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Banjo survey for my master's thesis!

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Oct 20, 2019 - 8:04:04 PM
2 posts since 10/4/2019

So, I'm actually writing my master's thesis on non-bluegrass banjo, attempting to demonstrate that the banjo belongs not only in bluegrass but as a multi-genre instrument. As such, I'm trying to do a little survey, and it would be great if you had the chance to answer some questions! The only thing I'm looking for are honest opinions here. If you're willing to help out, I really appreciate it; thank you!

1. What's your story with the banjo? What got you interested, etc?

2. What are your general thoughts on the banjo being included in non-bluegrass genres? There have been examples of the Scruggs style being used in jazz, pop, Celtic, Broadway, classical, and other genres too; do you see this as a legitimate stage of evolution for the banjo as an instrument, or just as a few novelty pieces that don't really signal a big change?

3. What level of acceptance do you think there is for non-bluegrass banjo among contemporary audiences? Do you believe that the banjo will be more welcomed in non-bluegrass genres or resisted?

4. How do you view the "boundaries" between genres? Do you like the idea of keeping instruments and styles in the tradition to which they belong, or do you see various instruments and styles as being usable pretty much anywhere in music, or are you at some place in between?

5. What do you think of this topic when applied to instruments beyond the banjo? Should instruments stay in their "native" genres, or would you like to see more crossover between genres? Another way to think about it might be this: instruments such as the piano, guitar, and violin have experienced a huge progression beyond the genres that they were at one time thought of as being confined to, and now one might see them in just about any genre. Do you believe the banjo and other similar instruments to be capable of the same level of progression, or are they best suited for the genres that they're most commonly associated with?

6. Anything else you want to bring up or anything I missed.

Oct 20, 2019 - 9:41:23 PM

AldenS

Canada

48 posts since 10/23/2017

For the methodological reasons mentioned in my response, I have sent my reply in a private message.

Oct 21, 2019 - 1:44:47 AM

maxmax

Sweden

1358 posts since 8/1/2005

Fun topic!

While I take for granted you are talking about Scruggs-ish style five string banjo playing, I think it's important to note that the banjo obviously has strong traditions in other genres of music beyond bluegrass as well. For us in the banjo-know, the differences between tenor, plectrum, Scruggs, classic, clawhammer, etc. etc. might be large, but I'm guessing for most people a banjo is a banjo.

When I first got started, I simply wanted to learn how to play an instrument and was ignorant that certain instruments are usually used to play one genre of music. I had a friends that already played guitar, bass and drums, and I simply wanted to learn something else. I wanted it to be portable and could be played while singing. The banjo looked fun to me so I bought a cheap one and an instruction book, which by pure incident happened to be a Scruggs style book, and got to work.

Once I had the basic technique and a few tunes under my belt, I started to look for instructional books and videos that where not based on bluegrass, and to my surprise found extremely little for this style of playing. While I definitely still think a solid foundation in Scruggs style is essential, I do think there is a shorter path to learning how to play if you do not intend to play bluegrass. For example, I probably have 40-50 something Scruggs style licks deeply ingrained in my muscle memory after countless hours of practicing them, which I later realised I will never use because they don't really work that well outside of bluegrass.

While I did learn quite a bit from just learning basic backup banjo, I still found it very difficult to learn how to create solos in non-bluegrass music without proper instruction. While I could here BéIa Fleck, Jens Kruger and many others do this expertly, there was no way I could understand what they were doing, nor could I find any advice on how to do it apart from the usual "start with Scruggs" which I did, or the more frustrating "it's your banjo, play anything you like on it", yeah, if only I knew how! Ironically (or maybe not I guess), listening to Earl playing in other genres, and hearing how he tastefully included the banjo in folk and country songs helped me a bunch.

But what really helped me understand the big picture, was when I started to learn how to play jazz tenor banjo. I got a few lessons via Skype to get off on the right track, and two weeks before my first lesson, my teacher sent me a PDF file filled with chords, many which I had never even heard of. He told me to learn these, and not just that, but to learn what every note is in each chord and how it fits into the chord structure.

This was absolutely overwhelming at first. Even though I had played five string banjo for quite a few years, this seemed almost impossible. But I started working on it, and even though I didn't have it all down before my first lesson, I pretty much had it within a couple months, which was a lot quicker than I would have thought. Tenor banjo also thought me that sometimes you have to change chords really, like really, fast, and that it's actually very doable with some practice. Then the big aha moment came when I understood the basics of chord melody playing.

