21 April 2020

Old-time tunes on three-finger banjo (update)

In recent years a vague impression has spread that folk banjo players used only clawhammer style before Earl Scruggs invented three-finger picking. No one brought up on Pete Seeger's seminal How to play the 5-string banjo, let alone Art Rosenbaum's Old-time mountain banjo (1968), would fall for this; but those who have picked up this impression should be reassured that it's OK to use two- or three-finger style in old-time music.

To mention only artists active today, the Foghorn Stringband used three-finger banjo in their early years, while a prominent picker currently doing so is Clarke Wyatt of Betse & Clarke (above; they toured here in 2016). An hour-long interview with Clarke by Keith Billik is on the Deering Banjos blog as a podcast.*

The Deering blog has just published a substantial instructional article by Jamie Francis, 'Arranging old-time tunes for bluegrass banjo' with exercises, tablatures, and videos. An example of an old-time tune played in an old-time style is this video of 'Black Jack Grove' played by the late Mac Benford.

*Update 4 May: Betse & Clarke can be heard in a one-hour-plus online set on the Quarantine Happy Hour, posted on 30 Apr.

Update 29 May: Nick Hornbuckle has brought out two books of tablature, each for twenty old-time fiddle tunes, the first book in seven different tunings and the second in five, with audio download URLs. He also has tabs of seventeen tunes that can be bought separately. All his albums are strongly recommended by the BIB editor - just for listening pleasure, even if you don't intend to learn any of the tunes.

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