On The Fly…Banjo, really ?

My First Banjo by JOtwell Perspectives

Banjo was the first string instrument I got my eager hands on, when I was  nine or so. There was an upright piano in our house, at which I was already flailing away , but the first whispers of skiffle were being heard, and guitars were starting to appear on TV, along with banjos, so I was primed…

My elder cousin, Pauline, was dating a fellow who was already playing in local string bands, and was in possession of a long-neck, four string tenor banjo, which was often to be found at Pauline’s house. Many a Sunday, my folks would park me there while they and the other  relatives would repair to a local pub for afternoon libations, which gave me a couple of hours with the banjo, flying blind, but figuring bits and pieces out , the way one does when there is strong interest. I also did a swap of some comics with a lad in our street who had a tacky plastic ukulele, but that banjo was a bona fide grown-up instrument, and consequently of more importance  to me than a toy-town uke.

When I got my first acoustic guitar at age eleven,  banjo retreated to the far periphery of my musical interest for many years. Electric and acoustic guitars, keyboards and bass in various forms became the tools of my professional trade, which didn’t have much need for the old plink plonk.

When I moved to Nashville in 1973, I became aware of the locally favored 5-string banjo and the high-octane stylists who had followed in the wake of Earl Scruggs’ ground-breaking  innovations – scared me to death, to be honest. However, when my father-in-law passed I inherited a vintage open-backed Savoy short-neck tenor banjo from him, which had a lovely old-timey sound to it, so I began to plink and plonk again, just for fun.

Interestingly enough, tenor banjo (played with a pick) had remained in fashion in traditional Celtic music circles, and the upsurge in interest that occurred in that form of music  from the ’80’s on gave Irish-style tenor banjo a new lease on life. Being first generation Irish myself, I’d become re-interested in the form and the great young (and not so young) artists who were producing thrilling neo-traditional records on both sides of the big pond, and for the next few years I immersed myself in it, aligning  with practitioners in both live and recording situations. I really enjoyed that period, becoming adept at bodhran and getting the chops up on cittern and Irish bouzouki as well as the trusty old tenor banjo.

During that time my dear globe-trotting pal Bob Saporiti found the magnificent closed-back Concertone tenor banjo that was featured in the blog, and kindly gifted it to me. I now have it strung with nylon banjo strings, which give it quite a different tone, while I keep the Savoy steel strung .

Although I’d never consider myself to be a bona-fide banjoist, it’s been my pleasure to plink and plonk away on quite a few albums that needed the flavor of the old-time plectrum tenor…grand fun always !

Check out these other Banjo entries- they are fan favorites: http://wp.me/p2W71Q-dy and http://wp.me/p2W71Q-hG

Best of The Skelly: Instrumental Musings…Concertone Banjo

We will be exploring some of most read posts of 2014 over the next few weeks. Coming in at #3 is the Concertone Banjo post: https://michaelsnowpresents.wordpress.com/2013/06/18/instrumental-musings-concertone-banjo-circa-1936/

Concertone Banjo
Concertone Banjo by JOtwell (click for more)
Concertone Banjo
Concertone Banjo by JOtwell (click for more)
Concertone Banjo
Concertone Banjo by JOtwell (click for more)

 

If you are a Banjo geek please leave your comments or links to images of your own special Banjo love!

Instrumental Musings…Savoy Tenor Banjo 1928

Savoy Tenor Banjo 1928 photographed by JOtwell
Savoy Tenor Banjo 1928 photographed by JOtwell

 

SAVOY TENOR BANJO 1928

This was owned by my late father-in-law H.M. Dyer, and willed to me. A very traditional, plain, open-backed tenor, bare bones in a way, with an age-old sound that records beautifully I used this on several albums, including “A Bigger Piece Of Sky” by Robert Earl Keen, and “ Porch Songs” & “ Pigg River Symphony” by Cathryn Craig, where the stark yet resonant nature of this old boy seemed to fit the bill.

 

Instrumental Musings…Concertone Banjo Circa 1936

CONCERTONE TENOR BANJO Circa 1936 photo by JOtwell
CONCERTONE TENOR BANJO Circa 1936 photo by JOtwell

CONCERTONE TENOR BANJO Circa 1936

A rococo gem, with opulent ornamentation, especially on the closed back, and the intricate neck carving. The neck and headstock employ a great deal of mother-of-pearl, and the purfling and inlaid detailing are exquisite.

This banjo was a gift from Bob Saporiti, senior VP for marketing for Warner Bros. Records, and found by him in the course of his international travels.