Was thinking about how much joy and lasting friendships the banjo has brought me over the decades and was wondering how you other long time banjologists have done. Thought it would be therapeutic to check in. Seems like every year there's fewer and fewer of us.
1. How many others have been actively playing banjo for 50 years give or take?
2. What's the biggest change(s) you've seen in the banjo world in all those years?
3. Any words of wisdom you would like to offer to younger/newer players?
4. Favorite moments? Memorable events?
Edited by - banjoez on 03/28/2023 21:49:05
I think I started in 1967. The biggest change I've seen is the improvement in the quality of craftsmanship of the many instruments that are now available. Some of those instruments even sound good. Advice? Get a metronome.
I've been playing more than 50 years. As I've spent those years in the UK, things have been very different for me than if I'd been playing in the USA. Biggest change here is in the availability of pro-quality instruments, recorded music and tuition materials. When I started learning, there was only the slimmest (virtually nil) chance of finding a good instrument for sale. Recorded bluegrass could be found only at specialist shops in London, and there was no tuition available anywhere! Sadly, back then the banjo and the music it made was regarded as a joke over here (except among the few who'd seen the light) and anyone playing banjo was definitely regarded as an oddball.
Things are very different today. Several retailers stock excellent banjos, we can download any recorded playing, we have a network of teachers and even a couple of week long summer schools. It's another world.
My advice? Realize just how lucky we are today and take full advantage of the range of tuition available.
It has been 50 years plus for me. Old time and bluegrass, although I hung up my bluegrass banjo picking in the mid 80's I have still taught others to play. The quality of banjos is up and the shear number of players out there today is mind numbingly large compared to back then.
I started in September 1962. Played folk styles for a couple of years and then got heavily into old time picking styles. Moved over to bluegrass in the mid-70's.
The biggest changes in the banjo world that come to mind include there being so many high quality builders, the introduction and widespread use of the melodic style, the widespread availability of instructional materials, the increased popularity of single-string playing especially among progressive players.
Words of wisdom? From a banjo player? Isn't that an oxymoron? (Please accept my apologies if I've insulted the intelligence of either livestock or banjo players. I actually like banjo jokes.)
Nonetheless I offer the following:
When you play with other musicians listen to what's going on around you.
Be aware of tension in your body, especially in your right hand, and loosen up (smiling works for me).
Favorite moment: being told by staff at a nursing home where I performed as a volunteer that wheelchair-bound patients who rarely moved were tapping their hands as I played.
Spot on at 50 years almost to the day.
Started playing in 1973. Would have been 12 years old then. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing and everything that I learned, I picked up off of my best friend who was taking lessons out of the old black Scruggs book.
Back then, the only resource I knew of was that book. That and occasional rare records you would find shoved in a rack somewhere. As far as I knew when I started playing, there was no place to take lessons and no other lesson book.
Since I grew up in New York, I would randomly see people either on the subway or in the various parks, Central and Washington Square carrying a banjo case. For some reason or other I got it into me and approach these people and basically say “ What do you have in that case?” And “Can you teach me something?” I was young and it was the 70’s, so for some reason it was not a problem. Did that enough times that I was able to discern that I liked the Old Time stuff better than Bluegrass playing, and some of those folks turned me on to different music stores and the Folklore Center on W 4th. Some of those random people that I accosted would up being my life long friends.
The biggest changes I have seen ha e been just plain old access. Access to wonderful instruments and players and that was from the internet coming into existence. Prior to the internet, the only way to see and meet musicians was down south at festivals and competitions. There were no resource books or videos. Now, no matter what style or player you can think of, there are multiple videos and tutorials to learn the style. Maybe too much. I remember getting ahold of a Wade Ward vinyl and learning everything on it only because it was the only record that I had that was a solo banjo.
Words of wisdom? Just play with as many people as you can, listen to as much music as you can, all kinds, and double on another instrument. Learn guitar or fiddle also. It helps with your banjo playing and makes it more interesting if yo ur in a room with more than one banjo player.
Favorite moments? Didn’t know they were my favorite moments until years later. Played with Tommy Jarrell once when I was a kid in a long jam session, but didn’t know who he was at the time. Argued with Kyle Creed over the price of one of his banjos because I thought 300 dollars was too much, so like an idiot I passed on it. And met my wife at a old time music party some 40 odd years ago. Good party!
