Taxonomy of a Banjo Player

Image by mcmurryjulie from Pixabay

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (not William Shakespeare) wrote the Victorian sonnet that starts out:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

In a fashion, we also have a plethora of sorts of banjo players. Or, to use a modern phrase and also to be more precise, we can call them all ‘banjo influencers’. I’m still not sure if I like that phrase or not, though. I’m old-fashioned, you see.

At any rate, it’s fun (well it is to me at least!) to categorize things. Here’s all the ways I can think of at the moment to split & lump banjo players according to various attributes. See what you think.

Style of Playing
There are modern styles, such as Scruggs, Melodic, and Single-String (AKA Reno) styles. Old-time styles would include Clawhammer, Frailing, and Two-Finger. And don’t forget 4-string banjos (Tenor and Plectrum) plus Banjo-Ukuleles and others that you play with a flat pick.

Musical Proclivity
Artist, Technician
Are you someone who is more creative, and perhaps you strive less for technical precision, or do you concentrate on techniques, using ‘fancy licks’ and perhaps leaning towards not being all that careful about whether it really fits into a song as long as it’s kosher for the current chord in a song? I call these the Artist and the Technician.

Role
Player, Songwriter, Luthier, Merchant
For lack of a better taxonomical name, I’ll call this a role; that is, what’s your main area of activity when it comes to the banjo. Are you mainly a banjo player, someone who creates songs, a craftsman who makes banjos, or a seller of banjos. Except for someone who is strictly a player, it’s hard to imagine someone not having overlapping roles here.

Job Title
Producer, Manager, Promoter, Impresario
Also for lack of a better name, these have more to do with the business side of the banjo and music as an industry. Again, some overlap, I’m sure. What is an impresario, you ask? I think it’s more of a British term meaning someone who sponsors or produces entertainment. So it might be a bit redundant here but I’ve listed it anyway.

Musical Skill Level
Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced, or Expert
These are pretty self-explanatory. By the way, I define a beginning banjo player as someone who can play Cripple Creek (or just any one song, really). Before learning their first song, it’s sort of like someone in a martial arts class with a white belt who has yet to earn their first belt (usually a yellow belt). The other distinctions are a bit fuzzier, and it’s usually after having advanced to the next level for some time and looked back that you can see where you are.

Now that we have all been duly categorized, we can get back to playing!

About Phill Gibson

I'm from Huntsville, Alabama where I work as a Software Engineer and part-time banjo instructor. My wife Miiko and I worship at Rivertree Downtown. I've been playing various instruments since my teen years. I started mandolin and dulcimer at about age 17 and banjo at 20. I love just about all kinds of music. In terms of banjo styles, I play and teach Scruggs, melodic, clawhammer, and 2-finger styles. I'm also very keen on theology, being a Trail Care Partner with the Land Trust of North Alabama, photography, urban planning, architecture, astronomy, ATM (amateur telescope making), birding, martial arts, and about 30 other distracting hobbies to a (mercifully) lesser extent.
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