View Full Version : Melodic "Keith" Style Compared to Scruggs Style.

Apr-04-2016, 9:25am
First off, I have to say it's very exciting to witness the launch of the new site here. Any extra cash laying around the house, I'd say take up stock in banjo as BAS is sure to be a trend in the the coming years among the pickin' community just like it has as an effect of the fabulous MandolinCafe.

So on to my question.

Can anyone recommend two tracks for me to really hear the difference between Scruggs style and Keith Style? I'm trying to really understand what makes melodic style, versus just standard Scruggs style.

Thanks, and welcome to the cafe!

Apr-04-2016, 9:47am
I don't play much melodic, as I prefer Scruggs style, but I'll give you my 2 cents worth and maybe someone more knowledgeable will pitch in. Scruggs pretty much played the melody "usually with the thumb" and filled in around it with fill in notes. He almost always led with the thumb. Melodic was intended for playing fiddle tunes, where every note was a melody note and seems to have more 8 note measures where Scruggs used many 1/4 notes to draw attention to the melody etc. I know this isn't the greatest description of the two styles, but maybe it will help. Sorry, I don't have the tracks you suggested, but I'm sure someone will.

Apr-04-2016, 6:48pm
As I understand it, "Melodic" is just a variation of "Three-finger" roll style that enable "full" melodic phrasings as described above by Banjoman56.

Scruggs style


Melodic style (heavily Scruggs taste)


Apr-04-2016, 7:24pm
Scruggs stlyle incorporates all the rolls, within the rolls is a basic feel or melody, the other notes, played at intervals, fill in with passing and drone notes. often has a chaotic or exciting feel to it. melodic style sticks to using single note scale soloing, sort of like a guitar would pick. It lacks the driving drone and intervallic fill in notes. Melodic style has a smoother, more graceful type sound. Once you get used to hearing between the two,,you'll never get them mixed up...

Apr-04-2016, 7:40pm
I've never cared much for melodic playing. I don't seem to be able to hear the melody very well in most tunes that I've heard played in that style.

Apr-04-2016, 7:48pm
I've never cared for it much myself either, my approach is through the Scruggs style, I think it really brings out the tone and sound of what a banjo can do.

Apr-04-2016, 10:44pm
I agree! Scruggs is da man!!!

Apr-05-2016, 9:30am
To hear the differences,go to YouTube and type in "Earl Scruggs" and then type in " Bela Fleck", the difference becomes obvious. Scruggs style sounds like 2-3 people playing at once, very full, melodic style sounds single,because of the scalar patterns that you use. The tone actually changes,from like racaus to smooth.but the two go sort of hand in hand, everyone dabbles in one or the other. A little melodic playing thrown in can give you a different sound and break things up for the listener. At one point I could play paganinis moto perpetuo on the 5 sting. Very melodic banjo as you can get, not super hard either, it falls right on the banjo fingerboard. But I'm a Scruggs diehard,and I think such an interesting style still has a lot of experimenting and room to grow.

Apr-08-2016, 9:36am
Can anyone recommend two tracks for me to really hear the difference between Scruggs style and Keith Style? I'm trying to really understand what makes melodic style, versus just standard Scruggs style.

Hi 9LbShellhamer (http://www.banjocafe.net/forum/member.php?u=73),

You asked for an example of both Scruggs-style and Keith-style.

Here’s a recording of Earl Scruggs playing a fiddle tune with his impeccable sense of melody, timing, and drive. Although many banjo players learn this tune, very few can play it as masterfully as Earl. Notice that Earl plays the melody very clearly, but he does not play it note-for-note the way the fiddle player plays it.

Earl Scruggs And Lester Flatt - Cripple Creek
Here’s a little historical perspective on how “Keith-style: or “melodic style” banjo came about.

Bill Keith was fascinated with Scruggs-style banjo, and he literally “wrote the book” on Scruggs style banjo. Keith learned to play Scruggs-style by transcribing over a hundred of Earl’s solos note-for-note into a notebook.
Once he had learned Scruggs-style, Bill Keith also enjoyed playing with a fiddler in his hometown of Boston. He figured out how to play fiddle tunes, such as “Devil’s Dream” note-for-note what the fiddler played, and went on to win a couple of banjo contests with his version of that tune.

Keith approached Earl Scruggs after a Flatt & Scruggs concert and showed Earl his notebook of tablature of Earl’s solos. At the time, Scruggs was thinking of writing an instruction book so he invited Keith to visit him in Nashville and help him write what became Earl Scruggs and the 5-String Banjo. All of the tablature in the original 1968 edition of Earl’s book was done by Bill Keith.

