String Envy

As you undoubtedly know–if you know me or have read more than one of my blogs–I play the four-string banjo; this means I do not play Bluegrass, and may take offense (or at least frustration) if you request Dueling Banjos! Just because I’m a “banjo player” doesn’t mean I’m a Bluegrass musician! I have nothing against Bluegrass or the five-string banjo; I just don’t play either, and am not personally interested in learning. I apologize to those who think I look down my nose at it; it just isn’t my area of interest. The four-string and it’s music is very different from the five string and it’s music; I regret that I am not adept at both of them.

This isn’t a snobbish snub of a particular style of music; it is a love of other kinds of music. More importantly though, it is a lack of the right skills/equipment to play it correctly, and a lack of desire to make a fool of myself trying. I do not play the correct kind of banjo to do the style justice (five strings and three finger picks), and do not have the desire to buy one. Sure, there are guys/gals who can do a passable imitation of Bluegrass banjo on a four-string with a flat pick, but alas, I am not one of them.

There are many folks. . .I’ve run into a few of them in my time. . .who seem to believe that if I can’t play Dueling Banjos, I must not be much of a banjo player! Oh sure, I can fancy-strum the song on my four-string and make it look like hard work–and that’s enough to fool most folks–but that kind of fakery does not satisfy my purist love of authenticity. This is the source of the majority of my frustration. Nobody cares how well I play Jazz, Ragtime, or Classical; I don’t finger pick three chord Bluegrass songs (and strumming them is pretty boring to me), therefore I suck.

With this personal background of frustration (must I take everything so damn seriously?), it is only natural that I would feel left out in a crowd of five-string banjoists, or with an audience of “unenlightened” banjo fans. So often, the four-string is left out of the equation in serious banjo discussions, or is at least minimalized (think about Give Me The Banjo on PBS); it’s like we don’t exist, or if we do, we are to be pitied, and are simply five-stringers who have yet to see the light! I have every right to feel snubbed. Who wouldn’t be frustrated?

#1. I shouldn’t take it so personally: For better or worse though, I am intimately involved with my four-string banjo (we “make music together” after all, after countless hours of “creative loneliness,” aka practice), and mis/un-recognition for it is mis/un-recognition for me. Try as I might, I am unable to separate the two of us.

#2. I tend to exaggerate the importance of such things: I’m sure if I was to discuss the situation with an equally-afflicted five-stringer, we would find we have more in common than in difference; guess I need to go to a Bluegrass festival sometime (though I know none of their songs and again, can’t play the style–five-string players would probably have the same frustration at a Trad Jazz festival!)! And I should talk to more non-banjoists; if I would only listen to them, I would probably find that the banjo in any form just isn’t worth losing sleep over.

#3. I shouldn’t feel snubbed when an article writer makes it sound like the five-string is the only “legitimate” version of the banjo (the feeling I often get): He/she is writing for a five-string audience, so why should they have to mention the many other instrument variants? Heck, they may take offense to my omission of the five-string from my writing!

#4. I should be happy for the success of any banjo variant: A commercial success for one is a success for all; it is imperative to keep the banjo in the public eye, regardless of type! I can’t expect to educate the casual observer about the four-string if they have no preconception at all of the banjo.

#5. I should stop being so damn serious about this, and just relax and enjoy the music!


1 comment on “String EnvyAdd yours →

  1. Hey Ron, how about us poor Tenor players, surrounded by Plectrums here on the West Coast. “Hey Rich why don’t you get serious and learn to play a real banjo!” And since the tenor is a little shorter, they consider it a hatchet, rather than an axe. Oh woe is me! B-) …Rich the Tenor player.

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