Learning To Play Banjo: Emulation vs. Imitation


I hope I can shed light on differences between current and older banjo playing styles by explaining the method by which most older mountain banjoists learned to play, and then contrasting this with the way most people learn to play today. Diversity in old time banjo playing styles is being lost and the different learning methods help explain why this is occurring.

The role of the banjo in mountain culture is not well known today. Also, some people do not know that there were a variety of old-time banjo playing styles in the mountains. I was at Augusta in Elkins, West Virginia, in August 2001, and was considerably taken aback to learn that students were being taught banjo as an adjunct to the fiddle. Many students viewed the banjo as an instrument for playing fiddle tunes, and felt this had been its historical role.

Some of the students were considerably surprised that I sang with most of the tunes I played. However, this is what most old-time banjo players did in East Kentucky. I suspect this might have been true in other areas of the mountains. Dr. Josiah H. Combs said the following about East Kentucky banjo players in Folk-Songs of the Southern United States, which is an edited version of the doctorial dissertation Combs wrote for the University of Paris in 1925:

"The banjo is the musical instrument that accompanies him, and he seldom picks it without singing."

I do not maintain, however, that old-time banjo players in East Kentucky did not play with fiddlers – they certainly did. When playing with fiddlers, however, old-time banjo players in East Kentucky usually sacrificed notes for brush strokes to provide a solid rhythm for fiddle tunes. It was also not uncommon for an East Kentucky fiddler to sing with some of their tunes.

Learning by Emulation

Old timers in East Kentucky learned to play by emulation; that is, they duplicated the sounds they heard by listening, by casual observation, and without formal training. Learning by emulation was probably prevalent at one time throughout the mountains. It stemmed from a strong cultural bias that prevented young mountaineers from questioning their elders closely about a task or skill. Children were expected to learn by listening and observation. For instance, I was putting gears on a team of mules and plowing by the age of twelve. I never asked my father how to do this – it was something I was expected to learn on my own.

Stuart Jamieson, who recorded Rufus Crisp in 1946, said Aunt Liz Hill of Floyd County was a talented banjoist who played a stroke style with the banjo lying in her lap. He also described the playing of Blind Hobart Bailey of Hippo, Kentucky, who sounded the fifth string by picking up with his thumb. Stuart was surprised to learn that I knew of other people who used this technique for picking the fifth string – he thought Hobart’s move was unique and developed only because he was blind. Picking up with the thumb is a result of learning by emulation, and occurs when a casual observer of stroke playing mistakenly thinks the fifth string is picked as the thumb moved up.

Learning by emulation produced a wonderful diversity of styles. Wiley and Little Monroe Amburgey, two brothers close in age, played very dissimilar styles: Wiley played a conventional stroke style, while Little Monroe played a very unusual two-finger style. They learned by emulation from their father, Jasper Amburgey, a banjo maker who played dulcimer as well as banjo.

I learned songs and tunings ca. 1950 from my father, Mal Gibson, but I did not imitate his style of playing banjo. I learned by emulation and my playing style differs considerably from his; however, we produced some of the same sounds by using different playing techniques.

Although playing styles varied among old timers in East Kentucky, there were common elements in the sounds they produced. Most used different tunings, and many of those tunings were commonly used throughout the area. Many players used left hand techniques that helped provide a fuller sound for both singing and playing for dances. Also, quite a few players used more than one playing style.

Learning to play by emulation requires a cultural support system in which playing banjo is a normal activity, and which does not include people who have nominated themselves as experts on the "proper" method of playing banjo. The cultural support system for this type of learning has vanished in East Kentucky, and probably in most other mountain areas as well.

There are many recordings of mountain banjo players that give one an appreciation of different playing styles. There is a listing of some of these recordings at the end of this article.

Learning by Imitation

People who play old time banjo today rarely have neighbors with the same interest. For instance, I do not know anyone in my town, or in the county where I live in Florida, that plays old-time banjo. I know of no one that has continued playing old-time banjo on Burgeys Creek in East Kentucky, where I was reared. Old time banjo players live in dispersed communities today, and are connected by the telephone, the computer, and gatherings at festivals and colleges, where old-time music is played and taught.

The lack of a cultural support system and the wide dispersion of old time banjo players makes it necessary for most people today to learn banjo by imitation; that is, the playing style they are learning is broken into discrete steps by a teacher, and the student learns to play the style almost exactly as taught. Gifted players who learn by imitation are more likely to excel and improve the style they are taught. I believe this is demonstrated by the outstanding technical expertise of banjo players today in both the bluegrass and old time communities. A result of learning by imitation, however, is the tendency towards a standardization of playing styles.

Many people who teach banjo at colleges and festivals today learned by imitation from other teachers. The original teachers learned from a very few older people in the mountains and elsewhere. Over the last few decades playing styles from North Carolina and West Virginia have become popular, with the playing style from North Carolina the most ubiquitous. It is rare to hear someone at a festival today that does not play one of these styles.  


