Multiple Banjos?

by Barry Hunn

One of the greatest aspects of my job is getting to talk with people from all walks of life and from many different enthusiasms of the music business. It’s wonderful hearing top professionals play banjo and asking them questions about how they do what they do. It’s also terrific to meet with talented amateurs and find out some of their techniques and ideas about playing banjo.

One very interesting aspect in the music field is there seem to be two kinds of musicians. One kind of musician tends to focus on one instrument or possibly several of the same basic kind of instrument as back-ups. The other, has many instruments.

Multiple Banjo Player

It’s probably safe to say that the majority of banjo enthusiasts have quite a collection of banjos. This makes perfect sense. Now before you start berating me for trying to convince you to buy more banjos, let me explain what I mean by this.

Some players believe that to play clawhammer style banjo you must have a five string, open back, mid range strong banjo. They want a very warm and gentle tone that does not have a lot of sustain. So, they will have a banjo that fits this description in their arsenal.

Along with that, they might have a five string resonator banjo that is set up for more of a bluegrass style of playing. This might have a bell bronze tone ring with the top frosted head that is tightened to about G sharp or A and has a brilliant, driving tone when played with fingerpicks.

The same player, will often have a second resonator banjo that might have D tuners on it and it might be set up with a different head tension. The same player might have an open backed four string tenor banjo set up with an octave mandolin tuning to play Irish music with a flat pick. I’ve even known these players to have a plectrum banjo with a resonator to play Dixieland jazz. Also, these players will sometimes have backup banjos that are similar to the banjo that they play most often.

One player I know has, if memory serves, seven extremely high end banjos from five different makers because he enjoys the different tones he gets from all these different banjos. He generally focuses on one, but he loves all of them and plays them for different songs and sometimes uses certain banjos for different tunings.

This actually makes a lot of sense. Every banjo has a very specific voice. For the player who enjoys many kinds of music, matching the banjos voice to a certain song or certain style or to any kind of combination of song and style is extremely rewarding. After all, when you play one banjo, adapting to another is not really a hardship. I have known players with a selection of 28 banjos and they used every single one of them. Sometimes, they would use some more than others but I would see them perform with virtually every banjo they owned.

The Single Banjo Player

While the banjo player who just owns one banjo or one type of banjo is, in my experience, not as common as the multiple banjo player, there are banjo players who enjoy focusing on one banjo and they enjoy playing every kind of music possible on that one instrument.  This player sometimes approaches the banjo from several perspectives.

Sometimes there’s a financial element where buying one professional quality banjo requires such a financial commitment, relative to their income, that they will choose very carefully a banjo that they can do virtually anything they want with and continue to pay bills, take care of children and the usual daily living needs.

Then there’s the individual who wishes to express everything through that one instrument. It is true, that this is somewhat limiting in that everything this player does will come out through a common voice. This player will likely not be able to “reproduce” a certain kind of sound.However, the single instrument player often has a beautiful way of interpreting music through that one special voice.

One Is Not Better Than the Other

I wanted to talk about this today because both kinds of players bring such a wealth of beauty and richness to the banjo world.  If you fall naturally into one of these categories, that’s wonderful. I don’t think it’s something that you necessarily will consciously choose to do. I think it’s something that you will feel a natural draw.

Personally, I always fell into the single banjo player mentality. Some of it was financial as I have never been able to afford lots of instruments, but most of it was from a lack of natural ability and focusing on one banjo and one technique helped me develop greater skill in a more narrow capacity. Believe me, I am grateful to be able to play in any capacity.

However, there really is every advantage to playing many different kinds of banjos and reaching into many different kinds of music. Regardless of where you feel you fit, I think the best approach is to follow your instincts.

Whether you play one banjo or 28, just keep playing the banjo. The world wants to hear your music, your way.

Oh - Maybe an open back five string with nylon strings…  Maybe a six string banjo tuned and open G. Oh yeah!

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