ODE TO CLAWHAMMER:
(or: how to neither make friends nor influence people)
As loved ones (and some not-so-loved ones) like to remind me, this whole clawhammer banjo thing is weird. And open-back banjos are a bit of an oddity to many folks. (Myself included.)
On the one hand, the instrument is... peculiar. The string nearest to the player is the string with the highest pitch, which is then followed by the lowest-pitched string, which is then followed by three strings of ascending pitch. If you want a simple strum, you must first thrust downward from the fourth string and then, at the last moment, pluck with your thumb the highest string. But that's a moot point, because most folks don't strum a banjo like a guitar, rather utilizing "bum-ditty" or "bump-a-ditty" clawhammer techniques to create the instrument's unique sound.
And also on this one hand, clawhammer is not particularly cool. There's a reason you, in all likelihood, have never heard of clawhammer banjo. People play clawhammer because they love it: Not because of the cool factor. My fifteen-year-old self -- the young guitar player who loved (and still loves) the moodiness of grunge 90's -- would wonder how I would become so enamored with such an instrument and playing style. To which I would say, "You, sir, are not cool. So it makes sense doesn't it?" Which would send my fifteen-year-old self into an emotional tailspin, compelling him to the nearest patch of darkness where he would contemplate many a contemplative matter.
And while still on this hand, it's not particularly easy to jam with others. Banjos have a short "drone" / chanterelle string that plays the same note throughout a song. This can be a hassle when you want to change keys mid-song or play something fancy-schmancy. And, because open-back banjos have less sustain than, say, a guitar, they sound best (to my ear) when played using as many open strings as possible. So most folks end up learning a bunch of different tunings with strange names like "Sawmill" or "Mountain Minor" and re-tune between songs. But if you're Bela Fleck (a Scruggs player), such mortal issues don't bother you.
And on *your* one hand, which I need to borrow because my hand is full, you can't exactly find a wide selection of open-back banjos at your local music store. If you want to try out a Les Paul, Stratocaster, Martin, Taylor, etc. you go to the music store and see how they sound to you. Nope. If you're lucky you'll find maybe a Deering Goodtime open-back banjo or two (a good banjo at a reasonable price, by the way). As a result, many banjo neophytes are exposed firstly to resonator banjos and learn Scruggs style, leaving our rather small community of clawhammer folks rather alone in our alone-ness.
And now on *your* other hand, what the heck instrument is this anyways? This is a drum shell, impaled by an asymmetric neck, with dead animal flesh (or some analogue) aggressively stretched acrost the top. It has a floating bridge that slides to and fro, requiring finesse to get proper intonation; and a wonky tuning peg jammed into the side of its neck. Like Frankenstein's monster. But less mainstream.
BUT FINALLY, on the other hand, the one that was hitherto empty, this is a unique instrument -- one of historical significance, played amongst a dedicated community, and capable of absolutely magical percussive tones.
No other instrument sounds like an open-back banjo. I was captivated the first time I saw my friend Shawn Wilfong play clawhammer style. I wanted to do what he was doing. I needed to know how he was producing that sound. And how an instrument of such ass-backwarded-ness could sound so ancient and mountain-y and percussive, and yet so melodic. Like putting strings on a drum kit.
And these instruments are surprisingly complex. There are so many factors impacting tone that it's very difficult to find two banjos that sound or play the same. Open-backs are almost automobile-like with their metal components and ability to have their tones altered substantially just by "lifting the hood" and tinkering with them: Tighten or loosen the head, replace the nut, buy different hardware, change out your tone ring, get a different head, try out a few different bridges. Make a few of your own components. Hell, invent your own tone ring. Or don't, and just play.
And then there's the history. Oh, the history. Where did such a crazy instrument come from?
This whole thing makes a lot more sense when you consider the banjo's history. The banjo has its roots in Africa's tradition of gourd-bodied lutes, one of which is a three-stringed instrument called an akonting. Africans built the akonting from animal flesh, gourds, gut strings (yes, they are what you think they are) and sticks; and used a method of playing that is very similar to clawhammer.
It's likely that when slaves were 'shipped' from West Africa, their musical traditions came with them to the Caribbean, and eventually to America in the 16/17/1800s. Eventually, white people 'adopted' (if you want to call it that) the instrument(s), style and music from slaves, and launched the nation-wide craze for minstrel shows circa mid 1800s.
On the back of the popularization of minstrels shows, the banjo's design was changed (e.g., the gourd body was replaced with a wood, often "spun-over" rim), commercialized and sold. They were everywhere: You could even order a banjo mail-order in Sears & Roebuck catalogs. And the form factor evolved to include things like tenor banjos, resonator banjos, banjo ukuleles, enormous banjo-standing-bass-looking things, etc.
During the 1900s, the popularity of the banjo rose and fell multiple times. And today, the banjo and old time music is experiencing a bit of a renaissance, which is why you can order a custom banjo from any number of, primarily white as irony would have it, builders -- such as myself.
This is the quickest of histories -- from a non-historian. There is some debate about the banjo's origins, so you should learn the history and make your own determination. (Read more for yourself.)
I once heard the banjo described as looking as if it had been dug up from the earth. I find this description particularly apropos given the banjo's history and evolution. Things that are buried have histories. And in the banjo's history you'll find some of the things that make America great -- but also those things that make American history difficult to accept.
So that's why a banjo isn't just a banjo to some folks, to be hung with the guitars on the back wall of a Guitar Center. While others, they just want to get going with some bum-ditties.
It's a loaded subject. A fascinating subject. An emotional subject. And I'm better for having been exposed to it.