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My evolving banjo style

Posted by banjopogo on Saturday, July 19, 2008

I started playing fiddle a couple of years after learning
banjo.  This has affected my banjo playing in an odd way.  If I play in an Old Time jam, I play fiddle,
and if I want to sound "Old Time" I use the fiddle.
I have no need of trying to play fiddle tunes on the banjo since I can play them on fiddle.

So when I pick up the banjo, I want to make it do something very different than what I play on fiddle, and
indeed what probably most people play on clawhammer banjo.

One big influence was Round Peak clawhammer.
I got a couple of big things from Round Peak style.
One, it got me into 2 Cs tuning in a big way.
Second, the banjo playing sounded more "African"
to me than any other banjo style I had heard.
I also really loved Clarence Ashley's Coo-Coo Bird,
which to me also sounds rather African.
I also got into electric Blues about 10 years ago,
mostly B.B. King and Chicago Blues.
Now I tend to appreciate the banjo and it's African-ness more than ever before.
When I sing with banjo, most of the time I use the same vocal style I would use singing blues or spirituals- a more Afro-American singing style,
which actually suits my voice better these days...
I am not a tenor anymore, and I can't do the "high lonesome" mountain singing style so well anymore,
but low, smoky, and growly works better with the baritone voice I do have.

One push in this direction came from a Youtube video of a mountain festival in the 1970s.
There was one banjo player/singer who was a
black mountaineer! His clawhammer technique
was just about the same as the white mountaineer clawhammer players, BUT:
his repertoire was almost all "spirituals",
and his singing style was more African-
and that confirmed for me that my experiments
in those directions were not "off the wall",
but entirely in keeping with the African American
banjo tradition.

Also, topic-wise, I would much rather sing spirituals with my banjo than about moonshine and murders!
Growing up in the '60s, I heard lots of great African American singers singing spirituals, as well as folk singers singing spirituals, and in recent years, I find myself connecting with those more than ever before in my life, and it's a lot of fun to try
and fit them to my banjo playing.
I do enjoy singing white mountain spirituals, but somehow those seem to fit better for me on guitar which pulls me into a "Carter Family" mood, somehow.
The core of my banjo technique is still Round Peak and Hobart Smith, but I try to apply things I have learned
from other African-American genres to the rhythm,
to get it to "groove" a little more.
One additional motivation: in the nursing homes I volunteer at, there are occasionally elderly black residents, and I want to have some stuff in my repertoire that they can connect with too.

1 comment on “My evolving banjo style”

Hunter Robertson Says:
Sunday, July 20, 2008 @8:51:35 AM

Hi Michael, can you give a link to that '70's youtube video? Sounds interesting. You may already have it, but if not, get the Black Banjo Songsters CD, great stuff. Yours, Hunter

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