Since Earl Scruggs' death, it has occurred to me that there is no one to speak up for us as banjoists.
There is no one that is a heavy.
Mandolin players have Rhonda Vincent and Fiddlers have Allison Krause and Laurie Lewis.
With Earl Scruggs and Don Reno's passing, I have seen a lot of disrespectful postings, especially on Craigs' List.
One was from a dobro player who said that he had become "burned on banjos".
For those of you who know me, you probably have heard me say that banjoistics (a Bill Keith tern) is a never ending project. I know I am still learning.
You don't just get the technique down and then stop learning. There are new techniques, new riffs and new melodies to learn, even if you only specialize in one style.
There are a few well known players who are pretending that they know everything there is to know about banjos. That includes Steve Martin and Bela Fleck. Both of them are adequate but they no where near approach the quintiescence of Earl Scruggs, Don Reno, Courtney Johnson or Bill Keith.
And Bela Fleck has stated that the banjo is African, which It is not.
The guitar, the violin, the mandolin, the lute, the zither and even the dulcimer, both hammered and the mountain dulcimer, can trace their roots back to Africa. Africa is where humans began so this makes sense.
The banjo has a common ancestor in an African instrument, but the banjo's was invented in North Carolina in the early 1700's. Originally it was also known as a "banjer", though some think this is simply a Southern U.S. mispronounciation of banjo.
These men had engineering skills enough to design and build their own instruments. They built banjos because they could not afford to buy them. They used women's dress hoops for the pot and carved their own necks. They probably used guitar and violins for a model. No one knows the name of the person who originally designed the very first banjo.
That first banjo was probably was probably not a thing of beauty.
After developing a finger picking style, the banjoists have also spun off into frailers, tenor players and flat picking plectrum players.
Fleck and Martin became prominent after Earl Scruggs' failing health prevented him from making a lot of public appearances.
Fleck was a NYC kid who managed to become a fixture at Sam Bush's house while Courtney Johnson, the Newgrass Revival banjoist, was dying from cancer. Fleck learned a lot of Courtney Johnson's very unique style and technique even while Courtney Johnson became more and more ill with his cancer.
In order to become a member of the Newgrass Revival, Bela Fleck played on Sam Bush's need for a replacement banjoist after Courtney Johnson became so ill he could no longer tour. Fleck later made claims that he invented a lot of "notes to fill in the spaces", which was nothing but Courtney Johnson's and Bill Keith's techniques, something which Johnson's death prevented him from defending.
Fleck has also tried to portray his own "expertise" in American banjoistics and musical history by going to Africa and then returning to say that the banjo is an "African Instrument".
After Fleck went on to say that he invented chromatic playing, fretting the fifth string and that the banjo is an "African Instrument", the American public began to forget that it was Earl Scruggs and Don Reno's playing that had brought the banjo into the mainstream American conciousness. Earl Scruggs was just as capable as Fleck was of imitating Courtney Johnson or Bill Keith's banjo techniques.
Steve Martin was originally comedic banjo whammer. Martin mainly uses Scruggs technique, playing songs that are no different from some of the other rehashed bluegrass music that is played by other professional banjoists today.
But Martin, though he is a realatively good player, has never just invented anything new. He relies on his friendships with Southern California musicians to promote himself as a banjoist.
Though Martin's playing is good, it is not nearly as good as some the current players living here in the Portland, Oregon area.
These players, like Peter Schimmer, Matt Grey, Tony Furtado or Jim Mills, who wrote melodic and chromatic arrangements back in the early seventies. I still have copies of Mills' chomatic studies. Mills playing on Dr. Corn's Bluegrass remedies still amazes banjo fans even though the recordings were made in the late sixties when Mills was still a teenager.
There are others here in the Northwest area who can play the "Scruggs style" five string banjo as well as or better than Fleck and Martin. One of them is Danny Barnes.
I am not trying to make anything less of Bela Fleck. But no one has come close to Earl Scruggs' competence and most of the fans these days often overlook the difference in Earl Scruggs, the 1950's banjoist from Earl Scruggs the 1980's banjoist.
Recently I got a copy of Earl Scruggs composite banjo collection and a copy of "The Three Pickers" that Earl Scruggs made with Arthel "Doc" Watson. Even though Scruggs and Watson were much older than some of the other players on the album, it is still wonderful. Earl Scruggs played "Who Wil Sing for Me" while using his finger picking technique, which reminds us that he also played rhythm guitar on some of the "Seminal Seven" cuts he originally recorded with Bill Monoe.