About 15 years ago my dad bought a banjo at the pawn shop near the 99 Restaurant in Market Basket plaza in Ashland. Neither the pawn shop or the restaurant are there anymore, and the banjo has lived in my closet unplayed until now.
I’ve gone through phases in the past 10 years where I pick up random instruments (accordion, mandolin, etc) but typically only get good enough to impress my grandma. I don’t know why the banjo stayed untouched for this long but in the past few weeks I’ve set to change this.
The process started by telling people I’m going to learn the banjo. I figured that if I told enough people at least one of them would follow up with me the next time they saw me. I didn’t want to let them down.
The second step involved restringing the banjo. While the strings sounded okay, they seemed brittle and every time I attempted to tune it I would cringe at the idea of a string breaking. The strings were most likely older than me.
The process was easier said than done and probably took close to an hour. I first took all the strings off so I could remove the relic dust off the neck and drum. It may have been dust from the fingers of Earl Scruggs for all I know, but I’m off to set my own, cleaner, legacy. The end of each string had a loop, and not the nut that I expected. This meant that instead of simply pulling the string though the holes, you somehow had to attach the loop to a tiny clip. It took me over 10 minutes to get one attached, completely sober. How the southern pickers did this on their dimly lit porch with a whiskey in one hand, a cousin in the other, I don’t know.
On a side note, sitting indian style for a long period of time was comfortable as a 3rd grader. But as a thirty year old it’s quite painful. Things fall asleep quickly, and after getting up my muscles hurt like I had just run a marathon. I have no idea how adult Indians sit like this for so long.
The final step involved learning to play, something that I figured wouldn’t be that hard after the grueling first 2 steps. I’m fairly comfortable finger-picking a guitar but I was quickly reminded that at the banjo, I’m starting from nothing.
I’m not at all used to finger picks; the awkward plastic or metal snaps you put on your fingers to give it a more percussive sound. At first it made hitting the correct string a guessing game and I only assume I’ll get used to it. But luckily for what I was playing hitting the wrong string didn’t really ever sound wrong. Since the banjo is open-tuned to a G chord, missing a string just made it sound different, but not necessarily wrong.
What’s very counter-intuitive is the high G-string. The very top string is a high G, followed by a low D and it goes up from there. In every other instrument I’ve played your fingers travel in one direction to go higher, and the reverse goes lower. It felt painfully wrong that the first string was not the lowest string.
I played an exercise called Wildwood Flower, though it sounds nothing like the Nitty-Gritty Dirt Band recording I found. I spent the majority of the 45-minute session playing the 5 second clip over and over again. I probably played it a few hundred times. Anyways, here it is. 45-minutes of banjo payoff…
Next up, She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain!