There are as many different ways to play the banjo as there are banjoists. Every player can develop their own style and anybody can invent new techniques. On the five-string banjo the main playing techniques used are Fingerpicking, Strumming and Frailing, and the principal playing styles are Bluegrass and Old-Time.
Bluegrass playing is a fairly well defined style of fingerpicking consisting mainly of rapid 16th notes played in a rolling pattern using a lot of forward rolls giving a cross-rhythm. The number of adaptations of this basic formula is endless, and every bluegrass player has their own characteristic roll patterns and ‘licks,’ which are very short but distinctive pieces of music. In addition to the rolling style of picking, there have been some major innovations. Don Reno was a contemporary of Earl Scruggs and he invented the ‘Reno style’ which has been widely copied. Reno’s main innovation was the use of rapid melodies played on a single string, the exact opposite of the rolling style in which consecutive notes are played on different strings. Bill Keith is another highly respected innovator of Bluegrass banjo. His major innovation was to play rapid melodic runs using a technique which is neither single string nor rolling but something quite different. All Bluegrass players have a range of other techniques to use such as slow picking techniques, chord vamping and pinches, backup work and so on.
Old-Time picking is less well defined. On the most basic level, everyone who was playing the banjo a long time ago played in an Old-Time style. All the possible playing techniques are used in Old-Time playing – Strumming, Fingerpicking and Frailing. Dock Boggs, Roscoe Holcomb and Charlie Poole are perhaps the most well known Old-Time fingerpickers. All of them were playing before Earl Scruggs. All of these players were Thumb-lead which means the right hand thumb normally picks the strings on the beat, so the Thumb is in control. Boggs played a sparse style with a mixture of single notes, pinches and simple rolls mostly on open strings. Poole’s picking style was similar but he used mostly closed or fretted strings. Holcomb’s style was more complex – he used his finger to brush or strum the strings as well as picking.
Old-Time fingerpickers used either two or three fingers. It’s important to understand that ‘Two-finger’ playing means using the Thumb and Index finger; ‘Three finger’ playing means using the Thumb, Index and Middle fingers. Certain basic roll patterns can be played equally well with two or three fingers and these rolls, usually called ‘Double thumbing’ form the bedrock of banjo fingerpicking. Double thumbing rolls can be played Thumb lead or Finger lead, i.e. with either the finger or the thumb on the beat. It’s possible to switch between finger and thumb lead whilst playing and this opens up more musical possibilities, however many players prefer to keep either the finger or thumb in control.
Earl Scruggs grew up listening mostly to 2-finger players. He began playing in a two-finger style as early as age three when he was still too small to hold the instrument and his brother would place it on his lap for him. He played with two fingers for approximately seven years until at age ten he was able to add the middle finger into his playing. Scruggs is universally regarded as the first Bluegrass player yet his playing is deeply rooted in the Old-Time two- and three-finger banjo styles. He was the first player to achieve a continuous roll i.e. an unbroken stream of 16th notes, and this is the aspect of his playing which has been most widely copied. Yet his playing contains many other stylistic elements including half-speed melodic playing and double thumbing. He is the bridge between Old-Time and Bluegrass banjo playing.
Most of the Old-Time players played in a hybrid style using combinations of picking and strumming techniques. Pete Seeger is the most well known of these players and has left a fantastic legacy of video and audio recordings and the book ‘How to play the five string banjo.’ Seeger’s style included most of the possible playing techinques – he picked strings individually and also in pinches, he did several styles of frailing and also strummed the banjo. Of all the well-known players, it’s arguable that Seeger used the widest range of techniques.
Nowadays when you say ‘Old-Time banjo playing’ most people tend to think of Clawhammer, also called Frailing. This is a rhythmic style in which most of the picking is done downwards, by striking the string with the back of the fingernail. Frailing is a finger-lead style in which the finger nearly always plays on the beat and it can include single string or brushed chords as well. The most distinctive feature of this style of playing is a ‘Train rhythm,’ with the fifth string or ‘Thumbstring’ played by the thumb on the last note of every group of four. There are many different style of frailing. The West Virginia style is played entirely with downstrokes and there are very few strums or brushes. The Round Peak style includes a wider range of techniques – in addition to downstrokes, strums or brushes are also used as well as raking techniques, thumb lead and fingerpicking. Frailing is also a two- or three-finger style of playing. It’s possible to frail a banjo very well using only the Index finger and thumb, or the middle finger and thumb; many clawhammer players also like the use the same three ‘Fingers’ Index, Middle and Thumb as the Bluegrass players.