Five String Banjo-More than What Meets the Eye

Gibson Granada Banjo
Gibson Granada Banjo

Foggy Mountain Breakdown

Theme from The Beverly Hillbillies

Frailing style banjo

Bela Fleck banjo player and innovator

Loving My Banjo

Bluegrass music owes much of its popularity to the banjo an instrument that had its origins in Africa. Beginning in the 1940's with the likes of Bill Monroe appearing on the Grand Old Opry with his band, The Bluegrass Boys, the banjo soon became an instrument of note teaming with guitar, fiddle,upright bass and mandolin to give a unique genre of music that has known no boundaries. This past year bluegrass banjo aficionado, Earl Scruggs died and those in the bluegrass world and musicians the world over owe a debt of gratitude to his genius and mastery of this instrument.

Scruggs style banjo playing sometimes referred to as syncopated, incorporates a three finger approach to playing the instrument. The style is often emulated by the novice as well as accomplished musicians in casual jams at bluegrass festivals or in home jam sessions. Patterns incorporated in the Scruggs style are called rolls (forward, backward and alternating) includes slides, pull-offs or push -ons along with choking and the use of de-tuners to achieve the desired embellishments.

Banjos may be four, five or six stringed instruments. During the days of traveling minstrel shows the four string banjo was popular and Dixieland music the rage of the day performed in the traveling shows that toured the countrysides and small towns. Bill Monroe introduced bluegrass on the Grand Old Opry in October 1939. Scruggs joined the Bluegrass Boys in 1945 later leaving in 1948 with Lester Flatt to form a new band, The Foggy Mountain Boys which would become one of the premier bluegrass bands of our century. It was the banjo playing of Scruggs that brought notable fame and popularity to the banjo with a tune Foggy Mountain Breakdown written in 1949 and used in the movie Bonnie and Clyde. The tune was so popular two Grammy awards were given. Scruggs banjo was also featured in the Beverly Hillbillies introducing each episode of a popular television program. The tune, The Ballad of Jed Clampitt, immediately brought recognition to the program of a man from Arkansas whose lone shot from a rifle struck oil and brought about a lifestyle change from the hills to the rich and famous of Beverly Hills. Earl and Lester Flatt made several appearances on the show sometimes including their wives . The Martha White jingle was also made famous by Flatt and Scruggs.

The banjo still remains a popular instrument to bluegrass fans. Actor Steve Martin is a great banjo player and recently toured with The Steep Canyon Rangers, a local bluegrass band from Brevard,North Carolina and today he is almost as famous for his banjo playing as his acting skills. The banjo as with all instruments lends itself to artist interpretation. The skills and styles have evolved as musicians have added to or incorporated technique and personal nuances giving uniqueness to the performer and the instrument. At festivals banjo workshops are common where beginners and accomplished musicians can share in the musical creativity of advanced players.

The Gibson Company produced (and still produces) some of the most desired banjos by musicians and a pre-war Gibson banjo commands high dollars by collectors as well as professional musicians. Popular makers along with Gibson in today's market are Deering, Stelling, and OME. Most are relatively expensive but do not seem to lose value. Deering's Goodtime model is a great inexpensive banjo and suitable for bluegrass Scruggs Style or claw hammer style picking sometimes referred to as frailing. These banjos may be purchased with a resonator or the open back banjo. Banjo's without resonators are often used for another popular genre of music, Old Time which incorporates the claw hammer or frailing a style used primarily during the 1920's and common to the mountains of Appalachia where the musical roots from England, Scotland, and Ireland have been well preserved.

In the world of bluegrass the list of banjo players is ever growing and most if not all e\were influenced by Earl Scruggs. The list though not all inclusive is: Sonny Osborne, J D Crowe, Jens Krueger, Bela Fleck, Peter Warnick, Rob McCoury, Smiling Jim Mills and many others which also include several women. Roni Stoneman was probably the first lady to become known for her banjo skills and today we have Allison Brown, Christine Scott Benson.


Young musicians that have taken the bluegrass world by a storm!

Our barbershop jam and me playing my Deering Maple Blossom banjo

Don Reno

Almost at the same time Earl Scruggs was making a name for himself as a premier banjo player another banjoist by the name of Don Reno came on the scene with fellow band member Red Smiley. It is interesting both Scruggs and Reno both had the same mentor and learned from the legendary Snuffy Smith. They lived in close proximity of one another and a little known fact about Don is he was a Bluegrass Boy several years before Scruggs joined the band . Don served in the Army during the Korean War and was wounded in action. It wasn't until his discharge he really began to make his mark with partner Red Smiley. The band was the Tennessee Cutups which had a successful run lasting 14 years, Don's son, Ronnie still plays some of those early clips and the music is legendary.