I'm back to mostly playing Scruggs-ish style banjo now and I'm still no master at it, but at least I now understand a lot more of how to go about it. I honestly learnt more about music in just a few months of tenor lessons, than I ever did after many years of both Scruggs and Clawhammer (took some Scruggs Skype lessons as well, but we mostly just learnt more and more Scruggs tunes even though I explicitly told my teacher that I really wanted to learn more about theory and the big picture rather than just more tunes that all sound almost the same).

I am very liberal when it comes to the banjo or any instrument in any genre of music. It all comes down to if it sounds good or not. If there already is say a piano and drums in the ensemble, maybe a banjo will just cause confusion to the sound. But if say there is a lonely duo of a cello and a bass-clarinet trying to play something, I'm sure the more high pitched, staccato sound of a banjo could have the potential of sounding great with them! Sure, that's a very particular example, but you get the idea. If it sounds good, it's good! But then the whole thing with actually learning how to play something that sounds good in a non-bluegrass setting comes in play again. A not-so-great strumming guitarist or bass player can perhaps get away with more than a not-so-great banjo player can, simply because the banjo doesn't melt into the background in the same way (Sid Vicious's bass was almost never plugged in because he could barely play the thing, but he still managed to become a world famous musician, lol).

I think finger style banjo might have halted a bit after Earl blew everyones minds and a lot of people stopped experimenting for themselves and simply wanted to play like him, but before that the banjo was a progressive instrument and I believe it will continue to be so as well. Earl himself never stopped playing other kinds of music. I'm in Europe where we don't have the stereotype connection between banjo/bluegrass and rednecks/hillbilly, so maybe that has something to do with it, but for the 15 years I've been lugging a banjo around with me, I've never once gotten any negative comments about it. Most everyone seems pretty fascinated with it.

That got a bit long, but think I covered most of your questions? :-)

Cheers,
Max

Oct 21, 2019 - 5:36:28 AM
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csacwp

USA

2409 posts since 1/15/2014
Online Now

Hi Michael, while bluegrass is one of two principal genres where the banjo is found these days (old-time being the other), that wasn't the case before the 1950s. From the 1840s-1880s the banjo was known by the general public for being a part of blackface minstrelsy, and from the 1880s-1920s (or through WWII in England) classic style banjo reigned supreme and the banjo had no folky connotations. In fact, prewar 5 string banjos from the golden age were built for classic style playing and advertised as such, and the period of the 1880s-WWI was the worldwide peak of 5 string banjo playing, with millions of players and ~30,000 original compositions written for the instrument. I have a working knowledge of old-time and bluegrass banjo history but spend most of my time studying the minstrel and classic eras. If more information would be useful to you then send me a private message and I'll give you my contact information. Best of luck.

Oct 21, 2019 - 5:49:30 AM

hoodoo

Canada

550 posts since 10/6/2017

I don't want your thread to get put of control by not directly answering your question, but John Cohen brings up a good point.

I read your profile biography, so I know that your well acquainted with the instrument.

As for non "bluegrass" genres, try and get your hands on some compilations, if you haven't already such as The North Carolina Banjo Collection (Rounder Records) or Classic Banjo from Smithsonian Folkways. Both feature a wide variety of styles and the liner notes make for interesting reads

Oct 21, 2019 - 6:48:55 AM

1374 posts since 2/12/2009
Online Now

well speaking personally I think that the banjo has already established its bona fides outside of bluegrass very well, the first time I heard a banjo was when I heard Barney McKenna of the Dubliners playing Irish music on a tenor banjo, I did not know that it was a tenor banjo of course it was just a banjo to me! as a boy I heard more four string banjo being played in a long running British TV show called the Black and White Minstrel Show when a black faced singer would croon "Swanee" or "Moonlight Bay " to a twangy banjo played off screen and I came to associate the banjo with the Mississippi river boat era, at that point I had never heard bluegrass, even Paul Robesons "Old Man River" featured a banjo quite prominently. I guess that being here in the UK we had never heard of Ralph Stanley, Bill Keith and countless others, they were a secret known only to aficianados who collected obscure country music albums, then came Deliverance and the world became fascinated with this new sound, Bonnie and Clyde, The Dukes of Hazard, countless Burt Reynolds road movies all conspired to make people believe that this was how a banjo sounded ! meanwhile jazz bands and folk groups were quietly going about their lives doing what they had always done with their banjos except the larger public never heard about them and, for the last forty years there has existed a stereotype about the banjo due to the exposure given to bluegrass picking, I see this receding nowadays at banjo meets in favour of other styles and, I really believe that for better or worse the bluegrass banjo style is slipping back towards relative obscurity again, embraced by a dwindling number of older pickers. when the banjo is all but forgotten by the music buying public it could well take its place beside the zither "Third Man Theme" banjo "Deliverance" I dont believe the banjo will ever be as popular again as it once was.

