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The way to play slow tunes in Scruggs style

Posted by corcoran on Friday, November 5, 2010


Bluegrass banjo pickers can face a problem when they try to play slow songs, or try to play standard songs at a very slow speed to accommodate neophyte pickers.  The problem is that roll-based playing – as in conventional “Scruggs” or 3-finger style – is not very conducive to playing slowly.  To get a sense of what I mean, try playing one of your up-tempo favorites such as “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” at a really slow speed, the speed you would employ when playing with beginners who barely know the fretboard (“How do you make a D chord?”).  Perhaps because we are used to employing 3-finger style on medium-tempo or fast numbers, we can lose the beat when playing really slowly.  And even if we hold the beat, the banjo sounds scattered and weak when played too slowly.

Even Earl Scruggs’s playing suffered, I maintain, when he used 3-finger style on the breaks on slow songs, as often occurred in his later recordings.  Now I readily admit that there were exceptions: His break on the slow song Poor Rebel Soldier, from the Vanderbilt concert in the early 1960s, is wonderful and indeed prototypical.  But I suggest that this is indeed the exception and not the rule.  Consider, for comparison, his breaks on slow songs such as “Rock Salt and Nails,” with the Earl Scruggs Review in the 1970s, or “Could You Love Me (One More Time)” from the same era.  And I emphasize breaks, because 3-finger style can still work fine for backup on slower numbers, particularly with vamping of chords and use of appropriate passing notes.

What then is a scrugg to do?  Our band mates obviously are not going to restrict themselves to up-tempo numbers, and indeed slow songs are a staple of the bluegrass repertoire.  Well, 5 or 6 decades ago some banjoistic genius came up with a solution for taking breaks on slow songs, a solution that has worked well ever since.  The idea was to play chordal positions, alternating the thumb on the third string with a pinch with the index and middle fingers on the second and first strings, respectively.  The trick is to play these patterns as triplets, so that thumb/index-middle/thumb alternates with index-middle/thumb/index-middle, as: T-IM-T, IM-T-IM.  You can see this approach in action in my tablature for “Careless Love,” in the BHO Tab Archive.  Another example in the Archive is “Faded Love,” tab by Russ Proctor.

I first heard this approach to playing slow songs, which I’ll refer to as “chordal style,” in the playing of Eddie Adcock and Allen Shelton in the early 1960s.  Adcock in particular used chordal style to emulate licks and passages from pedal-steel guitar, and it would not surprise me if he is the originator of the style.  FWIW, I am still awestruck by his ingenuity and creativity.  Why is Eddie Adcock not recognized as a true genius on the banjo?  As just one example, listen to his break on “Here Today and Gone Tomorrow,” from the “Classic Country Gentlemen Reunion” album.

Subsequently I heard J. D. Crowe and Sonny Osborne play wonderful breaks in the chordal style, and a number of other players now use it.  For an outstanding example of Crowe’s use of chordal style, listen to “Faded Love” on Tony Rice’s “Guitar” album.  Mind-blowing.

Just as melodic style permitted bluegrass banjo’s credible incursion into playing fiddle tunes pretty much note-for-note, chordal style has enabled the banjo to take appropriate and even lyrical breaks on slow tunes that would not otherwise be amenable to Scruggs style.  If you do not already play some breaks in chordal style, you should add it to your arsenal.

4 comments on “The way to play slow tunes in Scruggs style”

KI4PRK Says:
Saturday, November 13, 2010 @7:10:41 PM

This is great. I think just about every banjo player needs to read this. So many banjo players fail when it comes to slow breaks.

I also might like to mention the Reno style of thumb-brushing double stops and chords. It really can work wonders for slow songs, as well as the above information.

corcoran Says:
Monday, November 15, 2010 @7:48:31 AM

Thanks for your comment, Brennen. I agree completely with your point about Reno's approach to double-stops and chords. It and the chordal triplet style in combination should equip a player to deal confidently, and competently, with any slow song he or she is challenged with.


monstertone Says:
Sunday, January 3, 2021 @2:09:41 PM

I'm sticking my neck out here but imho, Sonny Osborne is the undisputed master of slow Bluegrass banjo. His rendition of America the Beautiful is absolute genies.

Ben Eldridge also contributed some amazing slow-grass banjo with the Scene on numbers such as Bringing Mary Home-Sequel & not to forget Lara's Theme.

Thanks for posting all this stuff.

From Greylock to Bean Blossom Says:
Sunday, January 3, 2021 @2:30:36 PM

Good post. A beautiful style.

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