While in Nashville, Scruggs took Keith to the Grand Old Opry. While Keith was playing some fiddle tunes on his banjo backstage, Bill Monroe heard him and offered him a job playing banjo in Monroe’s legendary band The Blue Grass Boys. When Keith first played “Devil’s Dream” on the Opry with Monroe in March, 1963, the audience went crazy—they had never heard anyone play fiddle tunes note-for-note on the banjo before!

Devil's Dream – Bill Monroe (Live)

Within two weeks of Keith joining the band, Monroe had Keith record several fiddle tunes—including “Devil’s Dream”--and soon banjo players all over the US began learning how to play what many people called Keith-style banjo (aka melodic style). What a lot of people don’t realize is that Bill Keith could play excellent hard-driving Scruggs style, as can be heard on many recordings of live concerts by Bill Monroe & The Blue Grass Boys. Here’s an example…

【CGUBA300】 Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys 11/11/1963
You might notice that Keith played straight-ahead Scruggs-style 95% of the time (except when playing fiddle tunes), demonstrating his exquisite sense of musicianship and good taste.
Bottom line, I don’t think it’s very productive to argue about which style is “better”:

If you want to play hard-driving bluegrass like Earl, JD Crowe, Sonny Osborne, Ralph Stanley, etc., Scruggs-style has defined that music since 1946 when Earl joined Bill Monroe’s band.
If you want to play fiddle tunes note-for-note, Keith-style is the way to go.

And if anyone wonders about Bela Fleck’s ability to play hard-driving Scruggs-style, give a listen to this:

New Grass Revival - White Freightliner


Ivan Kelsall
Apr-10-2016, 1:57am
Listen to Earl playing any of his 'classic' tunes & then listen to Bill Keith playing 'Sailor's Hornpipe' & you really begin to wonder how the h*** anybody could play such a tune on A banjo. Bill keith,along with a few other players (Bobby Thompson for one), did a complete re-think about the way a banjo could be played. I'd been playing banjo for around 4 years when i heard Sailor's Hornpipe & i really didn't understand 'how' it was done. Bill Clifton was still living in the UK, & one time i was playing with him at a local Folk club,i asked him if it was a 'finger style' or done with a pick. He told me that it was played finger style - i was even more puzzled. Eventually,i met a few UK banjo players who'd decided to try that style out ,& i began to understand how it was played.
I don't mine 'Melodic / Keith' style playing,but i much prefer the drive of Earl's original style. I might be wrong,but i doubt if there's any 'melodic' style player playing today that can match the sheer 'punch' of Scruggs style banjo in playing a fast(er) tune.
Zoom along to 20 mins 59 sec.to hear the very first Bluegrass i ever heard back in 1963 - ''The Barrier Brothers'' playing Earl's Breakdown. It blew me out of my shoes back then & still does.
Now listen to the 'other' tune that really hit me - Bill Keith playing 'Sailor's Hornpipe'

https://youtu.be/jLB7728Aj34?list=PLw3T6VnuKHWRBHaD3Q6QSkkH5SAtSDQi _

Apr-18-2016, 3:59pm
Historically speaking, I believe that "Melodic" is merely Bill Keith's adaptation of "Classical" banjo techniques to play fiddle tunes. I'm not sure if classical banjo technique from the late 1800s utilized 3 fingers as such, but the style is the same. People played classical banjo as parlor music playing bach, mozart, etc.

Apr-19-2016, 10:07am
Check out Bill Evans on Peghead Nation. Has some great lessons on Scruggs/melodic tunes.

Bill Evans
Apr-19-2016, 8:23pm
Classic banjo is the term that players use to refer to those five-string banjo compositions, roughly between the 1870's and into the first decades of the 20th century, from English and American composer/players like Joe Morley and Vess Ossman, that owe a great deal to ragtime (especially by the early 1900's, as ragtime wasn't "invented" until the 1899 publication of Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" (and an obscure banjo fact - Scott's mother was a five-string banjo player!). Check out this great classic banjo site for videos and many downloadable compositions: http://classic-banjo.ning.com

I have played a bit of classic banjo and the techniques used to create melodies are actually closer to what bluegrass players would call single-string style, where you're allowed to find consecutive melody notes on the same string. In melodic style, you are mostly finding consecutive melody notes on different strings, incorporating elements of roll patterns. Single-string has a clearer logic but most players can play melodic style passages more smoothly and faster (um, with practice!).

