Lately, the banjo is one of the few things in life I really care about. It seems fitting to finally get around to putting together a page on the subject. Seeing as it’s one of the few things that makes me happy these days, this page’ll probably be a lot longer than it should be, but that’s just how it goes.
This year I’ve gotten serious about learning to play the banjo. Most recently, I’ve been taking clawhammer lessons but I started out learning Scruggs-style. I’ve come to enjoy the clawhammer sound more, but the bluegrass sound still has a place in my heart. I’d like to get to the point where I can sit on the back porch and just ramble on the banjo for a while.
A few years ago, I decided I wanted to learn how to play bluegrass banjo — I liked the sound, and my brother already plays the guitar, so I needed to find something else. I didn’t have a teacher, learning out of a book was difficult, and my living situation wasn’t really conducive to a loud acoustic instrument; accordingly, I didn’t get anywhere.
After Hardly Strictly 2015, my interest in learning was rekindled. I still struggled for the same reasons, but there was a bluegrass banjo workshop at the Freight & Salvage where I learned how quiet the banjo quite a bit. I can now mostly play at all hours, which is great when dealing with insomnia…
The bluegrass workshop (taught by Bill Evans) was a real eye opener. To paraphrase Bill (it’s been a few months, so I don’t remember exactly how he said it),
In my experience, for an adult learner to get playable in a slow-to-medium jam sesion on average of two and a half to four years.
After hearing that, I felt less bad about it taking so long to learn, especially without a teacher.
I saw the clawhammer class at the Freight while looking for banjo classes, but I dismissed it because I didn’t really know what it was and I was kind of deadset on learning Scruggs style. In May of 2016, I finally “caved in” and fell in love with the sound while researching it. It’s now my preferred style, though I plan to continue learning Scruggs style alongside clawhammer.
I’ve only been taking classes for about a month or so, but the improvement is audible. I record practice sessions every now and again, and I recently had the opportunity to listen to a session from February (playing Cripple Creek in Scruggs style) to a recording from the end of May (Cotton Eye Joe clawhammer style). The former was rather painful to listen to. The latter, still painful but much less so and the improvement is definite.
I’ve currently got four banjos; three are pictured above. In December of 2016, I recorded a version of Nancy Rowland on all three to compare the sound.
On the left is the Recording King Madison old-time open back banjo I play clawhammer on. This is rather new; I got it in June 2016. It reflects my newfound dedication to learning clawhammer and old-time banjo. I bought it because I wanted a decent banjo that had a scoop (where the lowest fret are removed and the fret is “scooped out” near the head of the banjo). In the picture above, I’ve got the moon heavy bridge on it; I really like the way it makes the banjo sound, but it means I can’t play it with the mute. True story, I chose to buy this instead of upgrading my phone. You can hear it here.
On the right is the Ibanez B50 bluegrass banjo. I bought this the Monday after Hardly Strictly 2015. It’s been my workhorse banjo; after the bluegrass banjo workshop I took off the resonator to quiet it and it’s also the banjo I’ve mostly learned how to play clawhammer on. I do on occasion try to play Scruggs-style on it, but mostly I keep a banjo mute on it and keep it tuned in a different tuning than the Madison so I can easily switch tunings (by switching banjos) while practicing. You can hear it here.
At the bottom is the Fireside banjo I built from a kit. I actually have two of these; one is strung with nylgut strings (at the time the picture was taken, it was in the middle of being restrung). The one pictured has steel strings. These kits are great for getting comfortable with a banjo — you build them with a hammer, screwdriver, and elmers glue. After building the first of these, I was a lot more comfortable messing with my banjo. It turns out this is important for a banjo player. Now, I’m fairly proficient restringing and adjusting the bridge (I only need one pack of strings to restring now). The smaller head does throw me off positioning-wise, though; that being said, it’ll be nice to have the smaller size when backpacking. You can hear it here.
If you hate your ears, I occasionally record practice sessions and upload them to SoundCloud. It’s not pretty, but it’s useful for noting that as slow as it may be, progress is being made.
Some bands / recordings that I particularly like (though it’s undoubtedly missing quite a few) that feature the banjo; emphasized are ones I’ve seen live.
- 5 miles of string
- Abigail Washburn
- Alison Krauss & Union Station — one of the first bands I remember where I knew I wanted to play the banjo.
- Back Porch Mountain Music
- Blacksmiths & Ploughboys
- The Black Twig Pickers
- Béla Fleck
- Cahalen Morrison & Eli West
- Carolina Chocolate Drops
- Crooked Still
- Greensky Bluegrass
- Horseshoes and Hand Grenades
- Joy Kills Sorrow
- Kaia Kater
- Kitchen Session
- The Last Revel
- The Lowest Pair
- Old Sap
- Old Sledge
- Sarah Jarosz
- The Stray Birds — this is the band that got me playing clawhammer; I heard Dream in Blue and My Brother’s Hill and I knew I wanted to play it.
- The Tin Cup Rattlers
- Trampled by Turtles
- Wright Family Music