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Hello and welcome to my Don Reno Workshop. It was a real honor to be asked to create this resource. I would like to thank Tony for the opportunity to help others learn Reno style banjo. Don is the most unappreciated banjo (and guitar) player from the first generation pickers, even though his style was much more complex than his contemporaries. His contributions to the world of bluegrass are tremendous. It is my hope that with help from all of you that Don Reno will finally get the credit he deserves in the music world.
For the past 13-14 years Don
Reno has been my inspiration and mentor. What’s amazing is that after all
of these years listening to Reno day in and day out, I still hear
something new that I didn’t catch before. Whether it be a certain roll, a
lick, back-up, or just little nuances, the listener is constantly treated
to something new. In this
workshop we will examine some of Don’s licks, back-up, theory, and
arrangements. We will dissect
some of his best licks and techniques to explain how it is done. I do not want to tab out whole
songs but I want to teach you the tools to help you figure them out on
your own. Developing a good
ear is very important and learning completely from tab can hinder your
ability to learn by ear. I am
not the best Reno style picker in the world but, hopefully what little bit
I do know can help others enjoy Don Reno’s wonderful style. I hope it will bring you as much
joy as it has to me over the years.
Understanding Don Reno
Before we get into learning anything on the banjo itself we need to understand a few things about Don Reno. Don was a very soulful musician, much like a blues musician or jazz musician. I always say he is the Django Reinhardt of bluegrass banjo. Now with this being said, understand that it is not necessarily the notes he plays as much as it is the “feeling” he puts into the notes. You can teach anyone notes but you can not teach the “feeling”. It has to come from within yourself. A good example of this is Don’s version of “My Old Kentucky Home”. I have never heard so much “feeling” put into a song. I think it is one of Don’s greatest recordings. It is nearly impossible to reproduce. Don’s style is almost a freeform style that is very spontaneous. To play true Reno style you have to play how you feel, not exactly what's learned from a tab. One of the many things that makes his style so special is that it can be used as a means to express your feelings, where in other styles it is a little more mechanical and repetitious. If you want to try and get as close as you can to Don’s “feel” you have to immerse yourself in his music and of course - practice, practice, practice. Listen to him all the time and eventually these things will begin to seep into your subconscious. With practice, before you know it will come out on your banjo neck. This applies to any musician’s style that you are trying to emulate. You have to try and learn that musician’s way of thinking. But use Don’s style as a vehicle for the creation of your own style and licks. Learning his way of thinking will help you do new things you never thought of. Remember you can never beat a person at his own style but you can learn enough from them to start your own. The key thing to remember is “the feel”. It isn’t what you play, it is how you play it and it doesn’t need to be difficult to be good. If it doesn’t have “Soul” then it’s just notes.
Some ways of putting “feeling” into the song are choosing how hard to hit a note, how you hit the note, where to hit the note, and the distance your right hand is away from the bridge. Right hand position plays huge part of putting “feeling” into a song. Don moved his right hand away from and to the bridge a lot to get different sounds. Usually on slow songs Don would move more towards the neck, away from the bridge. But he would also get close to the bridge for a more bright and powerful tone on faster tunes. Sometimes he would do both techniques in the same song. Back up is usually played with the right hand closer to the neck. It all depends on the mood and sound that he wanted. It is up to you to decide where to use these techniques to get your own “feeling” across to the listener.
Another important thing is, don’t be afraid of making mistakes. Spontaneity is “key” in Reno style. Don hardly ever did the same thing twice exactly the same way. Play for the moment. Don would try something new whenever it came to him instead of practicing it 3000 times before a show. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. But when you pull off something new it is one of the greatest feelings in the world. I am not saying to just go off trying to improvise all the time, you have to have some structure to the song. You have to know your banjo neck very well to improvise. It takes years of hard practice before you can gain the knowledge to help you pull of the inspirations in your head. Remember to relax and have fun, that’s what Don did!
Now, on to a more technical aspect of Don’s banjo picking. It is no secret that Don was one of the best and very first guitar pickers in bluegrass. His guitar style played a very important part in his banjo style. As with Eddie Adcock, Don used his knowledge of the guitar to develop his unique banjo work. Don always considered himself a guitar picker more than a banjo picker. I think he was the best at both! But, if you are an accomplished guitar picker then it will be a big asset to you in learning Reno style banjo. If you don’t play the guitar, you should learn a little. That way you can be able to show people the chords to the tunes and you can also follow a guitar players chords when they are doing a song that you don’t know.
The Capo Myth
I have heard so many times that Don Reno never used a capo. Well “never” is a pretty strong word. Some people get pretty defensive when I tell them that Don did use a capo.
Yes I said it, Don Reno did use a capo….well sort of. Here’s the truth about Don and the capo. Reno used the capo many times on his recordings but, only on records. I don’t know of any instance that he used a capo outside of the studio with Red Smiley or Bill Harrell. The only time that Don was known to use a capo on stage was with the Bill Monroe back in the 40’s because Bill asked him to. In fact Don Reno stopped using the capo completely in the late 60’s.
