About the Style

2 finger thumb-lead banjo is an Old Time banjo style which is particularly suited to backing up melodically sparse fiddle tunes or accompanying the voice on the 5 string banjo.  The style in its strictest sense is performed using only the thumb and index (or middle) finger – the thumb being used to pick out the melody and the accompanying finger providing a drone on the 1st string (thus the name: thumb-lead).

The above diagram includes the 4 basic “patterns” as presented in Art Rosenbaum’s out-of-print classic, Old Time Mountain Banjo.  The patterns are self explanatory with T=thumb, I=index, and P=thumb/index pinch.  Rhythmically, figure 1 would count one and two and (like bum-pa-dit-ty on clawhammer banjo), while figure 3 would count one, two and (like the basic bum-ditty stroke of clawhammer banjo).  The exercises can be played over and over on their own, or you can mix and match them for some rhythmic diversity.  If all this makes it sound difficult…I promise you it’s not.  Just like anything, with some practice it’ll all come together pretty quickly.

Many of the “old-timers” played in this style, and after living under the shadow of the more popular “clawhammer” style for many years, 2 finger thumb-lead seems to be experiencing a bit of a renaissance among Old Time banjo pickers.

Some folks to listen to and watch:

B.F. Shelton:Pretty Polly‘”, Darling Cora, Oh Molly Dear. Recorded at the 1927 Bristol Sessions. Quintessential thumb-lead picker…too bad we don’t have more from him.

Roscoe Holcomb: While he played some clawhammer, Mr. Holcomb was a thumb-lead banjo (and guitar) picker.  Examples can be found are all over his recordings – a few to check out are Rose Connelly, Wayfaring Stranger, and his wicked version of Cripple Creek.

Lee Sexton:  Even with all of the melody notes on the 1st string and in the upper register, Mr. Sexton’s banjo playing is very much thumb-lead.

Here’s a video from Youtube of a fella named FrostyMorn doing a great version of “Sweet Sunny South“:

Hunter Robertson’s version of B.F. Shelton’s “Darlin’ Cora“:

Lee Sexton playing “Cumberland Gap“:

Lee Sexton playing’ “Shady Grove“, “Little Maggie“, and “Wildwood Flower“:

Here is the link to a 28 minute video about Lee Sexton’s uncle, Morgan Sexton entitled “Bull Creek Banjo Player.” It is incredible: http://www.folkstreams.net/film,216


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