By John Martin
When folklorists like Cecil Sharp came to the mountains of North Carolina they found an enduring musical culture of Scotch-Irish fiddle tunes and ballad singers as well as some of the only black banjo and fiddle players in the country. In the 1940s, western North Carolinians helped produce a new form of music: bluegrass. Earl Scruggs popularized the regional three-finger banjo style that in many ways defined bluegrass, and the state also made many contributions to guitar playing.
While the acoustic guitar began as a rhythm instrument, North Carolinians Don Reno, Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, and George Shuffler all pioneered the use of the guitar as a lead instrument in the 1950s and early 1960s. In this article I’ll trace musical antecedents in the region to see why lead guitar emerged from this area as an important instrument in bluegrass. At the same time, I’ll provide the first-ever biographical sketch of Stanley Brothers guitar player George Shuffler (based on interviews conducted from April 2009 through Dec. 2009), who came out of a “traditional” background and drew on the experiences and traditions of his community to create his lead guitar style, called crosspicking.
Shuffler’s influence on bluegrass music and guitar playing has been discussed by a number of writers. In his seminal work, Bluegrass: A History, Neil Rosenberg mentioned Shuffler’s work with the Stanley Brothers and connected him to early lead guitar styles. Robert Cantwell’s Bluegrass Breakdown discussed Shuffler in some detail, and in fact lists Shuffler, Scruggs, Reno, and Watson as the four best examples of early bluegrass lead players, without attributing any significance to the fact that they are all from western North Carolina.
In Thomas Goldsmith’s The Bluegrass Reader, a collection of articles about bluegrass from writers as diverse as Hunter S. Thomson and Mike Seeger, David Gates covered Shuffler’s musical innovations. Only John Wright’s Traveling the High Way Home devoted a full chapter to Shuffler, which, like the rest of the chapters in the book, consisted of the transcript of a phone interview he conducted with Shuffler in 1985. In it Shuffler described his own life for a few paragraphs and then focused on stories about Ralph and Carter Stanley.
Shuffler was mentioned tangentially or directly in a number of other articles, books, and instruction books, but these three are among the most important books in bluegrass writing and all three mentioned him as an early lead player. The books often explored shallowly or not at all the development of his style, and none featured much information on his life. The Mel Bay’s Guitar Sessions online magazine featured a six-part series on the birth of lead guitar in 2007, which admirably covered Shuffler’s style and development as an artist. However, none of these publications looked at North Carolina as a region which produced lead guitarists, and none of them traced the musical forerunners of the region.
The town of Valdese, North Carolina, just 10 miles from Morganton, sits on the easternmost edge of the Appalachian Mountains. Settled by members of the Waldensian evangelical sect in 1893, the town incorporated in 1920 (Valdese, NC, “Town History”). The 15th of April, 1925, saw the birth of George Shuffler, the second of nine children (Menconi 2). Shuffler’s early life in Valdese echoes the stories of many southern musicians, almost to the point of cliché. His first experience with music came from the church, specifically the local shape-note singing school. Shuffler excelled at the meetings; he said that he could “really tear up some shape notes” (Shuffler 2 April 2009). Soon the teachers began to direct students who needed help to Shuffler, who could always show them the harmony or lead part that they needed.
Shuffler’s affinity for music grew and at age 12 his father traded an old broken-down car for a Gibson Kalamazoo guitar (Shuffler 2 April 2009). The guitar, still an unusual instrument for the area, had only become widely available in the South at the turn of the century. These mass-produced guitars entered the mountains with the railroads and home order catalogs such as Montgomery Ward and Sears and Roebuck. As a result, although he could hear guitar music on the radio, no one he knew could tune a guitar. Finally Shuffler found out that one of his neighbors, Jack Smith, knew a little bit about the guitar, and tracked him down. Smith tuned his guitar and showed him three basic chords — G, C, and D. Shuffler remembered that Smith played the guitar with a pick broken off a comb (Shuffler 23 Nov 2009). Shuffler walked home that night practicing the three chords over and over, afraid that he would forget them. When he got home his mother was singing an old song called, Down in the Valley, (which Shuffler and others also called Birmingham Jail) and Shuffler started accompanying her with two of his new chords. He asked her to sing the song so many times that she ended up hoarse (Shuffler 2 April 2009).
