Eine Kleine Banjo Snobbery

While I call myself “The Banjo Snob,” I don’t consider myself to be an actual “snob.” The name was meant to poke some fun at my notion of the banjo being a real musical instrument (which it is), and at those folks who actually are snobs. I have however discovered—through my writing—that I certainly do have some snobbish views. I ask forgiveness for this; I often know not of what I speak, and am just looking to spur discussion and thus, to learn—and thus this blog. That’s exactly why I write. This is a bit long-winded, so I’ll forgive you if you fall asleep reading it.

Where I am a bit snobbish is in my geeky love of the “traditional” plectrum banjo. It’s not a dislike of other instruments, mind you; it’s simply a love for the banjo. As an example: You know my feelings regarding the guitar-tuned banjo; it’s not that I am against it, but that I am an advocate and preservationist for the endangered traditional tuning and the music that was played on it back in the day. I stick my nose in the air and sniff “yes, but can you play that newer style on plectrum tuning?” And on the historical side of the coin, can you also play it like Eddie, or Harry, or Perry? These details are overly important to me I admit; I should probably get a life. Look at it this way though; I’m overthinking it so you don’t have to!

The tunings are not that different, but there is a world of difference in available training and in historical examples/ traditions. I find the plectrum tuning to be ideal (and easy) for the chord voicings of the 1920s (the music that made it famous); this is probably a big reason it has not survived well, except in recreations of that music. More modern voicings are certainly possible, but they require a bit of a stretch and a different harmonic sensibility than most of us in the banjo world are used to. Now the guitar, that’s a different story; that little bit of tuning difference makes modern voicings easier and more-likely to be used (which is probably why the guitar has thrived while the banjo has faded).

As a preservationist, I am interested not only in preserving the history and traditions of the standard plectrum tuning, but also in ensuring its future historical relevance (preserving the tuning, not just the instrument). Sure, it can continue to limp along as a barely-noticed musical anachronism (as it has for decades now), but it must modernize or continue to fade.

I appreciate that accomplished, modern guitarists occasionally take on the instrument as a new sound (giving new visibility to the banjo), but in my snobbish opinion, shredding it in guitar tuning proves nothing for the traditional instrument. That’s why I say “okay, you’ve proven what a great guitarist you are (showing what the guitar is capable of); now tune it like plectrum and prove what a great banjoist you are!” (showing what the banjo is capable of). The instruments are typically played in different manners. I’m sorry if that’s taken as snobbery; it’s not meant to be. 

I love it when I’m fooled! There are a few guitar-tuned banjoists who, if I close my eyes and listen, I cannot tell what their tuning is (even when I already know; most are obvious to me from the first chord). This has everything to do with chord voicings and with typical banjo technique (not modern guitar voicings and technique retrofitted to the banjo). So, the question is, is the player playing it like a guitar or like a banjo? As I have said before, I enjoy listening to a good musician, whatever their instrument or tuning. But listening to—and judging—the banjo as a banjo is a different thing. And, despite the fact that I have opinions, I still like everybody!

My musical gift is in hearing (which is why I am a frustrated musician; I hear so much more than I am able to play!); for me, “proper” chord voicings—and the resulting sound—are an important aspect of any kind of music. If I was a classical violinist, the nerd in me would want to play in a small “period instrument” orchestra, recreating Bach or Mozart in exact detail (instead of a massive, modern orchestra overplaying it). As a saxophonist, I would love to play in an authentic Glen Miller band someday (instead of a modern jazz orchestra overplaying it an octave higher than it’s supposed to be). That’s just the maddeningly-exacting nerd I am, which is something I will not apologize for.

Anyway, to use a musical genre example, the guitar is well-known as a modern jazz instrument while the banjo is not. A natural outcome of this is that there are way more modern jazz guitarists than there are modern jazz banjoists. Questions:

  • Does the guitar tuning make that possible?
  • Does the banjo tuning make the same thing impossible?
  • Does the guitar sound naturally lead to modern jazz?
  • Does the banjo sound not lead to jazz?

I believe it is entirely a matter of reputation and perception; the guitar is easy to perceive as a jazz instrument, simply because it already is one, and there are plenty of examples to listen to. If more banjoists played modern jazz (which is entirely possible), then it would be “normalized” and they might actually get some recognition from mainstream jazz fans and critics (and the possibility of being included in a jazz history book as something other than a historical footnote). The banjo has scant-little historical baseline in this regard from which to judge it.

Please note that I have specified modern jazz (Bebop and newer); heard much bebop banjo lately? My long-time dream is to be able to play modern jazz on the banjo. I recognize that a big part of my difficulty is that I am set in my ways as a banjo player; the old style of playing and thinking that I grew up with does not translate easily into newer playing and thinking. I would never want to abandon the old ways in my push for modernity (because I love the old ways). I just want to augment them, and be able to also play in new ways if I so choose.

My ultimate motive is to normalize the banjo as a modern jazz instrument, and not just a rare fluke (my ulterior motive in writing this is that I am currently writing a book on modern jazz for the plectrum banjo!).

I have resisted learning the guitar because—to begin with—I’m lazy! More importantly though, it’s because I didn’t want to be seen as a “guitarist who happens to play the banjo” (and if that doesn’t say “snob,” nothing else will!). I am proud to be one in a million; I want to do all this on the instrument I already love and know how to play! I have finally taken a brave step though, and acquired a plectrum guitar. When I strum the same-old banjo chords on it, I hear an entirely different sound and musical inspiration; it is a guitar after all! And that instrument—though it’s tuned the same—demands to be played in a different manner; it just begs for hipper chord voicings and jazzier lines (and no tremolo!)!

