Breaking it Down

Written by:

Last week I took my banjo apart, right down to the smallest pieces. It was the scariest thing I’ve ever done, but I felt like I had to do it sometime, and I had put it off long enough. I am in the childhood of my banjo life, something like preschool age, and I knew you can’t be a banjo grownup until you’ve learned how to take comprehensive care of your instrument. That begins with being familiar with every part of it. So, in I jumped.

The fear of not being able to put it back together was riding me the whole time. I guess I knew that if I really fouled it up I could always take it over to Larry Cohea, who would wave his hands over it and make it like nothing ever happened. But how ashamed I’d be. And besides, what if Larry was busy and I had to go a day or more without it? Maybe he had a loaner, like an auto shop. I didn’t want to find out.

I had just been rereading Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” so I was fully briefed on how you should approach this kind of thing. No pressure, first of all. When something doesn’t seem to make sense, no problem-solving allowed. Just sit back and stare at it, think about something else, and soon enough a solution will come to you.

Pirsig also recommends taking notes, describing every piece as it comes off, so you can follow your steps backwards when it’s time to put the thing back together. I did him one better, since he probably didn’t have a flip camera. I took a shot of every move I made, and I watched the whole movie all the way through twice before I started putting things back together. All in all, my precautions turned what was probably a two-hour job into an all-day thing.

When I had it all laid out in tiny pieces across my large dining room table, I got out some ultra-fine steel wool and reverently scrubbed off the grime and muck that gathers in the places you can’t get to when all the struts and braces and shims are in the way. This part was fun. There’s something deeply satisfying about laying a nice spit-polish on a piece of metal, even when you know it’s going be grimed right back up in about two days of hard playing.

The banjo has an issue that, when it arises in people, is called the mind-body problem. Ask a philosopher about it. They’ll tell you we have this material body that is palpable, finite, temporal, measurable (not that I do that any oftener than I have to). But associated with this body we have something we call mind that can’t be measured, has no shape or size, can be anywhere at any time (mine certainly is), and can produce things of unlimited complexity and beauty (or so I’ve heard). The problem in brief is how these two things can possibly be connected, even though they clearly are.

The banjo, similarly, exists in physical space as an ungainly contraption, not much to look at except if you like oddly shaped chunks of wood and metal fastened together every which way with bits sticking out here and there. Yet in the hands of someone who knows what they are doing (and even in my hands, on alternate blue moons), this strange assembly can produce such beauty as to transcend mere music. Such a tragic, glorious sound as to make you forsake all others, and forget to feed your cat.

I’m glad I did it. Now that I’ve closely inspected the prosaic little nuts and bolts that make up my banjo’s innards, I wonder even more at this miraculous invention, this unlikely product of the human imagination. And now that it’s over, I may have to take the next logical step. After taking apart a banjo and putting it together, a motorcycle should be a piece of cake.

See the MOLD for some pretty exciting bluegrass travel opportunities.

Read about: