May 2003: Pertaining to Banjos
By Murphy Henry
Scenario: Student comes in for banjo lesson. Student has been taking banjo lessons from teacher for over a year. Student has been working on Lonesome Road Blues. Student plays LRB for teacher. Teacher thinks LRB sounds exceptionally good. Teacher compliments student on better tone: "Your playing really sounds good tonight." Teacher notes student's playing sounds louder: "Wow, you sound like you are really digging in! Those notes are really ringing out!"
Student to teacher: "Could that be because I'm playing a different banjo? A banjo that has a resonator?"
Teacher: "Ohmigod, you're playing a different banjo? You're not playing your open-back? No, I can see now that you're not. Well, I am sorry. How could I have missed that?"
And, of course, that teacher was my own sorry self. Embarrassed doesn't quite begin to describe how I felt. Mortified is closer. But "caught" also comes to mind. I mean this a major faux pas for a banjo teacher. Luckily the student was Heather, who has a good heart and an understanding manner. So I was able to explain to her something that my good friend Cap Spence found out a long time ago: I just don't notice banjos very much. Cap said it didn't take him long to figure out that any time he started talking about the fascinating details of his latest banjo acquisition my eyes would sort of glaze over.
This by no means means I'm a banjo ignoramus. I've got the basics down. These things I know: RB, TB, PB; wreath pattern, flying eagle (squashed frog to some), hearts and flowers; Stelling, Gibson, Deering; tone ring, flange, stretcher band; top tension, flathead, archtop, ball-bearing; Gibson Style 11 (the "blue" banjo with the mother-of-toilet seat resonator which Earl used on his first recordings with Bill Monroe); Presto and clamshell tailpieces (not too sure about Waverly); setting the bridge using chimes (but I never can remember which way to move the bridge); Granada; and "Mastertone" on the peghead means it's a ball-bearing (I think).
Things I'm fuzzy about: what a Gibson Style 75 is exactly (and I'm not too sure about how to recognize 3's and 4's-even though I have a 1929 style 4), why you would have to cut the Mastertone label in a rim to do some kind of tone ring conversion, how a Stelling tone ring is different from a Gibson tone ring, what "low crown" and "high crown" mean and how you can tell which one your banjo is (I know it has to do with banjo heads), the serial number of Earl's banjo, the serial number of Sonny's banjo (I think they are supposed to be close…), how the tension rods work, why there is supposed to be a little bow in a banjo neck, how you would see said bow to begin with (I know you're supposed to raise the banjo up to eye level and look down the neck but I never know what I'm looking for), and whether anybody can really tune a banjo head to a particular note. I could go on but you probably get my drift!
I know there are folks who enjoy all this stuff and like to tinker incessantly with their banjos and more power to them. It's just not something I like to do. I'd always rather be playing the banjo than messing with it. These are the things I will do to a banjo (not always willingly): change the strings, tighten the head, move the bridge if the banjo is really noting out, put a little graphite from a pencil in the nut slot if the string seems to be sticking. And that's it. I don't adjust tailpieces, change heads, clean heads, change bridges, or raise or lower the action.
Okay, a long time ago, I did take some steel wool and remove all the white coating from the head of my Vega banjo. I fancied that it sounded louder afterwards, but I was probably just playing harder! And I did, once upon a time, take a ball-bearing banjo apart to see how the ball-bearings and the springs under them were situated, but all I remember is that the ball-bearings started rolling all over the floor and I was SO afraid I was going to lose some of them and it wasn't even my banjo.
So, why am I telling you all this? Probably to make up for writing a whole column about the fiddle last month! I wanted to make sure this month's column pertained to banjos. You know, I like fooling with the fiddle a lot, but at the very core of my existence I define myself as a banjo player. I remember when I went back to college a few years ago to get my Master's Degree. (Don't ask. It was Women's Studies.) The classes were small and at the start of every class, we'd have to introduce ourselves and say a little bit about what we did. I always said, "My name is Murphy Henry and I play the banjo." I sometimes wonder why I did that-and still do it. I suppose one reason is the shock value. A banjo player? At university? Another reason is that it makes me really different from anyone else in the class. I like that. And then, too, it's probably a bit like throwing out bait in case there is someone else in the class who likes bluegrass that I can connect with. Maybe during the break we could talk about Ralph Stanley. (That never happened!)
I found myself doing the same thing the other night at the gym. I signed up for this yoga class and the teacher wanted us to go around and say our names. Well, there I was, standing there in my bare feet, wearing a T-shirt that mandolin player Tom Rozum had designed based on the classic painting called "The Scream." In the background, behind the screamer, you can see that she (or he) is being followed by a shadowy character in a top hat who is playing a banjo. What else could I say but, "I'm Murphy Henry and I play the banjo."
Okay, enough of this! I'm leaving for Ireland in four days. (By the time you read this, I'll be back.) Doing the tourist thing. Going on a tour being led by my old college roommate, Susan Crooks, who endured many hours of hearing me learn to play the banjo in various crummy houses and never once stomped off to the library in disgust like our other roommate did! We've remained friends for almost thirty years. No, I'm not taking my banjo, but I am taking my picks. You never know. I might run into a banjo that "needs played" as they say here in the Valley. I might also run into some Guinness or Jameson's that "needs drunk." I'll let you know. "Show me the way to go home, I'm tired and I want to go to bed, I had me a drink about an hour ago and it went right to my head…"