This … is my new banjo. And I’m discovering, as a longtime guitarist, that three’s a crowd.
For me, the allure of the banjo is how it stands out acoustically in bluegrass and folk music, and almost has a percussion-type role to play side by side instruments like mandolin and guitar.
But adding this instrument, with it’s challenging finger-picking style, to my more familiar Yamaha- and Ovation-accompanied repertoire is proving daunting.
My love affair with the banjo’s big sister, the guitar, began at age 10, when I learned to read music, but shyly hid little milestones — playing nervously to family, with my back to them, fingers trembling, heart racing.
Fast forward 32 years. The writer in me won out. I began to write and perform songs in earnest, after having learned to fingerpick Led Zeppelin’s “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” at age 15 from a guy named Mark in a summer arts program at Wesleyan University and again, with more discipline, in my late 30s, focusing on classical works for several months with a professional teacher.
All of that finger-picking expertise figured into my songwriting, as I pulled melodies from the chords I dissected with hands not yet tinged with arthritis.
Fast forward another decade, and my songwriting spree began to dry up. This past year, as an anniversary with my partner approached, I began listening to classic banjo, clawhammer banjo, and whatever else I could find on YouTube. And my partner listened to my pleas and helped buy me a Gold Tone banjo starter kit from Hanover Strings in Hanover, N.H. (Full disclosure: Hanover Strings did not pay for my banjo or pay me to write this.)
The five-string banjo, as fellow musician and former bandmate Luke Selden advised me, has a mellow tone that suits my voice and folky style. Yet, although I’m playing a 30-minute set at the Springfield, Vt., Apple Festival on Oct. 6, I’m not planning to pull out my five-string.
The reason is simple: With the help of a chord chart in G tuning, I’ve only been able to pick out a few tunes so far: “The Rose,” “Let Her Go” by Passenger, and “Come Back,” an early original and my partner’s favorite.
What I really want to do is pull a Steve Martin and dive out of my comfort zone into that lightning-speed finger-picking style for which he and his peers have become known. The actor is incredibly accomplished and at ease on the banjo. As were Earl Scruggs and Ralph Stanley. And this youngster.
Until I commit to lessons, or spend some time using online video tutorials, you won’t see me playing my banjo publicly. But I am determined to make this banjo fit into a tiny space we have dubbed “The Music Room.” My third instrument. My next conquest.