After I started playing the banjo, I told a friend of mine I was thinking about picking up the harmonica too. His response to that was, “Are you ever going to learn an instrument that people like?”
Now, there are plenty of deprecating jokes about the banjo. Most are at the expense of either the instrument or the people who play it. For example, Mark Twain once said that “a gentleman is someone who knows how to play the banjo, but doesn’t.”
It makes sense then, that whenever I tell someone I play the banjo, they inevitably ask me why and I can guarantee that no guitar player gets asked that question with the same kind of accusatory tone.
Some of you might know the banjo from the movie “Deliverance.” It would be so helpful if you forgot you ever watched that movie. For those of you who haven’t, don’t look into it. “Deliverance” did the banjo and banjo players everywhere no favors.
I found a fun YouTube comment once about how the banjo “has to be one of the most unforgiving instruments ever developed. It seems like there is no middle ground. You’re either great, or you’re a creation of Satan, placed on the Earth to torment the rest of mankind.”
I’ll admit I’m no professional banjo player, (and I’m apparently no gentleman) but I think I’m decent. That said, every time I play the thing, I’m a little worried my roommates are going to give me an eviction notice. And I get it, the banjo looks weird, and it's nowhere near as popular as its ubiquitous — probably more appealing to listen to — cousin, the guitar. But I like the banjo; I wouldn’t worry so much about getting evicted if I didn’t at least like it a little bit.
I bought a banjo because I tried my luck with the guitar and never really got anywhere with it. For my musical taste at the time, the banjo was added in as a textural element, relegated to the background of most songs. I was charmed by the quirk and relative obscurity of it. I longed to know its potential. I didn’t know anyone who played banjo and I never picked one up until I bought one. That was — and, thankfully, still is — great motivation for making it a worthwhile purchase.
Here I will make my case for the instrument, as many have done before me, and respond to all those biting remarks about the banjo and the people who play it.
When you think of the banjo, your first thought might be of Appalachia or the South, but the banjo actually originated in Africa. Early banjos were made of a gourd, a stick, and horse hair for strings. This explains the modern banjo’s fairly odd design, it looks a lot like the stock of a guitar stuck to a snare drum. And what’s with that short string anyway?
The shortened fifth string is tuned to a higher pitch than the rest of the strings, and acts as a drone string, like how there’s always one pipe that plays one note on a bagpipe.
The combination of that weird string and the snare drum provide the banjo a few different ways to be played. Fingerstyle picking — also known as Scruggs-style — is the most typical method of making noise and this, coupled with the fact that the notes don’t resonate for very long, necessitates quick picking. This style is the most prevalent in bluegrass music and is the only way I really know how to play banjo.
The other method of playing the banjo is called clawhammer style. Clawhammer is the traditional method of playing and requires particular rhythmic and intricate strumming patterns, again, because the instrument doesn’t have much sustain. I can barely play clawhammer, but I’m getting there. It is not the most intuitive method of playing the instrument, I’ll admit.
If you’re looking to hear some banjo music, there are plenty of videos of people playing three finger/Scruggs-style just sitting in the woods, playing the banjo really well. That probably plays into the previous mentioned stereotypes, but let's just ignore that.
If you want to hear someone really play the banjo, Earl Scruggs is your man. He’s like the Michael Jordan of the banjo and is generally regarded as one of the best banjo players ever. For all you “Beverly Hillbillies” fans out there, a rendition of Scruggs’ “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” was featured prominently as the theme song for that show.
For some more modern acts, Rhiannon Giddens, as well as Belá Fleck and Abigail Washburn, are all great. Giddens plays the banjo in the band the Carolina Chocolate Drops, but her solo music is also very good. Fleck and Washburn are a banjo power couple, if ever there was one. Fleck plays three-finger style while Washburn plays clawhammer style and hearing them play is sweet perfection.
If you’re still not convinced that the banjo is, at least, marginally interesting and unworthy of the most pejorative of rural stereotypes, I have one more fact about the instrument that might finally change your mind: Kermit the Frog plays the banjo. How could anything Kermit does be bad?
Will Mulligan is a reporter with the Beacon. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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