Shuffler practiced his three chords over the next few months, and made up new ones whenever he needed them. Another of Shuffler’s neighbors heard that he had a guitar and invited him to come pick. At first, Shuffler feared that his homemade chords would make him look foolish or unprepared; so he started out playing with his right hand hidden to the side, but he soon discovered that his chord shapes matched those of his more experienced neighbor. Emboldened by this experience, Shuffler practiced in his spare time, until his father traded the guitar for a new pistol. Shuffler’s mother, a talented seamstress, did some work for a local woman who owned a guitar, which became George’s second; he played this guitar with local bands over the next five years (Shuffler 23 Nov 2009). At this point he was playing mainly in the “scratch” style of Mother Maybelle Carter. This consisted of playing the melody to the song on the bass strings while rhythmically strumming the top strings during the rests of the melody. This was the very first country lead guitar technique.
Then, in 1942, a 17-year-old Shuffler and some friends traveled to nearby Granite Falls, North Carolina, to see the popular country group the Bailey Brothers. When their backup band failed to show up, Shuffler offered to play bass for them, even though he had only a passing familiarity with the instrument. His playing so impressed Danny and Charlie Bailey that they offered him $60 a week to come with them to Nashville to play on the Grand Ole Opry radio show.
“It was $60 a week,” Shuffler says, “and I was making $30 at the bakery. So I could send more home than my dad was making at the mill. I asked my dad what to do and he asked me if this was what I wanted. ‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘it’s the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do.’ ‘OK, then, be careful and keep in contact.’ We pulled into Nashville at 2 o’clock in the afternoon and were onstage that night, playing in front of 3,000 people and on WSM. I was scared to death, knew my mom and dad would be listening. But we got an encore. I was ready to pick all night.” (Menconi 2).
Over the next few years, Shuffler played with the Baileys and other groups in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia, and met his wife Pam at a radio show in Hickory. Then in December of 1950, Carter Stanley of the Stanley Brothers asked Shuffler if he wanted to play bass as a member of their backup band, the Clinch Mountain Boys. The Stanley Brothers came out of Dickenson County, Virginia, and along with “Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs…they made up the ruling triumvirate of early bluegrass music” (“The Stanley Brothers” 51). Ralph Stanley recalled discovering Shuffler at Salem School in Morganton, where George and all nine of his brothers came out to see the group. George managed to get backstage and play with them, impressing Carter enough that when bass player Ernie Newton left the band, he remembered Shuffler and called him (Wright 60).
For the next 20 years Shuffler played bass on and off with the Stanley Brothers; he quit the band on several occasions only to be lured back by raises of $15 or $20. Until the late 1950s, Shuffler mostly played bass with the band, during what he called the “lean years of bluegrass” (Shuffler 28 July 2009). With the emergence of rock and roll in 1954-55, bluegrass lost many of its young followers, and even popular groups like Jim and Jesse lost their record contracts (“Rockbluerollgrass/bluerockandrollgrass Recordings” 165). Ralph Stanley sold off his whole heard of cattle one year to keep the band going. While the Stanleys had often carried a full band early on, the declining popularity of bluegrass in the mid 1950s through the early 1960s forced them to cut back. For much of that period the band consisted only of Shuffler and and Ralph and Carter Stanley. From 1950 to 1960 Shuffler rose to fame as a great bass player. His own style focused not on the typical two-four bass playing of the time, what he called “boom-boom,” but on a four-four bass technique. In the Bluegrass Unlimited “Worldwide Readers Poll” in 1967 Shuffler received more votes for the bass than Bill Monroe on the mandolin, Doc Watson on the flattop, or Earl Scruggs on the banjo (Wright 92).
