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From Hillbillies to Hipsters: The Brave New World of the Banjo

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Turn on the radio in any major city. Start rolling through the stations, and notice where you hear the distinct sounds of the banjo. The first instance will probably be on a contemporary country station—maybe a Keith Urban song or the hook in Eric Pasley’s “Friday Night.” Next, you may hear picking on the oldies or classic rock station, an Eagles song or some Neil Young. What may surprise you is hearing the banjo on contemporary pop, and even college or alternative rock stations. From Mumford and Sons to Bon Iver, the banjo is popping up in new and unusual places.

The banjo was invented in America, a possible reincarnation of several African instruments. It comes in four, five, and six string varieties—the last being a popular choice for those who already know how to play the guitar. Within each of those three varieties, there are numerous styles and multiple methods for playing each type. Getting started with the banjo can seem daunting, and then you have all of those Deliverance references to shake off. Thankfully for its many fans, the banjo is experiencing a strong resurgence with musicians from all walks of life picking up the plunking habit every day.

In Scruggs We Trust

North Carolina native Earl Scruggs grew up with a father and four siblings who all played the banjo. Though he was not the first to play with a distinct three finger, so-called clawhammer picking style, he helped to define and popularize that method—now one of the hallmarks of bluegrass music. The instantly identifiable and frequently parodied theme song for The Beverly Hillbillies TV show was performed by Scruggs, and he is often cited as a major inspiration and influence on modern banjo players.

Ed Roman

Canadian singer/songwriter Ed Roman plays numerous instruments to create his unique mix of folk and rock. He admits that Earl Scruggs is what first led him to pick up a banjo.

When I was much younger, Earl Scruggs was my main man. When I was very young I saw the movie “Deliverance”. This film is filled with wonderful, classical American banjo and flattop guitar playing. I was captivated, mesmerized, and indoctrinated at the moment I heard that soundtrack. I'm actually self-taught and have never taken any banjo lessons.

Glenn Gibson of Flamekeeper

Kentucky native singer/songwriter Glenn Gibson has been playing bluegrass music on the guitar and banjo for over 20 years. He agrees that Earl Scruggs is a huge influence on him.

As a child I saw a rerun of The Beverly Hillbillies with special guests Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. After that, I was hooked. I initially learned from an Earl Scruggs instruction book. I took lessons for about a year from a local instructor named Larry Burba. My inspiration initially was from listening to Earl Scruggs, Sonny Osborne and J.D. Crowe.

 

Rick Spinney

Rick Spinney has made bluegrass music a family business. He plays the banjo and sings duet-style with his brother on guitar.

I fell in love with bluegrass music over the course of a three month stint in 1985 as a logger in British Columbia, Canada. My mother bought me my first banjo (a Hondo) in 1986, but it was the teachings of a local musician and friend, Roy Thompson that got me started. My inspiration was, and continues to be, the late great Earl Scruggs.

Considerations for Choosing A Banjo

The banjo is similar to the guitar in that certain designs and features (and the signature sounds they produce) are strongly linked to certain musical styles. Having clear goals can help in choosing the right banjo, but it can still often come down to what simply feels right in your hands.

Andy Goessling of Railroad Earth

Andy Goessling performs with Railroad Earth, a versatile rock and roll band that has found many fans in the contemporary bluegrass music scene. He knows that different needs will result in different instrument selections.

When buying a banjo, getting the background check and mental evaluation done before the three day waiting period will save a lot of time…just kidding! Figuring out the type of music you are playing and the lifestyle of the band is very important. If your only gig is going to be playing bluegrass outside on the street everyday for a living, your banjo criteria might be durable, low price and replaceable. You can save your expensive, top of the line banjo for inside the studio. As a guitar player you could try a six string banjo (the gateway drug to banjos), or an open-back banjo for old time or folk oriented music.

Graham Sharp of the Steep Canyon Rangers

Grammy-winning bluegrass songwriter Graham Sharp of the Steep Canyon Rangers has collaborated and toured with one of the banjo’s greatest celebrity aficionados: Steve Martin. Sharp offers advice for beginners, and his personal expert pick.

Find a banjo that feels solid, something that feels good in your hands. You can pretty much play any style on a normal banjo, and once you get going you can worry about being specialized (bluegrass or clawhammer or plectrum). My favorite banjo is an old Gibson mahogany banjo, called the 'Sister of the African Queen'. It's a banjo that makes you pay attention to the tiniest detail because it reacts so clearly.

Keith McKinnon

Virginia native Keith McKinnon plays bluegrass on the banjo, and records it as a talented engineer. He knows that your favorite can just be a personal choice—it does not always have to be about cost or rarity.

My favorite banjo is my Gibson RB 250. It was the banjo that Carson Cooper let me borrow 12 years ago to learn on, and eventually willed to me and my brother. Now, it’s no prewar but I love it and have had many people tell me that it is a great banjo.

Personal Picking Preferences

Banjos may seem simple to most people, but there are many options to consider. The type of woods used, open or closed back, number of strings, and specialized modifications unique to certain styles of music can all factor into choosing the right banjo for your music.

Editor’s note: Our expert Banjo Buying Guide will help your sort out all the available options and banjo styles.
Taylor Baker and The Wild Now

Soulful folk singer and songwriter Taylor Baker plays both the banjo and guitar. She advises you to consider the sounds you want when picking a banjo.

I've always been intrigued by the banjo, and I love how the instrument can span across several genres. One of my good friends had a banjo that she wasn't using very much, so I borrowed it and started teaching myself chords. My favorite type of banjo is the five-string resonator back, because it works well with the style of music I play. I love Deerings because they're made really well and they sound amazing.

Blake Williams of The Expedition Show

Sparta, Tennessee is proud to call itself the official home of Blake Williams. Williams played banjo with the “Father of Bluegrass,” Bill Monroe, for many years, including appearing on a Grammy-winning album. Williams offers his wisdom on banjo options.

First and foremost, pick a banjo with a quality tone. Bluegrass banjos are pretty standard with tone ring and resonator. If you are going to be playing clawhammer or mountain music, you'd most likely want an open-backed banjo. I like my Osborne Chief because of the feel of the neck, the volume and the tone. It works really well both in recording and in live shows.

Roman cautions that you can get what you pay for, and that the number of strings you choose can limit you.

When looking to buy banjos, I suggest you look for quality in the instrument. There are a lot of cheap knockoffs out there that make the instrument cumbersome and difficult to tune. I find five string banjos are a great place to start. I would say that if you’re playing more sophisticated music,a five string banjo is required. Four strings are more rhythmical instruments it can also be used as a solo instrument. The five string offers you more versatility.

Baker agrees that your first banjo should not be an impulse purchase. Consider what you want to play, and don’t spend too much—or too little.

There are several different types of banjos out there, and the quality you get can vary a lot. It makes a big difference if you're buying a banjo to just sit in your room and play, or if you're going to be playing it for live shows. The type of banjo you buy should definitely be influenced by the type of music you play. It's best to know what sound you're going for and try out several banjos to see which one you feel the most comfortable with. A lot of research should go into it before you make a decision on which banjo is right for you.

Stereotypes that Make You Squeal Like a Pig

With Mumford and Sons winning the 2013 Grammy for Album of the Year, it is safe to say that the banjo has come out of the backwoods and into the mainstream. Still, years of use as little more than a musical comedy prop can be tough to shake.

Goessling thinks that easier communication has led to more open-minded listeners.

In the last ten years I think the way we listen to music has changed the public's perception of all instruments. People are just as apt to listen to an eclectic mix of songs on an internet radio station, as to watch a YouTube of an 11 year old banjo player on their phone. This has added up to it being acceptable for musicians to put new instruments into regular pop or rock formats. The banjo has benefitted from that. I've noticed people aren't inclined to run away as soon as someone opens a banjo case, so something has changed for the better!

The banjo’s country home is no longer a restricted area, according to Gibson.

You hear more banjo in country than you ever have in the past 40 years. For a while I think the banjo was associated with the movie Deliverance, and it became part of a stereotype. With musicians like Steve Martin using their celebrity to showcase banjo music, and banjo players on a national/international stage, I believe it helps draw attention away from negative stereotypes and showcases the instrument in a positive way.

McKinnon admits that banjo stereotypes have limited the instrument in the past, but those limits are coming to an end.

In my eyes, the banjo, between now and the ‘40s, has gone from being a popular and respected instrument to somewhat of a novelty and hillbilly instrument in the general public's eye. In the past 10 years, I think we've seen some of its popularity coming back. I hope it comes back with a vengeance because banjo truly is an instrument that needs to be heard by the world.

Joe Mullins of the Radio Ramblers

Banjo players must always keep a sense of humor, states International Bluegrass Association award winner Joe Mullins. Mullins currently inspires new banjo players through DJing bluegrass shows on the network of Ohio radio stations he owns.

We've come a long way baby! I still get a good variety of banjo jokes going through airports, but I also have been blessed to perform for some very diverse audiences who know how a banjo represents art and entertainment together.

Old Country Roads and New City Streets

Whether you are a die-hard, festival-following bluegrass fan, or a guitar player looking for something new and uniquely American to “pick” up, the banjo may be for you. This distinctive instrument is casting off previous conventions to find a place in wide range of musical styles.

Browse the huge selection of banjos at Musician’s Friend.
Need help finding the right banjo? Read our Banjo Buying Guide to sort out all the choices.

Tags: Banjos

Comments  

# Nosneb 2014-08-11 07:56
Clawhammer is completely different than the style Earl helped popularize. 3-finger style is often called "Scruggs Style" or "Bluegrass Style" and is played using finger picks. Clawhammer is played using the top edge of 1 or 2 fingernails without picks. I don't know of Earl ever playing clawhammer...at least publicly he didn't.
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