What? Are you saying the banjo player drove off in his Porch with the woman? Kind of hard for us to believe there, young feller. banjered
A neighbor gave me a tenor banjo in 1959 as folk music was on the rise. I learned all the popular songs of the day, but what kept my interest going was writing my own instrumentals & songs over the years since then. Playing w/ others & jamming was absolutely invaluable.
I'm two years shy of 50. Biggest change, learning resources. I began with the Scruggs (Keith) book, the Wernick book and my bluegrass records. No local teacher, no internet. Most unusual experience, I was in a band playing the Strawberry Music Festival in California. We had opened the Saturday evening and the promoter had us return to play the Wm. Tell Overture before the headliner came on. While we played. the security guys stampeded their 40 or so horses in the meadow next to the audience of 7000 folks. Spot lights on horses bucking and cowboys hooting and our five piece bg band playing Wm. Tell. Not repeated.
Bill Rogers (Moderator)
I started Christmas 1960. So that’s 62+ years…. Biggest changes? Proliferation of five-strings and diminution of four-stings (with the exception of the development of Irish tenor playing). Arrival in the long term of many highly-skilled and creative five-string players in multiple styles. Ascension of bluegrass playing and its offshoots. Growth of five-string as an instrumental vehicle much more than a vocal accompaniment. These are the broad changes I’ve seen over time. There have been many other lesser and more focused ones.
It's been over fifty years -- give no take.
Changes: The passing of so many of the old-time greats; and more high-quality instructional material and performances on-line than we could ever have dreamed of in those days.
Wisdom: Wish I had me some of that; but "keep it simple and don't get above your raisin'" is worth considering.
I started playing when I was eight years old so I have been playing 50 years. When I started out Gibson and Vega were about the only professional grade banjos on the market. Now there are lots of fine builders making banjos that are better than anything either company was making at that time. The banjo is taken more seriously now than it was fifty years ago despite all the banjo jokes out there. There are a lot more professional bands now than there were back then.
What advice would I give a new banjo player? Find the players you like and emulate them but don't try to copy. Each individual should have their own style. Nothing burns my biscuits like some wiseacre telling me,"Earl didn't play it like that."
Among my favorite moments would have to be when I played Theme Time not knowing that Bill Emerson was right there behind me. He complimented me on the way I played it. And the time I got to spend playing with Jim Eanes was a priceless experience. I think I learned more about music then than any other time. Not so much about playing the banjo, but about playing in a group and learning how to blend in.
It has been a long journey but it has given me the greatest enjoyment of anything I have ever done.
Edited by - Culloden on 03/28/2023 18:15:18
This has to be one of my favorite inquiries since i hopped on this ride. I love to hear to the stories , memories, and advice. Keep on keeping on . Long live the banjo !!!
I was given a Kent five string banjo in 1967 at age 20. I already played some finger style guitar, so spent the first year just adapting that to banjo and making things up. This was a year before the Scruggs book came out, which then helped a lot. I didn't know until then that one was supposed to use fingerpicks and had a big period of adjustment to switch over. I never did take lessons, but actually think that being self-taught helped me develop an ear and an understanding of the mechanics of playing and of banjo setup. Although there were guitars and fiddles in the San Jose, CA local music stores, finding a better banjo took me quite a while. It wasn't until the 1972 release of the Will the Circle be Unbroken album that I saw bluegrass become more popular.
Just about 53 years for me. I had a friend in year 9 ('63) who's older brother had a five string banjo and the Pete Seeger book. He also turned me on to Bob Dylan, Sing Out magazine and pacifism. Influential fellow. The next year I had an Art teacher who was from North Carolina and played Clawhammer. About '70 I started meeting some California transplants in Seattle - Jack Link, Hank Bradley, Warren Argo etc. , been playing Clawhammer and guitar ever since.
Biggest change? definitely the access thing. I agree with some who say it's almost too much - a tune I learned from so and so at Sweet's Mill who learned from someone at Weiser who learned it from an old field recording of Hobart Smith just seems to carry more meaning than "got it off you tube".
Advice? Have fun, emulate don't imitate, and listen to the old stuff.
Memorable indeed were my first trips to Sweet's Mill ('72 - '76), meeting greats like Kenny Hall, Earl Collins, Frank Hicks, Ron Hughey, etc., and connecting with my tribe.
