Friday, March 30, 2012

Dreams & Hornpipes

A happy Banjo Friday to you, one & all!

I’ve written about Bill Keith before in the Banjo Friday space, but most of that writing has been devoted to his performance of music that’s outside the typical banjo repertoire. However, Keith’s playing builds fundamentally from the bluegrass tradition even when he travels far afield;  & his playing & techniques have contributed significantly to moving this tradition forward, while simultaneously opening up other musical avenues for the banjo to explore.

One of Bill Keith’s big contributions to the bluegrass repertoire has been his using his melodic playing style to further the banjo’s use in interpreting fiddle tunes. Of course whether you’re talking bluegrass or old-time music, the fiddle is the primary melody instrument , with the banjo & (in bluegrass at least) the mandolin playing important but secondary roles. There have been exceptions—Earl Scruggs was certainly the primary melodic mover & shaker for the Foggy Mountain Boys—but as a generalization about the genres it’s certainly true.

The fact is, the way a banjo & a fiddle produce sound are very different. Everything about a fiddle is essentially melodic, from the warmth of its tones to the sustain produced by the bowing; meanwhile, everything about the banjo tends at its base to be percussive—a banjo is, after all, essentially a drum on a stick with strings. Even the big resonator banjos favored in bluegrass have very little sustain—in other words, the notes die out quickly—& generally sustain is a hallmark of a melody instrument. To compensate for the lack of sustain, the banjo player has a simple expedient—play a lot of notes!

Now this has been going on for a long time amongst banjoists & neither Scruggs nor Keith, nor any of the innovators changed that fact. What they changed has more to do with the way those torrents of notes are generated. Scruggs style was based on syncopated patterns that played “arpeggios”—in other words, the single notes that form chords. In the sense that this is chord-based, one might characterize it as “horizontal” playing, because the left hand is fundamentally forming chords across the width of the fretboard. Keith’s innovation—in dimestore terms—was to produce the notes more in terms of scales than chords, so that the left-hand movement becomes “vertical”—in other words, the left hand travels up & down the fretboard.

I’d hoped to share a video today of Keith playing a banjo trio with Tony Trischka & Béla Fleck on “John Hardy”—the cut is from their 1980 Rounder album, Fiddle Tunes for Banjo. Sadly, I found out embedding is disabled on that video, but you can view it on YouTube here. However, I did find a video of Keith tearing up a couple of standard fiddle tunes in a medley of “Devil’s Dream” & “Sailor’s Hornpipe” (with rhythm guitar backing by Jim Rooney), & that’s a lot of fun as well!

Hope you folks have been enjoying Banjo Friday. Not to introduce a “buzz killer,” but I’ve noticed that the viewing stats for both of the regular music features, Banjo Friday & Monday Morning Blues, have been dropping steadily, & over the past couple of months are really quite low. At this point, they seem to be the least popular features on the blog, which puzzles me a bit. So if you enjoy them, please help to spread the word!

Thanks, & enjoy.

Photo links to its source


  1. It's always good to hear Bill Keith again. And all the more significant now, with the news of Earl Scruggs's passing, as Bill is one of the heirs of Earl's changing of the banjo world.

  2. John,

    I do enjoy Monday Morning Blues and Banjo Friday so much. Because of your writing, posting videos and sharing, I have learned about obscure musicians I had never heard of. It is people like you who first recorded their gift and shared it, and it is people like you who continue to share the rare and the beautiful. Keep up the good work. The numbers may not always be there, but at long as the heart and the gift are present, the waves will continue to flow. I also really enjoy learning more about musicians who are popular and I like the way you spin it. So keep on spinning!

  3. Hi Joyce: Thanks! I'm very glad to hear you say how much you've enjoyed these series. As I see you also left a comment on today's post, you know that I've come to a decision about cutting back on them; but they'll continue to post on fairly regular schedules for the foreseeable future! Thanks again.


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