The 3 Main Styles of Bluegrass Banjo

The banjo’s birthplace is Africa or colonial America, depending on where you draw the line between banjo and banjo-ish ancestor. But while we debate the banjo’s birth, we can at least agree on where it hit puberty. That happened in America in the 20th century. During this time, a series of gifted players developed styles that have become synonymous with bluegrass banjo, and intertwined in the fabric of American music. Here’s an overview of last century’s most salient banjo styles.

Scruggs Style (three-finger)

Scruggs style is the backlight of all banjo playing. The other styles on this list arose, at least to some degree, as reactions to Earl Scruggs’ trademark arpeggio patterns and rolls, first recorded in September 1946. You can hear this in the theme song to the 1960s TV show, The Beverly Hillbillies, performed by Earl Scruggs himself. (Plus, in our How to Play Banjo Rolls video.)

Try It Out: One of the most basic Scruggs licks is a forward roll on the G chord. To play it, hold down a G chord with your fretting hand and pluck the individual notes G-B-D-G-B-D-G-B using your three finger picks.

Reno Style (single-string)

When someone told him he sounded just like Earl Scruggs, it only hardened Don Reno’s resolve to further develop his own style of playing. In order to play fiddle and guitar songs on banjo, Reno used a three-finger single-string style that allowed him to play multiple notes on one string that mimicked the repetitive up-and-down sound of a single pick.

Try It Out: Pluck a string, any string, repeatedly with your three fingerpicks. It’s harder than it sounds.

Keith Style (melodic)

The mantra here is melody. Popularized by Bill Keith and Bobby Thompson in the early ’60s, melodic style leans toward scales and complicated fiddle melodies more than the arpeggios associated with Scruggs style.

Try It Out: Play a scale pattern, like a G major scale, by finding the notes G-A-B-C-D-E-F#-G. The technique in melodic style is to find a note on an open string, followed by a fretted note on an adjacent string, followed by the next note of the scale on an open string, followed by a fretted note, etc.


Drew Roberts is a former digital editor of Making Music magazine.

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