Ron Block is best known as the banjo player with Alison Krauss and Union Station. But Block has been busy expanding the bluegrass-guitar side of his skills (he shares those duties with Dan Tyminski). On a recent trip to the UK, he had time to discuss his formative influences (a TV performance by Lester Flatt), buying his first good guitar at his father’s music store (a 1969 Martin D-18), his tunings, and the best way to start learning to play bluegrass.
What is your current go-to guitar?
It depends if I’m flying to a show. I have been playing Rick Hayes guitars lately—he’s a great guitar builder. I have a 1938 Martin D-28 Herringbone, a 1937 Herringbone, and a 1938 Martin D-18—these are the main guitars I use for recording. I also have a 1946 Martin 00-18, which I used on the song “Paper Airplane.” It has a small body and a really neat sound.
Do you like to vary your tunings or do you maintain a set of tunings for both solo and accompaniment?
I’ve been trying to corral my tunings over the last couple of years. I try to stick with open G, and variations of that. Drop D and double-drop D—stuff that is related. There are things that [Union Station songwriter] R.L. Castleman has used on songs like “Forget About It” and “Restless,” and I have used the tunings he used. I am trying not to record with those tunings because it is a distinctive sound, and if you use them too often, things start to sound the same. But, yes, I am trying to get my tunings into some sort of order. I try to use tunings without radical changes, so I don’t have to carry three guitars with me on the road when I go out on solo gigs, or re-tune onstage all the time. I would love to just be able to think about what each song needs, and be able to go with that, but now I have to think about playing solo shows live, and the practicalities that are involved with that. You can’t be tuning and re-tuning all the time, it really takes away from the atmosphere and the dynamics of a show.
Let’s talk about your experience with string-bending.
My introduction and influences on string bending involve two guys, both named Larry. The first one is Larry Sparks, who played with the Stanley Brothers and had his own solo career and his own band as well. He was an old-style bluegrass player, and he added a lot of bluesy touches to his playing. He used to do some string-bending with his own style of playing. The other guy is Larry Carlton. He made an instructional video in which he talked about string-bending, and he talked about checking the pitch when you are bending the B string from the sixth to the eighth fret; you need to bend it and then check the pitch on the eighth fret. One thing that makes my playing a little different is going straight to the note that gives it the same purity and feeling of passion that Carlton used to have. The beauty of Carlton’s string-bends is the in-tune-ness of them. On an acoustic, I use my third finger to bend, and then the middle finger to help push that string up. I do advocate using an additional finger to help the bend, or as a guide.
If you’re in a bluegrass band, the first thing you must do is revere the song.
Do you like finger picks, or do you prefer the skin contact on the strings?
I always use finger and thumb picks when I play banjo because that is the bluegrass banjo sound. In terms of acoustic guitar, I’ve gone back and forth a little between using picks and playing with my fingers, I used finger picks on the song “The Lucky One,” with Union Station, because that was the sound I wanted, and it is always about getting the right sound. I usually use a thumb pick, and then use my fingers, that combination works the best for me.
Does banjo playing inform your acoustic guitar playing, and vice versa?
Yes, it very much does. At first, I felt they were entirely separate. I would listen to players like J.D. Crowe or Larry Sparks for their banjo playing, and then I would pick up the Stanley Brothers guitar players, like George Shuffler. Tony Rice is another bluegrass guitarist that I got into—I loved the syncopation he used when he played.
What do you think are the specific skills involved in playing bluegrass guitar, which are not necessarily applicable to other acoustic-guitar styles?
Well, of course, that all depends on what you actually want to do. Bluegrass is all about improvisation, but there is a body of tunes that are common to bluegrass players, as there are in a lot of different genres. Blues musicians have them, so do jazz players—they are standard tunes that people know and can play when they get together. In terms of actual technique, the right hand has a real economy of motion, and that is important to understand. When you are fast picking, you can’t have extravagant hand movements, it is all really economical, and that is a vital building block in terms of bluegrass-guitar technique.
How important is technical ability?
I think you do need to develop your technical skill as an acoustic guitarist as far as you can if you want to play bluegrass music. It’s interesting, the older I get, the more I see that people who have developed that sense of technical skill are seen as “talented,” and people who have not are “not talented.” I see it a little differently: In my view, people who are seen as talented are people who can see into something and see how it works. The person seen as less talented maybe doesn’t see as deeply into what they are doing, or doesn’t take the time to look deeply enough.
Do you have technical aspects of your playing that you are still working on?
Absolutely, I do! I am always looking for ways to improve—I don’t think you can ever say that you have got everything you need as a musician. When I see someone who plays beautifully, I will look to see what they have that I haven’t learned yet, and start figuring out how to get what it is. I will always ask questions, it doesn’t matter if the musician is younger than me, it’s not important. I have learned stuff from [22-year-old] Sierra Hull just by watching her play. I think I need to experiment with some of the stuff she does with her right hand. I am all for dialogue with musicians—I wouldn’t go up to someone I don’t know and ask them to show me something in their technique, but Sierra and I talk back and forth about technical stuff all the time. Sierra is a studied musician always looking to get better.