Started on a Framus sometime in the late 1960’s,, didn’t get too far,, didn’t have the bug yet and I was still into fingerpicking guitar. Then around 1973 I got the fever , bought a bottlecap El Degas and busted butt learning out of the Scruggs and Wernick books. Highlight - 4 years later I was in a CBC state-of-the-art studio recording 3 tunes with a group that included iconic singer-songwriter Willie P. Bennett. Quit banjo for 26 years in the mid-80’s until I got the bug again 10 years ago.
Edited by - chuckv97 on 03/29/2023 00:02:25
I just hit 60 years for clawhammer banjo. I was living on LI when I was in school and heard Sprung's Stars and Stripes forever, the theme song of the local folk music show on WNYC (I think). Blew me away and I discovered Roger Sprung was teaching once a week in the next town. I acquired aVega Folk Ranger but after a few lessons Roger told me that I was a much better guitar player tha banjo and after a few more months I joined him on his annual Southern festival tour. I was a pretty good rhythm player and won ribbons at Galax and Union Grove, but I always gravitated to the Old Time jams tucked away in the corners. I kept up playing claw hammer and turned out I guy I met at Galax was my HS History teacher at prep school in Lenox, MA that fall. He also played banjo and changed his name from John to Mac.
I do remember Arnie from some of the "Picking Parties" on the Island.. I still love the music as much as ever.
I think the changes have been that appalachian music has been largely gentrified and I play with many more scientists that hillbillies. The trend towards retroactive old time seems to be an echo of being politically correct. I find it amusing that so many guitar players gravitate towards crappy parlor guitars so they can sound just like the crappy recoding of the Skillet Lickers. I don't think the banjos have suffered similarly.
I guess we're all lucky to be alive and still making music!
Although I’ve only been playing, on and off, for about 45 years, I would say the greatest change has been the availability of tuition material. First, we had lots of good tuition books emerging during the 1970s and 80s, and the widespread adoption of tablature; earlier books used standard notation, which for five string playing was really hard work, though not for tenor banjo. Secondly, we now have the Internet sites, YouTube videos, etc, with more accessible tutors than you could shake a dowel stick at.
Plus, there seem to be a lot more sessions around than there used to be, although we have a problem over here with so many pubs and bars closing down, due to loss of trade and lifestyle changes, meaning less places to perform generally. Unfortunately for those of us in the deep southeast, the UK sessions and festivals are largely based in the north and midlands, Wales and Scotland, which I guess might be something to do with being close to mountains.
I bought my first banjo in 1966, but I have not been actively all the time.
The biggest changes are Internet that made socializing easier, and made mp3:s, and tabs and disussion forums available to all.. And don't forget the birth of Banjo Hangout!
An advice to young players: Banjo music is changing all the time. What was progressive music 75 years ago, is often regarded as Old-Time or traditional musi today. To be a good musician: look back on the history and do be afraid to try new things
Favorite moments: When I saw Pete Seeger in Sweden 1968. When YouTube became popular to Bluegrass and Old-Time Music.
What everybody said. Also, 50 years ago the tunes had names that were easier to remember. Mastertones didn't weigh as much. Strings needed changing more often. And 50 years ago I could go to a festival and pick all night long.
Edited by - Don Borchelt on 03/29/2023 04:44:18
Only 44 years for me, but there was a good 20 years or more in the middle where the banjo hardly got out of the case. I was busy raising kids and paying for the house. I think a pretty common story. I awoke in 2019 and now 4 years later I play better, and know more about banjos in general than I ever did in the first 40 years.
What has changed? Internet, obviously. Remember those thin plastic records that came in the books? My turntable died about 10 years ago and replacing it is still sitting there on my TO DO list.
I had to wait until I was big enough to be allowed to play the family instruments which were 2 guitars,a Silvertone banjo and a Stradolin.That was in 1960 at the age of 8.
Dad played any instrument (mainly lap and later pedal steel) by ear and was a very good tenor singer.
Mom needed sheetmusic for playing our Story & Clark piano and we played a lot of Country and Western music at home.
One of the big changes for me was retuning the banjo to open G (Mike Long's advice) around 1968.Up until then I played with the 4th tuned to C because many of our old piano books had banjo chord diagrams with the banjo 4th tuned to C.
