The Zen of Banjo

by Ryan Cavanaugh

To me music is a representation of life. It can be portrayed and represented in so many ways, however in it's purest forms it is an extension of one's personality and interests.  I have made it a priority in my musical endeavors to exploit and display these characteristics on an instrument that is somewhat of a newbie to expression; the banjo.

Like the electric guitar, the saxophone, and electric bass, it seems like the 5-string banjo had a dramatic awakening in the 60's and 70's, but on a smaller scale. The banjo started showing up in some unexpected places with its use in rock bands and pop music. The Nitty Gritty Dirt band, The Eagles and many other groups started using bluegrass banjo sounds (and tenor), to flavor their music.  With the advent of 'melodic banjo' and the Bill Keith influence, the banjo's freedom evolved throughout the 1970's and 80's with pioneers like Tony Trischka and Béla Fleck.  

The pioneers of the 5-string banjo weren't afraid to plug a banjo into an amp and experiment with electronic amplification, thus contributing to the evolution of the instrument.  They all seemed to have one thing in common, and that is an open mind.  Along with a fearlessness to bushwhack new territory for the banjo, these players all had a somewhat focused sense of concentration to so eloquently place the banjo in musical environments which are not it's native habitat; while making it feel at home at the same time.  Would The Eagles' "Take it Easy" sound as classic as it does without that rippling banjo in the chorus?  Personally I can't imagine that song without Bernie Leadon's banjo on it. 

Just as Earl Scruggs integrated his new banjo style into Bill Monroe's traditional string band and single handedly helped create bluegrass music, the 2nd generation broke the stereotypes that the original established. To me this a small scale parallel of what John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderly did in the wake of Charlie Parker's immense contribution to jazz and the saxophone. Jazz music has kept this evolution going with many innovators over the years, however bluegrass music is slightly younger and has lagged behind. 

There is a Zen which comes into play when an artist takes his or her craft and fearlessly innovates upon it. I would like to see more of that for the banjo. The time is ripe for the once popular banjo to get propelled into a more modern space instead of hanging on to the past.  In my opinion, technology is at a point where the electronic possibilities for the banjo are almost limitless.  Players like Béla Fleck have blazed a trail with effects and synthesizers for the jazz fusion side of banjo, but what about these concepts being taken into account for the Bluegrass and Americana genres?  Is every one in these genres so convicted that electricity is strictly forbidden?  In recent years, many bands in these genres have taken advantage of the liberation of dynamics through amplification. 

Personally, I am ready to see more players shed their limiting convictions with electric playing; to realize that creativity can only be enhanced by this; and that something completely new and amazing can come from a Zen of banjo.


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