Shuffler played only bass until 1960. He took lead guitar breaks on several songs from the July 11, 1960, session for King Records (Reid 16). The Stanley Brothers had been using lead guitarists since as early as 1954, when the Bluegrass Boys’ fiddler Charlie Cline took a guitar break on several songs (Reid 7). Cline’s style resembled the fingerstyle picking of Merle Travis on “Calling from Heaven,” but his solo for the instrumental “Hard Times” was a true flatpicking solo, in which he imitated his own fiddle playing (Stanley Brothers & the Clinch Mountain Boys).
The earliest southern lead guitar styles in country music were those of Merle Travis, Maybelle Carter, and the Delmore Brothers. Merle Travis played fingerstyle, meaning that he used his “thumb to maintain a bass rhythm while the forefinger” played a “syncopated melody on the treble strings” (Malone 202). His style was based on black guitar styles, specifically Durham, NC-based blues guitarist Blind Blake. Maybelle Carter adapted “scratch” or Carter-style from earlier clawhammer banjo playing techniques she had learned as a child. She played the melody “on the bass strings while placing rhythmic strums in-between melody notes” with her forefinger. Finally, the Delmore Brothers played guitar in a tremolo mandolin style, which George Shuffler called the “quick wrist mandolin style.” In this style the player used a flatpick to rapidly pick the notes of a melody, often playing the same note numerous times before moving to the next.
All three styles of these had both limitations and advantages, and all attempted to “play lead lines without allowing the rhythm to drop out,” a challenge unique to acoustic music (Miller “The Pioneers of Flatpicking 8). Electric instruments could simply play a melody note for note as a singer sang it, but on an acoustic guitar simply repeating the melody seemed empty, so the guitarist needed to develop a fuller sound. Southern guitarists turned to older instruments to solve this problem, imitating the fiddle, the mandolin, and the banjo. Because these styles were adapted, they each had limitations when applied to the guitar.
Travis style allowed a player to maintain the rhythm, but the available melody notes were limited because the player had to maintain a chord form for the alternating bass. Carter’s scratch let the guitarist play a melody, but the rhythmic strums could not so much keep a beat as demonstrate it. The mandolin style came closest to allowing both, and when the Stanleys signed with Syd Nathan at King Records in 1958, he told them that he considered the mandolin overplayed and that they should use the Delmore Brothers’ guitar style (Wright 59).
So the Stanleys’ mandolin player Bill Napier switched over to guitar and played lead at the King Studio in Cincinnati on September 14, 1959 (Reid 14). His solo on “Mountain Dew” from that session sounds exactly like a mandolin player on guitar; rapid strumming that plays the same note in tremolo before moving to the next (The Early Starday/King Years; 1958-1961). His solo on some songs from this period actually feature some early crosspicking based on Jesse McReynolds’ mandolin playing. The difference between the two styles, discussed in Barry Willis’ America’s Music, Bluegrass, is in the rhythm. Shuffler described Napier’s playing as having a “lope in it.” Napier played with the Stanleys for another year, and the lead guitar became associated with their act. When Napier left the band in 1961, George Shuffler took over as full-time lead guitarist.
When Shuffler left the Bailey Brothers in 1942, he played with a number of other groups until signing on with the Stanleys in 1950. One of these was a brother duo called Jim and Jesse. Jesse McReynolds had been developing a way to imitate the Scruggs-style banjo on the mandolin, and he was “working it out” when Shuffler joined the band. During this period Shuffler began “creating some things on the guitar” which he “never did get a chance to use” (Wright 91). While “people like to pretend that we worked on it together” Shuffler insists that each developed their style separately. Shuffler’s style, now called crosspicking, imitates the three-finger banjo playing popularized by Earl Scruggs. The player uses a flatpick and plays in a specific directional pattern, in Shuffler’s case a constant repeat of down-down-up, down-down-up, down-down-up, across three adjacent strings. This pattern, he claims, is the only way to properly crosspick, because doing it any other way can “really get you in a hole or a rut,” while this method will produces a constant stream of eighth-notes.