There are a few reasons that Don did not use a capo in a live situation. Number one - they are a pain to use. You always have to retune. Another reason was that Don was the MC for their shows. He was too busy to fool with the capo and talk at the same time. But the main reason is that when you put a capo on, it limits your ability to use the whole neck of your banjo. As you know Don was all over the neck. He may have wanted to hit lower notes that weren’t available to him once the capo is on. Plus when you get used to playing without one and you put a capo on, it throws you completely off! As for later years with Bill Harrell, I think he stopped using one in the studio because he had become known for not using one. It became part of the Don Reno style. Some of the tunes Don recorded using a capo were the original “Charlotte Breakdown”, “Bringing In That Georgia Mail”, “Love Please Come Home”, “Dixie Breakdown”, “San Antonio Rose”, and many others. So when someone tells you Don Reno never used a capo you just tell them “Yes he did but only in the studio!”
The Capo-To use or not to use
That is the question. Well honestly that depends on what sound you want. If you are trying to be like Reno then you wouldn’t be wrong for using a capo or not using one. But, here’s my opinion on it. Don did abandon the capo in the late 60’s even on records. Though he did many great breaks without the capo, he also did some breaks that didn’t quite “fit” the song he was playing. Now in fairness these were usually “live” situations and not in the studio. An example of this is Don Reno’s version of “Pike County Breakdown” in the key of A without a capo. It wasn’t so much that his break was bad, it was the sound that was produced from using closed chord positions. He did a fantastic job at picking it in closed positions. But, some songs like “Pike County Breakdown” and “Doing My Time” have a certain sound using open strings that are characteristic of the song itself. So the question should not be “Can it be done?” but, “Can it be done and sound good.” I hardly ever use a capo myself. But, I will decide whether or not to use one by determining what I think will sound best for the song, not just to show off that I can play without the capo. Remember your job as a band member is to compliment the other members of the band and the singers with your playing, not to show off. But, don’t use the capo as a “crutch” either. Some players get too dependent on their capo. Any tune in “D” shouldn’t really need a capo. Also playing a tune like Rawhide in the key of C should not require a capo either. It is all a matter of choosing what’s best for that particular song. You have to make that decision for yourself but you need learn to play without a capo first before you can make that choice.
Set-up and picks
If you want to pick like Reno then you probably want your banjo to sound like Don’s too. Who wouldn’t? Well, that will be impossible because a lot of the sound comes from the person, not the instrument. But, you can do some things to help you get closer. We will be referring to the sound of his Gibson not the brash Stelling sound in his later years. Don’s banjo wasn’t “thuddy” like a lot of banjos. His banjo was bright and clear. So keep the tension tight on the banjo head. Another thing that helps achieve Don’s tone is to thin the banjo bridge. Most new banjo bridges are way too thick. Don would always thin down his bridges to get a brighter better tone. Don always used light gauge strings along with a close string action. Don didn’t pick as hard as some and very rarely broke strings. Reno’s picks are important too. He used custom stainless steel finger picks most of his career. Though in the early 50’s he probably used regular National finger picks. Also Don used a metal thumb pick in a lot of those old recordings. But, he usually used a clear plastic “Dobro” thumb pick through most of his career. The thumb pick is very important in achieving Don’s tone. Reno would sand the blade of the thumb pick (on the top side) thinner. Not too thin but just enough to get the tone he wanted. This produces a certain tone with the brush technique and single string picking. You can play around with these combinations to get the sound that is right for you.
Getting Started – Earl versus Don
Ok we will assume that you already play the banjo “Scruggs” style so take a deep breath and get ready for what I am about to say…”Forget everything you have learned.”. Nah, I am just kidding but you will have to “re-learn” some things to get that Reno sound. Sometimes it is actually harder to unlearn something than it is to start from scratch. Don used different rolls than Scruggs, therefore his licks were different. For instance listen to the sound bite for the difference in this classic lick in Scruggs style and Reno style.
This particular lick is the result of Don not using the “forward backward roll” that is a fixture in Scruggs style. It is a subtle difference the way Don does it but it is a crucial part of Reno’s sound.
A key aspect on Don’s playing was that he led with his 1st finger (pointer finger) a lot, where Scruggs would usually lead with his thumb. Don would hit more melody notes with his 1st finger than Scruggs would have. This is especially evident in the “Foggy Mt. Breakdown Roll” as some call it. Don would use his 1st finger to hit the hammer-on notes instead of the thumb and rolls it different as well. Also Don does another variation of this lick that only works when the chord change goes to “D” chord. You leave the 1st open and come up to the 7th fret on the third string to do the hammer-on while fretting the 2nd string on the 7th fret. This is pure genius! Only Don could have re-worked one of the most used licks in the banjo world. He used this quite a bit in later years. Listen to later versions of Charlotte Breakdown. Check out these Reno variations of the “Foggy Mt. Breakdown” lick.
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