The Banjo as a Percussion Instrument (Musical Musings #7)

Not many truer things have been said than what Charles Schultz wrote above. Sometimes it takes Charlie Brown and Linus to get simple gems of wisdom across. But that’s another post for another day. Did you know that the banjo isn’t just a string instrument? It’s percussion as well. “Well, duh,” you may very well say, “the bottom half of the thing is a drum.” First of all, that’s not true: although the material is the same used to make drum heads, the body of a banjo cannot double as a drum. And besides, I’m not talking about the make-up of the instrument, I’m talking about the playing style. Just by playing the banjo, the banjoist is simultaneously playing strings and percussion. Let me explain…

Way back in the day, there was only one official technique for Appalachian banjo-playing, and that was clawhammer, also known as frailing, neither of which are recognised as words in the English language (we’ll get there). In this method of playing, the banjoist picks the note he wants with his index (or middle) fingernail. Then he strums all of the strings with that same fingernail, which brings the thumb to the fifth string. Then, the thumb plucks the fifth string. So the whole thing is a three-step process: note, strum, pluck, and it’s come to be known by banjoists as the bum-diddy. In music theory terms, it’s an eighth note followed by two sixteenths to make 4/4 timing. In non-music theory terms, it’s a hassle, because every time you want to play a single note, you have to strum and pluck afterwards. But it sure sounds nice when it’s done well. There’s more to clawhammer than this basic technique, but I wanted to spend more time talking about the modern style of banjo playing.

In 1939, Earl Scruggs introduced a new style of picking, with three fingers plucking the strings. Three-finger picking had been going on among individual banjoists for a while, but never before was there such a complete system as Scruggs-style picking was. If you’ve ever heard a banjo player, you most likely thought that the picking must be complicated, and in a way it is. Scruggs-style picking uses three-finger picking patterns to play music in 4/4 timing. That means that the picking patterns must use three fingers to make sure that every measure of music adds up to four. For any mathematicians out there, this means that the three fingers must pick until the note values add up to a number that is divisible both by three and by four if the picking patterns are to work at all. But the musical phrases in bluegrass music usually take at least two measures to complete, which means that the banjo’s picking patterns must be completed in eight beats or sixteen beats, because if it was completed at twelve beats (which is divisible by both three and four), you’d only have a phrase and a half. So now in order to get it to work, you’d have to go all the way to beat twenty-four, which is too long for one pattern (except maybe in jazz music), and too confusing, so the song (or at least the banjo in the song) would sound like it has no structure. How then is this problem remedied?

Scruggs-style banjo picking patterns always add up to eight beats, which is equal to one typical musical phrase in bluegrass music. How can three fingers add up to eight? Well, who said that all three fingers must be used before one can be used again? Usually, the patterns are broken down into a 3-3-2 progression. One such pattern, called a “roll” for banjo pickers, uses the thumb, index, and middle fingers (as Scruggs-style requires) in the order T-I-M-T-I-M-T-M. Do you see the pattern? All three fingers are used, and then they’re used again in the same way, but the pattern ends by taking out the index finger. Another roll is played T-M-I-T-M-I-T-M. It’s just the reverse order of the pattern before, but again, it uses all three fingers twice, and then it only uses two of them. Both of those patterns can be repeated over and over again, keeping with 4/4 timing, but also not using any finger twice in a row. The most dynamic roll is played T-I-M-T-M-I-T-M. It’s the combination of the previous two rolls, but it still uses the 3-3-2 rule. There’s only one roll that doesn’t use the 3-3-2 progression, and it’s played T-I-T-M. So instead of subtracting the index finger, an extra thumb pluck is added to add up to four.

These picking patterns are virtually always played as sixteenth notes, so the T-I-T-M roll would only add up to one beat, and all of the 3-3-2 rolls would add up to two beats. This allows the banjo player to play a variety of melodies with several of the patterns before the musical phrase is ended. But it also allows for him to learn percussion, because each finger carries it’s own percussive pattern, let alone the picking patterns of all three fingers. For example, in all of the 3-3-2 rolls, the thumb by itself has a rhythm equal to two dotted eighth notes and one regular eighth note after that. And what if the banjoist wants to play a 3-3-2 roll and then switch to the T-I-T-M roll and play it twice to get to two beats? All of the thumb plucks in that roll are simply eighth notes, so putting the two rolls together makes two dotted eighths followed by five eighths. What a neat percussive pattern! All of the index plucks in the 3-3-2 rolls are dotted eighth and a quarter tied to a sixteenth (I honestly cannot find any one note that equals 5/16 of a beat). The middle finger plucks are similar to the thumb, just in a different order: dotted eighth, eighth, dotted eighth. If you applied these patterns to drums, you’d already have a pretty good working knowledge of percussion.

If you ever happen to run into a banjoist, ask him to play a simple pattern while muting the strings. That way you’ll be able to clearly hear the way the patterns go together, and where the strong and weak beats are placed in each pattern. There’s a reason Scruggs-style picking is quintessential for playing the banjo.

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