The banjo is an important part of American culture. Where did it come from and how did it become such a synonymous part of the American spirit? To fully appreciate the banjo, it is essential to understand its history, its role in American culture, and what the future has in store for it.
The banjo’s ancestor came from Africa. There are many instruments of slight variation from which the banjo is derived. These primarily come from Saharan Africa and can be traced back to the lute of the Egyptian dynasties. The most direct ancestor of the banjo is an instrument called the akonting. This instrument is from the African country of Gambia. The instrument is made from a wood called banjoe that grows in Gambia which is more than likely the origin of the name of the famed instrument.
The banjo’s journey to America was a brutal one. During the trans-Atlantic slave trade, a majority of the slaves forcefully brought to the United States originated from Gambia, and brought the banjo’s ancestor with them. The instrument that traveled to America had a one-piece body with a gourd head. There were four strings, one being shorter than the rest, which were made of animal intestine. In 1831, the banjo took on its modern form with the addition of a fifth string by the means of innovator Joel Walker Sweeney. The shortened fifth “drone” string is a unique feature of the banjo that is not found on related stringed instruments such as the guitar.
On top of engineering the banjo into its current form Sweeney did a lot to popularize the banjo. He is often dubbed as the father of minstrelsy and he brought about a musical period in America known as the minstrel period, which lasted from the mid-1800’s until the early 1900’s. During this time the banjo was played in a style known as frailing and was strummed with a fingernail rather than picked. This is a style still in use today and is commonly referred to as melodic clawhammer. It is a vocal accompaniment style of playing, characterized by its soft, “modal” sound. Although not the most popular way to play the banjo it is still widely practiced, primarily in folk, old-time, and contra music. During the 1800s, the banjo iwas the primary instrument played in America.
The advent of jazz and emergence of such instruments as the guitar brought about the end of the “banjo golden age”. The national interest in the banjo plumeted and interests shifted to other forms of music. Some jazz bands modified the banjo into a four string “tenor” banjo but it was by no means an instrument that stood out. By the 1930s, even traditional appalachian music groups, the precursors of country music, were removing the banjo from their acts; the future of the banjo appeared grim. The only major spotlight on the banjo at this time was a mixture of playing the banjo and doing a comedy routine. Such players included Grandpa Jones, who was featured on the show Hee Haw, String Bean Akeman who was the first banjo player for Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, and Uncle Dave Macon who was one of the first acts for the Grand Ole Opry. Grandpa Jones is the most popular and well known of these players. He got his start in 1929 performing for a radio show in Kentucky. He got the nickname “grandpa” because of his older sounding voice. Oddly enough, he was only in his twenties when he gained this nickname but it stuck. He used this to his advantage and dressed to appear older when in public, to go along with his comedy routine. He went on to perform on the Grand Ole’ Opry and was a regular star in the show Hee Haw.
During the 1930s, in the southern states there were several players perfecting a three-finger style of playing. Up to this point the banjo had only been played in the frailing style and a two-finger style. In 1945 Earl Scruggs hit the mainstream with a new exciting style. This breakthrough style is based on a series of three finger rolls, licks, and chord arpeggios. It is referred to as Scruggs or three-finger style. A roll is a systematic form of picking the strings with your index finger, middle finger, and thumb. There are several different roll patterns, and when combined together there are an endless number of combinations to play. When a chord is held down, a player is able to accompany other musicians. Once a player has learned several of these rolls they can move on to create licks, which are a combination of slides, hammer-ons, pull-offs, and chokes worked into a roll pattern. A choke is created by holding a finger on a string and bending it so that it changes in pitch. To perform a pull off two fingers are placed on one string, one in front of the other and the front finger is pulled off so that the one behind it is the note being sustained. A hammer on is the exact opposite. One finger is held down and then, with another finger, the same string directly in front your finger is hammered. A slide is the same concept as a hammer on, but instead of hammering to a higher note simply slide your finger up.
