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The Banjo Bug and Why I Play My Style...

Friday, January 1, 2021

This is a post I made to a thread about "Why Bluegrass or Old Time Banjo" seeking comments on why one style or another became important to each of us as musicians. I figured my reply would maybe resonate with others and so I'm making this blog so that this commentary can live on beyond the life of a soon-to-be-archived BHO thread.


I grew up in a non-musical family. In 1970 my elementary school offered free musical lessons and the violin just grabbed me hard. Mind you, not classical music or folk music that got me, but violin. It was the sound of instrument that grabbed me and not the genre. Of course, I was channeled into classical music which I did not really enjoy or grasp, although I could not articulate it at the time.

Seven years later, in rebellion I suppose, I dropped violin and picked up banjo. Again, it was the sound of the banjo that captivated me, not bluegrass or folk or old time, which I was totally clueless about, and in many ways, still am. I did not grow up listening to bluegrass, but I was for sure influenced by seeing Hee Haw and Beverly Hillbillies on TV and being exposed to banjo just through the media in general, with no root, or basis for the love of the instrument. It just grabbed me. I recall the instant the bug bit me hard.

A year before I switched to banjo, I was at a friend's house and he said "You gotta hear this" and I put some headphones on, he played the original Deliverance album with Eric Weisberg and Marshall Brickman, my head exploded. Suddenly, there's this rolling melodic sound, even the backup (which I later learned it was called) was intricate and delicate, focused and playful, and I remember thinking "I had no idea a banjo could do that." I mean, I love the sound of Earl Srcuggs, but it was that album that planted the bug in me and never let go.

So I bought a banjo. And bought all the books at the time, which were heavily weighted towards bluegrass. At the time I really didn't know, or care much about, the differences, I just knew the three finger style is what spoke to me, and honestly, I have until then, very little exposure to frailing or clarwhammer. For me at the time, three finger style was all that existed in my small bubble.

I came to bluegrass through that path, and to this day, remain uneducated as to who played with who, what band is which, and so forth. To this day, the sound is what captivates me, and to me, banjo is like a keyboard, in that it can fit comfortably in almost any musical genre. I never studied or followed any player, and just absorbed what I could from all the books I had at the time so as a result, leaned towards melodic playing. But I love listening to it all, and when I hear something that tickles my ear, try to emulate that as best I can, whether the sound came from another banjo in any styles, or a fiddle player, or a keyboard player from any genre. I love folk music and so love playing banjo in those settings too. Bluegrass remains a challenge but after 43 years of picking now, a lot has sunk in finally. To this day, it's the sound that I'm going for, and not a a clone of a particular player or style, or from any particular genre. I guess that makes me some sort of freak but it works for me, it's my creative crank that I'm trying to satisfy.

My dad was a hillbilly from Tennessee who earned his PhD in chemistry. Mom mom was a Brooklyn Italian who met my dad while attending Vanderbilt. I suppose the violin tugged at my DNA from one strand, and the banjo yanked at my DNA on the other strand. The helix was satisfied, either way. In hindsight, had I gone the path of folk violin early on, and not had some unpleasant and life-altering experiences in early adolescence that were tied to the violin, who knows where I would be standing today. Mark O'Connor, move over LOL!!

--Frank Eastes   
Spartanburg, SC   
January 1, 2021   
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