The banjo is as popular as ever. This timeless string instrument can brim with the energy of fast-paced punk and metal just as easily as it can grind out folk, country and bluegrass classics. Banjo player and former drummer Floris De Vries is happy to introduce us to the instrument and take us on a trip through the history, styles and various flavours of the banjo.

Hype Hype Hurray

The news was a shock when it became clear that folk band Mumford & Sons had retired their banjos for their third studio album, Wilder Mind. Fans, who considered the banjo an integral part of the band’s signature sound, panicked. Unlike more consistently popular instruments like the electric guitar, the banjo has a tendency to fall from grace before bouncing back so, fortunately, a fresh banjo-hype is always just around the corner. But let’s be honest: Mumford & Sons did give the instrument a massive boost.

Floris de Vries playing banjo with Dutch singer-songwriter Douwe Bob

A Drumhead And a Fretboard

So where lies the attraction of this instrument and the abrupt, loud sound that’s shaped by a drumhead in combination with a neck-and-fretboard? How did this instrument even come to exist? Those in the know claim it’s the combination of African rhythms and Western melodies. Two worlds – those of African slaves and West-European immigrants – collided in the United States and gave rise to the banjo.

While he had drummed for various bands before he even finished his GCSEs, De Vries wasn’t drawn to the banjo because of the built-in drumhead. In fact, he was actually into rock, punk and metal when he became addicted to an instrument that was originally used to play American folk music and bluegrass. After seeing the film ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou’ at the age of sixteen and subsequently attending the annual European World of Bluegrass (EWOB) festival, everything started falling into place for Floris. “I was immediately drawn to the speed and energy of banjo finger-picking styles. For me, the rhythmic momentum and energy of the banjo evoked the feel of fast-paced punk and metal, played on an acoustic instrument in a completely acoustic setting. Shortly after the festival, I picked up my first banjo.”

He soon found out that what he’d been listening to was the three-finger-Scruggs-style, a five-string banjo playing style invented by Earl Scruggs. “It takes two finger picks and a thumb pick. You use your right hand to play various consistent rhythmic patterns and weave in rolls of melodic notes. For the rolls, you’re constantly playing the fifth string unfretted, which results in a typical driving sense of syncopation. The fifth string – the drone – provides a bourdon-note: an effect you can only get with very few instruments. It’s this that makes me love the banjo so much.” With his self-developed technique, Scruggs – who was also part of Bill Monroe’s The Blue Grass Boys – massively boosted the popularity of the banjo following the Second World War. A little later during the 1960s, folk-fundamentalist Pete Seeger would also write a well-received guide to playing the five-string banjo.

From Bluegrass Rhythm Parts to Jazzy Solos

While De Vries prefers to take on the role of rhythmic support as intended for styles like bluegrass, there’s a lot more possible when playing the banjo. He’s even been part of community art projects involving crossover styles, singer-songwriters and electronic pop line-ups. “There’s no point in playing the same rhythm parts all the time so I decided to depart from a purely bluegrass approach and started playing softer and more intimate parts. In the end, you can play anything with a banjo: folk, jazz, pop and even classical music.” Pointing out a renowned solo banjo player who can do it all, De Vries mentions American musician, Bela Fleck.

De Vries owns two banjos, which is all he needs to maximise the potential the instrument has to offer. For faster, bluegrass-style rhythm parts, he generally turns to his five-string Gibson Mastertone built in 1974: a classic bluegrass resonator banjo with a closed back. His other banjo is an open-back model that doesn’t have a resonator, making it sound warmer, rounder and more mellow. It’s a Vega White Lady from 1929 that was originally built as a four-string tenor banjo, but was decked out with a five-string replica neck at some point after these became available in the 1970s. Tenor banjos were popular during the rise of jazz in the 1920s, an era marked by banjo mass-production. During the folk revival of the 1960s, the demand for high-quality five-string banjos became so large that a lot of old four-string models were turned into five-string banjos (five-string conversions). De Vries uses his open-back model for playing clawhammer-style, which is focussed on down-picking while the Scruggs-style is all about up-picking, so plucking the strings upwards. Down-picking the strings is also referred to as old time style, which harks back to 19th century American mountain music played by banjo and violin-toting immigrants. “I always bring both of my banjos to studio sessions. Depending on the style and sound, I’ll use one or the other,” De Vries says.

