#3. The Single-string Playing of Eddie Adcock and Don Reno

Written by:

Barry R. Willis

The Single-string Playing of Eddie Adcock and Don Reno.

I met Eddie Adcock about 1990 when he was one of the great acts there at the World of Bluegrass when it was based in Owensboro, Kentucky, His band at that time included the award-winning rhythm guitarist Martha Adcock, and award-winning bassist Missy Raines, They performed on the main stage there along the Ohio River.

It was backstage where my claim to fame in bluegrass is. Allow me to tell you this little anecdote. Eddie parked his station wagon behind the huge stage. It was fairly quiet within the car so my recording of the interview proceeded quite well. He invited me to have a beer as we spoke. He was so very interesting to speak with. This recorded interview can be heard in its entirety by downloading it from my website: www.barryrwillis.com.

As time progressed, we finished our beers; he offered me another. I accepted, again. But this time I spilled a bit of it on his carpet. So that’s my claim to fame in the bluegrass world, folks: I spilled Eddie Adcock’s beer in Eddie Adcock’s car. Not everyone can say that, you know. At the time, I was very embarrassed, but now it is my claim to fame! How about that!

Our conversation included his life, his bands, his bosses, and his banjo style. We will discuss his banjo style here in this blog: Each month on this website, we’ll be discussing other important facets and controversies of bluegrass music history.

While a member of Smokey Graves and the Blue Star Boys,, Adcock used three fingers but mostly with a backwards roll. Don Reno showed Adcock how to play a proper three-finger roll and also showed Adcock how to set up his banjo properly and to use metal fingerpicks. Up until that time in 1953, Adcock was still using plastic picks on his fingers and a metal one on his thumb, which is backwards to “bluegrass propriety.” Also, Adcock was using his single-string style, which he, in turn, showed to Reno. [note: Eddie Adcock made it clear to this author that “I believe that Don Reno was inspired by my single-string playing, and not vice-versa…You see, I began music playing flat picked mandolin, guitar, and tenor banjo. Therefore I picked single-string style.] Only later, when Scruggs with Monroe played Scottsville, Virginia’s Victory Theater, did I, at about age ten even become aware of the use of thumb and finger-picks; but it would be years before I used them myself. What I did was simply to transfer my flat pick method to fingerpicks–it was single-string style, therefore; and that’s all I knew. I had no one to learn the roll from. My main exposure to banjo…I heard Scruggs on the Opry, I tried to duplicate his sounds with a flat pick on my brother Bill’s old Gretsch tenor banjo.”

About this time, the event of Elvis Presley hit the world. Adcock was doing tent shows with Smokey Graves and the Blue Star Boys and doing okay financially. But “When Elvis hit,” said Eddie, “he hit every music industry so hard that they had to revamp and figure out what to do. The only person selling records at this point in time was Elvis Presley and no one else. Country music said, `Let’s add horns and symphonies or whatever the hell we can find to add to try to get a different light ahead of us.’ Bluegrass people said, `I wouldn’t add no horn in my music if it was the last damn thing I ever did in my life. So the bluegrass people separated from the country. Up until Elvis, bluegrass and country were one and the same music…The public knew nothing about bluegrass music until that separation and it got to where, in about 1958, it had a totally different identity. So bluegrass waited it out and, although it’s been slow, it’s working. We have our own identity now.”

Eddie spoke to this writer of his time with Mac Wiseman’s Country Boys back in 1956, playing frequently on WRVA’s Old Dominion Barn Dance. Mac paid Eddie $90 per week—a lot of money. ”There was weeks that I made $300–selling songbooks in Canada to 3400 to 3500 people,” he reminisced. “That’s what Mac drew in those days. There has never been a star as big as Mac in bluegrass music. A lot of people don’t know that. I sure as hell hope there will be some day. And something else—Mac never missed having a hit record in a ten-year period yet. No bluegrasser can say that. His last one was about ten years ago, `Johnny’s Cash and Charlie’s Pride.’ He’s got more hits than anybody. I was in that last band as his banjo player (Adcock was the last full-time banjo player Wiseman ever had). Mac moved to California and worked as an A & R man for Dot. He made his fortune playing on the road. He still probably makes more today than any of us.”

Eddie told me of one matter which was very sensitive and important to him; it concerns his single-string playing, which is the main focus of this article/blog. He told Peter Kuykendall in an article called “II Generation” (in Bluegrass Unlimited magazine, 1975) that during the ’50s, his single-string playing was strongly influenced by Les Paul’s very popular act. “They made a big change in my single-string work during that time. I think I may have influenced much of Don Reno’s single-string stuff from what I was doing. [Don] didn’t do too much single-string stuff when I first met him but it seemed that I would hear him do more after I had been doing it.”

