Banjo Psych 163
The Banjo: Your Battle Buddy
by Mike Moxcey
If you only play with symphony orchestras, then you may not be interested in this. However, those of you who play bars or private parties where someone's liable to get drunk, then you may be interested at ways to fortify and use your banjo for self-defense (as well as offense). Now as anyone who has seen a banjo can attest, the first thing it looks like is a giant mace and you think you can grab the neck with both hands and swing that sucker around like the golf club of God and chase the bejesus devil out of hecklers. Granted, that is fun but there are other ways you can use your banjo and modify it to get you out of tight situations. Let's clear up one misconception right away. The first thing many folks think is that you should get a heavy banjo. That's ridiculous. Unless you're built like Conan the Barbarian who can heft a gigantic sword with one hand and hold a well-endowed wench with the other, the best weapon is one you can actually wield. In my opinion, you want a medium weight, open back banjo (the number of strings doesn't really matter). In addition, a lighter banjo lets you more easily perform kicks, ducks, and rolls as you avoid assailants. This sort of banjo gives you several options: mace, battering ram, or sword. And you can accessorize to make your classic American instrument a true companion indeed.
To make your giant mace more effective, simply put extra-long hooks jutting out the back and grind points on them. This will give a little extra oomph during application. Of course, you'll need to wear body armor underneath your shirt to avoid puncturing your own self, but that should be worn anyway whenever you play the banjo in public. However, using the mace is only effective if you have time to get the banjo off over your head. You can cut your reaction time considerably by having a quick-release harness or wearing it on one shoulder like Earl Scruggs who claims he does it to avoid taking off his hat but you can tell by the way he holds the banjo that he's ready for action.
More Than Just a Mace
When you don't have time to get the banjo off your body, using the peghead like a battering ram is an excellent quick defensive maneuver. One easily added option to make this more effective is to get extra-long strings and wrap them in tight circles and leave about 3 inches sticking out. By wrapping the strings, you can point the ends in different directions (giving you added coverage) and also make the strings strike with a little spring-loaded type of action (which is extra-painful and works even on bass players).
With an open-back banjo, you can grab the dowel rods inside and wield the instrument like a sword. Of course, getting it off of your neck like the mace takes just as much time, but once ready, it gives you the ability to fend off several opponents at once. I kept a 9-piece jazz band off stage for half an hour once until I was distracted by the trombonist trying to trip me up and the Yale-trained clarinetist made an amazing parry I am still trying to emulate today.
Which brings me to an interesting question. How come they call the normal way we hold a banjo "right-handed?" Playing the banjo "left-handed" means you can slip it off to the right immediately after performing the battering ram tactic (when your head is correctly tucked like an NFL linebacker) and get it correctly positioned in the usually stronger right-hand quicker. I could get into a lexicographic discussion of why left-handed people are considered "sinister," but basically it comes down to how well practiced a person is against right-handed versus left-handed opponents. (That clarinetist was able to switch hands at will). Holding the banjo in the more commonly seen yet misnamed "right-hand" position means the quickest movement is placing the banjo-sword in your left hand. This isn't really a complaint. I like that the banjo is naturally sinister. And sword-fighting with the left hand is easily learned. To develop your technique, it is often better to start with an épée or mandolin and gradually work your way up to a real instrument.
You can modify the banjo neck by inserting a barrel for a .22 but there are several problems with this method. For one, the trigger is hard to get to. Granted, you can use the 5th string peg (if you're so inclined to that mode of banjo-picking) but there is the possible inadvertent trigger pull that could happen during a particularly raucous song or even when putting on a capo if you're drunk (a situation to which my friend Two-Fingered Tex can attest). And if you've ever watched a John Wayne movie where you can hear the ptwing of a ricochet, just imagine how that sounds coming off a trombone. It's very frightening and also demonstrates how a .22 does very little damage to any member of the horn family. And if you use a thicker barrel to hold a bigger bullet, the neck must be thickened and fortified which then makes it difficult to play.
And you can't have a magazine of cartridges without giving up the wondrous capabilities of a banjo mace--you can just never tell if that sucker might not have another bullet in the chamber pointed right at your belly. A Bullet Banjo is just not a good idea all around--there are too many things you won't have thought of until it's too late. And anyway, the durn thing won't stay in tune after you fire it. The neck heats up and warps. These are just a few of my observations but if you want to go ahead and build one, well I just say forewarned is forearmed.
For those of you who prefer more conventional firearms, you can always attach a holster to the dowel rods. It doesn't affect the sound too much and you can pretty much carry any size pistol back there. A bass banjo will even hold a sawed-off shotgun or one of those mini-uzis, but this method only works on open-back banjos and personally, that's where my whiskey bottle goes. And to tell you the truth, offering a slug of whiskey can often defuse a tense situation and turn you both into best buddies.
Accessorizing Your Banjo
Besides making a few simple modifications to a well-balanced, correctly-weighted banjo that can give you a fine piece of defensive hardware, many accessories are available. You can change the head by covering it with sandpaper (coarse grit is best). Another defensive option is to use one of the new Kevlar heads which is what they make bulletproof vests out of. But many bar patrons today use Teflon-coated bullets so that may not be too useful. A metalworker friend of mine created a lead-weighted brass-knuckle capo. The extra metal provides additional sustain when used as a capo, and additional oomph when used otherwise. He also modified some metal picks so now I have two titanium-pointed finger picks and a razor-edged thumb pick for when I play bluegrass-style.
There are also many alternative uses of a good leather strap (bullwhip or bola) with attached Velcro (restrainment and gags) but too many other types of musicians also use straps and I certainly don't want to give them any additional ammunition with which to beset upstanding banjo players of all kinds.
The banjo is truly the instrument of champions. It isn't some wimpy little wooden box that'll shatter into splinters at the first good blow. So we should each proudly uphold our banjo in the correct musical posture when playing for an adoring audience and in the correct defensive posture when playing for those other kinds of audiences
Also by Mike: The Definitive Answers to the Most Important Banjo Questions.
Mike Moxcey lives in Fort Collins, Colorado, works a day job as a database programmer for USDA:APHIS:Wildlife Services and writing stories and articles on the side. He has played 5-string banjo with a variety of bluegrass, folk and rock groups, played once with the Fort Collins Wind Symphony, and performed occasional solo blues gigs. He currently plays a 5-string Deering Deluxe which he strums Dixieland style with the Stover Street Stompers, and picks and frails at local jams. He also performs school shows around town demonstrating a wide variety of instruments (guitar, ukulele, Dobro, mandolin, hammered dulcimer, autoharp, bones, spoons, jaw harp, tin whistle, flute, harmonica, etc.) while introducing kids to live music of all kinds.
Email to Mike at and visit his Web site.
Main text ©2001 by Mike Moxcey
Last Updated 15 Jul 2006 by PJH
Edited 01 Apr 2007 by WF