Author: Evans, Bill

Exploring The Secret Life of Banjos

Like a lot of us, I discovered bluegrass and the banjo in a somewhat non-bluegrass kind of way: I saw Roy Clark playing banjo on “Hee Haw” and said to myself, “I think I could do that!” It’s been an interesting journey since 1970 along the banjo road but one of the most fascinating side trips has been following the five-string banjo back in time, back to the classic days of bluegrass in the 1950’s, and back further still to the early recording era (not just the 1920’s but even earlier to the recorded banjo music of the 1890’s and 1900’s cylinder recordings) and even farther back still to late 19th and early 20th century ragtime and classic banjo and mid-19th century minstrelsy and ultimately back to the “root of the root,” exploring the foundation of today’s banjo music in African and African-American culture and music dating back 200 years and more.

One of the things that I’ve discovered along this journey is that the banjo has been right in the center of many of the most important intersections in American music history for more than 200 years. It was sometime in the early 1800’s that a white person, probably in the Chesapeake Bay area near where I was raised, or perhaps in New Orleans or New York City, became so fascinated by the music played on banjo-type instruments by African and African-Americans that he decided to learn to play the instrument himself. A truly American music was born at this moment.

In the 1840’s, the banjo, along with the fiddle, was at the forefront of blackface minstrelsy, America’s first popular music form. Minstrelsy popularized the banjo all across the United States and brought the banjo to California and England. The banjo, which usually now sported all five strings, was the electric guitar of the mid-19th century: it was so popular that instructional manuals were written, teachers hung their hats out for students and small factories started making the first production banjos.

In the 1860’s, fingerpicking guitar styles began to be adapted to the banjo, leading to a flowering of complex and virtuosic playing styles that today are grouped under the heading of “classic banjo.” The classic banjo movement in the United States and England led to frets being put on banjos by the 1880’s and created stage stars like Vess Ossman and Fred Van Eps. Classic banjo music directly influenced Scott Joplin, Tom Turpin and other early ragtime composers and performers. Ragtime was America’s most popular music at the turn of the last century, enduring into the 1920’s before evolving into early jazz.

Many of us are more familiar with the folk and bluegrass styles of the 1920’s recording era and beyond, populated by such performers as Charlie Poole, Uncle Dave Macon, Dock Boggs, Molly O’Day, and, by the mid-1940’s, Earl Scruggs and his three-finger bluegrass style and beyond.

What I’ve learned from this lifelong adventure is the complexity and beauty of the American music story. The flowering of folk/popular/jazz and beyond five-string banjo styles that we enjoy today is the result of the rich history that laid a foundation for the diverse styles we enjoy and play today.

I’ve tried my best to learn as many of these historical styles as I can and I’ve collected a few instruments from various eras. Check out my YouTube channel to experience some of these historical banjo styles:

With the banjo, there’s always strength in numbers and I’ve had the great pleasure of working with old-time and bluegrass music legend Jody Stecher over the last several years, as we explore together the various side streets of banjo history. We’ll present our latest discoveries at the Freight and Salvage Coffeehouse tonight at 8 p.m. as we present the return of “The Secret Life of Banjos” for one show only (learn more at

Come join us if you can!

All the best,

Bill Evans

Posted:  11/26/2010

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