Adcock continued in this thought, “I have always loved Don, God rest his soul, and his family. He was a sweet man; and I am not telling this to try to shadow his greatness but merely to set the record a little straighter.

“Also that day, I showed Don my playing and he was extremely interested in my single-string style. He was playing mostly the moving chord style then. I didn’t think I was very good but he liked what I did. And he shortly went and told Mac Wiseman, who was having hit record after hit record, and who had just lost Donnie Bryant, that he should take me on.” There, with Wiseman’s Country Boys, he played both the roll and single-string styles.

“…The truth is, I think I did inspire him to play more single-string—but certainly not my single-string. You can ask his kid, Don Wayne Reno [who can play Reno-style exactly like Don Reno did]. He’ll tell you that Eddie Adcock don’t play a damn single note of Don Reno’s single-string style. And at the same time, I can tell you that Don Reno didn’t play a single note of my single-string style. We had a different approach–another way of doing things. We were both guitar players, which made our theories and ideas about playing a lot alike. But at the same time, they were different in the way they were delivered. He was big for barring things where I work out of a scale position. The way I always felt about that is that Don’s sounds faster and mine is faster. He was reaching for it in a different way entirely. Because I came just a bit later on than he did, and I had a jazz guitarist show me the best method of playing that there ever was, he had to struggle to get some of the things I got with ease. By that time, Reno was too far along with his own style to change. And this wasn’t because of talent. It was because he learned to do it the hard way. He did it wonderfully and got good results, but I did it easier because of what that jazz musician showed me.”

In the Washington, D.C. area in June of 1957, Adcock played rhythm guitar with Buzz Busby and the Bayou Boys. He had just started with the band, taking the place of Charlie Waller. Bill Emerson was the banjoist. Vance Truell played bass. Buzz Busby played mandolin. Charlie Waller, according to Adcock, wasn’t with the band at that time. Then, the car accident occurred which resulted in the formation of the Country Gentlemen. Sonny Presley was driving and fell asleep. The accident put him in the hospital for many weeks. Bill Emerson was not in the car. Adcock and Truell were severely hurt. It was a miracle that anyone survived. It wrecked Adcock’s 1927 Gibson Mastertone.

To fill Busby’s regular gig at Bailey’s Crossroads, Virginia, Emerson called John Duffey and Charlie Waller to replace Busby and Adcock. Bill Emerson started the band—according to both Eddie Adcock and Bill Emerson in separate statements to this writer. Emerson did the calling. He started the Country Gentlemen.

When Adcock recovered from his injuries in August, he joined Bill Monroe’s traveling band for about six months. Ed Mayfield was on guitar; Red Taylor had just taken Kenny Baker’s place on fiddle. “I worked on Bill’s farm, too,” said Eddie in an interview with Pete Kuykendall. “When you worked with Bill you worked with Bill at everything. We planted tobacco and all when I was with him. He was out there with us right alongside doing his part, too. I don’t regret that at all. It was good training. It’s helped me a lot since then. We used to work six to eight hours per day on the farm, and then go play a show that night.” They made $14 to $17 per night. This was split between four people. “I made less money with Bill Monroe than anyone I ever worked for in my life.”

Again with the Kuykendall interview, Adcock said, “I was with Bill…at a time when he wasn’t drawing flies. That’s not to say anything bad about him, because all of bluegrass was rough then. We worked some places that didn’t even have floors. Sometimes I went two or three days without food.” In a different interview, Adcock said “We worked places with no floors in them. A theater in Kentucky, for example, I remember, two old pot-bellied stoves for heat. They’d shovel coal in them for heat and sit right on the plank seats on the dirt (in Nashville with Monroe). I had a room in the Clarkston Hotel. The biggest part of the time, I had money to buy something. My room looked out on the back alley, so it was a little cooler there. I’d buy a loaf of bread and I’d set it out on the window. I ended up just eating bread. At first, I’d set bologna out there; I’d eat one piece of bread, so I could stretch it, that type of thing. It was a very short while, in fact, until Bill moved me out on the farm, along with Ed Mayfield.” People like Marty Robbins and Porter Wagoner generously helped him out with a little food and money. Mayfield died of cancer about two weeks after Adcock left Monroe.

