Over the months we’ve looked at various fingerstyle approaches that exist for the 5-string banjo, most notably ‘Scruggs’, ‘melodic’ and ‘single-string’ (or ‘Reno’ style). For this issue I thought it might be fun to learn one tune twice, using a couple of these approaches, in an attempt to illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of the given techniques.
Roll the clock back a few decades and banjo players often wore their allegiances to their preferred approach to the instrument very much on their sleeve. Staunch advocates of the ‘Scruggs’ style generally considered ‘melodic’ playing as sounding too soft and lacking in the necessary drive, especially for Bluegrass music. ‘Melodic’ players viewed strict Scruggs players as being musically limited and rearward thinking. Advocates of Don Reno’s ‘single-string’ approach to the banjo were a rarer breed altogether, but no less rabid in their musical convictions. It actually wasn’t until Bela Fleck appeared on the scene that solid proof existed that this single-string approach could, at least with a modicum of dexterity and commitment, become as refined and easy on the ear as the other two big hitters.
Here in the 21st century common sense has prevailed and the situation between these warring factions is now far healthier (we might need to wait a while longer for politics and religion to catch up with the banjo community). For the most part, players now accept the strengths and weaknesses of these styles and adopt a ‘horses for courses’ approach to playing the banjo, jumping between techniques on almost a phrase-by-phrase basis in the spirit of using the right tool for the job. This, combined with the inventiveness and the pioneering spirit possessed by many of today’s players, is largely responsible for all the new-found versatility the 5-string now enjoys.
Glossary of term
In case you’re new to this particular corner of Acoustic Magazine I’ll briefly recap on the three styles I’ve been talking about.
Scruggs’ style is a highly stylised, three-fingered approach to the 5-string banjo, devised by the original architect of bluegrass banjo, Earl Scruggs back in the 1940’s. Melody notes are usually slotted in and around arpeggios and stock phrases or ‘licks’. This is easily the best known of the banjo styles, and also forms the basis for ‘melodic’ and ‘Reno’ styles of playing.
Melodic (aka Keith or Chromatic) style came along in the 1960s when players were beginning to search for ways to increase the instrument’s versatility. Bill Keith is widely recognised as being the style’s main protagonist but players such as Bobby Thompson and Carrol Best were independently also heading in similar directions at around the same time. Although borrowing much from Scruggs’ approach, the ‘melodic’ style does away with a lot of the stylisation in favour of more accurate and faithful interpretations of complex melodies such as traditional fiddle tunes, jazz and classical music.
Single-string (or Reno style) was developed by Don Reno; a contemporary, musically, chronologically and geographically, of Earl Scruggs’. Again, for the most part Reno’s approach was similar to that of Scruggs’ but with a few additions, most notably ‘single-string’ picking: the use of just your thumb and index finger on your picking hand alternating on a single string. Think of the thumb as the down-stroke of a plectrum and your index as the up-stroke.
Arkansas Traveller is one of those tunes that seems to get everywhere. The first time I, and I suspect many other people would have encountered it, would have been as highly orchestrated arrangements on Looney Tunes cartoons like Bugs Bunny; fast versions, slow versions, happy sad, suspenseful etc. It was also an integral part of a well-known vaudeville comedy skit (later revived by Michelle Shocked on her Arkansas Traveller album). These days it is one of the best-loved tunes in bluegrass and old-time music, both fun to play and to listen to.
To begin with, a ‘melodic’ arrangement: As ever, you really need to make sure you’re using the correct right and left-hand fingering (especially the right) to get the tune flowing well. The right-hand picking probably won’t feel natural or instinctive to begin with so keep checking back make sure everything is functioning as it should. Once you have the tune in your fingers (lots of repetition is really the only way with this) you’ll be able to play it smoothly at almost any speed (very useful when you’re in a jam with a pack of over-enthusiastic fiddle players half your age). The main drawbacks of this approach is that it’s very difficult to develop the lines ‘on the fly’, both melodically and rhythmically. If you want to make changes you’ll probably need to take yourself away to a quiet corner and reprogram your fingers’ muscle memory, by which time the moment would have passed (probably hours ago).
Melodic tablature: Arkansas Traveller MELODIC
This single-string arrangement has many potential benefits over the melodic version but before we get too excited about them I feel I should point out that this probably isn’t the approach to adopt at a noisy 100 mph jam session. With practice you should be able to crank up the bpm a bit but nowhere near as much as you could with the melodic version. On the plus side, because you’re really only using down and up strokes with your thumb and index finger, it will feel far more instinctive when you want to add swing or syncopation. This added flexibility and improvisational facility also exists for the left-hand; the more linear approach to getting to the notes makes the tune much easier to see and subsequently extend in either direction.
Single string tablature: Arkansas Traveller SINGLE STRING