Another important part of Shuffler’s crosspicking style was his focus on melody. He claimed that crosspicking “weren’t worth a damn without a melody.” He based his playing in part on Scruggs-style banjo, the pattern of threes over fours, but also on Maybelle Carter’s style. Like Carter, Shuffler played the melody on the bass strings, only instead of strumming with his forefinger, he picked on the two adjacent strings with a flatpick. Mathematically, crosspicking seems problematic, since it is a nine-note pattern played in the space for eight notes, so the guitarist must use one of two tricks Shuffler used to make it “come out right” (Shuffler 9 August 2009). The first is to simply let the ninth note of the series bleed over as the first note of the new bar, a process that works out every four bars. Most instructional books and sources either use this, or teach an improper crosspicking pattern of “down, down, up, down, down, up, down, up” (Carr 37). While this technique ensures that chord transitions will be easier since the first note will fall on the first note of the chord, the last down-up interrupts the flow of notes. More often, Shuffler used the crosspick only on the rests in his solos, and played rapidly picked melodies throughout — or, as he put it, “you got to make up your own little runs and things for it to come out” (Wright 91).
Shuffler developed and began implementing the technique “out of necessity” during the early 1960s (Shuffler 2 April 2009). In an interview with John Wright, Ralph Stanley related the circumstances of the band during this period:
But after ’61 or ’62 we didn’t carry a full band. The reason was that maybe we’d play two weeks and off two or something and not keep anyone on a regular salary except George, of course. We’d pay George a regular salary whether he’d play or not and if we’d play two weeks out of the month why he’d draw his money, see. We couldn’t afford to do a full band that way. But we could take George and just about serve as a full band, you know (Wright 60).
In bluegrass, as in jazz, each member of the band takes a musical break or solo on their respective instrument. When the band consisted of only Ralph, Carter, and George, their instruments were Ralph’s banjo, Carter’s guitar, and George’s guitar and bass. Since Shuffler played both guitar and bass, he would often play bass with the guitar slung across his back for easy access, which can be seen in one of the band’s rare taped performances on Pete Seeger’s Rainbow Request. At this point most musicians saw the acoustic guitar as a rhythm instrument, and most people viewed lead guitar playing as a novelty.
So at first Ralph simply took all of the breaks, and then when that sound quickly grew tiresome, Shuffler remembered the crosspicking techniques he had worked on in the late 1940s. The three styles he had to work with — mandolin, Carter, and Travis — were insufficient as far as he was concerned. The Carter and Travis styles were limited in different ways: Travis did not allow for much in the way of melody playing, and Carter could not keep a beat. Shuffler had always disliked the mandolin style, as he felt “it didn’t fit the guitar” (Shuffler 2 April 2009).
Shuffler used his new crosspicking technique on a few recordings in July of 1961, for an intro on “There is a Trap,” and for a few fills on “Thy Burden is Greater than Mine,” but his first full crosspicking solo came on The Stanley’s September recording of “I’m Only Human” (The King Years; 1961-1965). Here Shuffler’s fairly bluesy style is featured in the intro, in the background throughout the song, and in a solo. Guitarist Bryan Sutton remembered Shuffler as the first player to “incorporate the concept that when a fiddle player takes his part, and a banjo player takes his part, the guitar player could also take his part” (Hasley 5). This was because of the sparse arrangement within the band, where Shuffler needed a fuller-sounding guitar style that could keep the rhythm and also play melody.
Shuffler based his crosspicking on a combination of the three-finger Scruggs-style banjo and Carter scratch guitar. This interplay between the banjo and the guitar has been central to North Carolina lead techniques. The combination of traditional musical styles with new technologies and ideas led western North Carolina to become the birthplace of lead guitar.
