Why is the Banjo so Mysterious?

I must declare here: the banjo is a throughly fascinating thing.  Whether playing Bluegrass, Old-Time, Folk, Jazz, or any other genre, it has a certain fascination, even a mystery, about it. And not only in sound, but in looks as well. Karen Lynn has described the sound as a ‘half-barbaric twang’ in her excellent, scholarly book by the same phrase.

But the intrigue goes beyond simply auditory and visual aspects of an odd object. There’s something more that makes the banjo a mysterious thing. Many people have stated that this is the main thing that attracted them to wanting to play the banjo, thus starting their relationship with me, also. My students and I have long discussed some of these. Here, I’d like to recall and assemble all the talking points on why the mystique surrounding the banjo.

I’ve categorized these points roughly as I have in several other blogs dealing with various qualities of our instrument: Visual, Auditory, and, in this case, Other.

1. Visual
That 5th string half way up the neck. Supposedly added by a Mr Joel Sweeney in 1836, although there are now historical indications it was added much earlier.

Nevertheless, no other American instrument has this 5th string; although other, exotic instruments in the world have something similar. These other instruments with sympathetic strings only serve to reinforce an alternate, exotic appearance in the banjo.

It’s a visually complex instrument. Often, it also has various ‘frills’, such as inlays (more than you typically see on either a guitar or mandolin), extra carvings (such as on the heel, neck or resonator) and peghead ornamentation. Having a drum, it also has lugs for tensioning the drum head, adding to the complex look.

2. Auditory
Rolls. Created with the advent of Scruggs style, rolls may be 3, 4 or more notes in length before repeating. Since these rolls are played with the thumb, index and middle fingers, different fingers will take lead notes in a manner that is undecypherable to someone who doesn’t play an instrument in finger- picking style (Scruggs style banjo, Cross picking a mandolin or guitar, or Chet Atkins style guitar, for instance).

3-finger rolls in 2/4 and 4/4 time. Here’s where syncopation starts to enter the picture. Three note rolls, repeated within a 2 or 4 beat measure makes for an off-kilter effect that is harder for our brains to process.

The 5th string is used as a drone. In the dominant style, Scruggs style, the 5th string is never fretted, giving it an almost subconscious root note. Once again, this is unique in American music.

These 3 points above are interrelated: a syncopated roll that may or may not be off-kilter, with an occasional drone note that comes out of nowhere. Add to that the fact that we usually think of notes coming from an acoustic instrument by means of a flat pick as opposed to the actual process of finger picking; no wonder our brains cannot decompile the process of playing a banjo.

There are strings stretched across a drumhead. This is the fundamental definition of a banjo. This is what gives it that signature ‘twang’. Even if you take another instrument, such as a mandolin or dulcimer, and place a drum head in the body, the sound becomes more that of a banjo than whatever the other instrument was.

Quick decay of the tone. Inherent in the basic physics of the aforementioned string across a drumhead; our ears define that charisteristic banjo sound as also having a quick decay, giving it that plunky effect. Interestingly, if you increase the mass of the object separating the string from the drumhead (the bridge) it will increase the sustain of the note, giving the banjo a considerably different sound.

3. Other
You’ve heard the saying about the whole being greater than the sum of the parts? That metaphor fits logically here as well.

The Banjo’s rural background. Like all things rural, there is no slick marketing. If it is worth something, go find it yourself. And don’t spoil the secret by telling everyone on Earth, either – just tell your neighbor.

Perception of being on the ‘wrong side of the tracks’. Ever since the days when the banjo was associated with plantations, slaves and minstrel music, it has been perceived of as less-than-ideal. That personality has stuck with the banjo even to this day, despite having changed hands into different ‘owners’ several times. Owners have included slaves, minstrel performers, young ladies of proper upbringing who wished to rebel against Victorian society, the isolated rural population in general, hippies, and now practioners of Bluegrass; what a motley crew!

Perceived simplicity. Especially true of the older styles of playing, before Mr. Scruggs, conjuring up images of the ‘Old South’. A simplicity that is still enthusiastically embraced by many. This is a paradox, I’ll admit. How can an instrument be both undecypherable and at the same time simple? And yet that is the perception many of us have of it.

Multiplicity of tunings. Some of which are very distinct: modal tunings, minor tunings and such. Few instruments have such a wealth of tunings. Quite frankly, as I sit here I can’t think of another instrument that approaches the banjo in terms of the richness of tunings; traditional or modern.

History. History is closely integrated into many of the points as stated above, but there is one more point to be made in regard to history. The recent history of the banjo is fairly well known. It came over from Africa with slaves and modifications have been made to it since that time to the extent that the original Banjar, or Akonting, or whatever came over here, is a very different instrument from the modern day bluegrass banjo. The banjo was not of European ancestry, as many other instruments were. Indeed, it was perhaps brought to Africa from the Middle East centuries before its journey to America. Were the sitar and sarod also ancestors to the banjo? In short, We know just enough history to allow for imagination to fill in the rest of the details.

I hope you’ve found these points as fascinating as I have in compiling them!

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About Phill Gibson

I'm from Huntsville, Alabama where I work as a Systems Engineer and part-time banjo and mandolin instructor. I've been playing various instruments since my teen years. I started mandolin at about age 17 and banjo at 20. I love just about all kinds of music. In terms of banjo styles, I play Scruggs and melodic and am working on becoming more advanced with single string. I'm also working on 4-finger banjo, which is way off the beaten path. I would like to see more jazz techniques integrated into bluegrass situations; counterpoint, especially. So long-term, that's what I'm doing. I'm also very keen on astronomy, ATM (amateur telescope making), birding, christian homeschooling, martial arts, organic gardening and about 30 other distracting hobbies to a (mercifully) lesser extent.
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2 Responses to Why is the Banjo so Mysterious?

  1. Angie says:

    Very interesting. I learned some new things I never knew about the banjo. The banjo is a fun instrument to learn. And I think it was Steve Martin who something like “you can’t be sad when playing the banjo.”

    • Phill Gibson says:

      Your Steve Martin quote reminds me of what a co-worker said to me a few years ago. He said “You can’t play a sad song on the banjo.” After playing a few obvious minor-key songs (Nashville Blues, for instance), plus talking about a few killing and heartbreak songs (Banks of the Ohio comes to mind), he remained convinced. I had to leave it at that!

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