Banjos are about the most adjustable musical instruments I’ve ever seen. You can replace the head with a different one, or you can adjust the tension of the head. You can even change pots or change necks. You can try a different style of tailpiece or adjust the tailpiece that is on your banjo. You can change the tuners. You can adjust the nut. You can try a different bridge. You can use steel strings or you can go with nylon “Nylgut” strings or for the traditionalist purist folks you can use genuine gut strings. You can even alter the neck relief by adjusting truss rods. Many old time players “stuff” their open-back banjo, meaning they tuck a towel or a ball of paper towel or a chunk of foam between the head and the dowel stick to dampen the overtones to produce that plunky old time sound. All this is much different than most other stringed instruments. On a guitar you can change the set-up and adjust the action but there are not nearly so many adjustable parts a on a banjo.
The head adjustment is one I pay particular attention to. High head tension produces a brighter sound and lower tension produces a plunkier sound. I adjust by trial and error, messing with it until it sounds just right to my ears. I’ve found the head tension will relax some over time. I usually become aware of this when it happens. I notice my banjo isn’t sounding quite right and I take a few minutes to make the adjustment.
My brother the trout, Salvelinas Fontinalis was going to try bridges on his banjos made by a fellow named David Cunningham and he suggested I try them too, so placed my order. Yesterday they arrived in the mail. I put the a new bridge made from zebra with a katalox top on my Bart Reiter banjo last night and it’s remarkable what a difference a bridge can make. The new bridge created what I can only call a cleaner, clearer sound. When I play a chord I can hear the integrity of each note more clearly, particularly on the lower-pitched strings.
This weekend I’m going to re-string my Nechville Atlas banjo with Nylgut strings with one of David Cunningham’s bridges on that banjo as well. I have two of his bridges (different heights) slotted for the nylon strings. I haven’t tried nylon strings on the Atlas before so it will be most interesting to see what that will do to the character of the sound.
I recorded some banjo practice the other night. Here’s me trying to play Cumberland Gap.
I recorded it with an inexpensive point and shoot digital camera with not quite enough light, so there are limitations (besides the obvious ones involving my playing)
Unlike Bluegrass banjo, which is played with metal thumb and finger picks, Old Time clawhammer banjo is most often played without picks. I say most often because there are players, and good players too who do use specialized clawhammer picks, sometimes of their own devising (using materials such as ping pong balls).
There are different ways of achieving sounds in clawhammer banjo but at its simplest, the fifth string is plucked with the thumb and the other other strings are struck with the back edge of either the index or middle finger. Sometimes the thumb is also used to pluck a melody note and as well there are left-hand techniques such as hammer-ons and pull-offs which have their own unique sounds.
I’ve tried a couple different clawhammer picks that are available but I don’t like them. I like the feel and the effect of striking the strings with my nails. The problem is that I don’t have the strongest nails.
I try to make up for this by using a nail hardening product which has the side-effect of making my nails shiny (+ it smells). The label says it will make my nails diamond hard, but I suspect the actual effect is limited to my imagination. I can tell you that if I play for a couple hours, that pretty much takes the coating off my playing nail. I have a strong imagination though so I continue to use the product.
I normally use my index finger to play. I feel I have the most dexterity that way and I can control the range of sounds I get best using that finger. Unfortunately, I broke that nail while playing a few days ago. You can see in the picture that I’ve filed it back to about the right shape but it’s a little short to play effectively. I keep my middle fingernail longer as well as a back-up and until my index nail gets longer, I’ll be playing with my middle nail. This takes a little adjustment for me, but I’m getting used to it. I keep my ring fingernail longish as well because I use that nail to help get percussive effects when I’m playing.
Some players get an acrylic nail put on and they swear by it. I’ve never tried this. I seem to be getting by OK without that kind of extreme measure (although I suppose some folks would think painting hardener on my nails is an extreme measure).
So if you see a banjo picker fussing with his/her nails, you can be pretty sure that person plays clawhammer vs bluegrass. There are other clues. Bluegrass players often wear nice outfits and have big hair. Clawhammer players often wear a dirty ball cap. Bluegrass players keep talking about some guy named Earl.
A little progress on the salad bowl banjo…
I think the neck is still a little clunkier than I’d like so over Christmas I’m going to take it down a bit. I may shorten the end piece some as well. Still to do – drill and ream the peg holes, shape the pegs, stretch the goatskin on the bowl. Getting there.
I came across this version of Forked Deer (that’s pronounced fork-kid) tonight surfing around on YouTube. I really like the relaxed pace on this one – a lot of versions of this tune seem to be played at lightning speed. The fiddler here is Joe Sites.
I’ve been listening to various versions of this one because I’m trying to learn it on clawhammer.
Regular readers of this blog know I attended the Midwest Banjo Camp back in June. I noticed they posted a few videos last week from this year’s camp concerts. There were two faculty concerts, once on the Friday and the other on the Saturday evening.
Here’s Chuck Levy with Erynn Marshall…
Chuck led the slow jams, which were handy for the “jam challenged” players (like me). I’ve been learning pretty much in isolation and haven’t had much jam experience. I participated in a couple of Chuck’s slow jams, and found them to be a really good confidence booster. I finally felt comfortable enough to start playing in intermediate jams. While I found some of the tunes difficult to jump in and play along to, I surprised myself in managing to find something to play in most of the tunes – and in some other tunes I was able to play with some confidence.
Here’s Adam Hurt with Mike Compton on mandolin. Adam Hurt is a very strong teacher as well as being a great player. I took his class on fills where we started with a basic melody and inserted various fills to build an arrangement.
Then there were the Bluegrass guys. There were some very fine Scruggs-style players at camp.
I took one class at camp from Joe Newberry – all about the Galax lick. He’s a very likeable fellow. I was impressed Joe took the trouble to learn everyone’s name. He taught by ear and was really good at making sure everyone in the class got down what he was teaching.
Here’s Joe with Bruce Molsky, Mike Compton and more playing Rockingham Cindy.
I hope they post more videos soon – these brought me right back to camp.
The piano may do for love-sick girls who lace themselves to skeletons, and lunch on chalk, pickles and slate pencils. But give me the banjo. Gottschalk compared to Sam Pride or Charley Rhoades, is as a Dashaway cocktail to a hot whisky punch. When you want genuine music — music that will come right home to you like a bad quarter, suffuse your system like strychnine whisky, go right through you like Brandreth’s pills, ramify your whole constitution like the measles, and break out on your hide like the pin-feather pimples on a picked goose, — when you want all this, just smash your piano, and invoke the glory-beaming banjo!
– “Enthusiastic Eloquence,” San Francisco Dramatic Chronicle, 23 June 1865