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  • Writer's pictureDave Nemo

Musical Milestone 005: The Banjo

I fell in love with the 5-string banjo in the 1960's when I heard the legendary Earl Scruggs with Lester Flatt on the Beverly Hillbillies....

...and Doug Dillard as Jebbin Darling on The Andy Griffith Show.

It wasn't until a few years later, during my time in the 8th Army with AFKN in Seoul, South Korea, that I learned that the music which made such an impression was called Bluegrass. I purchased my first banjo when I returned home--a Silvertone for $79 at Sears, Roebuck--and I learned from Earl Scruggs' banjo lesson book.

I do love the banjo and I'm crazy about banjo jokes. So get ready!


What's the difference between a good banjo player and Bigfoot?

There have been sightings of Bigfoot.


We welcomed many music stars to The Road Gang on all night radio when we were working out of Nashville, and banjo great John McEuen asked if I played. I told him I did indeed have a banjo under my bed. He said, "that's the best place for it." John is the man who taught Steve Martin to play.

Some say the banjo, the five string banjo to be exact, is the only instrument invented in America. That's not true, but historians do point to Joel Walker Sweeney--he popularized the banjo here in the 1840's, but it's roots, like so many musical instruments are found in Africa.


Banjo players spend half their lives tuning and the other half playing out of tune.


If you think of the banjo as a "drum on a stick," you'd be right in the ballpark. That ballpark was in ancient Africa. The first prototypes started with a gourd, cut in half, with a membrane (usually animal hide) stretched over the opening. So there's the drum. But in Africa, there were already plenty of drums of all shapes, sizes, and uses. But next, some very inventive musicians figured out how to make melodies by attaching a simple stick to the gourd, and then stretching one, two, or more strings from the far end of the "drum" to the far end or head of the stick. The strings were pressed against the stick at different points, shortening them at various intervals to produce different musical notes. And a song was born. This early type of banjo is related to the kora, still very popular, especially in Senegal.

Here's a performance by Diassing Kunda at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. The kora is a great example of the "drum on a stick."

The instruments, in various forms, migrated from Africa to Moorish Spain, and eventually through Europe. But the banjo (bangie, banza, bonjaw, banjer or banjar) also traveled from Africa in the other direction to the West Indies and eventually to our shores in the late 1600's on the slave ships.


A few years ago, a lost group of banjo players was discovered on a remote island in the Pacific. When asked how they survived for so long, they answered, "From the supplies dropped by the helicopters."


Now let's get back to that mysterious fifth string. It's shorter than the other strings and is not used to produce different notes in a song like the other four. The fifth string is called a "drone." Its single note provides the basic harmony that serves as a musical filler to produce, well, a fuller sound. So, it's time for some more globe trotting. The instrument best known for producing that "drone?" Bagpipes. Scotland you say? Yes, of course, but bagpipes actually go back as far as 4000 BC and are thought to originate in the Middle East--again, with heavy African influence. But for us, and our five string banjo, the direct connection is to Scotland and those droning pipes we love (or hate) to hear. Remember that the British Isles are a major source of our folk music. The fifth string on the banjo is meant to mimic the drone of the bagpipes.

Ok, here's one for the pipers...


Did you hear the one about the bagpiper who parked his car with the windows open, forgetting that he had left his bagpipes in the back seat? He rushed back as soon as he realized, but it was too late -- someone had already put another set in the car!


Footnote: Bill Monroe is known as the Father of Bluegrass. It's hard to imagine a bluegrass band with no banjo, but believe it or not, the banjo was not in the original band lineup. Wilene "Sally Ann" Forrester was in Bill's original band from 1943 to 1946. Bill eventually replaced the accordion with the five string banjo when Dave "Stringbean" Akeman became the first of an all star group of incredible players through the decades. Here's a recording with both Sally Ann on the accordion and Stringbean on banjo.


How is lightning like a banjo player's fingers?

Neither one strikes in the same place twice.


Cover photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash


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