Author: Daniel, Bert

Hooked on Banjo

I suppose everybody thatís hooked on bluegrass is by definition hooked on banjo. Some people say, with good reason, that Bill Monroe ďinventedĒ bluegrass. But without those Earl Scruggs banjo rolls to drive the music, that invention would be hollow. Without the banjo, bluegrass would not sound anything close to what we think of today as bona fide bluegrass music.

There arenít very many people in the world who can say they have invented a style of banjo picking. Earl Scruggs is credited with inventing the three finger bluegrass style but a bunch of other people like Snuffy Jenkins, Smith Hammet and Fischer Hendley were playing three finger banjo around the same time. Scruggs absorbed those influences and synthesized them into the bluegrass banjo style that everybody since has used as their foundation. Bill Keith took that style into a melodic style that people give him credit for as a distinct style. Don Reno had his style. To a real banjo fan there are a number of distinct innovations worthy of merit.

Few of you in the CBA may be aware of the fact that one of your very own California blue grassers has developed his very own distinct banjo style. By coincidence also, very few of you know that your intrepid welcome columnist, Bert Daniel even plays the banjo. But (all modesty aside) I am in fact the developer of a distinct style. Itís called the three thumb style and I have the documentation to claim proper credit for my invention. Iíll give you the proof later, but first some background.

The banjo has always held a certain fascination for me. I was enthralled when Bill Evans presented his Banjo in America presentation last spring at the festival in Sebastopol. What a cool instrument I thought, as Bill played through a series of vintage instruments to illustrate the venerable history of the banjo. I began to wonder about how cool it would be to actually be able to play a banjo.

But to my naive mind, playing the banjo meant putting on three finger picks and producing machine gun rolls and bluegrass licks at lightning speed. That instrument is obviously way too hard to even want to think about trying to play. After all, Iíve been struggling with the mandolin for close to ten years now and Iím nowhere close to being as skilled on it as I would like to be. Forget about it.

Then fate brought a real banjo right into our home. My daughter Juliet knows how to finger pick a guitar pretty well and she expressed an interest in applying that skill to the banjo. For those of you who donít know about such things, the three middle strings on a five string banjo are tuned to the same notes as three of the adjoining strings on the guitar. By chance, a couple of weeks after my daughter expressed an interest in the banjo, my friend Floyd needed some ready cash to buy the banjo of his dreams. He was willing to let his perfectly good Epiphone go for even less than a "good friend" price in order to buy a top of the line Gibson.

I was now the owner of a five string banjo that I hadnít the slightest idea of how to play. Not only that, I had no desire to even try to learn to play it because I knew it would be too much work. Thereís only one solution to this problem.

ďJuliet, I bought you something today. Hereís your new banjo.Ē

She took to it like fleas to a dog. I canít say ďa duck to waterĒ because the banjo is not a cliche sort of instrument at all. I soon learned that fact as my daughter picked up the instrument and reeled off Fleetwood Macís Landslide, something Iíd never imagined hearing on a banjo.

As the weeks went by, I became curious about that banjo sitting up in Julietís room. She hadnít played it that often and I wanted to hear its sound again so I wandered up there one evening and asked if I could play it. ďOf course, Dad. You paid for it.Ē

Maybe she didnít realize that in this case, the courtesy of asking to play another personís instrument wasnít only about my rights as a benefactor. I had absolutely no idea how to play the thing and she might be setting herself up for some serious musical torture. I could have adjourned to some haven where nobody could hear my terrible playing but I decided to just noodle around quietly as best I could. No big deal.

If thereís one thing a banjo is not, itís quiet. Noodling around as quietly as possible subjects anyone in the room to whatever you happen to be playing, for better or worse. I knew the banjo was tuned to an open G chord so I raked it with my bare fingers. I produced a beautiful sound! How hard can this be? I continued to noodle quietly and before I knew it I was playing a reasonable version of Will the Circle be Unbroken. The experience of playing the banjo was intoxicating!

Let me warn you right now. Donít ever just pick up a banjo and start noodling. Think about all the harm that careless act will eventually do to your reputation. Think of all the banjo jokes you will hear. Maybe thereís a reason for all those insulting jokes. The banjo is a dangerous instrument. Hooked on bluegrass is one thing. It assumes some exposure to banjo, but being hooked on banjo is a different thing altogether.