Deep Gap, North Carolina-born Arthel “Doc” Watson began to play the guitar in a fingerpicking approach based on Merle Travis, and in the scratch technique of Maybelle Carter, but when he heard that Jimmie Rodgers, one of his musical heroes, played the guitar with a flatpick, he began to use one as well.
“I figured, ‘Hey, he must be doing that with one of them straight picks. So I got me one and began to work at it. Then I began to learn the Jimmie Rodgers licks on the guitar. Then all at once I began to figure out, ‘Hey, I could play that Carter stuff a lot better with a flat pick.’ ” (Miller)
Later, when Watson joined up with a local country-western swing band called The Country Gentlemen, he traded his acoustic guitar for a Gibson Les Paul electric. Since the band lacked a fiddler, be began working out fiddle tunes on the electric guitar using this new flatpicking technique. Ralph Rinzler discovered Watson in 1961 when he came down to record local musician Clarence “Tom” Ashley (Hill 20). Ashley arranged for a number of local musicians to accompany him on the records, with Doc Watson playing the guitar. When he first met Watson he was shocked to see a blind mountain folk musician holding an electric guitar. He forbade him to use the instrument despite Watson’s protests that at a lower volume it would be indistinguishable from an acoustic guitar (Hill 20).
Depressed by the incident, Rinzler, Ashley, and Watson set out to find banjo player Jack Johnson as an accompanist. Rinzler decided to spend the time practicing his banjo playing. According to Rinzler, not long into the ride the truck stopped Watson jumped out of the front to join him in the back saying “Let me see that banjo, son.” Watson began playing his version of Tom Dooley and “proceeded to play the hell out of it,” deeply impressing Rinzler with his command of the instrument and strong baritone voice (Hill 21).
Now desperate to record Watson, Rinzler encouraged him to borrow an acoustic guitar from a neighbor and began marketing him on the folk circuit. When he transposed his electric fiddle tunes to the acoustic guitar he created a new style called flatpicking, combining “up and down picking and crosspicking” (Hill 33). Don Reno, “probably the first guitar player in bluegrass music to flatpick fiddle tunes,” also reported learning the electric guitar while playing with Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith, and then using that foundation for flatpicking on the acoustic guitar (Miller).
Reno grew up in Haywood County outside of Waynesville, North Carolina, and began playing banjo and guitar at age five. He recorded two of the most famous instrumental hits of all time, Guitar Boogie and Feuding Banjos with Arthur Smith. Feuding Banjos was covered in the movie Deliverance as Dueling Banjos, and launched a mini-bluegrass revival in the early 1970s. Carolina banjo player Snuffy Jenkins heavily influenced Reno’s development. When he turned 12, he he “went into the business professionally at WSPA radio in Spartanburg, South Carolina, with a group known as the Morris Brothers” (Wernick 55).
Reno’s son Don Wayne Reno described the development of his guitar playing to Rob Bulkley in 2007:
I think that came more or less just from playing electric guitar. When he was thirteen he took a bus to Atlanta and played on Jack Guthrie’s Oklahoma Hills. I think he evolved that flatpicking style that he does from picking the electric guitar, and then playing the fiddle tunes with Tommy Magness (one of Bill Monroe’s early fiddle players), trying to figure out the notes on the guitar (Miller).
Reno’s guitar style incorporated “a strong melodic sense, flashy runs, jazzy chord solos, harmonized scales, and effects such as sliding down the fingerboard, ‘zooming’ from a high note to a low” (Miller). When he developed his banjo playing, Don Reno described “taking stuff from the guitar and transplanting it onto the neck of the five-string banjo” (Wernick 55). He developed his banjo playing, called single-string, after World War II. Son Don Wayne said, when his dad returned from service and began playing around Columbia, that “people told him that ‘You sound just like Earl Scruggs.’ He said that really bothered him, considering he never played a banjo while he was in the service and when he returned to the U.S., he continued to play in the style he had always played before” (Reno).