Don’t Get Too Puritanical

The five-string banjo and the four-string (Irish) tenor banjo are just two flavours of banjo. There’s also the banjolele (banjo-ukulele), the bass banjo, the banjolin (mandolin-banjo) and the banjo-guitar, the latter of which was popularised by various singer-songwriters – including Taylor Swift – in recent years. The cool thing about banjo-guitars is that they’re played just like a standard guitar, meaning you won’t be forced to learn any additional techniques if you’re making the step over from a guitar. That said, if you want to get into playing the banjo, De Vries recommends going for a five-string banjo and starting with the Scruggs-style. “Start with the basics and Earl Scruggs’ music and you’ll eventually find your own way around the instrument. Just make sure that you don’t force yourself into a traditional banjo-playing straightjacket. Allow yourself to have fun while getting to grips with the banjo. And if you’re already dreaming of playing the banjo in a band, make sure to grab a good pickup.” You can go for a banjo with a built-in pickup or you can build in a separate banjo pickup. Personally, De Vries likes to amplify the sound of his banjo with a microphone because it does more justice to the acoustic sound, but in some cases you simply can’t get away without a built-in pickup system. He’s been using a Schatten Design BJ-02 banjo pickup since 2009. This system includes a jack output that clamps to the tension nuts of the instrument, plus a tiny piezo pickup that you stick underneath the middle section of the bridge, just below the banjo head. While banjo manufacturers have been recently flooding the market with innovative electric models, if you ask De Vries, a simple pickup system that’s glued in place is just as effective.



Buying a good banjo doesn’t have to be a struggle, but what’s important when it comes to playing a five-string banjo is having a capo for the fifth string. De Vries: “There are various ways you can capo the fifth string. You can use ‘railroad spikes’, which are tiny hooks in the fretboard that you can tuck the string in to fret it in different positions. Another option would be to use a fifth-string capo by Shubb (as seen in the image above). This is essentially a little rail that’s mounted along a section of the fretboard and comes fitted with a mini-capo that frets the fifth string at the desired fret.”

In addition to taking lessons, budding banjo players can learn a lot from listening to banjo music and going to jam sessions to watch other banjo players and ask them any burning questions they might have. “Just remember that playing the banjo won’t make you rich – it’s mostly just a lot of fun,” De Vries adds.

All-American Made

A tip for all beginning banjo players: get a decent banjo and find a knowledgeable teacher. Any good beginner’s model will set you back between £300 and £500. Big names are The Deering Banjo Company (USA) who build all-American-made banjos; Gold Tone (USA) who have most of their models made in Asia; Stelling (USA); Ome (USA); Prucha (Czech Republic) and Clifford Essex (UK). Gibson used to be the biggest name in the world of bluegrass banjos but the famed guitar-builder quit building banjos quite a few years ago. If you’re lucky, you might still be able to get your hands on a pre-owned (pre-war) Gibson model though. The same goes for Vega and Paramount banjos.

Just in case you’re already hooked, of all European/UK-based bluegrass festivals you could attend to meet like-minded musicians!

See Also

» The Accordion: It’s More Popular Than You Think!
» The Resonator (or Dobro) Guitar: An Introduction
» The Mandolin: The Basics
» The Fretless Bass: The Pros & Cons
» What’s the Best Jazz Guitar?
» Which Acoustic Guitar Do You Need in Your Life? Steel-String or Classical?
» Help! What Size Ukulele Should I Buy?
» Guitar & Bass: What Does ‘Fretboard Radius’ Mean?
» The Difference Between the Ukulele, Mandolin, and Banjo

» Tenor Banjos
» Banjoleles
» Banjo Guitars
» All Banjos
» Banjo Cases
» Banjo Heads
» Banjo Strings
» Banjo Capos
» Banjo Straos
» Banjo Books
» Finger Plectrums
» Thumb Plectrums
» Chromatic Tuners

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