One of many several things I love about the banjo is that it's an instrument not-yet-codified in terms of technique or even construction. Something are obviously canon now: the drumhead top, USUALLY the chanterelle, tone rings, rough scale length. On the other hand, remember those Pete Seeger long-neck banjos? How about the number of different tone ring/drumhead contact materials in open-back banjos? I've seen electric banjos that don't have movable heads. John Hartford and now Danny Barnes have explored different tones with a bluegrass-style banjo using wooden tone rings; Barnes has also changed the scale length of his banjo. All of that inspires me, because it points implies something positive: if we have not standardized the tool, then perhaps we have not standardized the music we can generate using it, either.
I like Barnes, so I caught a few of his videos on the YouTubes with the Bad Livers. Man, those guys were BAD, no kidding! They play all these medleys of songs you know, and a few originals. They are especially playful with standards like Reno and Smiley's "I Know You're Married" by singing "I know you're married but I love YOUR still...!" They cover Sabbath's "Supernaut" and change "and find the dish that ran away with the spoon" to "and find the distance from my mouth to the spoon." I love 'em. But they don't make the mistake that many of the neo-bluegrass people make, which is to allow bits of the music to be unserious. Just listen to DB play that banjo: it is so rock-solid, clean, in time, perfect, even with the bass player exploring all kinds of different rhythms. The banjo is the pulse, the heartbeat of the Bad Livers. Cool double entendre name, too.
That music has convinced me that the banjo has not been exploited yet, not like it will be. I want to be on that bandwagon, too, finding out just what this instrument has to offer all the music I love. After I realized how simple it was to play ZZTop "Got Me Under Pressure" and "Cheap Sunglasses," it occurred to me to try to apply banjo to some of the new music and songs I've been writing for years, but not necessarily in a bluegrass context. Don't get me wrong: bluegrass is my bread and butter, and my standard of performance. But now the top's been blown off my head, and I will not ever have to feel limited on the instrument again. Exciting! I'm feeling the same way about fiddle now. I can't top Kenny Baker or Stuart Duncan, and I really almost want to! But I can use the best of what I hear them bringing to the table and morph it to my own purposes. Banjo satisfies my need to articulate and dictate time, and fiddle takes me out of time entirely, and I can hold those notes forever, tweak them, ride right over the bar lines, move around within intonation. Greasy!
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'Keith Banjo Tuners' 10 min