knowing certain truths we are left with relativism; the house built on sand.

    Well done! and, how do I go about getting a copy of your “Traditional Banjo Workbook?”


    Chris Quinn

  4. Jeremy Shulse

    I can not agree more. Just as the Trinity is 3in1, so is Art (of any kind really).

    As a Graphic Designer, it is hard when I look out into our community of designers and talk to people trying to enter the field. They know the computer programs like the back of their hand. They can bend and shape any existing logo to spoof it flawlessly. But their designs look like they came out of a Microsoft Publisher template. they have knowledge of techincality, but not of expression.

    They work 12-24 hours straight to perfect something that has no value to the client. They have the ability to pound out with flesh & bone, but no knowledge of design.

    They do fantastic sketches and fine art, but cannot sell the product with it. They execute Great Human expression with little thought to back it up.

    There are very few young designers that weigh these things together knowing that each one compliments and builds up the others.

    As a designer, you need to be able to express through a filter of what will communicate the idea the best. You must create without limitations to what you know how to do, and think about what you wan to do. Then figure out how to make the software do that. The same is true of music. Don’t be bound by the skill-set you already have.

    “We were meant for more than this”

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