Pick, pluck, strum or strike

Posted on: 9th February, 2015

Category: Music

Contributor: Mark Holland

I love the way we (humans) keep stumbling from one stone cold fact to another. Everything we know about Dinosaurs is suddenly thrown in the air by the fact that they now tell us that our scaly monstrous lizard-like friends had feathers. I mean please be serious, I reckon that they probably wore underpants too except time has dissolved the evidence of this into the bedrock!

Growing up in the 70s we used to have these fabulous ‘Books of Knowledge’, barely 100 pages long with some fluffy drawings that contained everything we needed to know about everything; fact. Now with the Internet at our fingertips we can access volumes more information, which we can also cross-reference into the grey area in which most truth lies.

Take the origins of the Banjo, an instrument of the guitar family. The word itself of Spanish, Portuguese or African origin, or maybe based on a Japanese lute. First turned up with a fingerboard and frets in the 17th century Caribbean. In the less structured days of yore, could have had three to eight strings, could have been as big as a Double Bass, and played upright, or as small (petite or piccolo) as a ukulele. With infinite variations on tuning like ‘Sawmill’, ‘Mountain Modal’, ‘Old Time D’ or ‘Chicago’, first appeared on the big stage in the 1830s and popularised by the likes of Joel Walker Sweeney and subsequently brought over to the British music halls where it became very popular because of its volume. The playing techniques of the time became characteristic of Bluegrass. The Irish found a different way to play it with different tuning and accentuations.

The playing ability of greats like (the three-fingered) Django Rheinhardt made it a staple instrument in Jazz orchestras pre World War II before it was replaced by the Electric Guitar. Of similar vintage were the Flannagan Brothers from New York and Boston’s Shamrock Band and later its use in Irish music increased greatly with the folk revival of the 1960s. The late Barney McKenna of the Dubliners is acknowledged around the world as one of the instruments greatest ever advocates.

Modern pieces have been written, played and recorded by Steve Martin (Comedian), Sufjan Stevens and Beck, or the Classical recording by John Bullard ‘Bach on the Banjo’. It has also been a music hall favourite appearing in so many shows as diverse as ‘Hello Dolly’ and Monty Python’s ‘Spamalot’.

Every incarnation of the Banjo gets labelled with another name; the six-string banjo — my favourite — is essentially a guitar neck attached to a banjo body, that makes everything sound like a Neil Young tune, can be called a Guitanjo, Guitjo, Banjitar, Bantar, or quite honestly whatever you’re having yourself.

But I like to think in my own unstructured view of world history that what probably really happened is one day down south in the southern States, driven by ingenuity and boredom someone grabbed a bucket, stretched a drum skin over it, hammered on a neck, tied some strings across and just got stuck in, and if anyone tries to tell me otherwise I’ll tell them that once upon a time we thought Dinosaurs had scales.

Mumford and Sons got some great mileage out of the banjo reasonably recently,

We Banjo 3 seem to be going places, Steve Martin has won praise with his band Steep Canyon Rangers, and of course The Dubliners, among many many others.


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