Though Earl Scruggs made the three-finger technique popular, it has been widely established to have been a North Carolina Piedmont style. Descended from a combination of the “classical” turn-of-the-century parlor banjo playing of Fred Van Eps and African-American blues and ragtime musical influence, Charlie Poole of the North Carolina Ramblers first transformed it into a “raggy, percussive style whose prominent upbeat, expressed by tight stiff chords snatched often from positions high on the banjo neck, echoed the rhythmic pulse of the older mountain clawhammer or frailing styles” (Cantwell 54).
Carolina natives Smith Hammet, Mack Woolbright, Rex Brooks, and Johnny Whisnant all played in a three-finger style and, while playing guitar in a band with Brooks and Hammet, Snuffy Jenkins learned the style (Artis 43). Jenkins, “a product of Harris, North Carolina, had taken the technique to the largest audience through his performances on WBT in Charlotte in 1934 and on WIS in Columbia, South Carolina, after 1937” (Malone 327). Ralph Stanley, Don Reno, Earl Scruggs, and a host of lesser-known banjo players acknowledge learning three-finger banjo from Jenkins (Rosenburg 284). So Reno developed a new banjo style called single string that focused less on the arpeggio technique of Poole, Jenkins, and Scruggs, and instead he took the fiddle tunes he played on the electric guitar and played them on the banjo.
Shelby, North Carolina, has produced a number of important musicians like Don Gibson, the author of “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” The best known of these is Earl Scruggs, whose three-finger banjo style drove the music of Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys. He and Lester Flatt provided the soundtrack to the TV show The Beverly Hillbillies and the movie Bonnie and Clyde. Scruggs also played one of the earliest lead guitars in bluegrass, based on a combination of Carter scratch and three-finger banjo. Scruggs recalled,
When I would play with my older brother, he wanted me to play guitar with him because he wanted to play the banjo. So anyway, I started playing guitar back as far as I can remember. My idol at the time—the main person I loved the most—was Momma Maybelle Carter, so that’s who I copied. (Willis)
Scruggs played the melody with his thumb and picked two accompanying notes on adjacent strings with his fingers, essentially his banjo style on the guitar.
A few common threads run through the playing and lives of each of the four musicians, but none affected all four. Don Reno and Doc Watson both developed their styles playing fiddle tunes on the electric guitar, but neither George Shuffler nor Earl Scruggs played electric. Earl Scruggs and George Shuffler both worked in Piedmont mills, but Watson and Reno did not. Scruggs, Watson, and Shuffler first played guitar using the Carter scratch method, but Reno never did. Scruggs, Reno, and Shuffler acknowledged Snuffy Jenkins as an early influence, but Watson did not.
Many western Carolina musicians gave similar responses when asked why they began playing with a flatpick instead of in the thumb-and-one fingerstyle common in the Piedmont. George Shuffler responded that “it just seemed like the thing to do,” and another local bluegrass musician responded that “that’s what you do with one” (Shuffler 23 Nov 2009 and Martin 23 Nov 2009). Only Shuffler, Reno, and Watson played with a flatpick. Shuffler, Reno, and Scruggs all developed their styles as part of the commercial bluegrass industry, but Watson claimed to have never played bluegrass. Scruggs, Reno, and Watson all played the banjo, but Shuffler did not. Of all these factors, none accounts for the playing of all four, but by concentrating on two of them — the banjo and bluegrass itself — we can gain a clearer understanding of why the acoustic lead guitar emerged out of North Carolina.
One of the most significant factors may be that bluegrass emerged as all four of these musicians came of age. Bob Artis pointed out in Bluegrass that “the Carolinas have often been called the true cradle of bluegrass music because of their wealth of great musicians” (Artis 61). The other reason that North Carolina was the cradle of bluegrass was because in many ways, bluegrass began in the region. Bob Carlin in String Bands of the North Carolina Piedmont and Patrick Huber in Linthead Stomp have both traced the development of the guitar/banjo/fiddle combos commonly called string bands or old-time bands. Both authors argued that North Carolina Piedmont musicians had been influential during the early days of country music — at the time called hillbilly — and that the region had been overlooked because of a focus on the music of the Carolina mountains.
