Banjo Through the Ages

banjo

It's a plunking kinda sound that America cut its teeth on. Hand in hand with the fiddle, the banjo is America's instrument, and has been a form of entertainment since its youngest days. It's deepest origins however, date back to Africa and this is evident by watching Bela Feck's documentary, "Throw Down You Heart". From traveling minstrel shows all the way to modern day 'newgrass', the banjo sound creates the heartbeat of an entire genre of music. But this genre cannot be strictly associated with that fast driving high lonesome bluegrass picking sound that so many associate with the instrument, for its roots and styles go much further.

Travel the world and you will find the banjo's predecessors all over. From African folk instruments to ancient Asian lutes, the idea of a stringed instrument resonating off a stretched animal skin is found all around the globe. The banjo we know and love today came from this international gene pool, and started out in America as a traditional African instrument fashioned from memory and played by slaves. The instrument was associated with African-American culture, making its way into the old-time traveling minstrel shows, initially through mockery.

But the sounds of the banjo cut through racial barriers and caught the fingers and ears of music lovers all around the country, gainly widespread popularity. The traveling shows turned out to be an international hit, and America's banjo was born. Played often in the clawhammer and frailing style, it was rhythmically tapped and plucked creating a much different sound than the finger picking bluegrass roll that most think of today.

As the country developed, the banjo developed alongside it, and other styles and sounds came onto the scene. Open-headed models soon were given metal backings, creating the sharp resonating sound that is associated with classic bluegrass. 4 string banjos added the infamous 5th string, which paved the way for new methods and sounds that would forever be associated with the instrument. Artists such as Fred Van Eps and Vess Ossman broke from the traditional old-time banjo sound, and created their own 'ragtime' picking, while artists like Charlie Poole created a fusion sound between old-time picking and the faster interchangeable rhythm more heard today. Old-time and mountain music sounds dominated the genre until a man named Earl Scruggs burst onto the scene, and changed the sound of the banjo forever.

The three-finger or "Scruggs" style fingerpicking created a fast sharp sound coming from a resonated backing which created a whole new sound on the banjo, and ultimately a whole new style of music. Modern bluegrass has Scruggs to thank for his ingenuity, and nearly all pickers today site him as one of their inspirations. He set the stage for all other banjo pickers to come, from JD Crowe to Bela Fleck. Earl Scruggs' picking style will forever be associated with the sound of the banjo, nearly overshadowing all other forms of picking.

Today the banjo is still going strong, and is a staple in modern bluegrass music, 'newgrass' bands, and a resurgence of interest in old-time music. Even in many old and new country tunes, if you can't hear a banjo in the mix, you can certainly find traces of its roots and influence.

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