Five String Banjo-More than What Meets the Eye
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
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.