Thursday, October 14, 2010

Why the Banjo?

According to your comments on any post where I mention it, you want to hear more about my banjo. Maybe you're just putting me on. But since I've taken an extended physical and mental break from running and don't yet have something fun to talk about concerning booze (soon, though, soon), you're stuck with this: How I started playing the banjo.

Short answer: I like it, and it's fun.

Longer answer: My first banjo was a Recording King "Songster," which I bought online in 2008. I knew nothing about banjos or how they are played, but had read some recommendations for this model as a starter banjo.

Now, if I asked you to name a banjo player, how many of you would think of Earl Scruggs first? I bet quite a few of you. I used to too. Well, wouldn't you know there's a whole method of playing the banjo called "Scruggs' style."



So that's how I tried to play when I first got my banjo: three fingers, metal finger picks. After a good six months of practicing, I stunk at the banjo. Scruggs' style is complicated, and he's really good at it. But I wasn't having fun. So my banjo sat for a while, and I started dating some chick.

But then I started to get mad at myself. I had tried to play the guitar in high school, but had given up on it too soon. I didn't want to do the same with the banjo. And you know how I'm cheap? I didn't want the banjo to be waste of money. So I started to do more research on the banjo. Maybe there was another way.

I like Scruggs OK, but that's not the banjo music that really attracted me to the instrument. The four groups that did me in were Old Crow Medicine Show, The Avett Brothers, The Carolina Chocolate Drops and Great Lake Swimmers. The Carolina Chocolate Drops stood out.



There was something about that groove. I wanted to do that.

It turns out that was called "clawhammer," a down-picking style of playing that goes back way before Scruggs and has roots in the "Stroke style" of play of the minstrel era in the 1800s. My New Year's resolution in 2009 was to get back into the banjo and learn how to clawhammer.

Within a week, I knew I had made the right choice. I already felt light years ahead of what I was doing with Scruggs' style, and I was having a hell of a lot of fun. I felt like I was actually making music -- music that is called Old Time, a predecessor to what most people confuse as Bluegrass.

By the summer of last year, I was already jonesing for a new instrument, so I started saving my money for the banjo I have now. It was made by a builder in Ohio. Aside from my car, it's the most expensive thing I own. But it's worth it.

This year, I started playing at a monthly jam, where I learned how slow I'd been playing at home. I also took a lesson from Dan Levenson, a prominent teacher and musician in the Old Time way, who gave me some pointers on how to progress and told me, "You'll be scary in a year," if I keep up my playing. So I keep playing.

10 comments:

Jamoosh said...

First I wanted drums. Parents said "no." Then along came Steve Martin and I knew I was destined to play the banjo. Apparently banjos were too expensive and once again, the parents said "no." To this day, I regret not learning an instrument, but moreso for not saving my money and buying a second hand banjo. I guess there is still time.

Jamoosh said...

Oh, sorry to double post but...

"Foggy Mountain Breakdown!"

Sun Runner said...

Please tell me you listen to Bela Fleck, too...

"I like it, and it's fun." That's why I sing. Only my instrument didn't cost anything and I carry it with me everywhere I go.

Sláinte!

Sun Runner said...

P.S. Not remotely banjo music, but I like the name: Banjo or Freakout.

BrianFlash said...

I need to work harder on my harmonica so we can jam when I make it to Akron for the marathon!

My playing is weak right now; incredibly weak...

Andrew Opala said...

I can play tissue folded over a plastic comb ... does that count?

Nitmos said...

At an early age, while my parents were at working leaving me home alone with unsupervised, unfiltered cable, I saw Deliverence. Now, I can only associate the banjo with ass rape. Thanks for the trauma today.

But, rock on! Or banjo on! (Whatever you folks say) oink-oink

Running Through Phoenix said...

Banjos are cool --elemental soul music. Love the videos.

Spike said...

The soundtrack to "O Brother..." is amazing and full of banjo awesomeness.

Matty B. said...

I love banjos so much. So much.

Pickin' and grinnin' is in my future; I just need to confirm that youtube has tutorials on how to tune it and how to play it.