Oct 21, 2019 - 8:14:45 AM
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974 posts since 2/4/2013

quote:
Originally posted by BanjoBoy88

So, I'm actually writing my master's thesis on non-bluegrass banjo, attempting to demonstrate that the banjo belongs not only in bluegrass but as a multi-genre instrument.


Surely this basic premise is faulty. The banjo was used in different genres before bluegrass came along and has always been used in different genres. Later on there is statement that the violin was once seen a single genre instrument. When was this? I doubt it's use in baroque/classical can really be seperated from it's use in folk music. Seems like a badly thought out master thesis to me. It's a bit like trying to establish that roads can be used for other types of transport than cars.

Oct 21, 2019 - 8:16:39 AM

72 posts since 8/15/2019

To avoid clogging up this thread, I sent a PM.

Best of luck on your thesis! Great topic!

Oct 21, 2019 - 8:26:09 AM

1944 posts since 8/10/2005

Some of these videos might be of interest to you, especially John Bullard's.  

https://vimeo.com/channels/1078567

Oct 21, 2019 - 8:32:29 AM
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2 posts since 10/4/2019

I'm getting a lot of critiques on this, so I feel the need to clarify. When I talk of non-bluegrass banjo, I'm talking mostly about current mainstream music. I'm fully aware that the banjo has always been present in other genres, and that there we're pre-bluegrass genres that the banjo was quite prominent in, but here I'm talking about acceptance by a mainstream audience into their favorite genres of music. Also, while I am focusing a lot on the Scruggs style here, other styles such as plectrum and clawhammer are also up for discussion. Hopefully that clears things up a bit. I really appreciate the answers so far!

Oct 21, 2019 - 9:30:38 AM

2 posts since 7/8/2015

For an example of the banjo's use in prog rock check out this following clip of Rick Wakeman's Catherine Howard from the Six Wives of Henry the VIII. At 1:40 of the video you will see a Rickenbacker Bantar electric banjo. These banjos didn't have a head so they sound pretty much like an electric guitar. Still interesting to see and hear in a rock band context. Having studied at the Royal Conservatory of Music, I'm sure Mr. Wakeman made a very conscious decision to include the Bantar.

youtube.com/watch?v=tV80cbqt-zo

-David
By the way I got my first banjo in 1971. After a 25 year layoff, I'm starting to play again.

Oct 21, 2019 - 2:55:56 PM
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10173 posts since 6/2/2008

quote:
Originally posted by BanjoBoy88

... here I'm talking about acceptance by a mainstream audience into their favorite genres of music. Also, while I am focusing a lot on the Scruggs style here, other styles such as plectrum and clawhammer are also up for discussion.


With that clarification, and with no disrespect to anyone participating in this discussion, I believe the members of Banjo Hangout are by and large not in a position to offer informed descriptions of how or whether banjo is accepted by the broader listening public in the other genres that they listen to.

Does banjo even appear very much in recordings in other genres listened to or purchased by the mainstream audience? There was a lengthy discussion here several months back about banjo in rock and it seemed that a lot of the examples were pretty old, from when Baby Boomers were young. Not reflective of what people are listening to today or what's been recorded this century.

I guess I'm questioning the validity of asking an international community of banjo players what they think the mainstream non-banjo-playing audience thinks about banjo appearing in other genres. You could possibly extrapolate that yourself by identifying any such use of banjo in other genres and then finding the total sales or streams of those recordings or the ticket sales of the respective artists.

Of course, plenty of banjo players believe that banjo -- as a musical instrument, not strictly a bluegrass instrument -- can be used to play other types of music in non-bluegrass fashion appropriate to those other genres. But I don't think that's what you're asking. 

