To Pick or Not to Pick

I wrote this essay a few months before I got my own blog site; it came up today as a Facebook memory (where I had posted it). My thoughts have moderated a bit over the last few years of writing blogs, but this one still resonates with me. Please don’t take this essay as an “attack” on the five-string banjo; it is simply my take on why the four-string lags behind in popularity. The banjo in it’s entirety is a uniquely “American” phenomenon (though it is played and enjoyed throughout the world), and a musical force to be reckoned with; every type is equally important.

I have spent a fair amount of my life apologizing and explaining to folks that I don’t play the five-string Bluegrass banjo. I realize that to the masses, a banjo is a banjo, and “whattaya mean, you can’t play Foggy Mountain Breakdown? That’s a banjo ain’t it?” I used to get defensive about this, assuring them that my style of playing is just as viable as the Bluegrass style, just different. It is a losing battle of course, so—while I still feel a duty to educate—I’ve stopped taking it so personally.

In case you haven’t noticed, there is a difference between “picking” (finger picks or bare fingers) and “strumming” (single pick) technique, which is the style I play. More importantly, there is a huge difference in the type of music that is typically played—or that is even within the realm of possibility—with each. The uninitiated general public of course doesn’t understand this; again, a banjo is a banjo. What they do understand is the type of music they prefer to listen to, whether they relate it to the banjo or not. At this moment in time, it’s obvious that the five-string and its music takes the prize.

The PBS TV special, Give Me The Banjo (which aired with great fanfare several years ago)—while purporting to be the complete story—almost entirely skipped a 30-year era (the four-string banjo)! Surely, you can understand why this would frustrate us! In reality of course, it was the type of music the four-string plays that was snubbed—or should I say, the show celebrated the type of music the five-string plays. To be fair, the show pretty much skimmed the first 200+ years of banjo history in order to come up to an era (Bluegrass and Folk)—and two names (Earl Scruggs and Pete Seeger)—that non-banjo-playing folks might recognize. To us, Eddie Peabody and Harry Reser (the two biggest four-string heroes) are just as important, but how do you explain that to someone who has never heard of either one?

In the grand scheme of things, the banjo in its entirety is a fringe instrument, and not exactly “popular” (in the pop culture sense of the word); the finer details are of concern only to banjo nerds. Even so, I’d be willing to bet that the vast majority of banjo enthusiasts have no idea the four-string exists, or if they do, they don’t see it as a real banjo. A recent check of YouTube for “four-string banjo” yielded several videos of folks showing how to play a four-string with finger picks! What to do if “all you can find” is “just a little tenor banjo?” Well, you could learn to play tenor banjo! It is a very different instrument for a very different type of music! What does it take for the four-string banjo—played the way it was intended to be—to get at least a little respect? I don’t pretend to play Bluegrass on my four-string, and I wouldn’t expect a Bluegrass player to pretend to play Eddie Peabody or Harry Reser style on their five-string. Each instrument has their music.

What does this matter, you may ask? Well, among other points, it has occurred to me that the vast majority of wannabe banjo players have the five-string Bluegrass banjo in mind (and in their closet); not that they think it is any better or worse (no judgment call here), but that they don’t know any other kind exists, and the person selling them the banjo—the supposed “subject-matter expert”—doesn’t know the difference either! Anyway, who carries four-string banjos in their inventory? Not exactly a hot seller—but it might be if more people were aware of the difference.

The point is to make sure a potential “banjo” student understands the difference and that they are picking the right one (no pun intended) based on the type of music they like. If it is indeed the Bluegrass banjo and music they want, then well, someone else will get the student (who knows, they may actually want the Minstrel banjo!). I say this because we may have been missing a source of new four-string players all these years; we just need to become better salesmen. So my mission is two-fold: My own self-interest in promoting the four-string of course, and their best interest in choosing the type of banjo and music that is best suited for them.

Should we be concerned with the general public’s ignorance of the different kinds of banjo music? Well, again, my mission is to educate, but there’s only so much that can be done—short of whacking folks upside the head with a banjo of course—as long as it is a fringe instrument (actually, the violent approach is not so far-fetched; think about what it takes for any of us to notice any fringe subject long enough to pique our curiosity). I know plenty of four-string players who have grudgingly worked up Dueling Banjos routines, just to satisfy a paying/tipping public—myself included! Yes, being “true to my art” is important, but so is paying the bills. Besides, it’s obvious the audience doesn’t know or care how it’s done; they just want to hear Dueling Banjos!

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