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Ralph's Little Maggie Break

Posted by Don Borchelt on Friday, August 15, 2008

I really like the original break Ralph Stanley played when he was playing with his brother, Carter.  It has this nice little downhill run on the fourth string that he abandoned in later recordings, that I still use a lot in my own playing.  I can pick all the notes Ralph plays in that break; that's not hard to do, he rarely does anything very technically challenging. But I could never get it to sound just like Ralph. All three of the guys I consider to be the triumvirate among the early bluegrass pioneers, Earl, Ralph, and Don Reno, they all had a signature touch and tone on the banjo that is impossible to duplicate completely. They are all one with their instruments, and they are speaking through their banjos. Ralph's banjo voice is as unique as his spoken voice, and though I'm sure someone can get close enough to be recognizable, the way Darrall Hammond on Saturday Night Live could do a remarkable impersonation of Bill Clinton ("Next time, bring kryptonite!"), no one was actually fooled into believing Hammond was Clinton. Those who mean to impersonate Ralph or Earl are not going to fool us either. I think that only a small part of it is the banjo and the set up, although Earl's Granada, Ralph's RB-5, and Don's "Old Nellie" clearly contributed a lot to the sound, and were in themselves unique instruments. But mostly it is just the touch and attack that each brought to the banjo. Now, I admit that BHO's Jason Skinner gets uncannily close to Don's sound, so that unless I could put them both together, I'm not sure I could tell them apart. But in the end, I don't think Jason is Don's perfect clone, either.

There is an important role for those who dedicate themselves to preserving the sound of the formgivers, those who want to sound just like Earl, or Don or Ralph. Don is already gone, and Ralph has stopped picking, and instead has in a strange twist hired his own impersonator to stand next to him on stage. There is value in someone showing the next generation how they did it, up close and personal, not just on video. In the end, though, I think most of us will contribute more to the music and to our own satisfaction, however modest that contribution is, if we strive instead to find our own voice. As the banjo becomes more complicated technically, and as pickers inevitably behave like vaccum cleaners absorbing and incorporating every new stylistic gimmick, that is getting harder to do. All of the early pickers were practitioners of "less is more," and exercised discipline in choosing their vocabulary.  In a recent BHO thread, someone contended that it was important to play the single string lick in Pike County Breakdown just like Earl, in order to sound right. But notice that Earl, after he recorded PCB early in his career, never recorded a Reno style single string lick again, at least none that I am aware of. He obviously knew how. I think it clearly was a conscious decision not to sound like Don. Despite a close association with Bill Keith, Earl never played a melodic lick either, and I have to believe that the man who virtually invented bluegrass banjo didn't have at least the curiosity to figure that one out. But Earl understood the importance of Earl, at least, sounding just like Earl. If he didn't do it, who else would?

4 comments on “Ralph's Little Maggie Break”

justwilliam50 Says:
Friday, August 15, 2008 @6:12:34 AM

Nice words there Don, i was tempted to move to other styles of playing , but when my tuitor started going about the purity of Earl, well ,,,, i think i'll just stay put..

Bill Rogers Says:
Friday, October 10, 2008 @8:46:09 PM

Same's true of singing--John Duffey was asked why the Country Gentlemen developed a new vocal sound. He answered to the effect that there was no point in trying to beat out the Stanleys at what they did, because it would not happen. So it is with Ralph, Earl and Don.

Dr.Ken Says:
Saturday, October 25, 2008 @11:26:39 PM

Hey Don! I think you and I have contributed to some posts before on Ralph's early Little Maggie - if you are not too shy I would LOVE to hear your version of it. Until now, the ONLY version of Ralph's that I have heard has been Ralph's. I'd post my version ... but I'll tell you, it would HURT YOUR EARS and you'd be so shocked, I am sure you would give up the banjo for life! I just don't know of any other breaks that are so hard to get right -- even FMB isn't that bad. Cheers KEN

Granada90 Says:
Sunday, October 26, 2008 @3:15:47 AM

I have a version of LM as well.....but there has been one name left's you Don.......loved your MP3's!


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