I could have done the same thing on the banjo (and will start doing so now), but when you’ve played it in the same manner for almost 50 years (and heard it since before birth!), you tend to expect and produce “banjo music” from it! I am a prisoner of the pizza-parlor sing-along banjo sound that I grew up with, regardless of my desires to do something different with the instrument. As a musical person, sound is everything; most of us play the banjo because we want that sound (or at least did at one time), or we wouldn’t have been attracted to it! I’m hoping that the plectrum guitar frees me from that sound-concept prison (so far so good).

Snob alert: There is a danger in blurring the lines between the banjo and the guitar! I would never want the banjo to just become a “funny-shaped, twangy guitar” (whether through tuning or technique). In my opinion, the banjo has a unique identity (which is well-worth preserving intact, while modernizing), and that identity makes it a “banjo.” I’m talking about playing modern jazz on it though—which will have the same confusing effect—so what’s my problem? A broadening of my musical horizons—and a relaxing of my unreasonable standards—may just solve some of my snobbery. Thank you for listening!

For music’s sake, it doesn’t matter at all (casual listeners of course have no clue or care about any of this); for historical preservation’s sake though, it matters a lot. The traditional banjo gets little respect today as it is. That’s why I want to augment my own traditional playing with something that shows future possibility for the tuning (something that anyone can learn to do) and that may attract a different crowd; sucker the jazzers in with a hip sound, then introduce them to Eddie Peabody and Harry Reser (we’ll call it “roots” music—oh wait, that’s been taken!).

Here is the most important question all this has raised in my overly-obsessive mind: Are guitar purists offended by the thought of a four-string, “banjo-tuned guitar?” “Why don’t you just learn to play the guitar and get over it?” (sound familiar?). Actually, I would think that guitarists are more open-minded than that; with their dizzying variety of guitar types/tunings/styles, they’ve “seen it all.” It is fascinating to me just how many different instrument/string-number/tuning combinations there are! Can you imagine a guitar-tuned tenor or plectrum guitar? What would be the point? I realize that if lightning were to strike and make me a great musician on the plectrum guitar, I would be recognized as a guitarist, not a banjoist.

By a similar token, if you tuned a violin like a guitar, would it still be a “violin?” I’ll bet symphony violinists would be simply aghast at that “blasphemy” (you think I’m a snob?). And, one more twist; if you programmed a midi keyboard to sound like a banjo, would it be a banjo? And would the player of that keyboard be lauded as a “great banjoist?” They are of course all musical instruments (and us all musicians), but being an instrument purist (or a snob) can get in the way of easy acceptance. I apologize for any perceived disrespect my banjo snobbery may cause; I really am trying to learn and to moderate my evil thoughts!

3 comments on “Eine Kleine Banjo SnobberyAdd yours →

  1. Great minds think alike, Ron, I have often pondered many of these same questions.

    And I once owned a beautiful Emile Grimshaw plectrum guitar, which I had imported from England at some expense, and which i kept for a few years before giving up on it…

    I don’t know if I just didn’t put enough effort into it, but it always felt like I was fighting with that guitar, like it really hated to be played like a banjo! And it seems you had the exact same experience!

    And I totally agree that it is important to honour the traditional plectrum tuning… i play jazz guitar, but I would never want to play the same shit on the banjo that I do on the guitar, what would be the point of that?

    I kind of feel sorry for you that you actually like modern jazz, you know why? You’re in for a world of rejection, my friend!

    While in the trad jazz world, great plectrum players like Brad Roth, John Reynolds and [Ron Hinkle] are still rare and precious gemstones indeed…

    … and let’s be honest, our instrument was made just for that…

    … just sayin’…

    1. Well, I had a gig last night, and played the plectrum guitar a bit. . . I can tell I have my work cut out for me! I of course can hear how the guitar fits into the music, but producing that sound is a challenge for this banjo-centric guy. It was a brave step forward, but I believe I will take an even braver step backward and work on my guitar chops for a while before venturing out again! The next step will be to apply what I learned there to the banjo.
      I grew up immersed in pizza-parlor banjo and in Trad jazz. As a saxophonist, I had the opportunity to play in a modern combo for a while in Korea. I found some of the things they do in modern jazz to be more logical and actually easier. I find the tuning of the banjo to be an advantage, believe it or not; some things are easy to play but sound awkward. That awkwardness actually fits in really well, and makes the patterns sound “out there.” Who knew?
      Well, you can’t blame me for wanting to expand the horizons of the banjo! Everyone talks about making it “relevant” to today, but then we all go back to Bye Bye Blues. You have to do more than just apply the same old technique to “new” songs; that is application but hardly progress. Sometimes we have to drag things kicking and screaming into the present to get anywhere. I believe it can be done! If there are only a few of us doing it though, it will sound like an anomaly, and not like a normal thing. I think that is the difficulty Buddy has had; he’s just a “freak of nature,” and not indicative of what us “normal” folks can do.
      Thanks for the comments Will; keep ’em coming!

  2. “I found some of the things they do in modern jazz to be more logical and actually easier.”

    Interesting, Ron… please elaborate!

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