Hooked on Bluegrass

Kipper Stitt

Well, you hear so many stories of the first and second-generation performers in bluegrass that as children they would gather around the radio every Saturday night and listen to the Grand Ole Opry. They would hear Uncle Dave Macon, Stringbean, or Earl Scruggs and that was their inspiration. I was born in Orlando, FL in 1965. My childhood and early teenage years were spent in the 70’s. I had heard my parents and grandparents talk about the Grand Ole Opry and how they’d listened to it years earlier while living in Georgia and Alabama. I wasn’t sure if you could even get it on the radio in Central Florida. In fact, the thought never even occurred to me. However, every Saturday evening Hee-Haw was on TV and mom and dad watched it. I loved to watch Roy Clark and Buck Trent play the banjo. I also liked it when “Buck and Roy” would play Cripple Creek (except I thought the name of the song was “Nad-a-Lant-Dant, Nad-a-La…….”). I also enjoyed watching The Beverly Hillbillies and Andy Griffith.

When I was twelve I told my parents that I’d like either a fiddle or a banjo for Christmas. My whole family is really musical; my mom plays piano and guitar, and my grandmother played the guitar very well, Granddad played the guitar and fiddle, and I had two great grandfathers from both sides of the family that played banjos (although I never knew them). Granddad told my parents that fiddle was a lot harder to play and a banjo would be a better thing to get. So they went to a pawnshop and bought a banjo for $75. Granddad told my dad that it was a good banjo because it had a lot of brackets on it. I’ll never forget getting it that Christmas morning. Granddad and Grandmother came over that day and he helped me get the banjo in tune and explained how his dad would play it rapping style (frailing or clawhammer). He told me he could remember waking up every morning hearing his father play the banjo in front of the fireplace. Granddad was missing his right thumb at the knuckle, so it made it a little difficult for him to show how the thumb worked on the fifth string. Anyway, He told me that he thought it sounded better when the banjo was finger picked instead of rapping. I started picking around on the strings (I didn’t have any finger picks), and I figured out what I later found out to be a thumb-in-and-out roll. Granddad showed me the C and D chords, and that was about all he knew. Grandmother would strum her guitar and sing, and I’d just sort of play along with them. I’d already learned to play some on the guitar, so it didn’t seem that foreign.

I went to a music store and got a couple of banjo books, which I still have now. I got Fun with the Banjo for 5 string or plectrum and Banjo Method by Frank Bradbury. They taught a classical approach to learning the banjo and not bluegrass style by any means. A few weeks later, my mom found a banjo teacher at the local music store and I went for lessons. My teacher showed me how to read tablature, and had me purchase the Bluegrass Banjo Book by Pete Wernick. He also had me get the Earl Scruggs book, along with the Melodic Banjo book by Tony Trischka. I took lessons with him for about three months. He was mostly a guitar player who only knew a little bit of banjo on the side. He told my mom at one point that he’d taught me all he knew, but mom asked him to k eep teaching me, so I’d have someone to pick with. He told us about the whole concept of jamming and stressed how important it was, and we started going out to find some places to pick. Once I got around to places like that, I dropped the lessons and just started learning it on my own.

(posted 2/3/2008)

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