Part of developing skills is being able to play faster on your acoustic. Have you developed a technique to help you?
I have been playing close attention to what I have already referred to as my economy of motion. I have been the slow and medium-paced player with Union Station—I play the solos on “Now That I’ve Found You” and “When You Say Nothing at All,” those pretty songs, and that requires a particular technique and the emphasis is on the best tone I can get. It doesn’t require economy of movement, in fact, it requires a rest stroke—when I play the fourth string, I push through and rest my pick on the third string. So that works fine for the slow tunes that need a good tone, but it doesn’t help me at all when I am looking to play faster guitar. It’s not that I can’t play fast as such, but what I want is to get really comfortable with the faster tempos.
That’s the opposite way most musicians learn—they get as fast as they can as soon as they can, and then have to learn how to play slowly.
That’s absolutely right! Especially in bluegrass, where people start learning the fiddle tunes and those are fast. That’s the most attractive style for a young player to grasp first. But I was always the banjo player and I would play fast banjo on the fast tunes, and slow, good-tone acoustic on the slow songs, so I never developed the fast technique for acoustic, because I never really needed it—that’s just not the way I developed as a musician. It is really interesting at my age, I’m 62, to be going back and learning a technique to play guitar. I am noticing a vast improvement in my playing as I go—it’s all been focused on that economy of movement with my pick motion. It is satisfying, and frustrating at the same time. I find myself thinking, why didn’t I learn this stuff when I was 18? But the same rules apply to progressing as a musician. I sit downstairs and work on something for an hour or so, and then I can think, OK, I can play that now, and that has always been really satisfying, and that has never changed, so it’s just a matter of applying that approach to this technique.
There is an art to accompaniment in a band, especially in bluegrass.
It’s true, and if you’re in a bluegrass band, the first thing you must do is revere the song. Then, when the singer is singing the song, you revere the singer, and when a musician is playing a solo, you revere the musician and the solo. If you adopt that attitude, you’ll avoid playing stuff simply to get attention for yourself. My objective in Union Station is to have the audience’s attention on me only at the times it’s supposed to be on me, and that’s all. If I’m playing guitar fills behind Alison Krauss, I want the fills to be pretty, but not so pretty that they distract from what Alison is singing, and the lyrics and their meaning. That is my outlook—you are there to be in a band, not to promote yourself. That doesn’t apply if you are a solo player with a backing band, but if you are a band member looking to get attention, you are not going to be a good band member. And, more dangerously, you risk giving the audience ear fatigue. What you never want is a person saying, yeah, I liked what he or she did, but it was always out at the front of the sound, and I just got bored with it. That’s the beauty of Union Station, everyone knows how to weave in and out, when to take their solos, and when to sit back, which is just as important.
What’s a good tune, or tunes, for anyone who wants to embark on learning bluegrass guitar?
Well, it really depends on your skill level, because I have to say that bluegrass is not a style for beginners! You do need a certain level of technical skill to be able to get to grips with bluegrass. One thing I do wish I had spent more time on when I was learning, and I would pass this advice on to anyone who wants to learn bluegrass, is learn the fiddle tunes. The technical facility and dexterity that you get when you learn fiddle tunes note for note is really helpful. You encounter problems like how to play a right-hand down stroke on the G, and then up on the B, and then down again on the E, and you have to figure out your own way to get past those issues. So, yeah, flatpicking fiddle tunes, learning them, will give you the level of dexterity you need to play bluegrass properly. The problem is, some people play far too many notes, and then it becomes a note-fest instead of a melody. You do play off the melody, and that’s fine, but you need to keep that melody near, don’t stray too far off it so you can’t get back easily. You have to tease the audience’s expectations a little. Play a little of the melody, so they think you are going to carry on with that melody, and then you go off it a little, and just when they wonder what you’re doing, you head back onto the melody again. Audiences like that. I know that’s what I like to hear when I am listening to bluegrass guitar, that going off and coming back to the melody.
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Do you have a favorite song, either from your own material, or from the Union Station live set?
Well, when Alison Krause and Union Station are choosing tunes, we have a real long selection process, and that means that I never get tired of the tunes we play. We never have a song in our live set that any of us are thinking, “I don’t really like this song,” because during the selection process, that song will have been left out, and won’t have made it to the recording sessions, so it doesn’t make the set for live shows. We do have some songs that get weeded out over time, but all bands do that to keep things fresh for themselves and for their audiences. When we play a song like “Baby Now That I’ve Found You,” there are elements that have to be there. The stuff that [Dobro player] Jerry Douglas plays, for example, if his sound is not in there, it sounds like a different song. That’s the strength of what Jerry does spontaneously while we are recording—he puts sounds in there that seem like they have always belonged in the song. When we take solos, we do play something a little different, shake things up a little. I never want to go to a live show and just hear the record played to me. I want something that is played around with, some different fills, something different on the solos. That’s what I enjoy.
This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.