Banjo

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.

The banjo family.

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.

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.

… or just poke through my bandcamp collection and last.fm.