Monthly Archives: May 2017

Banjo Odyssey

Way back when I was a kid, I played trumpet and french horn, and was actually getting reasonably good at it. However, in eighth grade, wrestling practice got in the way of trumpet lessons, followed by football, then rugby, and I gave up my fledgling musical career for the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

Over the next baker’s dozen years, my musical participation was extremely limited, and I always had a gnawing feeling way in the back of my mind that I left something behind that perhaps I should not have. As I approached the age of thirty, I decided to do something about this, and rented a saxophone, since it seemed in band practice when I was tooting away in the horn section, the sax players always had better parts and more fun. However, after about six months of playing around with the sax, I had a kid and then started a company, and I returned the sax to the music store so I could spend the next fifteen or so years focusing on family and career.

As the kids got older, the musical urge surfaced again, and I decided to give it another go. I tried and abandoned the following, in order: piano (way to hard, it would take a decade before I could stand to hear myself play), drums (too boring to play by myself), blues harmonica (too boring, again), and guitar (too hard, just like piano). I thought about going back to trumpet or sax, but I was thinking (rightly, I suspect) that they were just too damn loud.

About this time, Karen and I saw the band Barenaked Ladies at a charity event. On one song the guitarist, a good-natured Canadian, pulled out a banjo and started picking. And suddenly it became clear… BANJO! Banjo was the instrument I was looking for! And I could not figure out why I had not thought of it before.

As a kid, I always thought the banjo sounded really cool. Mainly because of this:

And, when I got a little older, because of this classic scene from Deliverance:

Banjo has some great advantages… it is quiet enough that my awful playing and practicing will not disturb the neighbors, or my wife. The banjo is tuned to an open G chord, which means it sounds OK even when you hit wrong notes. And, it turns out it is reasonably easy to learn. And fun.  It makes a happy sound, as Steve Martin memorably discusses at about the 11:55 mark in the following…

So, anyhow, I have been playing the banjo for about two and a half years now, give or take. I try to play thirty or sixty minutes each day, and I watch plenty of instructional banjo videos on Youtube. I am certainly NOT a natural at this, as I seem to have a difficult time getting my fingers to go quickly to where I need them to be. I suppose that is why I am not very good at typing, either!

While I certainly will not claim yet that I am competent, I am finally reaching the point where I can play well enough to get genuine pleasure out of it. My aspirations are simple… I would just like to be able to play the banjo as well as a nine-year-old. THIS nine year old!

I’ve got a ways to go, I’m afraid…