These string bands were the musical predecessors of bluegrass bands, and many string bands transitioned to bluegrass when Bill Monroe’s music became popular. Another reason for the music’s popularity in the Tar Heel State was that both the Monroe Brothers and the Bluegrass Boys’ music was “tremendously popular…in the Carolinas, enhancing the already enviable reputation the Monroes had established on some of the major country radio stations” (Artis 16). With both bands Monroe had forged his reputation in North Carolina, playing on radio stations out of Raleigh, Charlotte, Hickory, and Asheville.
Bill and his brother Charlie both moved to North Carolina in the 1930s, and the music spread quickly throughout the region. When bands made the transition from string bands to bluegrass bands, the main changes were the inclusion of a Scruggs-style banjo player instead of a mountain or clawhammer player, the addition of a mandolin player, and the fact that the banjo, fiddle, and mandolin all took breaks, instead of just the fiddle. Only the bass and the guitar remained rhythm instruments.
The guitar usurped the place of the banjo in the South because of its greater bass range and versatility; it gave bands a harmonic center and made chord forms more exact. Listening to the early string band recordings of Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers, it becomes clear the guitarist Riley Pucket often does not know which chords go with which parts of the melody. As the guitar became more commonplace, the chords became more important, while in earlier banjo and fiddle duets the banjoist often played the melody of the entire song over the (I) chord, and unresolved dissonances abounded.
By the time Bill and Charlie Monroe formed the Monroe Brothers, the guitar had become central to the band, maintaining both a constant rhythm and a harmonic center, as well as filling in bass lines in the absence of a bass player. When bluegrass with its alternating solos came along, guitar players wanted to be able to play lead along with the other members of the band. Framming, what most people called early guitar playing, only allowed these musicians to keep a rhythm, so it seems natural that bluegrass music would produce lead guitar players, and since bluegrass began in North Carolina it makes sense that the first lead guitar players would come from that area.
Wayne Erbsen claimed that “it was in North Carolina where the banjo became a deeply ingrained part of everyday life. Both blacks and whites frequently played the banjo along with the fiddle for rural dances and frolics” (Erbsen 15). C. P. Heaton put it more simply when he stated “North Carolina is banjo country.” Banjos have always been extraordinarily popular in the state, and no region has maintained or produced more playing styles. North Carolinians kept their banjos much longer than other regions; Heaton notes that by the early 1940s most companies had stopped making five-string banjos altogether. Yet in North Carolina they remained popular, and would soon be rescued from obscurity by Earl Scruggs.
Still, many musicians, both black and white, gave up their banjos for the versatile new guitars. When they did this, they often transferred their banjo methods directly to the guitar, as discussed in the formation of Carter scratch. In African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia, Cece Conway argued briefly that many of the black players she researched had used banjo techniques on their new guitars. One, Thomas Burt of Durham, described a Saturday-night dance:
They’d kick up and dance. They’d kick up more dust, I declare! We used to sit and play all night long some nights and they’d dance all night. We’d play some sort of fast music for them to dance by—never played no blues or nothing. I used to tune my guitar in the tune of a banjo and play. They’d kick up and cut up just like it was a banjo. (5)
All four of the musicians discussed here based their lead guitar playing on earlier banjo music, though often this connection was indirect or second generation. George Shuffler claimed that there were few guitar or banjo players in the very religious town of Valdese in his youth, but said that he did listen to Snuffy Jenkins on the radio in his youth (Shuffler 4 Dec 2009). He based his crosspicking on Scruggs and Jenkins’ banjo rolls, and the bass lead of Mother Maybelle Carter, who had in turn created her guitar playing out of the clawhammer style she played as a child.