My introduction to one particular style of banjo playing began in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where I lived for several years.  I had brought a few banjos with me from Kentucky and thought I was one of the few people left playing old-time banjo. The culture had crashed in Knott County, Kentucky, where I learned to play ca. 1950, and old-time banjo players there had mostly ceased playing.

I discovered Fred Oster's Vintage Instrument shop not long after arriving in Philadelphia, and was pleasantly surprised to learn that Fred and some of his young customers played old-time banjo. I was puzzled, however, because they all played a similar stroke style. The people from whom I had learned, of course, had styles that varied. When I asked Fred about this, he said, "We learned from the same teacher."

Somewhat later a nephew, who worked at Appalshop, took me to one of their old-time concerts in Whitesburg, Kentucky. There I saw a member of a string band playing banjo in a style I recognized. I confidently told my nephew that the banjo player had to be from Philadelphia, because he was playing in the "Philadelphia style." I later learned that this person had indeed gone to college in Philadelphia.

After moving to Florida, I attended a festival that featured old-time music. I saw a gentleman demonstrate the Philadelphia stroke style for a young man. He said very earnestly: "This is the way all mountain people play banjo." I was astonished that anyone would think all mountaineers played one style of banjo; however, most of the banjo players whom I saw play at this festival played the Philadelphia stroke style.


I learned, after quite a bit of research, that the "Philadelphia" stroke style was in fact the style known today as "round peak." Round peak is the most widely imitated style in the old time banjo community. This style was copied from a few local banjo players who participated in the fiddlers’ conventions in Galax, Virginia, and Mt. Airy, North Carolina. These affairs were very popular with early revival musicians, some of whom later taught banjo.

The round peak banjo player who most influenced revival musicians was Tommy Jarrell of North Carolina - he was also an outstanding old-time fiddler. Tommy was very hospitable and generous with his time. A lot of revival musicians spent time with him and a few learned his style of playing. There are several CDs and at least one video featuring Tommy Jarrell playing banjo and fiddle.

There is an emphasis in round peak on playing fiddle tunes note for note. This "fiddle" style probably developed after the introduction of the guitar and string bass. I call East Kentucky banjo the "singing" style since there is more of an emphasis on filling notes with the left hand to create a fuller sound for both singing and dance. When playing with a fiddler, East Kentucky banjo players tended to sacrifice notes for brushes to provide a solid rhythm for the fiddler.

Unfortunately, some people who play the round peak style today think they are playing a style used by most mountaineers, when in fact it was used by very few. Many round peak players pick notes with the middle finger instead of the pointer finger - I have seen a book that states that this is the proper finger to use when playing stroke style. In fact, most people are more adept using their pointer finger. I recently had a very discouraged banjo student come to me because his teacher insisted he use his middle finger, which he found very awkward.  I told him he should pick with the finger he felt most comfortable using. This is what a good teacher should tell a student. A good teacher should also give a student some freedom to develop their own style.


The diversity of old-time banjo playing styles is being lost because many people today are learning a very few styles by imitation from teachers, books, and videos. These styles are spread by festivals and colleges where old-time music is played and taught. I wish more people were knowledgeable about banjo styles that differ from their own. I also wish more people had a better understanding of the cultural role of the banjo. Unfortunately, many who write banjo articles today mistakenly ascribe the cultural role of the banjo in one family or one area to everyone in the mountains. A symptom of this is the assumption that a particular style of banjo was played everywhere, when in fact it might have been a local style.

There were once many different styles of playing old-time banjo. Some styles were downright eccentric; however, all were wonderful to hear. The old-time banjo is a personal instrument that sounds good when played alone or with a group, unlike the bluegrass banjo, which sounds best as an ensemble instrument. I wish more people today were singing with the banjo and playing in more diverse styles.


The recordings listed here should give one a good appreciation of the different banjo playing styles in the mountains. Some excellent liner notes provide insight into the culture that supported the banjo, and to the history of the banjo.

Rounder CD 0439/40 – The North Carolina Banjo Collection
This outstanding 2 CD set was produced by Bob Carlin. The notes are excellent, and give the reader an appreciation of the role of the banjo in North Carolina folk life. Several of the featured performers have CDs of their own. I especially like Ola Belle Reed and Bascom Lamar Lunsford, both of whom have CDs at Smithsonian Folkways.

Smithsonian Folkways – Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina and Virginia
This compilation of black banjo players recorded between 1974 and 1997 was produced by Cece Conway and Scott Odell, and is extensively annotated with notes about performers’ tunings, lyrics and life histories.

Yazoo 2200 – Kentucky Mountain Music
This 7 CD set is a must for all who love old-time music. Included in the recordings are several Kentucky banjo players playing in different styles. Rufus Crisp is not featured in the recordings, but his CD can be found at Smithsonian Folkways. Pete Steele and Reverend Buell Kazee, who are featured on the recordings, also have CDs at Smithsonian Folkways.

JA OO77 D, June Appal – Banjer Days
This recording has several modern performers playing in different styles, including Will Keys in a wonderful two-finger style and Odus Maggard in a bluesy old-time three-finger picking style.

Note: An abridged version of this article was published in the Banjo Newsletter in February, 2002.