America's Miscellaneous Instrument
Bluegrass banjo players would be quick to point out that “folk” style banjo is completely different than “bluegrass” style banjo. It’s interesting that bluegrass banjo links right-hand technique to its most famous players, i.e., “Scruggs Style,” “Reno Style” and “Keith Style.” Personality-linked technique is a revealing aspect of the five-stringed banjo's development because no one person actually has a market on common string technique. Most banjo instruction is devoid of music basics which are standard on all other musical instruments such as theory, sight reading (as opposed to tablature) and the standard practice of scales and arpeggios. Instruction methods which are common on all other musical instruments are the foundations of knowing your instrument – not personality-linked technique. It could be argued that in terms of instruction, five string banjo is really still at a “folk instrument level" in it's historical development and is the reason it is relegated to the “miscellaneous” category of musical instruments.
The joke goes something like this:
Q: “How do shut a banjo player up?”
A: “Put sheet-music in front of them!”
Because bluegrass instruction books teach the same old “tablature and roll” methods introduced in the mid-sixties, we now have a “tablature and roll cult” which values imitation over creativity. Although imitation is an important element in the process of learning, bluegrass banjo instruction teaches only rote imitation of virtually the same musical cliches invented by Earl Scruggs some 70 years ago. This is, of course, with the exception of notable banjo musicians who have creatively progressed to a more distinctive personal style. In most bluegrass banjo instruction books, the student is instructed to repeat three and four note right-hand, open string arpeggios called “rolls,” ad infinitum, without any meaningful rhythmic context or immediate musical application. Metronome use is hardly ever mentioned nor included. These “rolls” are described in some books with curious little names which rival ones given to quantum sub-atomic particles: forward, backward, square, inside, outside, etc. They have become the musical atoms that make up right hand instruction in the bluegrass banjo universe. Ironically, if you survey the actual music of Earl Scruggs, such repetitive rolls are not to be found. There may be elements of banjo rolls, but his right-hand playing is far more wide-ranging and varied. Why? Earl Scruggs’ playing was never actually “roll” driven but rather melody driven. It could be better described as melody within an arpeggio accompaniment. Scruggs never actually used tablature or rolls himself, even though it was an included as a practice technique for beginning players.