Adventures of a not-really-rehabilitated banjo addict
I first became interested in bluegrass banjo in 1961.
I was a freshman at Rice University, starting into a degree in German.
I really got into it during my sophomore year, though. I learned to play
Foggy Mountain Breakdown from the Pete Seeger book, How to Play the 5-string
Banjo, and by trial and error, picking it off the old Mercury label album.
I was helped in this by the fact that I already played a couple of other
instruments, I had a good ear, and I had a turntable that I could tune
from 12 rpm to 82 rpm, continuously. This was an old Bogen transcription
turntable, and it enabled me to learn many bluegrass tunes by playing them
not only at half speed, but at half speed and at concert pitch.
At that time, there were only a few other 5-string banjo players in Houston.
Ed Badeaux taught a little, but he knew nothing about bluegrass. Robby
Shipley played quite well, but he had an unorthodox 4-finger style of playing.
Gary Boggs, later to become a championship banjo player, helped me a lot.
He knew how to play what he called "thumb lead." This was, as it sounds, a method in which the melody was played mainly with the thumb. The index finger was usually involved with filling in upper notes in the chord. I tended to use my index finger for lead, and brought the thumb inside only when absolutely necessary. Between the two of us we had the makings of a fairly flexible style. After my first lesson with him, he figured that I knew most of what he knew, and I was clever enough not to disagree with him, so we became bluegrass co-conspirators. We shared a lot of information, and even occasionally played duet work together. We used to play a medley of Earl's Breakdown, Flint Hill Special and Randy Lynn Rag as cross-hand duets. The two different tunings on the Scruggs pegs produced a nice D7 chord. I would play the left hand on his banjo and he would play left hand on mine. It was really novel. Since we knew each other's styles it wasn't too difficult, but it was a real crowd pleaser.Later, I learned some licks from a fellow who called himself Dave Reno, real name,
I started teaching banjo in 1963, at Evans Music, and then moved to H & H Music, and later, to Westview Music. I taught at various locations until about 1970. In 1964, I wrote How to Play Folk and Bluegrass Banjo, which was published the following year by Alfred Publications. This book was intended to pick up where Pete Seeger's
book left off. There were a couple of interesting things in this book. One was was a movable chord version of Wildwood Flower, which was in G and C. This could also be played in Eb and Bb without retuning the 5th string, although that is not mentioned in the book. This book also featured my only original contribution to tablature, the indication of melody notes by using capital letters. Some writers have recognized the value of this idea and still use it.
It was in the summer of 1963 that I met the Stoneman family. I was playing with a folk group called the Bayou City Boys. We worked at the Jester Lounge (where John Denver was discovered by the Kingston Trio) on alternate weekends. In came the Stonemans, and there I met Roni (Veronica Stoneman) and Scotty. Roni was the first female bluegrass banjo player I ever met. I got to know her, and once she found out that I had no dishonorable intentions toward her, we became friends.
The Stonemans were staying in the Beaumont area. On Fridays, I would skip my afternoon seminar class and go to Beaumont. I was their gopher. I watched several recording sessions there. Once, during a break, I picked up my banjo and began to play some clawhammer stuff. Scotty asked me where I had learned how to play that way, like they played in the mountains. I told him that I had learned it from a book. He said, "Ain't nobody ever learned clawhammer from a book!" So I told him about how I used the information in the Seeger book, plus a bit of logic and deduction, and he 'lowed as how that made sense.
That evening, they had a show at the Jester, and Scotty said, "Tell you what—I'd like to ride back to Houston with you." We got into my VW, and he took my banjo out of the case, and proceeded to give me an intense banjo lesson. He would pick, and when we got to a stop light he would hand me the banjo, and I would play the lick back for him. He told me, "You would figure all of this out anyway. Now that I know you are serious about this stuff, I'm going to save you a couple of years of work." I never forgot that. Roni had told me that Scotty was the real banjo player in the group. He was amazing.
I was fortunate to have met Earl Scruggs on several occasions. The first time was backstage at a Johnny Cash show. I think this was in 1962. It was one of those Hollywood Bowl tours. Maybelle Carter, Bobby Bare, Grandpa Jones and George Jones were on the same show. That was where I met Robby Shipley. Earl was very kind to all of us who came back to see him. He was very patient, and even showed us various licks and secrets. He explained about the origin of the "mystery box" that covered the first Scruggs tuners. For those who remember bluegrass trivia, this was right after Lester had gotten his guitar refinished. He said it didn't sound quite right yet, because it didn't have "the proper outlook."
In 1965, I visited Earl at his home in Madison. This was where he told me that he had never heard of a "roll" until Bill Keith told him about them. He said that he basically played the melody with his thumb or his index finger, whichever seemed best, and filled in the gaps with
whatever was left over. So simple—so arcane!
I saw Earl at several concerts, and made sure that I got to visit him whenever I could get backstage. One was at a Louisiana Hayride show in—of all places—College Station, Texas. There I got to see him with his fantastic solo "ballet" work. That was all you could call it. He wore his banjo strapped up high, so they could work with one microphone. When he and Josh would split a break, he would come in from the right, play his half of the break, and as Josh came in from the left, Earl would sort of peel away from the mike. It's hard to describe in words, and I don't have a real time video of it.
The last concert I saw with Earl was in 1966. The Flatt and Scruggs bunch and Doc Watson had a concert in Houston. Doc had been here for a couple of weeks and we had gotten to know each other. After the show, several of us went back to Robby Shipley's place—along with Earl and Doc. We sat around and talked—picked some. During a lull, I picked up my banjo and
played a fingerstyle tremolo version of "Liebestraum," that I had been working on for Doc. He found it somewhat amusing, and said, "That's classical, isn't it?" I replied that it was, and mentioned, halfway ashamed, that I was studying music at college. I added that he might find that somewhat a waste of time for someone who intended to play banjo and other popular instruments. There was a great amount of animosity in the folk music circles for anyone who wanted to study so-called serious music. Not so with Doc Watson. He felt that any study of music was probably worthwhile. He was never one to downplay the value of an education.
I think part of the charm of those days was the minimum of reliance on P.A. equipment. Those days are probably gone now. Audiences are accustomed to, and even expect, a high sound level. Besides, once you have acquired all of the expensive electronic toys, why shouldn't you use them. It's really hard to beat the sound of one of those old bluegrass groups, though!
Anyway, I hope you have found this informative. Later, I will add some of my other adventures to this page!
For information on an unusual method of setting up a 5-string banjo, and several ways of improving the volume and tone, click here.
©1997, 1998 Bill Palmer. All rights reserved. For permission to republish contact Bill Palmer at the above e-mail address.