Setting Bluegrass Standards

Not everyone can set standards for how we do things in this world. If we all did, then there would by definition no longer be any standards. Both famous and not-so-famous people have contributed in creating most of the standards that we all use today. For bluegrass banjo, that would include such well-known folks as Joel Sweeney, Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, Bobby Thompson and Bill Keith. This list goes on for a long way, and I wish I could add the names of those not-well-known who have had their influence on me as a banjoist.

If we like, we could draw a diagram, sort of like a tree, that details the important historical events in our little banjo corner of the world. This would include innovations made by the above mentioned folks; adding a fifth string (accepting the fact that there is plenty of debate about when this really occurred – the point is somebody had to do it), playing with three fingers, adding a tone ring, etc. It could also maybe show branches of how these individuals have further influenced others, and how they in turn have had contributions and influences of their own.

But one thing such a tree diagram could never show, which is perhaps the most important detail of all, is this: Such ideas and innovations must be picked up by the ordinary person in order for them to succeed. It has taken the ordinary rank-and-file musician – you and me – in order to have these new musical directions succeed and so become more than just experiments in sound; to actually become a standard for how it’s done. It is vital to have ordinary people take an idea, such as Scruggs style banjo, and like it, embracing it and making it their own. To do so not only adds a sort of world-wide ‘vote of approval’ to whatever the idea is, but it also adds, by sheer weight of numbers, a definite refining of the idea; a testing and trying of the hypothesis so as to make sure this isn’t a half-baked scheme that will eventually fade out or be found lacking somehow. Although marketers may disagree, neither fame nor any amount of wealth can do this. It’s true that advertising can influence us, but individuals put advertising to the test as well, just as with ideas themselves. Ultimately, it is the sole prerogative of individuals in society to accept or deny.

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About Phill Gibson

I'm from Huntsville, Alabama where I work as a Systems Engineer and part-time banjo and mandolin instructor. I've been playing various instruments since my teen years. I started mandolin at about age 17 and banjo at 20. I love just about all kinds of music. In terms of banjo styles, I play Scruggs and melodic and am working on becoming more advanced with single string. I'm also working on 4-finger banjo, which is way off the beaten path. I would like to see more jazz techniques integrated into bluegrass situations; counterpoint, especially. So long-term, that's what I'm doing. I'm also very keen on astronomy, ATM (amateur telescope making), birding, christian homeschooling, martial arts, organic gardening and about 30 other distracting hobbies to a (mercifully) lesser extent.
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