ODE TO CLAWHAMMER:
(or: how to neither make friends nor influence people)
This whole clawhammer banjo thing is weird. I mean, really weird. And open-back banjos make no sense. None.
On the one hand, the instrument fundamentally makes no sense. 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 you're not supposed to strum it -- instead, folks deploy a"bum ditty" or "bump a ditty" technique. (Yes, that's what they're really called.)
And also on this hand, clawhammer is seriously uncool. There's a reason you probably have never heard of clawhammer banjo. 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 uncool. To which I would say, "You were never cool to begin with." 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 one hand, it's not particularly easy to jam with others. Banjos are typically tuned to open G; and because open-back banjos inherently have less sustain, they sound best (to my ear) when played using as many open strings as possible. This means that if you want to play in any other key, things get really difficult, really fast. So you end up learning an enormous number of different tunings -- many of which have strange names like "Sawmill" or "Mountain Minor" -- and you have to re-tune your banjo between songs.
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, most banjo neophytes are exposed primarily to resonator banjos and thus learn Scruggs-y bluegrass music, 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 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 why an instrument of such ass-backwarded-ness would even exist.) Surely, if anybody took the time to learn such a strange thing, then it must be worth the effort?
And these instruments are surprisingly complex. There are so many factors impacting tone that almost no two banjos sound or play the same. (Well, in my experience anyways.) And 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 seems to have its roots in Africa's 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, very similar to the clawhammer-style of banjo used today.
It's likely that when slaves were 'shipped' from West Africa, musical traditions and instruments like the akonting 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 began minstrel shows (circa mid 1800s), at which white musicians performed the banjo in 'black face.'
[Now try to imagine: A slave, who uses the instrument and music to cope with his conditions and as a connection to a culture from which his people were stolen, watches as the music/style of his ancestors is copied by a white man in black face.]
On the back of the popularization of minstrels shows , the banjo was commercialized and sold. They were even available via mail-order in Sears & Roebuck catalogs. The popularity of the banjo rose and fell during the 1900s, with the form factor and style changing (e.g., resonator banjos and bluegrass / Scruggs-style). 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.
But it's a loaded subject. A fascinating subject. An emotional subject. And I'm better for having been exposed to it.