In October, the Banjo Friday posts focused on some out-of-the-ordinary banjos, hybrid instruments that combined banjo sound & features with the features of other instruments. This month we’re back to the regular old 5-string banjo—but we’re going to be considering how this instrument can be used to play types of music not normally considered banjoistic at all!
Let’s face it: when most people think banjo, they hear something like “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” or “The Beverly Hillbillies Theme.” People who are more familiar with bluegrass & even old-time music will of course have more diverse sounds echoing in their minds, but on the whole, we’re talking about the mixture of African-American & Appalachian sounds that developed into these types of music.
The fact is, the 5-string banjo is a quirky instrument. Not only does it have re-entrant tuning (a 50-cent word for the fact that the string closest to your nose is high-pitched, as opposed to being a bass string as on the majority of stringed instruments)—that string is also short, which means if you’re left hand is playing in open position or even up to the fifth fret, it’s not possible to fret the 5-string & it will remain a “drone,” (standard procedure) or need to be avoided so you won’t produce a discord (as for instance when fingering on open E chord in regular G major tuning.) Now there’s an old time saying: “there’s no money above the fifth fret,” which indicated that in many instances, the old time players like to stay mostly in open position & rely on lots of open strings & various techniques involving those open strings.
This is a generalization, of course. Some old-time players played “up the neck.” But as a rule, open positions were favored, which meant that the banjo was not suited for more harmonically complex music—the big reason why types of the banjo without a drone string were used in hot jazz: the banjo-guitar, the tenor banjo & the plectrum banjo.
However in the late 1950s & early 1960s a real innovator came along: Bill Keith had an interest in playing fiddle tune melodies & he found that existing styles simply couldn’t provide the flexibility he wanted, not even the then relatively new & exciting development of Scruggs picking, which remains the basis of most bluegrass playing. Keith (along with Bobby Thompson, who played with bluegrass stalwarts Jim & Jesse Reynolds) pioneered the so-called “melodic” or “chromatic” or simply “Keith style” manner of playing. Here’s a pithy definition from Wikipedia:
It centers on playing scales in a linear fashion. This contrasts with "3-Finger" or Scruggs style, which is centered around arpeggios, or chord tones played in rapid succession. Generally speaking, in the Keith style the fingers of the picking hand alternate between strings, rarely picking the same string twice.
Bill Keith became a member of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys for a period in the 1960s, & then made the rather unlikely jump to the Jim Kweskin Jug Band! He went on to stints in the Blue Velvet Band, a major force in the development of “Newgrass” music, & generally has left an indelible mark on banjo playing both in the Bluegrass & Newgrass fields & far beyond.
Speaking of far beyond: here we have Keith taking his banjo for a spin on the Dizzy Gillespie standard “Night in Tunisia”—& what a delightful spin it is! Just banjo & an off camera bass take us on a delightful jaunt thru this bebop classic. What would Charlie Parker say?