Paul Hawthorne's Web Site
Banjo Psych 107

banjo head, banjo psych logoThe Banjo or the Player?

with guest sage Sam Farris

Years ago ('78 maybe) I saw a jazz saxophonist named Lew Tabakin, a veritable genius who is unknown outside of the jazz world (think Tony Trischka and bluegrass). He played a concert with the UC Santa Barbara Jazz Band, and the instrument he played looked about 100 years old -- dented, tarnished, a completely ugly shade of brown. Yet the tone that shook the windows was as pure and clear as mountain air and as powerful as a tidal wave. I assumed the instrument was some magical, historical horn with an enchanted past, and that he played it because of its mythical tonal qualities.

WRONG -- I talked to a friend in the band later. Lew had picked up an old beater practice instrument from the band room backstage and played it as a joke! The powerful and magical tones were coming from a worthless instrument that no one else wanted to play-- a result of his talent and years of experience, not any properties of pre-war brass. My friend said he could have played his pipe (which he smoked between solos) and still have made unbelievable music.

Moral: yes, banjos have different inherent tone qualities, and an expensive instrument will usually sound "better" than a cheapo Korean. But there is no substitute for talent, ability, and practicing long and hard to achieve tone, timing and taste. I've seen a lot of people with expensive banjos who never played a lick worth listening to, who still think the problem is the instrument.


Born and raised in Santa Barbara CA, Sam Farris spent 8 years playing banjo and pedal steel semi-professionally in Tucson AZ, then moved to Richmond VA 14 years ago to join a band which had broken up by the time he got here. Played electric banjo for 2 years with a C&W band -- won the regional Marlboro Country Music Talent Round-up, but got whupped in the finals. Now semi-retired from playing, trying to get into building banjos, including the innovative travel banjo dubbed the Tranjo.

Email to Sam at , see also


Last Updated 15 Jul 2006 by PJH

Edited 03 Apr 2007 by WF