A Short Primer on the Development of Bluegrass Banjo Styles: Week 6

Bing’s Bluegrass Blog – Week 6

Snuffy Jenkins
When Earl Scruggs joined Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys in late 1945, he popularized a relatively obscure style of five string banjo playing that had been known primarily in the southeastern United States through the playing of musicians like Snuffy Jenkins. On fast tunes, the technique, known as three finger style, involved rapidly plucking the banjo strings with picks worn on the thumb and first two fingers, using various patterns to produce a cascade of notes.

Earl Scruggs
The Foggy Mountain Boys
So great was Earl’s impact and so important and lasting were his innovations within the three finger style that the style soon became known simply as Scruggs style. Earl played more smoothly than Jenkins and the earlier generation of three finger banjo stylists and his technique was more sophisticated and varied, enabling him to bring out the melody of a song more faithfully and clearly. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Earl was an immediate hit with Opry audiences when he joined the Blue Grass Boys, and he went on to be the premier bluegrass banjo player after he and Lester Flatt split from Monroe and formed the Foggy Mountain Boys. That band was the most popular bluegrass band of the 1950s and 60s.

Scruggs style involved playing the melody notes of a song together with a shower of non-melody notes that often were part of the chord of the song at that point. Most of the other leading bluegrass banjo players who came to prominence in the late 1940s and the 1950s played in a style similar to Scruggs. Ralph Stanley, Rudy Lyle, Larry Richardson, Sonny Osborne, and J.D. Crowe were all heavily influenced by Scruggs’s playing, although each added stylistic elements that made his sound distinctive and recognizable to the legions of banjo fans.

Don Reno – Red Smiley
The first bluegrass banjo picker to venture beyond the basic Scruggs framework was Don Reno. Reno succeeded Scruggs in the Blue Grass Boys and later joined with Red Smiley to form another very popular band of the 1950s, Don Reno, Red Smiley and the Tennessee Cutups. Compared to musicians like Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, and the Stanley Brothers, Don Reno is somewhat of an unsung hero of bluegrass music. He could do it all—play all the instruments, sing all the parts, and write the songs. He was a prolific composer of songs and banjo instrumentals that have become bluegrass standards, including gospel tunes. Don wrote or co-wrote (often with Red Smiley) songs including I’m Using My Bible For A Roadmap, Get Behind Me Satan, Maybe You Will Change Your Mind (aka The Tie That Binds), Drifting With The Tide, I’m Gone, Long Gone, Let’s Live For Tonight, and Wall Around Your Heart, together with banjo instrumentals like Banjo Signal, Banjo Riff, and Dixie Breakdown (among many others).

Simultaneously with Scruggs, Reno had developed a banjo picking style very similar to Earl’s, and it will be remembered that Bill Monroe offered Reno the banjo slot in the Blue Grass Boys in 1943, two years before Earl joined. But the Army took Reno to Burma and when he returned from the war Earl Scruggs had by then popularized the three finger style playing with Monroe. Reno went on to develop his own distinctive banjo styles that drew upon guitar flatpicking techniques, although played with the banjo fingerpicks. Reno was also a guitar virtuoso, and was one of the very first bluegrass lead guitar flat pickers. The sound of Reno’s “single string” banjo style sounded something like a banjo played with a flat pick. Reno also developed a distinctive bluesy chordal banjo style that echoed the style of some of Monroe’s blues mandolin playing. Perhaps one of the reasons Reno’s banjo styles were and are not more widely imitated is that they are extremely difficult to play well.

What subsequently became the most popular departure from the Scruggs style was what came to known as “melodic style, “chromatic style,” or “Keith style.”

Bill Keith

Melodic style was independently developed more or less simultaneously by Bobby Thompson (later a frequent guest on Hee Haw) and William Bradford “Bill” Keith (hence the “Keith style” designation). But Bill Keith, following in Earl’s footsteps, was the one who popularized it, when (in 1963) Bill Monroe hired him to play banjo with the Blue Grass Boys. By the way, Bill Monroe always introduced Bill Keith as “Brad” (from Bradford, Keith’s middle name), because the “Bill” slot in the Blue Grass Boys was already taken.

Unlike every other banjo player mentioned above, Bill Keith was a northerner, from Massachusetts, educated at Amherst College. He and his musical partner Jim Rooney came out of the Boston folk revival scene of the late 1950s and early 1960s. He was well versed in music when he took up the five string banjo, and he quickly absorbed the essence of the Scruggs style.

But in playing with fiddlers he realized that it was possible to play note for note versions of fiddle tunes on the banjo, something that was not possible in Scruggs style. Unlike Scruggs style, in which most of the notes played were not melody notes, melodic style permitted the banjoist to play long strings of melody notes, and to replicate more exactly fiddle tunes and other numbers that had more highly articulated melodies. Reno’s single string style also made long melodic passages possible, but the newer melodic style had a smoother sound and feel. Keith’s insight was that these melodic passages could be obtained by playing the successive melody notes on different strings, rather than playing largely out of chord positions as was common in Scruggs style. This style of banjo picking demanded a lot of the fretting hand, because the successive notes often required a lot of rapid hand movement up and down the banjo fingerboard.

Although demanding to play well, melodic style was a powerful technique and Keith effectively showcased it with Monroe, playing and recording several iconic fiddle tunes as melodic banjo instrumentals, including Devil’s Dream and Sailors Hornpipe. Many other banjo pickers soon adopted the melodic style and it became the primary alternative to Scruggs style, so much so that Bill Keith and Earl Scruggs are today considered the principal architects of bluegrass banjo style. Although Bill’s tenure in the Blue Grass Boys was brief (he left by the end of 1963), he continued to play and record in a wide variety of music settings until his death in 2015. He was also a banjo teacher, educating many aspiring banjo players (including this one) in lessons at his home in Woodstock.

Bill Keith was also a good friend of the HVBA, attending many jam sessions over the years where he was very generous with his time and guidance. He was a born teacher and seemed to have a new musical insight to share at every jam. Bill differed from a lot of the other highest rank pickers in his willingness to play with bluegrass musicians at all levels. A great many of the banjo virtuosos who followed Bill’s path, including Tony Trischka, Bela Fleck, and Ryan Cavanaugh, acknowledged their musical debt to Bill at Grey Fox 2015 during a moving two hour showcase that Bill joined (and which was recorded by the HVBA’s ace videographer Fred Robbins).

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