If you have enjoyed playing any other fretted instrument, in my opinion, you owe it to yourself to at least try the banjo. You will discover a number of advantages and disadvantages relative to your instrument. One advantage is volume. It takes very little effort to produce a lot of sound from a banjo (be careful what you wish for!). Sometimes I really have to slam my mandolin really hard just to be heard at a big jam. And it has twice as many strings as a fiddle or bass. Playing with a flat pick just doesnít cut through without doubling the GDAE of the louder fiddle. Most jammers know to get quiet for the guitar solo. And when the banjo plays they know how to keep slamming away at those backup chords like thereís no tomorrow!

Besides the effortless volume, the banjo has other advantages. When I started learning the mandolin I struggled with hammer ons, pull offs and slides. You kill your fingers and they still donít sound that good. On the banjo theyíre like butter. And you can play all day and your fingertips donít feel like hamburger.

There are disadvantages too. The volume of a banjo gives you no place to hide if youíre jamming. And to anyone familiar with another fretted instrument, the banjo can be extremely frustrating because of that pesky fifth string. The first four strings start at the nut but that drone string for some reason has its own peg and starts five strings up the neck. Even after ten years at the mandolin I still pick mostly at the end of the neck. Iím accustomed to picking the string closest to my chin and knowing that the fret to finger is the fret that is also closest to my chin at the end of the fretboard.

The fifth string on a banjo changes all that. I canít tell you how many notes Iíve missed by plucking the top string and not having a finger at the other end. Iíve seen banjos with the fifth string tuned from the nut and I would be tempted to buy a banjo like that just for that feature. Using the capo on such a banjo would be simpler too. Fortunately my banjo has a fifth string capo so changing keys is pretty easy.

After months of noodling on the banjo in my spare time I can now play six tunes. Will the Circle be Unbroken, Cripple Creek, Iíll Fly Away, Home Sweet Home, Cluck Old Hen and Jesu Joy of Manís Desiring. I havenít learned a single thing reading tab from a book. Every tune is just my own arrangement from noodling around. For me, thatís what makes the banjo so addictive. Itís easy to figure out where the notes are and if you hit a wrong string in the open tuning it might sound better than what you wanted to play anyway. Iím totally into bluegrass but honestly, of the six tunes I know so far, the one that sits best on a banjo for me is Bachís Jesu Joy of Manís Desiring. I would recommend that 9/8 tune to any of you banjo enthusiasts out there because itís so much fun to play.

Last summer at Grass Valley, I was just beginning to get hooked on the banjo. I brought my instrument to the festival and I even took a claw hammer workshop. At some point before the festival I had mentioned to Rick Cornish that I was trying to learn the banjo and was all thumbs at it. Well, If you bought a tee shirt at last yearís festival youíll see a logo with a banjo at the center with a blank space just the right size for a campaign button. To support the CBA web site, you could buy a button for a nominal price with your favorite banjo player on it. Somehow or another, one of the options on the campaign button for banjo maestro was Bert ďthree thumbsĒ Daniel, (yours truly). When I found out that I had been honored with my own banjo button alongside such luminaries as Earl Scruggs, J.D Crowe, Keith Little, Larry Cohea, etc. I could not believe it. I decided right then and there that i must remove this anomaly from the market place because if I donít buy that button nobody else will.

I wore my button at that nightís jam and I guess I must have bragged about it a little bit. Not only was I proud of being a banjo star collectorís item (no doubt short lived), I was proud of the fact hat I had plunked down my money for the CBA and relieved it of an orphan campaign button that would obviously never sell to anyone but me.

Then on the last day of the festival one of my friends showed up wearing their very own Three Thumbs button. Turns out button sales automatically generated new printings in order to keep up with demand. My purchase had stimulated a collectorís market.

So now I have solid proof that I am the true originator of the three thumb banjo style. Any of you out there who happen to have one of those three thumb buttons from the 2013 Fatherís Day Festival, hang onto it. That button is sure to be worth a lot of money some day. And any of you folks who want to learn my three thumb style, Iíll be glad to give you lessons. Once I figure this stuff out, that is.

Posted:  11/17/2013

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