the insane beauty of the banjo
by David Lewis
I hate self-indulgence, but I need to explain from where my beloved Washburn B9 banjo comes. Due to a set of circumstances I don’t need to relate here, students and some staff at the institute where I teach chipped in and bought it for me. I still can’t express the gratitude I have for them doing that. I had played a tenor banjo some years back, and the B9 is a 5-string. So, a new instrument. (I also think the tenor was tuned like a guitar… ok, I cheated.)
As you’ll see from my profile pic, I play mandolin (that’s a solidbody I’m holding). I also play guitar and bass. The beauty of the mandolin is its symmetry. Not just horizontally, but vertically, everything works. You play a chord shape or scale on one set of strings, you can play it on another. What I quickly discovered on the banjo is that certain chords are very easy. You can play open strings, and there’s a ‘G’. Lay your finger across the strings as a barre, and G#, A, et cetera. So far, so good. A first position C chord makes a bit of sense, as does a D chord. Em is easy. F#, Fmaj, F7, G7: all make some sense. Stick a capo on, avoid that fifth string… all good.
Scales… Oh, my goodness… They make no sense from a guitar or mandolin point of view. As a result, you can find some really interesting melodies. But the beautiful chaos of the banjo. Playing a D or a G scale, getting to that 2nd string – 1 fret, then change up. (of course, you don’t have to, but the option is there.) You can jump up and down strings. Start on the bottom string and finish on the top string (geographically speaking). On mandolin or guitar, you can, but generally the strings near the top are lower in pitch, and the strings at the bottom are higher. Banjo has that drone string.
It is a beautiful instrument: beautiful in its asymmetry. Objectively, it should be an ugly instrument: a circle with a line sticking out of it. A harsh tone, and very little dynamic range. A mongrel beast, part drum, part guitar, with few of the skills of either needed – seemingly designed by a committee of Marxist functionalists. But, its beauty is not just in the eye of the beholder… it’s real and tangible, and you may need to work to find it. Whether you play Scruggs, Reno, Fleck, Clawhammer, or your own hybrid style, enjoy it.