Explaining Lure of the Banjo to the Uninitiated
Dateline: Tuesday, Dec. 7th, 1999 - Providence, RI
by Jeff Chumley
Ok I admit it, I had a beer in me. Bear in mind that a beer in me is like a six pack in most people, as I generally don't drink and probably have fewer than a beer a year. Anyway, After walking around Providence looking for a place to escape the COGEL (Council on Government Ethics Law) conference my boss and I ended up in a typical bistro on the edge of the Brown University campus. Lots of waitresses with black lipstick and food that was "presented" to within an inch of it's life. With alcohol-loosened tongue, I talked A LOT. I had proceeded through most of my best stories including the thrilling "Near death experiences" trilogy (a gum ball, a potato rake and a canoe) and "Ork, the three legged skunk from hell."
At this point, Bob made the mistake of asking me about my involvement with banjos, which, fellow pickers, is a question I am not shy about answering. After a lengthy and rapid-fire diatribe including such obviously (to me) interesting subjects as "the 21000 engraver" and gut string wear prevention adjusters, I recounted my dark days when the banjo truly began to run my life and ruin my marriage (it was just a symptom of that of course and yes, we are happily still together, better than ever.)
I started to think about the lure of the banjo. In 1995, when I found myself stuffing socks in my bluegrass banjo and clawhammering to the exclusion of picking that I decided I needed to get an open back banjo. Was there a Banjo-L at the time to answer my questions? If so, I didn't know it. I learned from my original banjo buying experience that it would be best to play a lot of banjos and ask a lot of questions before making a purchase and, heck, Bernunzio's is only eight hours by car. I got up at 2:00 am and drove to Rochester. Due to road construction I pulled in to his place around 11:00am. I met John and Julie - excellent people - and played all manner of banjos for three hours. Had my first experience with Tubaphones, Whyte Laydies, Electrics, Dobsons, Fretless banjos and many more. Said goodbye at 2:00pm and drove home. Crazy huh? A few years later I took a day off, flew to Boston in the morning, hung out with Jim Bollman for a day and flew home. I had it pretty bad. To get back to my revelation about "the Lure", as I was explaining it to Bob I came up with this...
Note: this applies to guys. It may also apply to women but since I am not one and don't have any close female banjo crazy-friends I can only speak to it as a guy thing.
The banjo has everything any self respecting guy could want. First, we will just assume an interest in music (this is NOT a guy thing.) Second, it has a dead animal skin stretched across it! Is that primal urge material or what? Me kill Aurocks! Eat Heart. Pray to gods. Cure hide (OK, the women probably did this - it IS the hard part after all.) Make drum... How much more male can you get. Kill it, rip off it's skin stretch it and make noise with it! Third, it is made of wood. Guys love wood. Its organic, its beautiful. It must be cut down (killed) cut up (butchered) and fashioned into a shape using what? TOOLS! *TOOLS*! Guys love tools! Finally, and this I think sets it apart from most other musical instruments even more than the dead animal thing, YOU CAN TINKER WITH IT!!!!!
C'mon, what guy doesn't like to tinker? What can you adjust on a guitar? String tension? neck bow (a tiny bit?) Look at all the adjustments you can make to a banjo. I mean, it has threaded metal hooks with nuts that you can turn, it has a tail piece that can be raised or lowered (in many cases,) the bridge can be shaved, swapped or angled, the head (dead animal) can be tightened, loosened, dampened or replaced. The whole dang thing can be taken apart into about 150 pieces (quick mental inventory of a resonated Tubaphone) and if you are lucky it will even go back together! You can use a wrench on it for cryin' out loud. Not just any wrench either. You get to buy a SPECIAL wrench that goes with your banjo. Have you priced ELECTRIC or SSS wrenches lately?
Lets see... it has direct connections with the Civil War (you think THAT wasn't a guy thing?) That connects it with guns (guy thing), metal detectors, swap meets, re-enactments and on and on and on.
The terms used to talk banjo - Neck, head, heel, nuts, pot, gut - sounds like a parts list for a guy if you ask me.
Now I know that the modern banjo is more likely to use a synthetic dead animal than an actual one for the head, and few of us have actually made a banjo (I have) or killed an animal (I have - I was young OK?), cured a hide (I have) or eaten the still beating heart of...OK, I haven't done that. Still, inside us all there is a hunter-gatherer-tool maker-axe wielder that, I think, explains the Lure of the banjo as it applies to guys.
Jeff Chumley is a former orchestral musician, artist, technical support manager and software developer; he now is employed as Federal Election Commission Electronic Filing Development Coordinator.
The important stuff, as he puts it, is that his grandfather played fiddle and his uncle played bluegrass banjo. He bought a Harmony banjo in 1992, played bluegrass until about 1995 and clawhammer ever since (couch and jams - not pro). His primary banjo is a 1902 Fairbanks Electric and his emergency backup banjo is a 1919 Vega Tubaphone.
Email to Jeff at .
Main text ©1999, 2001 by Jeff Chumley
Last Updated 15 Jul 2006 by PJH
Edited 01 Apr 2007 by WF