Oct 21, 2019 - 6:06:35 PM

12280 posts since 10/30/2008

Replied via BHO email. Good luck!

Oct 21, 2019 - 6:59:14 PM

6613 posts since 2/14/2006

1. I got started after my Dad showed me chords on the guitar.  Along with that, he owned lots of Flatt & Scruggs records that I slowed down and tried to play with.  Eventually we got Scruggs' instruction book and record which helped me immensely.  I took lessons for about 6 months and involved myself in jam sessions and bands.

2. I think the movement of Scruggs style banjo in different genres is hugely important and will continue to grow.  It's as if the popularity of the banjo has been discovered in these genres, and the combination of new, exciting sounds, demand, and profits will drive the market to use the banjo these ways.  Earl Scruggs popularized the 3 finger style banjo big time in bluegrass music.  He also pushed it into folk music with his Earl Scruggs Revue.  Bela Fleck has and is making it popular in Celtic, New Grass, classical, Middle Eastern, and African music.  And the fact that Bluegrass (called "Country" back in the day) and today's "Country" have been joined at the hip at the Grand Ole Opry since the days of Roy Acuff, it continues to be true today that banjo is useful in Country music, and is becoming more and more popular in this particular genre.  Also, it has always been used in Southern Gospel, and being worked into Contemporary Christian music also. 

I don't think it's a temporary thing.  I think the demand from non-banjo audiences is growing because they like how it sounds.  When it becomes a saturated market, which may take awhile, then something else will take its place.

3. I answered this at the end of #2, I think it will not be resisted in the contemporary crowd.

4. I believe we're at a point where anything goes, at least in the contemporary crowd.  The musical composition is the most important part - the words, melody, riffs - not the instruments being used.  This will all happen in the contemporary crowd.  In the traditional crowd, things will be more compartmentalized.  So both worlds will co-exist.

5. I believe that whether we're talking about banjo, saxophone, drums, violin, etc...  it doesn't matter.  It's the total musical expression that is important, and if you have to bring in a xylophone, organ or banjo into the mix, so be it.  Of course, co-existing with this blending is the traditionalists, who compartmentalize the instrumentation.  I think it's cool to have this variety of co-existing preferences.

6.  Money drives a lot of factors. I believe the desire to create music in a blended or compartmentalized way is tempered by the demand and profits made, at least for the charts.  There will always be someone who creates beautiful music blended by meshing genres and it never hits the charts.  Those are the albums to go out and buy and listen and enjoy.  

Oct 26, 2019 - 4:27:19 AM

4638 posts since 9/5/2006

go listen to groups like

trampled by turtles

devil makes three

elephant revival

railroad earth

modest mouse

blind pilot

grizzly bear


just a few examples for ya !

Oct 27, 2019 - 7:45:43 PM

438 posts since 3/8/2007

Sharpen your inquiry .Do more research and ask specific questions . It is , after all your thesis , not our's.

Oct 28, 2019 - 1:43:40 AM

Dragonslayer

Mozambique

159 posts since 10/9/2019

quote:
Originally posted by BanjoBoy88

So, I'm actually writing my master's thesis on non-bluegrass banjo, attempting to demonstrate that the banjo belongs not only in bluegrass but as a multi-genre instrument. As such, I'm trying to do a little survey, and it would be great if you had the chance to answer some questions! The only thing I'm looking for are honest opinions here. If you're willing to help out, I really appreciate it; thank you!

1. What's your story with the banjo? What got you interested, etc?

2. What are your general thoughts on the banjo being included in non-bluegrass genres? There have been examples of the Scruggs style being used in jazz, pop, Celtic, Broadway, classical, and other genres too; do you see this as a legitimate stage of evolution for the banjo as an instrument, or just as a few novelty pieces that don't really signal a big change?

3. What level of acceptance do you think there is for non-bluegrass banjo among contemporary audiences? Do you believe that the banjo will be more welcomed in non-bluegrass genres or resisted?

4. How do you view the "boundaries" between genres? Do you like the idea of keeping instruments and styles in the tradition to which they belong, or do you see various instruments and styles as being usable pretty much anywhere in music, or are you at some place in between?

5. What do you think of this topic when applied to instruments beyond the banjo? Should instruments stay in their "native" genres, or would you like to see more crossover between genres? Another way to think about it might be this: instruments such as the piano, guitar, and violin have experienced a huge progression beyond the genres that they were at one time thought of as being confined to, and now one might see them in just about any genre. Do you believe the banjo and other similar instruments to be capable of the same level of progression, or are they best suited for the genres that they're most commonly associated with?