Scruggs’ new and exciting style of playing quickly caught the attention of Bill Monroe. In 1945 Scruggs joined Monroe’s band, Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys. It was unknown to Scruggs and Monroe that the missing element of the musical genre that would come to be referred to as Bluegrass music was Scruggs’ three-finger style of playing the banjo. Demand for the banjo grew and companies started manufacturing the nearly forgotten instrument, once again. Earl later went on to form the bluegrass band Flatt and Scruggs, with another ex-member of Monroe’s band, Lester Flatt. They went on to help further formulate bluegrass into a recognized and nationally acclaimed musical genre; Flatt and Scruggs are considered one of the founding bands of Bluegrass Music.
Another first generation innovator of the banjo was Don Reno. He developed a similar three-finger style as Earl Scruggs, but when WWII broke out he enlisted in the Army and was deployed to Germany. When he returned home everyone he played for said he sounded like Earl Scruggs so he created new style of playing known as single string or Reno style. He incorporated this into standard three finger playing and added substantial drive and inertia to banjo music. He got his first experience as a professional banjo player in Monroe’s band and later went on to form the bluegrass band Reno and Smiley. On top of being one of the first innovators of banjo he was also dubbed “the King of flat-picking guitar.” He is considered the first jazz and rock-and-roll banjo player. His single-string style is highly studied and experimented with today by contemporary players seeking to push the limits of the banjo.
The banjo went through a slight loss in popularity in the late forties but in the mid-fifties interest was rekindled as the folk movement gripped Americans. During this time several second-generation banjo players emerged. The most influential of these players was Bill Keith. He invented a new style known as Melodic or Keith style. This style is based around a scale and follows a series of ascending or descending notes. This enables a banjo player to play fiddle songs note for note. Keith is yet another veteran of Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys. On top of this, he was a leader of what is referred to as the New Grass movement that emerged in the 60’s. On top of inventing a new style, he helped inspire a new generation of banjo players and his style was and still is widely studied and imitated.
The seventies and eighties were an interesting time for the banjo during which it saw some developmentally significant leaps into genres of music other than Bluegrass. The banjo was and still is being pushed to its technical and musical limits as a result of this time period. The most influential player of this time was Tony Trischka. He pushed the banjo into new realms including rock, jazz, traditional African, and classical music, bending the instruments traditional bluegrass limits. He combined all of the elements of previous banjo players and used that as a foundation to push the banjo into a different dimension. He released a series of renowned recordings and was the first banjo player to release a large amount of instructional material including videos, tapes, and books. During this time Tony Trischka inspired such players as Bela Fleck and Alison Brown, who constitute the cutting edge of banjo music today.
Bela Fleck is one of the single most paradigm shifting players of modern day banjo. Bela managed to seamlessly blend all of the aforementioned styles of picking and firmly moved the banjo outside the realm of bluegrass and acoustic music and into new-wave jazz, classical, and contemporary acoustic. He is a veteran of the band, New Grass Revival, whom he played with through most of the 80’s. He grew up in the New York area and was exposed to the contemporary jazz movement, which has played an influential role throughout his career. He obtained most of his training and received most of his inspiration from Tony Trischka. Bela formed a band called Bela Fleck and the Flecktones in 1990. The band plays a mix of jazz and bluegrass which critics call “blu bop”. The bands first CD release earned a Grammy nomination. The Flecktones have gone on to dominate the contemporary jazz and the new acoustic scene. Bela has also successfully brought classical music to the banjo with his release of Perpetual Motion, which won him two Grammy’s. He has been nominated for 20 Grammy’s and won eight making him the most nominated musician across different music genres alive. He is the premier banjo player alive and continues to inspire new generations of banjo players.
Although the period where the banjo held hegemony over American music is past, the instrument itself continues to grow and expand. The spectrum of music that the banjo is played in continues to grow. New players continue to be inspired. It’s time for a new generation of banjo players to rise up and continue pushing the banjo into areas were people never expected to see it. Perhaps, sometime in the near future, the banjo may once again have a serious spotlight in the American music scene as it once did.
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