4. Most memorable moment: While I was learning, there came a day when what I had in my mind to play went through my fingers to the banjo and back into my ears. It was the same thing. Hallelujah.
I started in 1964 with a pawn-shop Kay. My greatest memory is the day in 1974 when I bought my 28 Granada. The next best thing is being invited to write for Banjo Newsletter and the years that followed and the myriad of wonderful friends I've engaged; organizing The Eastern NC Bluegrass Association and the monthly shows and great bands that performed there. My brother and I have been brought closer through our band and the venues and media events we have played. Virtually my entire life since age 15 has revolved around banjo and Bluegrass. The biggest change I have seen is the obsession with the minute details of "pre-war" Gibson banjos and attempts to replicate them. My repertoire has expanded to guitar, fiddle, and mandolin in the various bands I've performed with.
Advice for new pickers:
1. Timing first before speed,
2. Learn to tune by ear
3. Learn how to set-up you banjo without messing it up
4. Play to express, NOT impress...
5. Find your own "voice" and perfect the basics before trying to play stuff you aren't ready for
6. Be true to your music
7. Fill your head, heart, and soul with good music of all genres.
8. Embrace versatility
9.Die with your picks on
“Die with your picks on” ! I love it . All great advice but that one jumped out at me . Thanks Bob
Since people are hestitating to follow Bob, I'm take one for the team.
My dad had a legally-blind uncle (Carr) and that man had a music room with guitar, banjo, autoharp and a TUBA. Every time, you visited him, he would tell the kids that he had plenty of room for everyone to stay the night because the kids would get hung on nails. He actually had some big nails in a door for some reason. We would act like we hadn't heard that joke before.
At some point, I discovered my dad's closet had a shotgun and a Kay banjo in the back of it. I was snooping around. I got in some trouble for shooting some birds with the shotgun, so I turned to the banjo. It had a little instruction booklet. You were supposed to put the page under the strings to understand the picking/fretting sequence. Of course, it just made a rustling sound if you have paper under banjo strings.
I got the Scruggs book and the album in 1976 or so. I got encouragement from J.B.Prince who lived in my neighborhood. He was a fiddling champion and was already spending time with Kenny Baker while I was still working on cripple creek. He did loan me a Gibson Mastertone archtop after hearing and trying to play the Kay. He was friends with Jimmy Arnold who was in High Point about then. So, I did get to see some picking at an early age.
The ads in the Banjo Newsletter convinced me to buy a Flying Eagle Goldstar GF100 in 1978. With my high school earnings, I had already bought a car and a motorcycle. Apparently I was not much of a saver then.
I played at college, but once I was working, the banjo got put aside (for 21 years!) Then, my work took me to Tennessee and I went ahead while the kids finished out the school year. I didn't want the movers to handle my banjo so it went with me. Since I was in an empty house and my wife was complaining about my relentless spending at the Home Depot as I built a shop at the new house, I decided to put new strings on the banjo.
It surprised me how quickly the old songs like Sally Goodin and Shuckin' the Corn came back. Then, I was in a church band and my progress was fast with people depending on me. We even had a weekly practice as a group.
After I moved away from TN, I only have a local jam at a nursing home as an outlet. I was busy with work and the banjo because just a place of solace. Later I realized that for a decade or so, I wasn't really progressing. I just used the banjo to have some time alone and to zone out for a while.
Now I'm retired and I'm really into it. The fingerboard is making more sense than ever, and it seems easy to add new songs and do some improvising. Backup seems fun and interesting and my singing is very satisfying. I actually decided to actively learn again and it is coming along fast.
Best memory: Once I was playing on my front step and a car stopped. They listened and came up and said "Man, you're the real deal". I didn't recognize my neighbor even when he told me his name (Duane Eddy). Later on, I would figure out that I had really gotten a nice compliment. Now if you don't know Mr Eddy, I'll tell you the same thing he told me, "look me up on the internet if you're curious".
Worst memory: At a bluegrass competition in Star NC, we got approach by some people that loved our playing and could we play Sally Goodin on stage again. Our heads got big. We started playing and they started clogging. Oh my goodness, it went on and on and on. My turn to take a break keep coming around again and again. Finally God showed us mercy and they did some bowing and curtseying.
'Good Tuesday Morning' 5 hrs
'Zoom banjo lessons' 6 hrs