There are several ways to play the banjo. In fact there are many ways. If you doubt, listen to 5-string banjo master Bela Fleck. If you want to hear really great banjo, listen to Bela Fleck and his wife, Abigail Washburn. Their first album together is beyond incredible and we will be talking about this album in a future article. We expect Bela Fleck to deliver the goods, but Abigail Washburn isn’t as well known. At least she wasn’t until the release of this album. Abigail is a highly gifted clawhammer player. This is unusual, because the clawhammer style is difficult to play cleanly and requires physical dexterity I don’t possess. I favor the up-picking style or folk style of playing the banjo. Most people can learn this style. When I began giving banjo lessons some years ago I put my students into blue grass books. But these students, even though they were dead sure they wanted to learn to play the banjo, didn’t realize that the blue grass style of playing would demand considerable practice time. And so after a lesson or two they quit. This would not do! I was making part of my living giving music lessons, and I couldn’t afford to lose students. I didn’t have this quitting problem with my guitar students. The problem lay with the banjo students. More specifically, the problem lay with the blue grass technique. What to do….?
Long before I took on banjo students, I had learned the up-picking style from a Pete Seeger album titled “Darling Corey/Goofing Off Suite.” On this combination album, (available from iTunes and Smithsonian Folkways), Pete plays some searing banjo solos in this exciting style. And so I learned the style by listening to the record over and over again. Actually, I checked out the album, (acetate record), from the public library and then recorded it to cassette tape. The tape is long gone, but I eventually downloaded it from iTunes. That’s how much this single album means to me. And so, in an effort to hang onto my banjo students, I began teaching them this style. And no one quit!
The great advantage to the up-picking style is that it sounds very much like the clawhammer style. But it’s infinitely easier to play than the clawhammer style. I’ve arranged some fiddle tunes that are usually played in the clawhammer style, but I’ve arranged them in the up-picking style. If you would like to hear what this style sounds like, go to the LISTEN section of our site. Better yet, just click this link: http://playfolkinstruments.com/banjo/. The tune is my arrangement of “Kitchen Girl”. Chris Fuqua plays guitar on this one, and he plays some interesting single-string figures against my banjo playing. It’s pretty danged rocky and rolly, I must say. 🙂
NOTE: The arrangement for “Kitchen Girl” can be found in my book, 5-String Banjo, Hot and Wild! To learn more about that book, click the link: http://playfolkinstruments.com/music-books-2/5-string-banjo-hot-wild/.