I hope this helps. And yes, classic banjo technique definitely utilizes three-finger technique, with occasional use of four and even five fingers as needed. But I would not venture to say that classic technique is all that similar to Bill Keith's melodic innovations in terms of how the fingers move. All the best, Bill

Apr-21-2016, 6:48pm
When I was starting out in the 70's. Driving banjo was all about Earl and JD Crowe. Melodic style was Keith and Tony Trishka. Being from SE Wisconsin I was able to meet Bill and Tony a few times. Found out Bill had drive too. He talked about blending melodic and Scruggs to enhance the music. I've worked on that ever since our conversation. Using the three finger style with both Scruggs and melodic phrases with syncopation and respect to the melody. Works for me!

Jeff Hildreth
Apr-22-2016, 5:51pm
I played bluegrass/Scruggs between 1972-77 then took a break.

Now I am back at it and find my interest lies elsewhere than strictly Scruggs style.
I have been playing mostly clawhammer for the past couple years but melodic claw hammer , for some unknown reason, does not draw me in as does three finger melodic.

Is it absolutely necessary to be "fluent" in Scruggs style in order to gravitate toward melodic style.? Just how Scruggs literate would I need to be to tackle melodic/Bill Keith/ Carroll Best,/ Bobby Thompson, Munde style etc. etc. ?
What basics will I need. ie what will I have to relearn given my years of absence.

I am not adverse to hard work but do not want to spend too much time on something, nor do I want to move too fast.


Apr-23-2016, 10:23am
Peghead nation Bill Evans is a great start. I,ve played through all his lessons and at $20.00 a month it's a steal.

Jeff Hildreth
Apr-23-2016, 11:43pm
Thanks for the suggestion. Bill is one of my favorite players.

Apr-26-2016, 2:37am
...Is it absolutely necessary to be "fluent" in Scruggs style in order to gravitate toward melodic style.? Just how Scruggs literate would I need to be to tackle melodic/Bill Keith/ Carroll Best,/ Bobby Thompson, Munde style etc. etc. ?
What basics will I need. ie what will I have to relearn given my years of absence.


A lot depends on whether your goals include playing in a bluegrass band, or you just want to play fiddle tunes at home by yourself or with a couple of friends (not that there is anything wrong with that). :)

Playing well in a bluegrass band means learning to play Scruggs-style with “drive”; just playing fiddle tunes at home for your own amusement doesn’t.

What does it mean to play with “drive”?
Bluegrass “drive” on the banjo is achieved by consistently playing a couple hundredths of a second BEFORE where a metronome would click. It may sound simple, but it is very difficult to master. When a bluegrass band has a banjo player who plays with drive, the music comes alive and is full of rhythmic excitement; without it the band sounds lifeless. Masters of drive on the banjo include: Earl Scruggs, JD Crowe, Ralph Stanley, Sonny Osborne, Bill Keith, and many, many more.

Can melodic-style be played with “drive”?
- If you listen to the recording I posted above of Bill Keith playing “Devil’s Dream”, you will sense that aliveness and excitement in his “melodic-style” playing that is the hallmark of “drive”.
- If you listen to the recording I posted of Keith doing a live show with Bill Monroe, you will hear Keith’s mastery of drive with both Scruggs-style and melodic style.
- And if you listen to the recording I posted of Bela Fleck, you will hear Bela’s mastery of drive with both Scruggs-style and melodic style--and single-string style, and whatever one would call that crazy jazzy rhythmic improvisation he is doing. But no matter how far out Bela gets in his solos in that song, he always returns to driving Scruggs-style to keep pumping up the musical excitement!

Finally, listen to the recording I posted of Earl Scruggs playing "Cripple Creek" at a moderate tempo, yet Earl's impeccable sense of drive is unmistakable.


Banjo Cafe
Apr-26-2016, 7:16am
We have a feature interview with Bill Evans set to publish either late this afternoon or possibly tomorrow. Still waiting on a bit of content (not from Bill though). Stay tuned. This is a really good article (our opinion).

May-02-2016, 1:29am
I've only heard one player that could really drive a bluegrass ensemble playing melodic style and that was Bobby Thompson. Of course that's only my personal opinion, but there ya go. I'll take Earl, J.D.,Rob McCoury, Charlie Cushman or a host of other "straight ahead" pickers over the melodic stuff any day.

May-06-2016, 3:32pm
Then there is this guy .... Alan Munde. He seems to have the ability to "move it along."