Banjo Newsletter

February 2007: In With The Old, In With The New 
By Casey Henry

A fresh year with all its promise of renewal is well under way. I'm generally not one for resolutions but this year I caved and made a few. They range from the mundane (floss every day) to the ridiculously unattainable (don't procrastinate). But the best resolution I've heard of this year belongs to one of my students. She resolved to pick up her banjo every day. Now, the literal sense of this resolution could be fulfilled by merely lifting the instrument off of its stand and putting it back. But hopefully after she has it in her hands she'll feel so guilty about subverting the spirit of the resolution that she'll actually play it. And even if she only plays through all of her songs once, it will be better than not practicing, and also better than saving up all her practicing until the day before the lesson and then cramming. When you actually practice every day you can't help but make progress.

Another resolution of mine is to paint the shutters on my house. I've only been meaning to do it for four years. Weather willing, that's what you'll find me doing this weekend. And now that I have an iPod, I can paint and listen to the Stanley Brothers at the same time. That's sure to make the time go much faster!

Now to tie up some loose ends from my December article. Many people have asked about my new banjo: the 1928-ish Gibson TB-4 with a Huber conversion ring and a new five-string neck, recently purchased from Jim Mills. Jim hand-delivered it to me in Nashville, all the way from North Carolina. (He was coming this direction anyway for a Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder gig.) Inside the Skaggs Family Records office he took the banjo out of the case and put it in my hands. Still in tune despite the plane flight, the banjo immediately came to life. With the new neck (built by Jim's secret neck maker in North Carolina) and the new tone ring, the banjo hadn't been together for very long. Despite that fact, it sounded deep and mature. Very responsive all the way up the neck, the banjo has a mighty punch and that pre-war aura that is so difficult to pinpoint. The bridge is a hair higher than on my other banjo, which will take some getting used to. Jim said he didn't want to put a shorter bridge on it because the heel of the neck fit so well, or something. When people start to talk about such technical details my eyes glaze over and my mind takes a vacation.

The new TB-4 has not supplanted my TB-11 as my main instrument as of yet, but I really like having another option. The 11 still seems to suit me perfectly and I even came home after Christmas with some nifty accessories for it. My dad gave me the original tenor neck and case from the 11, which had been taking up space in my parents' house for more than thirty years. Now they get to take up space in my house. It's only fair.

The case is black with green lining. The neck is blue, as the banjo originally was, with a fingerboard of lovely yellowish mother-of-toilet-seat and black and red decorations. It has the number 141 penciled on the heel of the neck. I guess that's all the serial number the banjo had. The truss rod cover reads "FRANKIE 'the Lone Pal'" and has the initials F.M. and M.F. Googling Frankie the Lone Pal came up with exactly squat, so if anyone has ever heard of this performer, be sure to let me know. Whoever Frankie was he played the banjo enough to wear through the paint on the back of the neck. I find the mystery of this previous owner intriguing. Who was this person who played so much music on my banjo long before I was born? I'm sure he left many good vibrations in the wood and is part of why it sounds so good today.

You may remember, from my last article, my student Landon, who has just started the learning-by-ear process. His assignment, when last we left him, was to slow down his songs to a speed where he could vamp to them. Since he had just learned to vamp, this was considerably slower than he usually played. He did figure out how to slow his playing down, although he had to tackle the songs one at a time. Once he could play them at a medium tempo we learned the chords to the tune, vamped through it several times, and then tried trading breaks. Landon caught on to this very quickly and we were able to do the same with all his tunes.

His next challenge was to learn a new tune by ear. I started him with "Banjo In The Hollow," the first tune I give to all my students. The technical part was not hard for him, since he already played tunes that were more complicated, but he is still at the beginning of learning how to learn by ear, and it is important to start simply and easily. He learned the whole thing in one week, and played it well at the next lesson. He has quite a good ear and can hear when he is playing something right or wrong. He had similar success with "Cumberland Gap" and is now working on "John Hardy." His real challenge will be to fix and/or change some of the arrangements he originally learned from tab.

When I asked Landon if he likes learning by ear better or learning from tab better, he said tab. Honestly, not the answer I was hoping for, but perhaps the answer I should have expected. Switching to a new way of learning is hard, and not that fun. It takes a while for it to start making sense. The real fun will come later when he can play in a jam session with other people and maybe even improvise a break to a song he hasn't heard before. In that moment, the difficulty and bother of switching to learning by ear will all be worth it. And if he knows what's good for him he'll say thanks, Granddad, for driving me to all those banjo lessons!

One of my Christmas presents this year was the New Oxford American Dictionary. For years the only dictionary I had was from 1963, so it lacked a little something when it came to current terminology. For kicks I looked up banjo in the NOAD and here is what it has to say: "A stringed musical instrument with a long neck and a round open-backed body consisting of parchment stretched over a metal hoop like a tambourine [except for all those little cymbals!], played by plucking or with a plectrum. It is used esp. in American folk music." This definition should make old-time players happy, as it defines the banjo as "open-backed." It leaves a little to desired where bluegrass banjos are concerned. And one wonders why they chose a tambourine to compare the pot to instead of, say, a drum.

The NOAD does have one strike against it. Apparently the Flint Hill Flash's campaign to get the word "scrugg" into dictionaries was unsuccessful, at least in this case. A scrugg is, of course, one who plays Scruggs-style banjo. But I guess you can't expect too much from a book that lists Marilyn Monroe and President James Monroe but not Bill Monroe. We continue to occupy, as ever, a niche in American culture. And that's not a bad place to be.