First of all you should know that I do not consider myself a “banjo player” per se. I am a songwriter/singer who occasionally uses guitar, banjo, bass, dulcimer, or piano to accompany himself and his friends. So if you invite me to bring my banjo to a party or gig, don’t expect me to blow you away with banjo pyrotechnics or some such. (I have songs that will rip your heart out, have you on the floor laughing, or really make you think, but that’s another topic.)
Folks who have known me for a very long time (and mostly as a guitar or sax or bass player) have noticed what seems to be a recent fixation on banjos. Some new readers don’t even realize that I play other instruments besides banjo. I do admit that banjos have somewhat dominated the discussion on my web, forum, and social media pages lately. There are two main reasons for that.
One is that when I took up banjo “seriously” again, after a couple decades of not playing that much, I discovered an appalling lack of Internet resources for new and wannabe banjo players. There were several forums with great information if you knew how to search for it. But there was almost nothing systematic. Plus there was a lot of misinformation, both from vendors who either didn’t know what they were selling or were lying outright, and from self-proclaimed experts who claimed that everybody else had to play the way they did to be “authentic,” as though banjo is only valid as a sort of historical reenactment.
So I wrote a bunch of informative articles about things like finding and setting up banjos, what kind of banjos were better for various kinds of music, and so on. Then reader questions started flooding in, and I did even more research and wrote even more articles.*
Then, when I redesigned my blog page, Facebook page, and so on, I found myself blogging about current activities, which included work on banjo-related pages. And acquisition of better banjos than the ones I was playing.
This brings me to the second reason you see so much about banjos on this page: having neglected to play banjo much over the past couple decades, I hadn’t noticed that my old student-line banjos were no longer “cutting it.”
You see, when I was playing guitar and sax “out” all the time, I knew when I had outgrown my student instruments and it was time to upgrade. But some time in the 1970s, mainstream audiences started having trouble taking anyone who was holding a banjo seriously. (For more information on that culture shift, check out the article “Whatever Happened to the Banjo? Marginalization of an American Icon.”) Since fewer and fewer situations were calling for the banjo in those days, I never reached the point where a better banjo was a priority.
Then when circumstances led me back to playing banjo more “seriously” a few years ago, I realized that I needed better instruments. At one point, I realized that I was struggling with left-hand techniques on banjo that I have no trouble with on guitar. Then I remembered that all of my guitars were professional instruments (and had been since the 1980s). I was trying to get professional results out of student banjos. Name brand, playable, properly set up student banjos, mind you, but still student banjos.
Guitar players who recognize the “need” to have both single-coil and humbucker solid-bodies, as well as at least one good steel-string electric-acoustic and maybe one good semi-hollow-body may understand why I need three banjos to play the range of music I like to play on banjo – a six-string banjo, an open-back 5-string, and a fully-equipped Bluegrass banjo. (Plus travel and “beach banjos” but those don’t have to be great instruments.)
When I get my current project – a well-worn but reparable 1999-ish Deering Sierra 5-string – cleaned up and fixed up, I’ll have two out of the three pro banjos I “need” to do my best in any concert or recording situation. Yes, I will still need a better open-back, but I can live with the ones I have until the right one comes along. My three-year quest to bring my banjo arsenal up to where my saxophone and guitar arsenals have been since the 1980s will probably draw to a close in the next few months.
My banjo promotion efforts will probably go on for a while. For example, I’ve been experimenting with using banjo for a number of traditional guitar songs, and I think you’ll like the result if I ever get any of them recorded. But even that effort should take a back seat eventually to other topics. Like songwriting, guitar flatpicking, etc.
When I start adding articles and blogs about other topics, that won’t mean that I’ve given up on banjo. Quite the contrary – it will mean that I have at least partially accomplished what I set out to do – demonstrated that the banjo can still play a valid role in all kinds of music, and made the way for the next generation of banjo players a little easier.
But I do have songs that, frankly, need to be played on guitar or piano . . . .