#atozchallenge: Banjo

The banjo is a fretted stringed instrument, like the guitar, the bouzouki, or the lute. It’s unique in that its body is a round hoop, typically of metal (though some are wood) with a drum head stretched across it. Most banjos have either four or five strings, and is either strummed or plucked with steel finger picks and a thumb pick. Different styles of music will determine whether the four or five stringed instrument is most appropriate.

The five-string banjo is the one most people think of when they think of the banjo. It’s used primarily in country music, more specifically bluegrass, and in folk music. The fifth string is the same gauge (weight) as the first (with stringed instruments, we count the strings bottom to top), but it starts at the fifth fret, making it sound the highest of the strings.

One of the more famous five-string players is Earl Scruggs, who worked with Lester Flatt for a number of years as frontmen for The Foggy Mountain Boys. Flatt and Scruggs did the theme song for the long-running CBS sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies, called "The Ballad of Jed Clampett."

There are two styles of playing country banjo: plucking the strings like Earl Scruggs was doing in the previous video, or strumming, a technique called clawhammer or frailing. In this video from the TV show Hee Haw, we show two frailers on the left, Grandpa Jones and David Akeman, better known as Stringbean, and two pickers on the right, Roy Clark and someone else (help me, someone). Here’s "Pig In A Pen."

Folk singer and banjo player Pete Seeger wrote the book on playing the five-string banjo. Literally: it’s called How To Play The 5-String Banjo. Here, he plays his composition, "Where Have All The Flowers Gone?"

The four-string banjo is strummed with a pick, and is more often than not tuned like the four upper strings of a guitar. It’s particularly suited to Dixieland jazz and "old-time" music. Here’s a group called The Blazin’ Banjos playing "Bye Bye Blues." The gentleman on the far right is playing a tenor banjo, which has a shorter neck and is tuned lower.

The outstanding Canadian guitarist Jamie Dupuis plays some 4-string banjo (as well as 5-string, guitar, and harp guitar), and has done a few videos where he plays classical pieces on it. Here is Mozart’s "Rondo Alla Turca."

The British actor, singer-songwriter, and comedian George Formby played the ukulele and also the banjo ukulele (the banjolele?). Here, in a scene from 1943’s Bell-Bottom George, he sings "It Serves Me Right (I Shouldn’t Have Joined)."

I hope you’ve enjoyed this excursion into the world of the banjo. I’ve left out a lot of exceklent players, such as Bela Fleck and Steve Martin, to keep this short. See you tomorrow!

49 thoughts on “#atozchallenge: Banjo

  1. I like banjo music a lot. My mom bought my dad one years ago, but he never did anything with it, and I think they finally sold it. I like that George Formby song and video! So funny. :)


  2. Dupuis is simply amazing!!! I love the banjo and would have been surprised if I didn’t see it here. I would have loved to see Steve Martin here since he is considered one of the best. Hey, you could spotlight him and other stars who gave genuine talents in music ( that means no Eddie Murphy..lol)


  3. I loved Hee Haw but was never really a banjo fan per se … Until now! All that talent & variety in the videos you shared. Awesomeness


    1. It’s really a very versatile instrument. I decided against putting in something by Bela Fleck, because it’s way out there. Jerry Garcia is a hell of a player as well. And there were plenty of others: George Segal, Howard Caine (Major Hochstetter from Hogan’s Heroes)…

      Liked by 1 person

    1. If you lived somewhere that had a country station, you could hear a lot of banjo playing, Unfortunately, Chicago wasn’t one of them. We did have the occasional appearances of The Dillards on “Andy Griffith” and of Flatt and Scruggs on “The Beverly Hillbillies,” but that was about it, at least until “Deliverance” came out. Steve Martin is a hell of a player, but all his banjo playing took a back seat when he was doing his comedy. I like that he’s playing more now. Thanks for stopping by!


  4. Cool post……..when I last saw Pete Seeger, he was using only a thick twine/rope for his banjo strap. Also, another big surprise to average “civilians” (non-musicians like me) was when Comedian/Actor Steve Martian turned out to be a banjo-playing- blue grass-break down genius! Zulu Delta


  5. Another great word for your theme. I’ve always enjoyed a well played banjo. I’ve got an nice eclectic mix of music with banjo featured or appearing as an instrument. When I was growing up my parents used to have albums by Mickey Finn’s band that had some fun banjo on it.



  6. Banjolele— 😉 Ballad of Jed Clampett made me think of Foggy Mountain Breakdown when I first heard the actor Steve Martin playing banjo with Flatt and Scruggs. Amazing musicians.


  7. Great post John, ever do some pickin’ yourself? I think the other Banjo player is Bobby Thompson, a session guy that played with just about everybody at that time.


  8. Hee-Haw! That brings back memories. :)

    It occurs to me that the Soggy Bottom Boys (from the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou) might have been named as a parody of the Foggy Mountain Boys. I never realized that until just now.


You can use Markdown in your comments. Thanks for your comment!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s