“I quit music and decided I wasn’t going to be hungry anymore. I barely had scraped enough money to take the bus home.” He got a bill-paying day job.

In the winter of 1958, when Porter Church left the Country Gentlemen (after two weeks as their banjoist), Eddie Adcock joined as banjoist. Adcock was twenty. They had already cut three singles by this time. “The Country Gentlemen wanted me to go with them but I didn’t care to go back on the road. Jim Cox, John Duffey and Charlie Waller stayed up the best part of one night begging me to join them. When I said `Yes,’ I hated myself.”

But this was the band which really kicked off the musical career of Eddie Adcock. This twelve-year stay with the Gentlemen was one of the key ingredients to the group’s success. “It’s just a magical thing. It’s a combination–it’s just something that works. I don’t question it.”

Eddie’s career is interesting and long. But we’re not here to discuss his career—only his single-string style. So let’s finish up our conversation on single-string playing.

Banjoist Tony Trischka (www.tonytrischka.com) told this writer in 2021, “For sure, Eddie told me (probably at IBMA 2013 or 2014) that Eddie was the one that got Don Reno into doing full length single-string work, because Don was only doing short licks before Eddie made that suggestion. Eddie also said that Don taught him some rolls because he wasn’t doing much of that.”

            When Eddie was interviewed by Tony Trischka, he said, “I’d heard Earl Scruggs, but Ralph Stanley was the person who made me want to play banjo. Why I created my style was the fear of not being interested in learning [the styles of] Earl Scruggs or [Don] Reno or them people. So I just started playing what I could play: the single-string, Travis style, pedal steel stuff.”

Eddie emphasized, “I want to make sure that everybody knows I didn’t teach Don Reno anything. Don Reno does his own single-string his own way. I learned my single-string even prior to seeing Don. One guy that affected both of us was Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith. He was a hell of a tenor banjo player and I tried to play tenor banjo just exactly like him. So when I got the 5-String, guess what I did? I tuned it like a 5, but I still tried to single string everything. Don heard me play with Smokey Graves [and the Blue Star Boys] and stopped by this radio station—him and Red (Smiley)—and told me he liked my banjo playing. I had two uncomfortable plastic finger picks and he gave me a set of Nationals.

“Don was doing little (single-string) licks. He taught me the roll. I was just doing an (alternating thumb) roll (T I T M). And when I played single-string, it seemed I knew what I was doing. (Don) just showed me the forward roll (I M T I M T I M). I thought it was the most wonderful thing I ever learned. Don was playing licks…single-string licks. I would play a whole tune single-string. And Smokey said ‘more rolls.’

“Don Reno had nothing to do with me playing single-string and, to prove that, I don’t do one single position of the single-string that he does. I know that because Don Wayne (Don Reno’s son) told me [that]. I met Don in ’55, I think. I didn’t show Don Reno anything. I don’t want any of his glory, nor do I want to give any of mine away. I just took the guitar, tenor banjo and mandolin stuff and played it on the 5 string.”

Tony Trischka was kind enough to analyze the single-string styles of Eddie and Don. He wrote, “Eddie Adcock and Don Reno are both banjo pioneers (and in Eddie’s case, still creating) known for their single-string styles. Though, on casual listening, it sounds like they’re doing basically the same thing, they actually each have their own approach. From the transcriptions I’ve done of their playing, and there are, of course, many that I’ve not done, it seems that Don had more of a tendency to work out of chord positions when playing linear licks. His single-string playing on the wonderful “Follow the Leader” has him exclusively choosing notes out of a “D” position, moved around the neck. His single string B part on “Dixie Breakdown” also finds him working out of a D position, but also out of an F position on the C and D chords. With a tune like “Arkansas Traveler,” Don is mixing rolls with single-string on the A Part. He uses the single-string to bring out the exact melody. On the B Part he’s less chord-position-oriented and more scale-oriented, hewing close to the melody of the tune.

“Eddie too, judging from his recordings early on in his career, would sometimes work out of chord positions. I transcribed his single-string solo on “Bluebell” with the Country Gentlemen and he’s working primarily out of a “barre position,” though here and there out of an F position. In a couple of instances Eddie stretches a little bit to break out of a strictly chord box.

“In terms of right hand approaches, Don Reno, as far as I know, always played his single-string style by alternating thumb and index on succeeding eighth notes. In contrast, Eddie would sometimes use three fingers of the right hand: thumb, index and middle, in that order. This is called a forward roll. He would do this often when playing scales and this approach would crop up in his other single-string work as well. Later in his career, Eddie would be less beholden to strict chord positions and would be freer to move within chord positions. Witness “Call Me the Breeze,” His note choices would also be a bit freer and less diatonic (do re mi scale oriented) than Don’s.

