End the Banjo Deserts!

I’m constantly contacted by people who can’t find playable banjos to try out, and they can’t even find anyone to answer their questions intelligently. Surprisingly many of them live in or near large metropolitan areas with dozens of music stores in a thirty-mile radius.

In nearly every part of the United States there is SOME PLACE you can go to comparison shop for midrange or professional guitars. But there are very few places where you can go to comparison shop for midrange or professional banjos.

I live near Springfield Ohio, which isn’t THAT far from Dayton Ohio. I’d estimate that there are thirty music stores within a thirty-mile radius of my house. And none of them have high-end banjos for people to try out. Most of them have only the lowest line of student banjos, the kind you can get at WalMart during the Christmas season. None carry anything besides under-$1000 Chinese imports, and only two even set up the banjos on display to make them playable.

When I started updating the banjo information on the Creek Don’t Rise web page, I got so many questions about kinds of banjos, features, and brands that I started the Riverboat Music buyer’s guide so I wouldn’t have to keep typing out the same answers over and over again.

I soon received a “nasty-gram” from a brick-and-mortar store that I have supported by purchases and recommendations, claiming that I was personally driving their storefront out of business by helping my readers find appropriate instruments online. And as though people in, say, Iowa, are going to drive to, say, Lansing, Michigan just to see their great selection of banjos. (By the way, most of their instrument sales are online these days, too. The real problem was that I wasn’t sending buyers to them exclusively. And since they neglected my kind offer to post paid advertising for their store, that’s the way it’s going to stay.)

The sad fact is that there are “banjo deserts” in huge parts of our country, places where it’s hard to get your hands on a playable banjo, much less get good advice or effective lessons. People wonder why I write so much about banjos, when I play more guitar than banjo in most concerts, and play piano as well. It’s because there are relatively few “guitar deserts” where you would have to drive over an hour to try out at least one professional, American-made guitar (unless you live somewhere where you also have to drive over an hour to get milk).

Last summer, I took advantage of an opportunity to take a carload of banjos of all different kinds to a music festival to let people try out (under adult supervision of course). Some of the banjos I took are expensive, hard-to-find models. But it was worth the risk to me to let folks get their hands on instruments they would almost certainly never see in the store. (The story of that excursion is here.)

One young lady who plays guitar in her duo fell in love with a 6-string banjo. One young guitar player picked up a five string, let me show him how to play G, C, and D, and figured out how to accompany himself on two or three songs by the end of the session. Have they gone on to buy banjos? I don’t know. But for them and the other ten people or so who at least tried one, the banjo is less of a mystery and more of a possibility than it was just a day before.

I’ve also tried to make the banjo more “accessible” online, by adding free lessons, free tabs and many other articles. I hope to keep expanding this section as opportunities arise.

In the meantime, is there anything you can do to make banjo “less of a mystery and more of a possibility” to folks around you? If you’re playing “out” somewhere, what about doing free banjo workshops in the afternoon before the gigs? Starting a program at your local library (many libraries love activities that draw people in)?

Whatever you do, please avoid the attitude displayed by so many people online that there is only one kind of banjo and only one way to play it “right.” Lose the “secret handshake” approach so many people have taken in the past few decades. Banjos have been used for every kind of music, and there are at least a dozen totally distinct authentic, historical ways to play the things. Plus nobody says you aren’t allowed to invent new styles of playing – guitarists do it all the time. Who made it a rule that you can only play banjo the way it’s been played in the past? Certainly not Earl Scruggs or Don Reno or Pete Seeger or Bela Fleck or any other prominent, creative banjo player you can name. If you give a free Clawhammer or 3-finger-picking workshop, and one of your attendees buys and learns Irish Tenor banjo, and another person uses a 6-string to play bass parts in a Dulcimer club, it’s a win.

It will be much harder, I admit, to get local retailers to start carrying a decent variety of decent banjos, but if you can help create a demand, it could happen.

In the meantime, enjoy playing your banjo(s) and let people see you enjoy playing your banjo(s). At least it will be a step in the right direction.

By the way, I’ve been invited back to the same festival, as a performer this time, not a clinician. Still, since then, I’ve accumulated a bunch of Autoharps in all shapes and sizes. If I can get enough of the different ones playable, there might be room for another clinic. No, I don’t really play Autoharp, but I love to play with them. And they are another class of instrument that’s gotten short shrift since the 1960s.

Best of luck



About Paul

Paul Race has been writing and playing all kinds of music since the 1960s, though he tends to favor acoustic and traditional songs. He has created resources like CreekDontRise.com, ClassicTrainSongs.com, and SchoolOfTheRock.com to help other musicians get a good start on their own journeys.

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