In Praise of the Banjo

Feb 8, 2023 | Uncategorized, Welcome Column

The banjo has always held a certain fascination for me. I was enthralled when Bill Evans presented his Banjo in America extravaganza ten years ago. What a cool instrument I thought, as Bill played through a series of vintage instruments to illustrate the venerable history of the banjo. I began to wonder about how cool it would be to actually be able to play a banjo.

But to my naive mind, playing the banjo meant putting on three finger picks and producing machine gun rolls and bluegrass licks at lightning speed. That instrument is obviously way too hard to even want to think about trying to play. After all, I’d been struggling with the mandolin for many years and was nowhere close to being as skilled on it as I would like to be. Forget about it.

Then fate brought a real banjo right into our home. My daughter Juliet already knew how to finger pick a guitar pretty well and she expressed an interest in applying that skill to the banjo. For those of you who don’t know about such things, the three middle strings on a five string banjo are tuned to the same notes as three of the adjoining strings on the guitar. By chance, a couple of weeks after my daughter expressed an interest in the banjo, my friend Floyd needed some ready cash to buy the banjo of his dreams. He was willing to let his perfectly good Epiphone go for even less than a “good friend” price in order to buy a top of the line Gibson.

I was now the owner of a five string banjo that I hadn’t the slightest idea of how to play. Not only that, I had no desire to even try to learn to play it because I knew it would be too much work. There’s only one solution to this problem.

“Juliet, I bought you something today. Here’s your new banjo.”

She took to it like fleas to a dog. I can’t say “a duck to water” because the banjo is not a cliche sort of instrument at all. I soon learned that fact as my daughter picked up the instrument and reeled off Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide, something I’d never imagined hearing on a banjo.

As the weeks went by, I became curious about that banjo sitting up in Juliet’s room. She hadn’t played it that often and I wanted to hear its sound again so I wandered up there one evening and asked if I could play it. “Of course, Dad. You paid for it.”

Maybe she didn’t realize that in this case, the courtesy of asking to play another person’s instrument wasn’t only about my rights as a benefactor. I had absolutely no idea how to play the thing and she might be setting herself up for some serious musical torture. I could have adjourned to some haven where nobody could hear my terrible playing but I decided to just noodle around quietly as best I could. No big deal.

If there’s one thing a banjo is not, it’s quiet. Noodling around as quietly as possible subjects anyone in the room to whatever you happen to be playing, for better or worse. I knew the banjo was tuned to an open G chord so I raked it with my bare fingers. I produced a beautiful sound! How hard can this be? I continued to noodle quietly and before I knew it I was playing a reasonable version of Will the Circle be Unbroken. The experience of playing the banjo was intoxicating!

Let me warn you right now. Don’t ever just pick up a banjo and start noodling. Think about all the harm that careless act will eventually do to your reputation. Think of all the banjo jokes you will hear. Maybe there’s a reason for all those insulting jokes. The banjo is a dangerous instrument. Hooked on bluegrass is one thing. It assumes some exposure to banjo, but being hooked on banjo is a different thing altogether.

If you have enjoyed playing any other fretted instrument, in my opinion, you owe it to yourself to at least try the banjo. You will discover a number of advantages and disadvantages relative to your instrument. One advantage is volume. It takes very little effort to produce a lot of sound from a banjo (be careful what you wish for!). Sometimes I really have to slam my mandolin really hard just to be heard at a big jam. And it has twice as many strings as a fiddle or bass. Playing with a flat pick just doesn’t cut through without doubling the GDAE of the louder fiddle. Most jammers know to get quiet for the guitar solo. And when the banjo plays they know how to keep slamming away at those backup chords like there’s no tomorrow!

Besides the effortless volume, the banjo has other advantages. When I started learning the mandolin I struggled with hammer ons, pull offs and slides. You kill your fingers and they still don’t sound that good. On the banjo they’re like butter. And you can play all day and your fingertips don’t feel like hamburger.

There are disadvantages too. The volume of a banjo gives you no place to hide if you’re jamming. And to anyone familiar with another fretted instrument, the banjo can be extremely frustrating because of that pesky fifth string. The first four strings start at the nut but that drone string for some reason has its own peg and starts five strings up the neck. Even after ten years at the mandolin I still pick mostly at the end of the neck. I’m accustomed to picking the string closest to my chin and knowing that the fret to finger is the fret that is also closest to my chin at the end of the fretboard.

The fifth string on a banjo changes all that. I can’t tell you how many notes I’ve missed by plucking the top string and not having a finger at the other end. I’ve seen banjos with the fifth string tuned from the nut and I would be tempted to buy a banjo like that just for that feature. Using the capo on such a banjo would be simpler too. Fortunately my banjo has a fifth string capo so changing keys is pretty easy.

After a few months of noodling on the banjo in my spare time I was able to play six tunes fairly well with no instruction: Will the Circle be Unbroken, Cripple Creek, I’ll Fly Away, Home Sweet Home, Cluck Old Hen and Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring. I hadn’t learned a single thing reading tab from a book. Every tune is just my own arrangement from noodling around. For me, that’s what makes the banjo so addictive. It’s easy to figure out where the notes are and if you hit a wrong string in the open tuning it might sound better than what you wanted to play anyway. I’m totally into bluegrass but honestly, of the six tunes I know so far, the one that sits best on a banjo for me is Bach’s Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring. I would recommend that 9/8 tune to any of you banjo enthusiasts out there because it’s so much fun to play.

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