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SAVAGE: Pickin’ but not grinnin’: adventures in banjo land

• May 8, 2018 at 3:00 PM

Recently, having finished my scheduled home projects and a few dozen more that I got myself into along the way (you know how it is; one project is always 10 masquerading as a single idea), I decided to learn to play the banjo.

There is no explanation for why my brain works this way. Every whim that pops into my head seems like a great idea worth my immediate and wholehearted pursuit. I am working on accepting the things I cannot change.

I love the high, lonesome sound of bluegrass music. However, my voice is neither high nor lonesome; it is the sound of decades invested in cheap bourbon and bad company. More like Marlene Dietrich meets Tom Waits, or Merle Haggard had he only lived harder.

Mr. Smokin’ Hot and I host a monthly summer event called the Spring Lake Bluegrass Jam, and last year we were a little short on fiddle and banjo players. Since I already play half a dozen instruments, I opted to fill the void by taking up the five-string banjo. How hard could it be?

As it turns out, brutally difficult.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit I’m aware that not everyone loves the banjo. Even the most diplomatic among my few friends recently described it as “not my favorite sound,” not unlike a cat stuck in the dishwasher.

Being a banjo player is like having a hideous mole in the middle of your forehead. Everyone assumes you are aware of the problem, so no one mentions it. Rather, they avoid you whenever possible in hopes that you might, on your own, realize that the thing is offensive and dispatch it to another world where it never again sees the light of day.

The banjo is the brussels sprouts of musical instruments: you either like it or you don’t, and no amount of butter, salt or persuasion will convince you otherwise.

Fascination with the banjo re-emerges in every generation, starting with the theme song for “The Beverly Hillbillies” in the 1960s, comedian and banjo master Steve Martin in the 1990s, and more recently the Irish band Mumford and Sons and singer Taylor Swift. To be fair, Taylor Swift does not play a banjo; her contraption is a banjo guitar, a six-string hybrid which is tuned like a guitar but looks and sounds like a banjo, meaning any fool who plays the guitar (including me) and is willing to shell out a few hundred bucks can fake it.

Based on what I now realize were unreasonable prejudices, I completely underestimated the difficulty of learning the bluegrass banjo. My assumption was that if uneducated hillbillies could play it, certainly I would be an instant wizard at the instrument.

Three months of practice later, I am a humbled person and readily admit that hillbillies may be ignorant, but they are certainly not dumb. The banjo is difficult as heck.

On a guitar, the strings are arranged in order from lowest to highest, with the right thumb striking alternating low notes while the fingers keep a semblance of order and relative position on the higher strings. The vexation with the five-string banjo is twofold. Where the lowest string should be sits a high “drone” string, followed by four more strings, low to high, but not as high as that darn drone.

Most puzzling is the completely non-intuitive right-hand basic pattern, known as the “forward roll.” Rather than the thumb and fingers striking the strings in any logical order, the thumb hits the drone, followed by the first two fingers playing the other strings in reverse direction, all of this rapidly and repeatedly.

It’s a matter of two constantly opposing forces trying to bully one another into synchronous movement, not unlike two people who both have no sense of direction doing the fox trot. What diabolical hick thought this up?

A little history of the five-string banjo, not that you asked:

When, in 1930, a tiny 6-year-old named Earl Scruggs picked up a banjo, he forever changed the character of the instrument. Scruggs developed the famous three-finger picking style that virtually every bluegrass player now uses, bringing the instrument from a background rhythm tool and comedian’s prop to a featured solo act.

Modern players with a little too much wind in their sails often aspire to go “beyond Scruggs.” Earl didn’t just perfect it, he created it. There is no beyond. A few stellar players in recent generations have built on Scruggs’ foundation to create something completely new — Bela Fleck among them. But there is only one Earl Scruggs, and modern players rightly owe everything to him.

So, back to me and what is increasingly becoming a failed attempt at banjo playing. An Earl Scruggs or Bela Fleck I will never be. My best-case scenario is simply not to embarrass myself. I play classical piano, both upright and electric bass, the guitar, the ukulele, and the clarinet. But on the banjo, I am an oaf with 10 thumbs, none of them in step with the others. However, I look cool playing it, and that alone is reason enough to keep on striving for improvement.

In the meantime, the Spring Lake Bluegrass Jam begins its second season on Sunday, June 10. Players of all levels are welcome, as are enthusiastic listeners.

Find us on Facebook. You’re all invited.

— By Shari Savage, Tribune community columnist

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