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Fortress of Banjitude

Welcome to the Inner Sanctum.

What? Lots of people play in the bog. The acoustics are excellent, and we have this a little loo at the back of the house where I can bang away unheard. Bonus: built in seat!

Left to right, that’s a little practice banjo Uncle B bought me for my birthday one year, when I was stuck over here banjoless and my banjo finger began to itch. It’s made of particle-board or something similar, but it’s great fun. Short neck, low action, soft sound, light and tote-able, will take a bit of rough trade.

Next over is a Hayne’s Bay State banjo, circa 1890. Sweet little instrument from the era of parlor banjo (from Boston, would you believe!). It would have been played in the classical finger style, or possibly minstrel style. I replaced the calfskin head and put new strings on it yesterday. Nylgut is a new material that is supposed to mimic the sound of gut strings better than plain old nylon. This banjo would have been strung with gut initially. How does it sound? Like thumping a bag of wet mice with a tiny rubber hammer.

Next over is a British zither banjo, also circa 1890. Well, of course I bought one. Took me forever to take it apart, clean it and put it back together again. All those fiddly bits. I splashed out and bought a set of historically accurate strings for this one: steel, steel, real gut, wound on polymer, steel.

This one would definitely have been played classical style. It has a lovely mellow sound and is a treat to play. The head could use tightening, but I don’t fancy messing around with the brackets again any time soon. I’ve had to replace a few bits already, and some of these wouldn’t be easily replaceable.

And finally, my proper bluegrass banjo. A 1980s Epiphone. It’s a decent banjo pretending to be a fantastic one — solidly built, highly playable, but all gussied up with fake abalone inlay and shit. It was my first banjo and I knew it was a tart when I bought it, but I was desperate for a decent instrument to learn on. I’d driven all over Nashville looking for something suitable and, last stop out of town, I found this ugly pig at 70% off.

How does it sound? Uncle B describes it as two dustbin lids banging together. Yeah, it’s loud. And tinny. And it’s developing a bit of fret buzz. And the sound in a tiled bathroom is indescribable. I love this nasty boy.

Sooo….am I any good? No. No, I’m not. When I reached my teens and a serious musical plateau (on guitar), I realized I was never going to be Joni Mitchell. At that point, I stopped taking any of this shit seriously. Eh. I’m a happy noodler.

But you don’t have to be a serious musician to get the instrument bug.


Comment from S. Weasel
Time: July 19, 2011, 10:29 pm

The blanket in the bathtub is covering some of my beer and wine making experiments (lest something blows up).

Homemade liquor and banjos. Ahhhhh…I’m home!

Comment from Scubafreak
Time: July 19, 2011, 11:24 pm

Plus, if you ever discover the Brown Note, you’ll NEVER be constipated again!!!!

Comment from Armybrat
Time: July 20, 2011, 12:33 am

Forget the banjos, I’m jonesin on the towel warmer rad!

Comment from Mark Matis
Time: July 20, 2011, 12:55 am

Sounds like some of them banjos might do wonders as far as relocating Mr. Fox…

Comment from some vegetable
Time: July 20, 2011, 1:34 am

Interestingly enough, a Japanese slang word for bathroom is “benjo”. I never knew why until today. Just sayin’.

Comment from Nina from GCP
Time: July 20, 2011, 1:54 am

I rather like banjo music, and the nice thing about it is what it shares with bagpipe music (which I also like): it’s hard to tell the diff between good playing and bad.

Oh, ouch. 🙂

Comment from Gromulin
Time: July 20, 2011, 5:05 am

I spent a weekend with a house full of banjo playin’ tweakers in Lakeport CA about 1985. It was like something out of a Hunter Thompson book. I’ll never forget that weekend, and I think my ears are still ringing. If you’ve never been in a small room with 4 or 5 banjos goin full-bore, you have no idea how loud those damn things are. I actually developed a taste for 30’s bluegrass from that weekend, none the less. Speed-metal has nothing on a good breakdown. Salty Dog is still a favorite.

Comment from David Bain
Time: July 20, 2011, 5:36 am

I don’t do envy – well, I try not to. The exception is that I envy people who can play musical instruments. The peak of my ability was that in the early seventies I played “The Sash” on the mouthorgan. I listen well, though.

Comment from MIke C.
Time: July 20, 2011, 9:53 am

30s bluegrass? No such thing. The precursors, yes.

Plinking around on a stringed instrument is like messing around in boats. Even if you’re no good at it, it’s enjoyable. Just not to anybody else within a mile or so.

Comment from MIke C.
Time: July 20, 2011, 10:01 am

Bill Monroe didn’t form his first band until 39, but the definitive band started in 46, and that’s where the term “bluegrass” originates. I guess the deity known simply as “Earl” is the only one left now.

Comment from MIke C.
Time: July 20, 2011, 10:03 am

An oldie, but one of my favorites – Earl and Doc in the back yard…


Comment from S. Weasel
Time: July 20, 2011, 11:10 am

They weren’t much younger than that when they met for the first time, Earl and Doc. Amazingly.

