Picking them strings


No,no,no not like that; Like this…

Now down in deep Kentucky, way past the bourbon kings and if you hang a little left, you come on down to to a creek bed with ole Keith havi’n a rest. While he is sat a watching for deer, you hear a picking on strings, as good ole Keith has a banjo and makin-it-a-sing…

Hello please allow me to say it’s both an honour and a bit peculiar that anyone would ask me to write about the banjo!

Much less a friend from jolly old England! In a world of disco, electro plastic vomit rock. And I won’t eat that if it did not come from the store! There are a small number of us that prefer our music much like our food. Not stamped USDA organic!

But growing in the garden outback!

Not cooked up by Gordon Ramsay or Emeril Lagasse, but cooked by grandma in that antiquated kitchen in a cast-iron skillet. There is an instrument that despite its last 50 years of Las Vegas, Nashville extravaganza, make up for the corporate, louder faster or superior to your PR! Or the run and hide I hear banjo music crowd!

It actually has a humble warm and down-home flavour just like grandma’s biscuit, now no I’m not going to get into the African roots, that has been done many times by many other folk not say that it did not become a known instrument until the 1830s!

Now this I will dispute!

Not far from my home in Kentucky back in the 1780s there lived a doctor whom described life of folks in the area, one such individual was referred to as old leather stockings. A long hunter (Daniel Boone & Simon Kenton) that would as a side source of income take the guts from deer and make banjo strings for sale. There was no description of what a banjo is or was for folks in the 18th century frontier knew what a banjo was therefore a description was not needed!

While most grew up watching the Hee Haw and the grand old Opry on TV. In the flat and Scruggs method was the only way to play! It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I had a chance to obtain my first banjo!!! It was in a pawnshop and only $75. It had to one nasty looking head and only one string, and covered in dust. After paying for it I was off the music shop to be re-strung, new head and cleaned up. Two weeks later I was called and told that my banjo was ready.

As I walked in the shop, I was greeted by the gent that worked on it. As he gave me the banjo, and asked if it was also my ticket to fame and fortune? I could see the head was the same. So, as I asked why, I was informed quickly as to my ignorance.

He explained that the banjo I picked up for $75 was in fact an 1850s menstrual banjo built by a man named Brooks, and he would give me $1700 for it right there.

Now most would’ve jumped on that but I did not.

I was inspired to learn more about this most misunderstood instrument, some years had passed since my first banjo I sold it to a man that was disabled and that moved to the Carolinas.

Some years later I was working in the Catskill Mountains of New York of all places in a music Shop, I found a video set of Mike Seeger’s tutorial on Old-time banjos. Oh my gosh.

If one video could ruin a man as much as porn it was that Mike Seeger showed me that there were many ways to play banjo as there were ways to cook chicken.

Most interesting was his gourd banjo he played Josh Thomas’ Roustabout, on it and it was strange, it was as organic as music could be, some years later I found myself holding a basket gourd and planning my first good string gourd banjo.

I referred to it as a banzooky, it was four-string wood top fretless made from a cedar shingle fretless banjo with a bridge to nut measurement of 38 inches and it had its own funky funky sound. The 007 theme was very cool on the banzooky after the collapse of the economy in 2008 I found myself ( A union route pipefitter with a BA in mechanical engineering ) Living in a tent from state to state and job to job and from time to time and the camps I would hear a banjo in the distance break out, for a brief time this would lift the spirits for those in ear shot.

2009, I had entered into a land contract on a 20-acre farm shortly after getting into gardening. It was time to build myself a banjo. I had a bottle board (Bottle shape wood) with a tobacco stick for the neck. It had room for three strings and was the ugliest thing I had ever built! But it had its own sound, and I had music.

If you move on a few years later I gifted it to young man/fellow re-enactor historian that just loved it. I began to find that though I was not much of a banjo player, folks liked the banjos I built, nothing fancy, not museum quality but rustic and real.

In the world of music. Old time music has begun to come back from beyond the grave, so has the banjo, not the five string plastic head resonator banjo of modern country/southern pop or Bluegrass.

But rather the open back skinhead gut/nylon strings fretless banjos one band for example the Carolina chocolate drops comes to mind. The lead singer a woman named Rhiannon frequents a fretless Gut string with warmth of soul in church.

Other types of banjos like the tenor plectrum have as well been brought back from the edge. By the resurrection of old Timey music! 19th century Britain the banjo is imported for manufacturing. And the common folk make it their own! Suddenly it was everywhere in every pub and musical.

Most 19th century, early 20th century music for the banjo who has been composed and written by English, Welsh, Scotch and Irish composers. Jigs, Waltes, balods etc. Entire orchestra are beginning to be filled with Tennor’s in Luie violins and violas what rooms and cello banjos even mandolin banjo’s and ukulele banjos.

Finally, in the 1930s as an attempt to put down this upstart common arrangement. The development of the guitar had gone from a deeper sound box to the dobro to compete with the volume of sound of the banjo.

So, the banjo got its resonator. OK! This is like putting a cherry bomb exhaust on a 454 super sport El Camino Chevy V8.

So, the guitar forces exploited a new weapon, they have developed to put down this bumpkin from the hills.

The electric guitar, from that point on the banjo was fighting a downhill fight till it hit its true self, the happy uplifting organic music instrument of the real folk!

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the one and only banjo.


Many thanks to Keith for sharing some amazing work with us.