A picker’s life | Larry Duncan | News | The Press and Standard
by The Press and Standard | September 1, 2017 5:00 am
Last Updated: August 30, 2017 at 10:16 am
By GEORGE SALSBERRY
There are two passions in Larry Duncan’s life: his wife Kathy and banjo music.
For nearly half a century, Duncan has been playing bluegrass banjo.
Watch his fingers nimbly fly through the notes and chords as he picks his way through a bluegrass standard and you can see and hear the years of practice.
He said that a musician never stops learning. “I feel like I am still learning,” Duncan explained. “There are still songs that I want to learn and there are licks that I would like to do that I have not accomplished yet.”
Improving means practice alone and playing with others every chance he gets. “You learn more from playing with other people than you do from any book,” Duncan said.
His musical odyssey began with a guitar. An uncle visited Duncan’s boyhood home and gave Duncan and his brother Donn their first music lesson. Shortly after the visit, the uncle sent the brothers a guitar.
“My brother was a better guitar player, so I started looking into other instruments,” Duncan said.
He found the Hawaiian lap steel guitar. It would be the only musical instrument he would learn through formal lessons.
The brothers played at church — Donn on the guitar and Larry on the sacred steel.
“Then the Beatles came out and we went back to guitar and got in some rock and roll bands.” Duncan then taught himself the piano and became a keyboard player in one group. Another band found him playing trumpet.
He was 27 years old and the superintendent of the Santee State Park when he became intrigued by the banjo.
“One of my old hometown buddies came camping and he brought his banjo. He knew I made music — he said bring your guitar to the campsite and we’ll play,” Duncan said.
After finishing his park duties, he went to his old friend’s campsite with his guitar.
His friend “had learned two or three songs on the banjo and was doing real good with it. I said, ‘Man, I have got to learn how to play one of those. I like that.” It was the banjo’s sound that drew him to it.
“Shortly after that, I bought my first banjo. It was a cheap one. Then I wanted to get a good one,” Duncan said.
“At the time I had a boat, motor and trailer. Kathy said if you sell your boat, motor and trailer, you can use that money to buy a banjo,” he explained.
“She didn’t realize I was going to use all of it.” He bought a Gibson Mastertone. “I kept it for 30 years.”
While enamored with the banjo, Duncan still continued to learn new instruments, adding the mandolin, the fiddle and the up-right bass to his collection of self-taught instruments.
He also began learning a different way to play the banjo.
For bluegrass, Duncan uses a three-finger method to play (actually two fingers and a thumb.) The thumb goes downward on the strings, while the two fingers go up to hit the strings. The player wears picks.
Duncan said that is a playing method was developed by Snuffy Jenkins, a picker who relocated to South Carolina and was made famous by Earl Scruggs.
The claw hammer method — the old banjo playing method — uses one finger and a thumb. “Everything is a down beat, there is no picking upward,” Duncan said.
The banjos are different. A bluegrass banjo, because it has to be louder, has a closed back and a resonator that pushes the sound out the front of the banjo.
A claw hammer banjo more closely resembles the first banjos that made their way to America from Africa. Those have an open back.
The claw hammer method of playing is held in distain by some bluegrass pickers. “They say I don’t want anything to do with that claw hammer,” Duncan said.
But Duncan likes the claw hammer method “because you can pick out the notes a little bit more — it has a little more melody.”
“A lot of people love the old time music. Claw hammer banjos, fiddles and mandolins go together,” he explained.
Learning a new instrument, he said, “does seem to come easy to me. Once I learned how to play one instrument, it made it easier. You can use the same theory with all of them.” Although the theory is based on string instruments, he added, “it translates to other instruments.”
Once he learned the G, C and D chords on an instrument, he said, “I can play a thousand songs.”
He admires those who can sight read music, but it is not for him.
“I do it mostly by ear and listening to other people. I can read a little music but it is to slow for me,” he said. “I try not to know enough to hurt my playing,” he joked.
It was that “learning by doing” concept that resulted in Duncan spending time at pickin’ parlors where he could play with other bluegrass musicians.
Those trips, he explained, led to forming the bluegrass band Bells Highway. “We met at pickin’ parlors.”
The kindred spirits — Roger Baker of Cottageville on guitar, Mike Lynch of St. George on bass, Luther Gravitt of Norwood, Ga. on mandolin and Duncan on banjo — became Bells Highway nearly seven years ago.
“We started out just having fun; now we do some paying gigs,” Duncan said.
They are going to be on the road in the coming months, playing at the Twin Oaks Music Park in Hoboken, Ga. in early September and the 49th annual Rebecca Rose Memorial Bluegrass Festival at Mossy Oaks Music Park in Guyton, Ga. in October.
At Twin Oaks, Bells Highway will play two sets of gospel bluegrass on one day, then two sets of traditional bluegrass later in the festival.
Duncan said that in their usual performance, Bells Highway plays a few inspirational tunes. Faced with playing two bluegrass gospel sets at the festival, Duncan said, “We have come up with 28 gospel tunes.”
He also entertains locally. “Every Sunday morning, I go to the Pruitt Health Care and do a Sunday morning program for them,” Duncan said. When he arrives, he will play a couple of songs on the piano as a call to service and then perform other songs on the guitar.
Earlier this month, Larry and Kathy were on the road, accompanied by their 11-year-old grandson, Jacob Duncan, of Bluffton.
Jacob plays piano and drums. He is quite a piano player and recently attended a two-week jazz camp at Hilton Head. “I hope he gets interested in string instruments,” Duncan said.
Their first stop was Galax, Va. It was the fourth straight year that Duncan competed in the claw hammer banjo competition at the 82nd annual Old Fiddler Convention.
Duncan’s time on the stage found him performing “Leather Britches,” accompanied by Lynch on the bass. “It is an old-time tune that has been around for years and years. It is a favorite of cloggers up there,” Duncan said.
The festival organizers only announce the top 10 performers in each category. The claw hammer banjo competition has 103 pickers, while bluegrass banjo drew 139 contestants.
“You are up against some of the best claw hammer pickers around. The contestants come from around the United States and from overseas. You have got a lot of good pickers in both categories,” Duncan said.
“I tell all my friends I have tied for 11th place for four years,” Duncan said. His brother Donn competed for the third straight year in the guitar competition.
The Duncans left Galax on Aug. 13, headed for Marion, N.C. and the 44th annual North Carolina State Bluegrass Festival.
The festival, which runs Thursday through Sunday, has many of the top national bluegrass acts playing.
Like the Duncans, several hundred campers arrive at the festival site early in the week. “On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday we are jamming — once or twice a day you can sit and jam.”