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Comments 15 comments

William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 3 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

I really enjoyed this, Fiddleman, even though I don't play an instrument. I guess I was attracted here because my daughter, Beth, plays mandolin and guitar with the Windy Ridge band in Maine. I like the videos, too.


Fiddleman profile image

Fiddleman 3 years ago from Zirconia, North Carolina Author

Thanks William, great to see you comments once again on one of my hubs. Wow! Bluegrass in Maine!! That is great news. Do they have any videos posted to you tube?


William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 3 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

I've been pushing to have them put a video on youtube, Fiddleman, but it hasn't happened yet. My daughter, Beth Revels, has a video that was posted by a friend when she participated in a songwriting contest. Here's the URL for "Bitter Times" with her vocal (the bass, Frank Woodard couldn't make it that day): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tGnBqK61rvM


Eiddwen profile image

Eiddwen 3 years ago from Wales

Thank you for such a great read Fiddleman and have a wonderful day.

Eddy.


Fiddleman profile image

Fiddleman 3 years ago from Zirconia, North Carolina Author

William, I went to the video link and your daughter does have a wonderful voice and this is some really good stuff!! Loved the fiddle but then but then I am the Fiddleman! lol

Thanks Eddy, hoping your day is a good one as well.


LadyFiddler profile image

LadyFiddler 3 years ago from Somewhere in the West

Hi fiddlerman, Happy New Year!

I like the moutain side song, sweet banjo music. The first time i ever heard the banjo was on the encarta encyclopedia it was spectacular i love it.

Well i am learning to play the violin so sometime this year i should be playing something nice for you all. I still have a long ways to go but i'd get there. I did one hub with me practicing a song

Have a bless week :)


Fiddleman profile image

Fiddleman 3 years ago from Zirconia, North Carolina Author

Ladyfiddler that is way cool, can't wait to see your post and you playing that fiddle. My inspiration was Ashokans Farewell and I was hooked! Hope your week is blessed as well!


Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

Wesman Todd Shaw 3 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

I just wish we had barber shops like that one around here. I think were I to live another hundred miles East of here, I might find some like that....but then again Athens, Texas...which is only about 40 miles away....has a pretty nice sized bluegrass gathering from time to time.

I sure love watching those banjo contests at festivals...it would be near impossible for a guitar picker to keep up with them tempos those guys hit though!


Randy Godwin profile image

Randy Godwin 3 years ago from Southern Georgia

I received my first 5 string banjo when 19 years of age. The first tune I learned was "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" with the idea that if I leaned this one I could probably play anything I wanted. I was right about that.

This led to me learning guitar and to a musical career back in the 70's and 80's. I find the banjo is fascinating to those who don't play it and to myself on occasion. Enjoyed reading your hub!

SSSSS


Fiddleman profile image

Fiddleman 3 years ago from Zirconia, North Carolina Author

You're right Wesman, a good banjo player can wear out 10 good rhythm players. My forearm catches the devil sometimes playing rhythm for Gary on some of those upbeat mandolin tunes like Goldrush or Tennessee Blues. I can handle it for a while then its "Calfrope"


Fiddleman profile image

Fiddleman 3 years ago from Zirconia, North Carolina Author

Thanks Randy for stopping in today. The banjo is a really cool instrument and lately I seem to enjoy the banjo of Jens Krueger which has a more mellow tone.


breakfastpop profile image

breakfastpop 3 years ago

You never cease to amaze me. I never played the banjo but because of you I can get to enjoy it. Thanks.


Fiddleman profile image

Fiddleman 3 years ago from Zirconia, North Carolina Author

Thanks breakfastpop, now if we had more like the late Senator Robert Byrd from WV, a little bluegrass would go a long way to create a more amicable scenario in Washington. Kinda hard to fuss when your smiling!


breakfastpop profile image

breakfastpop 3 years ago

Maybe you just hit on the solution to the big mess in Washington. Congress needs to act more human and remember who put them to work.


Fiddleman profile image

Fiddleman 3 years ago from Zirconia, North Carolina Author

A-Amen, A-Amen, A-Amen Amen Amen

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