6. Anything else you want to bring up or anything I missed.


1. I've always thought the banjo was cool, but I first seriously thought about it after I got into bluegrass guitar and one of the people I learned from on YouTube (Banjo Ben Clark) had banjo on one of the videos I watched, and I thought it was so cool, so I got one. 

2. I think that the banjo sounds great, and fits several genres. I love Celtic music on the banjo, and I also love bluegrass and old time. I know the banjo was one of the first jazz instruments, but I don't like or listen to jazz or pop so I can't comment knowledgeably about those. Classical music on banjo does sound good, if you can play it, but that's way out of my abilities. 

3. I think that contemporary (pop) audiences don't dislike the banjo, but I do think that they automatically associate it with "hillbilly music" and that association is not going away easily. I don't think it would be resisted though, just stereotyped as "country"

4. I think that genre mixing and bending is great, as long as the original genres remain undestroyed. I think it's awesome when people bring instruments from other genres into bluegrass, and equally so when it happens in the reverse. But I also appreciate the musical traditions, with instrumental segregation. There's place for both.

5. I think that any instrument "can" play any genre, but it might not sound like that genre any more. I think that in traditional, folk, and acoustic music, pretty much any instrument can fit, because those styles of music come from people grabbing whatever they had on hand and just making music together. For electric and especially pop music, I think they should just keep their synthesizers and auto tune to themselves. I'd be more open to seeing acoustic instruments make their way into rock etc. than I would be to electric instruments getting into traditional acoustic music. But like I said, there's a place for both.

As to the banjo in mainstream music, I don't really see it making it's way into being a regular instrument in pop music, it's got to "harsh" a sound to really fit in and people still identify it as country. So, in that sense, I don't think it's going to replace the guitar in any way, nor will it gain popularity in pop music, unless some popstar suddenly decides to use it in all of their music. Until then, it'll remain a more obscure instrument that only a few really know about 

Oct 28, 2019 - 2:36:50 AM
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m06

England

8022 posts since 10/5/2006

For folks to usefully attempt to answer the question you have framed, it is vital that you define precisely what you mean by the vague and overly loose term ‘belongs’.

The banjo has a history of assimilation by a range of non-bluegrass genres. So, as Graham commented, your basic premise is too vague and insufficiently defined to take on a direction or reach a mutually understandable conclusion.

That leaves 'findings' wide open to misinterpretation or unsupported and therefore selective interpretation. An academic thesis is a defined and supportable interpretation.

Framing the question precisely is harder, but ultimately will yield more interesting outcomes. Good luck. smiley

Edited by - m06 on 10/28/2019 02:51:07

Oct 28, 2019 - 4:15:12 AM

m06

England

8022 posts since 10/5/2006

quote:
Originally posted by BanjoBoy88

I'm getting a lot of critiques on this, so I feel the need to clarify. When I talk of non-bluegrass banjo, I'm talking mostly about current mainstream music. I'm fully aware that the banjo has always been present in other genres, and that there we're pre-bluegrass genres that the banjo was quite prominent in, but here I'm talking about acceptance by a mainstream audience into their favorite genres of music. Also, while I am focusing a lot on the Scruggs style here, other styles such as plectrum and clawhammer are also up for discussion. Hopefully that clears things up a bit. I really appreciate the answers so far!


Also in the context of an academic thesis you will need to be more precise than using  the term ‘mainstream audience’ as if that neatly identifies one homogeneous block.

More realistic today is that individual associations and identity constantly morph depending on very complex and diverse cultural environments. ‘Purists’ who adhere to ‘boundaries’ and a largely collective idea of musical identity via rigid, singular and coherent sub-cultures are a throwback to the latter half of the last century; a tiny minority and a dying breed these days. And at street level youthful cultural markers change very quickly.

Even the term ‘commercial’ has become too blurred in relation to music production to be useful. 

This all highlights that to have veracity and credibility your research will need to ensure that the criteria being cited actually have a supportable substance rather than being based simply on the researcher’s inaccurate assumptions. The risk is that the latter is a ‘study’ of scotch mist and an attempt to ‘prove’ a hypothesis that doesn’t exist.

Edited by - m06 on 10/28/2019 04:29:06

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