Comment from MIke C.
Time: July 20, 2011, 11:56 am

I’m afraid neither is much longer for this world, and then they’ll all be gone. And that will be a sad, sad day. Cripes, even John Hartford is long gone now. Here’s one of my favorites from John, a song from the 1850s that was very popular during the Civil War. Don’t know what the hell happened to the original video version on youtube…


RIP, John.

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: July 20, 2011, 12:18 pm

Heh. I used to go see John Hartford at the Exit Inn in Nashville. He’d set up a piece of plywood over a microphone and tapdance while he played.

John Hartford was the first long hair my dad ever approved of 🙂

Comment from Oceania
Time: July 20, 2011, 12:23 pm

Jews! EarthQuakes, hacked computers, missing secret files and Quashed Israeli Agents!


Comment from Becca
Time: July 20, 2011, 1:19 pm

My grandpa played banjo and sang in a bluegrass band from the late 50s to the 80s.

Banjo is the only instrument I can simultaneously grin like a fool and cry like a baby while listening to.

Precious memories.

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: July 20, 2011, 4:51 pm

I can have my dad in tears in seconds with Will That Circle Be Unbroken. It’s the undertaker part that gets him.

True story. My mother always thought that line was hilarious, “I told the undertaker, ‘Undertaker, please drive slow. That’s my mother you are hauling, and I hate to see her go.'” Hauling, like she was a load of manure or something.

Wouldn’t you know, when Mother died, I had to drive behind the undertaker carrying her body for 45 minutes on a rainy Friday morning. You can guess what was going through my head.

Comment from Can’t hark my cry
Time: July 20, 2011, 5:46 pm

Snort! I learned those lines as “Undertaker, undertaker, undertaker, please drive slow/For that body you’re a-carrying, Lord I hate to see it go.” Not nearly as hilarious (and now I’m gonna be thinking “hauling” at every damned family funeral I go to in future, because that song always runs through my mind. Laughing and crying all at once, yes indeed!)

Comment from Deborah
Time: July 20, 2011, 5:49 pm

As long as we are sharing banjo videos, this is a sweet old favorite of mine:

Comment from GenghisJohn
Time: July 20, 2011, 6:32 pm

I tried to learn the banjo once, but being a Dobro player short circuited my effort. Dobro rolls are actually backwards banjo rolls, so when I tried to reverse my muscle memory synapses in my brain protested and my head hurt.
I gave the banjo to my son…..

Comment from Christopher Taylor
Time: July 20, 2011, 11:27 pm

One of the great advantages of bluegrass is that you don’t have to be really good at it. Sure its nice when you are, I mean if you’re Chubby Anthony or Earl Scruggs that’s terrific but you can get by with just minimal talent because of how simple and plain the music is.

And that’s its beauty because its everyman music, it is the folk music of the United States. You can sing terribly and still sing along.

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: July 20, 2011, 11:43 pm

One of the reasons I never solo is that I never had to. We used to play in huge groups.

Comment from Skandi Recluse
Time: July 21, 2011, 2:39 am

A friend of mine, who has some musical, and artistic talent, sent me this youtube link….the secret to success, beyond talent, hard work, and desire, is start young..


Comment from JC
Time: July 21, 2011, 5:13 am

“fake abolone”?
Like “aboloney”?
Or “abologna”?
We used to call it”mother-of-toilet seat” back in the day
Had an old Gibson LG-1 or suchlike, l
Original case in “stimulated bullagator”.

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: July 21, 2011, 12:36 pm

Funny thing about that, Skandi. I used to go to the Fiddler’s Jamboree in Smithville every year. I lost track of the number of mind-blowingly capable kids I heard there that I expected to hear from again…and didn’t (I had reason to remember, for I was a kid myself and I burned with envy).

I don’t know what it is. Maybe when you’re seven you play because your dad makes you, and then you defy him by quitting.

Comment from gromulin
Time: July 24, 2011, 6:33 am

I may very well off by a few years…my library was any compilation cassettes I could find. All my friends were listening to hair– metal and I was listening to tinny tapes of banjo music…it all sounded like the 30s to me. I always associate the 40s with big bands, not bluegrass. Lost interest after a couple years but still have a crapload of Chester and Lester on my ipod.

Comment from S. Weasel
Time: July 24, 2011, 11:05 am

It was kind of a semantic observation, Gromulin. Mike C. was alluding to Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, which was formed in the 40s. It’s where the term “bluegrass” comes from, and Monroe is often called “the father of bluegrass.”

But, obviously, much of the music we call bluegrass is old, old, old.

Comment from Elphaba
Time: July 26, 2011, 7:22 am

Bluegrass isn’t so much what you play, but how you play it. I love it…it’s the happiest shit to tap your toe to, yet the words are incredibly tragic. I suck tolerably well at upright bass, myself. Too bad the commute is so gnarly…I’d love to jam with you.

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