Who are my favorite banjo players?
Allen Shelton probably sits at the top of my list of influences when it comes to banjo. Why? Allen took the chordal knowledge of Don Reno, combined it with elements of Scruggs-style and jazz to create his own unique sound. His sound many refer to as “bounce”; they are talking about his incredible swing and rhythm….see the song “Banjo BOUNCE.” for the perfect example. One of my favorite albums is “In the Tradition” by Jim & Jesse, between that and Shelton Special. I at one time learned ALL of those solos.
Raymond also played the banjo with Jim & Jesse. In my opinion, he is one of the most underrated banjo players. He is such a creative player with a very unique tone to go along with it. His “Bells of St Mary’s was one of my favorites, it uses double C tuning with false harmonics. True story-I learned how to do artificial harmonics from him at a local bluegrass festival. I had visited the record table when I was around 17 years old and was asking him questions about his break on a song. He said, let me show you how I did that. Super nice guy!
These days, I believe he mostly plays fiddle and teaches ensembles at a university. Check him out, this is one of the most underrated banjo albums of all time:
“Home of the Redfox” is IMO one of the best banjo albums of ALL TIME. Bill was not only a great player, but a great WRITER. He was such a smooth banjo player with an incredible amount of drive in his playing. I learned more than a couple of his breaks through the years. This album shows you what is possible with a roll-based/Scruggsy style with a few hints of melodics thrown in. Another stand out is his version of “Black Mountain Rag.”
What can I say, I was seriously into Reno at one time. However, I unfortunately feel like I’ve forgotten more Reno stuff than anything else. Reno was way ahead of his time. He combined all the elements of many genres (bluegrass/jazz/later rock) into a very unique sound. He uses what many banjo players refer to as single-string style, in addition to rolls and other techniques. Check out “I know you’re married”, “Banjo Signal”, and more.
I went through a Crowe phase, although it’s not too terribly evident now. I still think he is one of the best when it comes to backup. He also had some of my favorite TONE on recordings ever. Long Journey Home is one I have always enjoyed the tone on. Get the Bluegrass Album Band recordings and Live in Japan as well. Study Crowe if you want to know how to do good backup banjo.
What can I say, one of my fondest memories is Sonny playing “America the Beautiful” live. Such a creative player with a wide range of influences. I still think he was one of the best at playing slow songs on the banjo. He took what Earl Scruggs did and built on it by adding in steel guitar licks. He also had a few songs with Spanish influences as well.
While I never really learned any complete Scott Vestal solos, I listened to him a good bit. His mix of melodic, single-string and roll based styles influenced my whole outlook on the banjo. I’ll never forget the first time I heard him play at the Everett Brothers music barn, all I had ever heard was Scruggs. I thought, “What planet is this man from!”
These are just a few of my biggest influences that are known. I would dare say I had just as many that were LOCAL PICKERS here in Georgia.
Some of the ones that come to mind are Tim Parker, Billy Brown, and Don Norman.
Tim was probably one of the smoothest banjo players I’ve ever heard in my life. He played a lot of contests and won a bunch. I can’t remember exactly but something like 12 time Georgia State champion. I think he took third at Winfield one year.
Billy Brown was a dear friend of mine, he had some of the most incredible ears I’ve ever ran into. He had a sound influenced by Reno with such clarity and taste, it was simply amazing. I jammed with him most Sunday nights for about 10 years.
Don Norman was a big influence because I could be found at Everett Brothers Music Barn most Saturday nights from the ages of 17 to 35. Don played with the Everett Bros. He too, was heavily influenced by Allen Shelton and I guess was absorbed by me there. He also had a lot of great backup tricks that I tried to visually steal, lol.
I feel fortunate that I was able to be around great pickers and great people of course. They continue to influence me to this day in my musical decisions and judgement!
I think a banjo student needs to pick good models to draw from. Listen to as much as you can and find out whose sounds you enjoy and see what you can get from them. Sometimes it can be as simple as a lick, sometimes it’s a tone and sometimes it’s even banjo setup ideas. If you need more ideas, here are 27 banjo players you need to hear.
The bigger your palette of influences, the more you have to draw from, and it too will one day result in you having your own sound as well.