“These are my impressions based on transcribing solos and watching them both in person and in videos. There of course may well be exceptions to my limited overview, considering the entire arc of their careers, and music they may have made at home, that stretched beyond what’s out there for public consumption.

“The bottom line is, Don and Eddie have each greatly stretched the boundaries of what can be done on the banjo and any comments I’ve made are not intended to show a preference for one over the other. My respect for both of their contributions runs very deep.”

                Reno historian and student of Reno’s music Jason Skinner posted a 1979 interview of Don Reno in a video called Bluegrass on the Road which took place at Bill Grant’s Bluegrass Festival at Salt Creek Park, Hugo, Oklahoma. Don Reno said, “I was always a breakdown lover, you know. I used to play fiddle a little bit. I wanted to get the same notes on the mandolin as I could on the fiddle, you know. Rolling [on the banjo], it’s hard to do that so I decided, you know, that you can’t use a straight pick and push them a straight (this part of the interview was a bit unintelligible) take two finger picks so I come up for a deal of down on the thumb and up with the first finger. It’s a split-second timing and you get the same effect that you get with a flat pick but then if you want to roll you got your finger picks on so he can roll. And that’s how I come to come up with a one-string stuff, you know—what they call a flat pickin’ now, I guess, on the banjo. I know somebody’s always coming up with a new name—whatever you do. And I don’t care what they call it as long as you listen to it.”

At this point, we need to introduce Jason Skinner, a very proficient Reno-style banjo player, and even plays Reno’s guitar style as well. Jason commented on the difference between Reno’s single-string style versus that of Eddie Adcock.

Mr. Skinner wrote to this writer in 2021, “Hey Barry, Don and Eddie use totally different single-string passages. Unless Eddie does a Reno lick on purpose, most of Don’s single-string licks are based off running through a D or F position chord. Eddie uses a lot of single-string licks based off a barred position. I really don’t play much Adcock style but that’s what I’ve noticed by listening and watching Eddie. Not sure if he purposely avoids Don’s signature patterns to distinguish himself from Don, or that’s just what he came up with naturally.

            Jason added, “Eddie himself told me they use totally different single patterns. Which is obvious if you listen to Don and Eddie. A lot of people try to put Eddie and Don in the same boat. Their styles are completely different. Yes, they both have elements of guitar playing, but the styles are not the same. Eddie gets pretty upset when people do that…notable banjo players that should know better. And I don’t blame him. Eddie is one of the very few that developed a completely different style  of his own. There’s really on a handful of banjo players that have done that…especially notable banjo players that should know better.”

Skinner continued, “We talked about this very thing at Don Wayne Reno’s house one time. Although I don’t play much Adcock style, I love his playing. I do throw in an Adcock-influenced lick once in a while in my playing, I usually stick to strictly Reno. Adcock should be considered a master right up there with Reno, Scruggs and [Bill] Keith.”

Here’s Jason Skinner doing displaying what Don Reno does on his banjo: “Double Mountain Rock” – YouTube

            A lot of folks used to ask Don Reno to play “Arkansas Traveler.” You can see Reno’s style on full display here. Thanks to Jason Skinner for posting it. Also in the band at that time were Mack Magaha on fiddle, Ronnie Reno on mandolin, Red Smiley on guitar, and I’m guessing that’s John Palmer or Duck Austin on bass.

            As long as we’re displaying the styles of these two men from examples on the internet, let’s see what Eddie did with “Downtown Boogie.” Eddie’s style is on full display here. And here.

            More of Don Reno’s style is on display with Don Wayne Reno and Jason Skinner playing “Limehouse Blues” back in 2017 at a workshop in Clarksville, Tennessee.

            So, Readers, you can tell that the styles are completely different. Each man created his own style of single-string banjo playing. Each can be studied separately. Reno began his style to differentiate his playing from Earl Scruggs who had just gained considerable fame during his tenure with Bill Monroe. Eddie created his own style out of his own creative skills, also knowing that he needed to innovate in a way which would make use of his tremendous musical talents. That’s it for this month’s history blog. Next month we’ll plan on delving into the story of Earl Scruggs and Bill Keith and their creation of  Earl Scruggs and the Five String Banjo and the controversy which goes with this story. For more bluegrass history, go to www.barryrwillis.com. For more of these blogs, go to www.barryrwillis.com/blog .