Doc Watson played banjo in a distinctive “two-finger technique with a consistent index finger lead,” which he learned from his family (Heaton). When he also began imitating Maybelle Carter’s guitar playing, he was really just transferring his banjo playing to the guitar. Then when he began playing scratch with a flatpick, he laid the foundations for his later flatpicking.
Don Reno played both the guitar and banjo from age five. His first banjo was a fretless homemade affair, and throughout his career he spoke openly about playing guitar leads on the banjo, and banjo and fiddle rhythms on the guitar. Like Shuffler, he learned banjo from Snuffy Jenkins. Earl Scruggs began playing guitar in the Maybelle Carter style, and added in the finger rolls he had learned from Jenkins and a host of other players in and around Shelby and Rutherfordton.
With all four musicians the point was to find a way to play rhythm and lead at the same time, a problem banjo players had solved generations before the guitar. Again, it seems only logical that North Carolina musicians would take the banjo traditions of their respective regions and add them to the new guitar playing.
In fact, the specific regional influences of the banjo can be seen in the later guitar styles. Doc Watson played in the up-picking style, in which “the melody is plucked by the ‘up-pick’ of the index finger, then the nail brush and thumb “kick-off” follow as in the frailing style used in clawhammer banjo. A variant used by Bascom Lamar Lunsford and other North Carolina players involves an upward index-finger brush rather than the brush downward with the nails (Heaton).
Watson has claimed that the first person he ever heard flatpick fiddle tunes was Don Reno, and says that he heard George Shuffler crosspick with the Stanley Brothers. Watson combined crosspicking and flatpicking into a style all his own, whereas Shuffler was influenced by the forward three finger rolls of Snuffy Jenkins and Earl Scruggs. Watson based his crosspicking on his own up-picking banjo playing. Thus while Shuffler always played a down-down-up pattern and played the melody in the bass, Shuffler used varying patterns of down-down-up and down-up-up as well as the alternating down-up-down. As a result Watson often carried his melodies in the high strings and the rhythm in the bass, heard in the crosspicking section of Beaumont Rag, among other places. Similarly, Earl Scruggs played the forward banjo rolls of Cleveland and Rutherford County in his lead playing. These musicians drew on their traditional influences and used them in innovative approaches to a new instrument.
Four of the earliest and most important lead guitarists in bluegrass all came from within 100 miles of each other in western North Carolina: Earl Scruggs from Shelby, Don Reno from Waynesville, Doc Watson from Deep Gap, and George Shuffler from Valdese. North Carolina was uniquely situated to produce flatpickers in this period. The two most important factors in the development of North Carolina lead guitar were earlier banjo traditions and the fact that all four musicians were born between 1923 and 1927, entering the music world about the time that bluegrass emerged in the state. Early guitarists imitated more established instruments when they created their new styles; the Delmore Brothers played the guitar like a mandolin, and Charlie Cline and others played in a fiddle style. North Carolina emerged as the birthplace of bluegrass lead guitar because the musicians had a number of older banjo techniques on which they could base their playing.
John Martin was born and raised in Shelby, North Carolina, and earned his B.A. degree from Appalachian State University. This article was adapted from a paper he wrote while a graduate student at Appalachian State, where his main research interest was southern musical traditions.
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2 thoughts on “A History of Bluegrass Guitar in Western North Carolina”
I have a fiddle, handmade by Charlie Wilson, bluegrass musician. He made it probably back in the 1930’s. He gave it to my Grandfather who was a friend of his, in exchange for a favor my Grandfather did for him and his family, and he didn’t have money to pay him, and he wanted to give him something special in return. the fiddle is made of mahogany? or some beautiful wood, and a big snappinh tortoise shell. The neck and head are also handcarved. The head is of a little boy, as if though he is being devoured by the tortoise. Each part of the fiddle was handmade carefully. It is a real work of art. It has a very low sou.d when it is played, low and deep, but not very resonant over all. Still, it was an intetesting experiment, and I will always treasure it, and take good care of it.
Your fiddle sounds really interesting. I’d love to see a photo of it. Wayne