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Decline of Melodic Style?

Posted by corcoran on Friday, February 26, 2010

Over the past few decades, I think we have witnessed a move away from melodic playing in bluegrass banjo, a decline in melodics if you want to call it that.  Now, let’s be clear that a number of great melodic players are still playing: Bill Keith, Alan Munde, Larry McNeely, Pete Schwimmer, Craig Smith, and Scott Vestal come immediately to mind.  No doubt there are others who I have forgotten to mention.  But I am not talking about the style of a few stellar players, I am talking about the incorporation of melodic breaks or fragments or sequences into the playing of us more typical players in jams or on stage.

When melodic style burst on the scene in 1963 – due to Weissberg and Brickman’s album “New Dimensions in Banjo and Bluegrass” and to Bill Keith’s visibility and brilliance while playing for Bill Monroe – it seemed as though most banjo players worked up melodic breaks to tunes, or worked out fiddle tunes in melodic style more or less note-for-note.  Many pickers were somewhat more conservative and only threw melodic sequences or fragments into breaks that were primarily in “Scruggs” style.  Note that I put Scruggs in quotation marks to emphasize the fact that Earl Scruggs was not the originator of 3-finger style, which might better be called North Carolina 3-finger style.  Listen to “The North Carolina Banjo Collection” on Rounder Records to hear antecedents of Earl’s style.  This is not to diminish the creativity and impact of Earl’s genius.  He perfected and popularized a brilliant and coherent version of 3-finger picking, but he has always been careful to acknowledge that he did not create or invent the style single-handedly.  Nonetheless, we do refer to it as “Scruggs style,” and this is a useful shorthand.  But I digress.

After the Melodic Explosion of the 1960s, there has been a diminution in melodic sequences in Scruggs breaks, and certainly a reduction in full melodic breaks.  Assuming I am correct, why has this occurred?  There is of course no way of knowing for sure, but I suspect that it has to do with the influence of masterful players such as J. D. Crowe, Sonny Osborne, and more recently Ron Block, who generally avoid melodic style.  I suspect, in particular, that Crowe’s landmark 1975 Rounder album that introduced the New South has had a lot to do with the resurgence of Scruggs style – no doubt embellished with outside influences, such as pedal steel phrasing and lyrical backup – and the decline in melodics.  If Crowe and Sonny and Ron don’t use melodics, people might say, why should we?  And if we want to really sound like Crowe or Sonny or Ron, we’ll therefore copy their preoccupation with hard-driving Scruggs style.  (An interesting exception here is Bill Emerson, surely one of the greatest players of all time.  Unlike Crowe and the others, he will use melodics, but sparingly and always tastefully.  For some reason, he perhaps has not been as influential as the others, although he is certainly a top-caliber player.  Eddie Adcock too:  He is a genius on the banjo who uses melodics when appropriate.  My sense is that he is not as influential as he deserves).

An irony of this is that Crowe and Block, at least, can play in melodic style when they feel like.  I have heard tapes of Crowe taking melodic breaks, and he incorporates the occasional melodic phrase into his public playing.  I have heard Ron Block playing in melodic style primarily as a joke, to mock the flashy and tasteless chromatic runs that dominated the playing of so many banjo pickers for a while.  So they can play in melodic style, they just choose not to.

My own view is that melodics are an important technique for the modern bluegrass banjo player and should be used when appropriate.  They fit well in fiddle tunes – just listen to Bill Keith, Alan Munde, or Craig Smith to hear tasteful melodic interpretations of fiddle tunes.  And, used sparingly, melodic phrases or sequences can flesh out and add tasteful complexity to breaks in traditional Scruggs style.  Perhaps I am only projecting my own experiences when learning the banjo in the early 1960s, which included a healthy dose of melodic style.  Nonetheless, I am convinced that they can be played tastefully and incorporated into one’s style with good effect, and I do include melodic style in the material I provide to banjo students.  It’s a shame that melodic style  seems to have fallen into disfavor.

But what do I know, I’m just a banjo player.

6 comments on “Decline of Melodic Style?”

Pepper Laing Says:
Friday, February 26, 2010 @12:00:24 PM

I think what you say is true, about those players anyway, but I have found that most of the new crop of young talent I come across is doing melodics alot. I guess they are just not as in the spot light for you to see at this time, but they will be.

corcoran Says:
Saturday, February 27, 2010 @11:40:02 AM

Pepper, that's encouraging news.

banjotom2 Says:
Tuesday, October 19, 2010 @9:52:26 PM


That's an observant and very well written article you did there...

You could write festival analisis for some of the BG publications...

Excellent work.


corcoran Says:
Wednesday, October 20, 2010 @9:01:43 AM

Thanks for your comment, Tom. Writing is a critical part of what scientists do for a living, and I have worked hard at it for many years.


banjoez Says:
Monday, October 25, 2010 @6:41:51 AM

Fiddle tunes still sound best with melodic style interspersed with Scruggs. To me approximating certain fiddle tunes with pure Scruggs style just sounds rather crude at times. It's nice to do breaks mixed with melodic and Scruggs style, makes it more interesting. However, melodic tunes need to be played with drive and bounce and that is what many players miss. It just sounds very sterile and academic by some. Munde is a master at making it bounce and making it interesting. I try using Scruggs timing and tone mentality when doing melodic fiddle tunes.

corcoran Says:
Monday, October 25, 2010 @6:29:14 PM

Good comment, Banjoez -- I agree completely. Since the 1960s, I have tried to mix Scruggs and melodic styles in many of my breaks, as the tablatures in my tab section show. If I am doing it, it must be right .

As you say, Munde is a master at getting bounce in his melodics. So too, I think, are Craig Smith and, of course, Bill Keith. Kristin Scott Benson can do melodics, although she rarely employs melodic sequences, but they are always punchy when she does.


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