It may surprise many people to learn that not every group with a banjo, fiddle and guitar plays bluegrass. Bluegrass is one of two major genres that feature such instruments, the other being old-time.
Nowhere is the difference more apparent than in banjo styles.
Old-time banjo dates to the 1800s and beyond, maybe back to Africa where the banjo originated as a gourd with an animal hide and gut strings. The player uses bare fingernails rather than metal finger picks. Techniques go by names like clawhammer, frailing and drop-thumb.
The style known as bluegrass emerged in the 1940s, which means it’s just a little older than rock-n-roll. Of course, its roots stretch back into old-time, but performers like Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, Earl Scruggs and Jimmy Martin kicked it into high gear.
Scruggs in particular pioneered an incredibly fast three-finger banjo picking style using metal finger picks. Think “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.”
The difference between old-timers like Uncle Dave Macon and bluegrass stylists like Scruggs is like that between Bo Diddley and Jimi Hendrix in the world of rock-n-roll, or Hank Williams and Garth Brooks in the world of country.
Some parts of the nation (not here) hold banjo camps to teach the various techniques. The camps divide banjo instruction into two categories, old-time and bluegrass.
The book “Banjo Camp: Learning, Picking & Jamming with Bluegrass and Old-Time Greats” by Zhenya Gene Senyak is a virtual tour of a banjo camp, with half devoted to each genre.
“The divide between the two main streams of contemporary banjo music, old-time and bluegrass, is wide,” the book says.
“In general, bluegrass is faster, louder, flashier. ... Bluegrass is characterized by driving rhythms and rolls — the improvised licks and leads of the banjo, mandolin, and guitar.”
Bluegrass banjo involves numerous finger rolls (alternating thumb, forward-backward, forward, forward-reverse, backward, middle-leading, index-leading, etc.). Old-time involves the clawhammer technique and homespun variations. Neither is easy.
There are distinctions between old-time and bluegrass fiddle styles as well, though not as pronounced. Old-time fiddlers typically play a melody with an open string providing a drone. Bluegrass players use more chords and a lot of speed.
Southwest Mississippi is fortunate to have one of the nation’s premier bluegrass banjo players in Larry Wallace (who offers lessons in person and online at www.larrywallacebanjo.com). Wallace used to play banjo at Liberty’s Heritage Days Festival as a teenager before going on to national renown with Jimmy Martin and others. Now he’s retired back to McCall Creek.
The area also has an accomplished old-time banjo player in Danny Trusty of Tylertown. He and his wife Linda have played roots music for years as the Trustys of Davo Crossing.
On a national scale, old-time notables include Pete Seeger, Grandpa Jones, Doc Watson, Mark Johnson, Leroy Troy, Old Crow Medicine Show and the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
Banjo was hugely popular in the 1800s, and highly sophisticated as well, with styles including minstrel, guitar-style and classic, according to “Banjo for Dummies” — a misleading title for a book that covers seemingly every possible aspect of the instrument’s history and styles.
In modern times, bluegrass didn’t stop with Scruggs-style but evolved into ever more complex methods with performers like Bela Fleck and Tony Trischka, whose music sometimes seems more like avant-garde jazz than bluegrass.
Such wizardry is impressive, but it can’t quite eclipse the magic of old-timers like Uncle Dave Macon, whose music emanates from the mists of history.