Brainjo Bite: How To Be An “Authentic” Banjo Player


Welcome to the first episode of Brainjo Bites. Today I’m ¬†going to be talking about how to be an authentic banjo player and I’m going to start by explaining why i’m talking about this topic in the first place.

So there are traditions that are associated with pretty much every human endeavor whether it’s cooking or playing rugby or playing the banjo and sometimes within those traditions there can be some pretty strong and rigid ideas about a right way and a wrong way to do things, typically linked to whatever has been the traditional way the way that has predominated throughout history.

And this is something that crops up from time to time in the world of banjo. So in many people’s minds the banjo is associated with southern mountain music and included in that association are specific ways of playing the banjo, specific songs that are played on the banjo, and certain places where banjo players come from. Now for some people that’s just part of the story of the banjo that part of its history but for others those things are a reference for how a banjo should and should not be played.

Put another way it informs their idea of a right way to play and which is also considered the authentic way, the one that fits within those rigid boundaries. 

And then there’s a wrong way or an inauthentic way one place you see that is in the heavy bias towards clawhammer being thought of or being equated with playing old time music.

So as i’ve talked about elsewhere claw hammer is really a technique that can be used to play any style of music however in some circles if you say you play claw hammer many will assume that your preference is to play old time music using claw hammer technique they might assume that you that’s what you do without even saying so.

Some may carry that further to say that playing anything but old-time music with claw hammer technique is wrong or inauthentic and some may say that if you or your direct ancestors aren’t from a particular geographic location like the southern united states, specifically the mountainous regions of the southern united states then you aren’t an authentic player.

Some may say that specific tunes um should only be played a certain way um usually by whoever made the most iconic recording of that tune.

And I know that this line of thinking can make some people feel that if they don’t come from a certain place or they don’t play the banjo a certain way or they don’t use a particular kind of banjo or they don’t play certain genres of music on their banjo then they’re not an authentic banjo player and ultimately it just boils down to an idea that there’s a right way to do things the authentic way and a wrong way.

Yet these days thanks to the internet more and more people from different parts of the world and different backgrounds are being drawn to the banjo and i think that’s fantastic. Yet, I know that some of these ideas about authenticity can make people who don’t come from a certain place or play the banjo a certain way feel a bit like outsiders looking in, and I want each and every person to feel welcome to the banjo community and to feel like they are as much a part of the banjo brother and sisterhood as anyone else.

So in that spirit I’m going to share with you my thoughts on this topic of what i think it means to be an authentic banjo player.

So let’s start by reviewing some of the more unique things about the banjo and the history of the banjo. Sio one of those is that banjo players have used hundreds if not thousands of different tunings over the years.

We have published lists of the ones that we know of and there are likely many many more.

We also know that people have played banjos of all shapes and sizes with nearly limitless designs many people over the years built banjos literally out of what they had laying around.

We also know that there are all manner of picking styles so many of the old timers whose recordings we have and listen to can be immediately identified from a recording because their style is so unique and doesn’t sound like anybody else.

Now contrast this with a tradition like classical violin where you have one tuning where you have one style of playing essentially and where you have really one form of the instrument with maybe a couple of different small variations.

Those are really very opposite ends of the spectrum and this tension between tradition and innovation is a common feature in all human life including in music and it’s been so throughout history.

But in the world of music banjo players have arguably been the most innovative musicians in history every new style every new way of putting together a banjo every new tuning was someone doing something his or her own way rather than the way it had been done before.

Furthermore the music that we think of as southern mountain music didn’t of course originate there it was an amalgamation or synthesis of music that had begun elsewhere namely europe and africa.

And of course that music came from music before it in other locations and then southern mountain music continued to evolve into things like blues and rock and roll and the entire pantheon of american music.

So all of it of course is part of one big continuum that goes back to the first humans making music tens of thousands of years ago.

And if there’s one common thread it’s that banjo players have always been looking for new ways to make music on the banjo so innovation is part of the tradition cross-cultural collaboration is part of the tradition.

So ultimately being an authentic banjo player has nothing to do with whether you play traditional tunes or contemporary tunes or tunes that you make up yourself, it has nothing to do with whether you grew up in the hills of west virginia or the georgia piedmont or the streets of new york or paris or london or the countryside of japan or argentina, it has nothing to do with whether you play your tunes exactly as such and such played it the very first time it was ever recorded, it has nothing to do with whether you learn to play by sitting at your uncle’s knee or from videos off the internet.

It has nothing to do with any of those things.

Being an authentic banjo player has always been and will always be about making the music that you want to make on your banjo and about using every tool at your disposal to do so.

That is the common thread amongst banjo players throughout history.

Music is fundamentally about expressing what’s inside oftentimes in ways that you can express and it can’t be captured in words or any in any other form.

And when you’re starting out that’s hard to do you don’t have the skills you don’t have the techniques to do that to express yourself fully.

This is no different than a baby learning how to talk early on infants don’t have the language skills to accurately express the thoughts inside their head, but as their skills with language grows as they learn as their techniques improve so does their ability to communicate more effectively and to transmit the ideas inside their head more accurately to someone else.

And the situation with music is no different the goal in learning how to play is in acquiring the skills that get you closer and closer to being able to truly express yourself on your instrument to get the music that’s inside of you to come out of your instrument.

And the only wrong way to play is to do things based on someone else’s expectations or someone else’s goals for the music that they want to play rather than to be guided by your own inner voice.