Skip to main content

Banjoversary: Seven-Year Itch

March 24 marks my seventh year playing the banjo. In the past, this date would be spent tallying my lifetime practice hours to see how close I've come to that magical 10,000-hour mark.

Ever since taking up the fiddle, however, those hours have become sparser and sparser. My banjo now spends most of its time hanging on the wall. I'll let my son strum the strings as we pass by its place. He's much gentler now. A year ago, I would hold my breath fearing that he'd snap off the strings.

The extent of my playing these days resides in noodling once or twice a week or the even rarer occasion of playing with friends at a party or festival. I'd much rather spend my free time tackling the beast that is the fiddle.

The fiddle should be on top now.

This weekend I began learning "Wagner" from the second disc of Brad Leftwich's Learn to Play Old-Time Fiddle video set. It's been a year and quarter since I began these lessons, and they have given me a good foundation. Only two more tunes remain, and then I'm off on my own. Will my banjo get more action then?

The "seven-year itch" refers to when people grow dissatisfied in a relationship. Psychologists borrowed the term from George Axelrod's 1952 play The Seven Year Itch (Billy Wilder's 1955 film adaptation starred Marilyn Monroe). And to some extent, yes, I am dissatisfied in my relationship with the banjo.

I find myself dreaming of sexier banjos, one with a smaller pot say and adorned with fewer frets. Or maybe a classic beauty, like an old Vega or Fairbanks. On the other hand, younger prospects by the likes of Buckeye Banjos or Cedar Mountain Banjos sure do catch my eye. Of course, my dreamiest of dream banjos would be one made by Doug Unger. But alas those dreams shall remain intangible.

Then again, maybe it's not the banjo. Maybe it's me.

The most satisfaction I get from playing banjo is in a group. Those instances have become fewer and further between in the last two years. While I've attended a couple local festivals and house parties in the last year, I haven't attended any of the monthly jams in my area, which was among my stated goals in January.

Like so many people who have already broken their New Year's resolutions to get fit, I've fallen short on this goal. However, spring brings new life, a renewed sense of purpose. As the snowdrops bloom so does my desire to emerge from my own wintry hibernation. The front porch beckons, the jams await and the festivals are just around the corner.


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,…