My Banjo and I

I bought a banjo. I’ve long been fascinated by the instrument. Partly as it’s always looked to me like a freakish object, most likely the cross-species lovechild of a guitar and a snare drum.

The banjo that I bought. Note it’s a bluegrass banjo, which means it has 5 strings and a resonator (as opposed to an open-back banjo, which doesn’t have the pictured circular rear).

Mine is a cheap 5 string Stagg bought on Amazon for a mere ninety quid. It isn’t anything spectacular, but once I’d changed the strings and tuned the ‘head’ (that’s the drum skin), it actually started to sound rather good.

The oddest thing about the banjo isn’t the drum skin — it’s the 5th string. (As a side note, careful when googling ‘banjo string’, especially if you’re male. Or else, like me, you’ll wince quite a bit.)

Anyway, the 5th string is the one with the tuning peg five frets up the neck, if you look at the photo. Perversely, it is the highest string on the banjo, and is used primarily as a drone. In many ways it gives the banjo its signature twangy high-register sound. But as a guitarist, I expect the 5th string to be lower in pitch than the 4th, naturally. And I still don’t see the entire logic of it — why not have a low pitch drone?

I’m getting over it. Worse, however, is how the banjo has forced me to the deal with so many things I don’t typically like: regular metres, rhythm and dance, and — eww — major tonality. It’s been quite an affront to my natural temperament to play music so cheery.

I recognise the banjo might not seem like my instrument of choice, if you’ve read any of my past blog posts and know of my love for classical music. But I enjoy the oddness of it, and it indulges my persistent fascination with America. It has become like a quirky, foreign friend to me, from whom I can learn about a simpler far-away land and its culture and sonorities.

And learning I indeed am. Most importantly, that there are two mainstream ways to play the banjo: Scruggs or clawhammer. Scruggs was named after iconic banjoist Earl Scruggs, and involves a fast three-finger picking style. This is currently my method of choice. Clawhammer is the older method, dating back to Civil War, whereby the player hits the strings percussively, like a hammer. You quite literally create a ‘claw’ shape with your hand and attack the string(s) downwards with your nails. The method is actually a lot more precise than you would expect, and a hell of a lot more difficult. It’s been a month now and I still can’t manage it. But my Scruggs style, at least, is coming along nicely.

Here’s Earl Scruggs himself, with friends (including Steve Martin), playing Foggy Mountain Breakdown: