Finding Your Banjo Sound

by Barry Hunn

The quest for that certain banjo sound has been discussed and written about for decades.  But the language of the “mechanics of banjo sound” has not always been consistent or even relevant to the task.  A common problem is hearing someone else play a banjo, and then you want a banjo that “sounds like that one”.

The problem is this: the player that inspired you has a certain touch, feel, or approach that creates that banjo sound.  Yes, the instrument plays a strong part, but the best description of this I ever heard was from a noted writer who said he visited the late Earl Scruggs and they exchanged banjos in Earl’s living room.  The author noted that when Earl played the author’s banjo, the banjo still sounded like Earl Scruggs.  When the author played Earl’s banjo, the author still sounded like the author.

The inspiration was personal, more than mechanical.

Trust Your Musical Sense To Find Your Banjo Sound

It is not possible for any of us to truly sound like another player.  We can sometimes imitate a player much like an impressionist imitates another person.  It is close, but never the same. 

We can use the same tools like another artist regarding choices of picks, strings, banjo head, tuning, etc, and while this will get us closer to that desired banjo sound, it will never be quite the same. 

Actually, this is a blessing. Many artists fall into the “trying to be unique” trap.  What’s interesting is that we all ARE unique.

In the classical music world, audiences will hear the same classical piece of music performed by a multitude of musicians to hear a different interpretation. 

No matter who plays Foggy Mountain Breakdown, it is always unique to the player.  When you are looking for a certain banjo sound, you might be looking for the wrong thing.

When you try out a banjo and are moved by the sound, THAT’S when you begin to develop your banjo sound. 

Music and sound is not only subjective, but that subjectivity is what makes the world beautiful.  The late John Hartford had a beautiful style that was instantly recognizable.  Eddie Adcock is a true innovator of the five string banjo and opened the eyes and hearts of many audiences and players in his long carreer.  Jens Kruger composes banjo music like no one I’ve ever heard and plays exquisitely.  Earl Scruggs wrote songs that have become standards for banjo players to learn and some of his arrangements of traditional tunes have also become standards for students to learn. Larry McNeely was a banjo champ at age 16 and played on national television for years.  Tony Trischka has written books about how the great players play…but he sounds like Tony.

These artists have all been trend setters of banjo style and yet, none of these great banjoists sound like each other…even remotely!

And, they all play different banjos!

The point here is that when you play a particular banjo that moves you, that is your artistic or musical sense telling you that there is something in the sound of this instrument that is communicating with you. 

The Banjo Speaks to You

The instrument that speaks to you, obviously doesn’t do so in words, but you get a feeling from the sound that touches you way down deep.

Your ears don’t hear banjos the way mine do.  Your fingers don’t hit the strings the way mine do.  Your touch, your hearing, your handling of the banjo is what creates your “banjo sound”. 

When we listen to and embrace what our musical sense tells us, THIS is what creates our own banjo sound. 

Here is another way of thinking about it: if you and I stood in a room and recited the same poem, we would sound nothing alike. 

You could say that’s because our voices are different. That’s true. But the WAY we read the poem would be different, regardless of how our voices were different.  You might slow your pace at different passages than I would.  I might raise my voice in places you would not.

This is the nature of interpreting a poem or a piece of music.

You’re After the “Feel” more than the Sound

I think what inspires us when we hear other players, is the magic of interpretation that each individual brings to their music. 

When banjo players buy a banjo that inspires them, their music seems to have more life to it and audiences or friends seem to respond more to their music.   When a banjo inspires you, you play better and therefore you play more like you.  When you play more like you, you give the world something completely unique and beautiful…without “trying to be different.” 

If you buy a banjo because that’s what “someone of authority” played or told you to buy, and you do this with the intention to “get that sound”, you will likely end up chasing a shadow that leads you away from your own musical sense.    

But if you buy a banjo that inspires YOU, then the interpretation of another musician will inspire YOUR interpretation. 

The greatest achievement for Deering Banjo Company is making banjos that inspire YOU. Follow your inspiration and you will find your “banjo sound”.

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