No doubt about it, the banjo has a well-deserved reputation for fun simplicity, both among its players and the general public! Learn three chords and a couple of basic strums, and you can sit in with just about any banjo band or jam session (where social interaction is much more important than music). This of course furthers the public’s unserious view of it. Having grown up in and benefitted from this democratic, all-welcoming environment, I would never disparage the concept; I would never tell someone that they can’t join in the fun. I’m too nice a guy to do that, and besides, I’m still an advocate for and avid fan of the banjo band concept; I still love the social aspect and music of that environment (as much as an overly-serious introvert can). I cannot and will not burn the bridge that my feet are still firmly and happily planted on.
However, as a goal-oriented, striving professional musician who has spent his adult life struggling to get beyond his learned-in-childhood banjo simplicity (both in mentality and playing skill)—and to gain the skill that will allow him to play the music that is in his heart—some things need to be said. My blog writing has thus far been an attempt to say these things without ruffling too many feathers. It is a nerve-wracking game of brinksmanship; push it about as far as I think the machine can handle, then pull back out of fear of losing friends. I occasionally regret my words and am obliged to recant or at least rephrase for the same reason; when I do inadvertently hurt someone’s feelings, I feel a responsibility to make it good. Perhaps I worry too much; will you still like me if I say something that offends you? Can I tell the truth (as I see it after almost five decades of living it—at least I’ve earned my opinions!) and still remain your friend? I sincerely and certainly hope so.
My real motive (besides just figuring myself out) is to help raise the image of the banjo itself, up to the point where it can be taken more seriously by the mainstream music establishment, and to compete on equal footing in that less-kind, dog-eat-dog environment. Very few banjoists—historic or present-day—have managed to be taken seriously there, regardless of the profound musical ability he or she may have (our “banjo heroes” are almost completely unknown outside our kind-hearted little circle, in case you hadn’t noticed!). It is partially the instrument’s simple image that stands in the way of mainstream notoriety; no matter how well it’s played, it will always be a novelty.
My own wish is to be taken seriously; more than likely failing that, at least I should end up being a pretty darn good player for my efforts. The buying, non-musical general public (blindly guided by the movers and shakers who shape opinion and musical “taste,” and make money off of them) is bound and determined to see the banjo as a novelty, regardless of how good a musician the player is. This is the result of decades of cultural conditioning (still ongoing), where the banjo has been presented primarily as an entertainment prop, and not as a musical instrument. Many players have worked hard to change that image, but popular conception is a tough nut to crack.
I don’t think this simplicity was always the case. Let me use the great Harry Reser as an example: “Back in the day” (back when the banjo was an important part of the popular canon), his compositions and method books were very technical and required serious study. Fast forward to 1959 with the publication of his famous Let’s Play the Tenor Banjo (the orange book that many of us learned from). In it, you learn how to strum basic chords to sing-along songs and eventually play a little single-string and Chord Melody. Talk about lowering your sights! Of course, I realize that—in order to satisfy a publisher and make a sale—he had to “dumb down” his output.
In my opinion, he also dumbed down his playing in his last records (again, perhaps forced to do so by the money men in charge). I know that Harry was also a fine entertainer and keen businessman, but I sure would have liked to hear what he was really capable of doing after decades of playing; oh, to go back in time with a digital recorder! I could do without the rat-a-tat drum solos, the rinky-tink piano, the syrupy group vocals, and especially the whoopy whistle! This simple, fun mentality is true for most of the banjo records made in the 1950s; only Perry Bechtel seemed to have had artistic control over his work, producing an amazing record showing what was possible on the plectrum banjo (and no striped shirt or straw hat to be seen!). Note: I have not heard every recording, so I’m only going on what I have heard.
I have decided that my own books and online lessons will not be simple! There are plenty of easy, “play-in-a-day” methods and lessons already out there; you don’t need me for that. You need me to push the envelope, and produce lessons and exercises that will challenge you to go beyond simplicity (if for no other reason than to get really good), and closer to what resembles the music that the banjo—as a real, honest-to-goodness musical instrument—is capable of playing. I’m convinced that you are capable of it as well. I want to produce the kind of things that I myself looked for in vain before realizing I had to become my own teacher. I see the banjo as a serious musical instrument, worthy of serious study; the means to that end is what I’m trying to produce. I’m offering them for free—knowing that it would be a waste of my time and money to produce something that would probably sell only 10 copies—and frankly don’t care if you use them or not.
Don’t get me wrong; of course I care if you use them, and hopefully learn from them! It’s just that I’m not doing it for the money; I’m doing it for the love of the banjo, in the hope that maybe I’ll somehow contribute to a banjo renaissance in which the instrument will be taken more seriously. I realize that for many of you who are “more advanced” in age, it may be too little too late, at least in the sense that you are “set in your ways.” I hope you try anyway—I like to think that I am a perfect example of “it’s never too late to learn something new.” I plan to learn and grow ‘til the day I die!
But that’s okay; there are young players coming along who are looking for a challenge. I humbly present to you the challenge that you are looking for. May you use it to take the banjo into new musical territory (as only youngsters can), and to extend and enrich the life of the instrument we all love.