Skip to main content

Tracing the Banjo Addiction: All Banjo All the Time

As I continue my navel gazing, here's another installment of how I got addicted to the banjo ...

Some time around 2006, I eschewed all music without a banjo. My collegiate and post-graduate years seemed to have pointed toward this path, from developing more eclectic tastes to delving into the alt-country scene, but then I reached my tipping point toward full banjo addiction.

From 2006 on, I would be immersed in an in-depth exploration of banjo music and styles that would eventually lead to me buying my first banjo in 2008. 

You could pretty much bet on hearing six albums that were on steady repeat on my CD player during this time. There was Old Crow Medicine Show's debut "O.C.M.S." (released in 2004), Avett Bros.' "Mignonette" (2004), Carolina Chocolate Drops' "Dona Got a Ramblin' Mind" (2006), Chatham County Line's "Speed of the Whippoorwill" (2006), Great Lake Swimmers' "Ongiara" (2007), and Gillian Welch's "Soul Journey" (2003).

In the last six years, I've attended concerts by all the above artists, except Welch, whom regrettably I missed when she was in town last fall.

Taking some advice to check out Dock Boggs and Roscoe Holcomb, I picked up the Smithsonian Folkways compilation "Classic Old-Time Music," which then led to my discovering the New Lost City Ramblers, Iron Mountain String Band, Tommy Jarrell, Wade Ward, George Pegram, and on and on. I was mesmerized by the driving rhythms of those tunes on that album. It was electrifying.

Two work trips between 2006 and 2007 would prove instrumental in my discovery of banjo music. During a trip to Tucson, Ariz., I stumbled into a used record store and found an LP of Flatt & Scruggs, which pretty much dominated my turntable for the next year. It was the one bluegrass album that I fell in love with. On another trip to Charlotte, N.C., I would witness the fiddling of David Bass, which turned me into a bumbling fanboy after the concert telling the band they needed come play in Cleveland.

Live shows have always been a catalyst for me to discover new musicians. I would much rather spend $10 to $20 to see a group perform before buying an that I might only play once if I don't like it. That's how I became obsessed with the high-energy sound of the banjo and how I started to discover the old-time community.

Ten Memorable Live Performances:
  1. Seeing Split Lip Rayfield during Kirk Rundstrom's final tour before he died
  2. Seeing the Hackensaw Boys before Jimmy Stelling left the band to build banjos
  3. Seeing the Morgantown Rounders open for the Avett Bros.
  4. Seeing the Carolina Chocolate Drops at the Kent Stage before the lineup change
  5. Seeing the Beachland Ballroom Barn Dance III with Mark Olitsky, the Hiram Rapids Stumblers, the Waxwings Stringband, and One Dollar Hat, among other local groups
  6. Seeing the Dust Busters on three separate occasions, most recently with John Cohen
  7. Seeing Jay Ungar and family at the G.A.R. Hall in Peninsula, Ohio
  8. Seeing Doug Unger perform and talk about his banjos at the Raccoon County Music Festival
  9. Seeing the Forge Mountain Diggers with David Bass, as mentioned above
  10. Seeing the Haints play in a nearby park cabin 
While not all of these groups are strictly old-time, they share a similar aesthetic with their energetic performances and have cemented my obsession with the banjo.


Popular posts from this blog

Getting Blitzed with Tom Collins

A little more than a year ago, Salem, Massachusetts-based banjo player and teacher Tom Collins embarked on a yearlong project he called Banjo Blitz. The weekly YouTube series provided short banjo lessons on technique. Each video is about five minutes long, give or take, and presents a short pattern — or “ostinato” — designed to teach and improve a specific aspect of banjo playing.

The mission was to get the audience “to practice clawhammer in discrete chunks every day without the burden of trying to memorize tunes,” Collins says. He wanted to build skills rather than repertoire.

“Let’s take the tune off the table,” says Collins, who has been teaching banjo for 11 years. “Let’s focus on a simple, mantra-like ostinato that can train your body how to execute a technique properly, while training your ears how to hear it properly. Let’s also make it so that you can do this every day without it sucking every spare minute from your life. The big dirty secret about learning how to play an ins…

Clawhammer Picks and You: A Review

Clawhammer picks are a useful tool for increasing volume or to overcome fingernail challenges, such as broken, too short or weak nails. There are all sorts of commercial and homemade solutions available for banjo players, but it can be difficult to decide which options to choose. Thankfully, I've already done some of the work for you.
Just to be clear, I prefer my natural fingernail for frailing. However, there was a time when I experimented with regularly using a pick, and there are instances now where I find that a pick is necessary. Today, I'll take you through the five options I've tried. These are all available online at prices ranging from about $1 to $13.

Reversed/Reshaped Dunlop Pick ($0.75)
This was the most common suggestion before other companies started addressing the gap in the clawhammer pick market. Take a bluegrass pick, flatten it out and wear it backwards. The problem is that it's hard to get the fit right. While Dunlop picks are cheap and readily avai…

The Ongoing Search for Ohio's Old-Time Fiddle Repertoire

Since the beginning of my journey into old-time music, I have sought to find a connection to my home state. After studying the recorded repertoire of a dozen old-time fiddlers who spent a majority of their lives in Ohio, I have compiled a master list of more than 300 tunes. By cross-referencing this list, there were 12 tunes that I identified as “common,” based on their appearance in the repertoire of at least three fiddlers. The results of my findings follow.

This is far from a scientific method or academic study. I do not claim to be a musicologist or folklore scholar. I welcome any feedback.

Common Tunes:
Arkansas Traveler BirdieCumberland GapDurang’s HornpipeForked DeerGrey EagleJune AppleLeather BritchesMississippi SawyerRaggedy AnnTurkey in the StrawWild Horse At some point I would like to put together a list of tunes that are unique to Ohio or have a particular connection to an Ohio locale, such as Lonnie Seymour’s “Chillicothe Two-Step” or Arnold Sharp’s “Anna Hayes.” However,…