The four-string banjo has four strings. The five-string banjo has five. The five-string banjo has a truncated string running half way up the neck. It is called the fifth string and is rarely fretted. It creates a drone. Conventional history places the addition of the fifth string around 1855., but I saw a five-string banjo, by all rights an American instrument, in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London that dated back to the 1820s. The five-string is the banjo I'm interested in.
The four-string banjo is generally strummed, and the five-string banjo is generally picked. The four-string is associated with Dixieland music, and the five-string is associated with bluegrass or Appalachian music. Some bluegrass banjos are open-backed; some are closed in the back by a resonator. The resonator-backed banjos are louder and sharper than the open-backed. An open-backed banjo is softer and mellower. The five-string open-backed banjo is played in a style called "frailing." I have lost many games of Scrabble by using the word frailing. It is not in the dictionary, but I assure you it's a word as valid as oscillococcinuin. Frailing is a combination of strumming and picking, sometimes called "drop-thumbing." The thumb drops from the fifth string to whatever string it chooses, while the forefinger plucks upward and the rest of the fingers strum across the strings. It is highly rhythmic and strange. Even when I was immersed in learning the banjo, there were some frailing rhythms I could not duplicate or fathom.
The resonator-backed banjo, or bluegrass banjo, is not strummed. It is picked by three fingers, usually in lightning speed. The style was invented by Earl Scruggs in the '30s. He is still the consummate artiste of the bluegrass banjo, because he understands that the player must always make music first, and show off sound second.
The sound I most like, of which Scruggs is a master, is that of a rolling, endlessly punctuating staccato that is at once continuous and broken.
I first heard Earl Scruggs on record in 1962 when I was seventeen years old. I was living in Orange County, California, about as far away from bluegrass country as one could get and not be in Taiwan. The sound penetrated me, however, and I borrowed my girlfriend's father's four-string banjo in order to learn it. I did not know that I was one string away from Nirvana.
Knowing nothing about music, I bought a chord book and meshed my fingers into the steel wires, using my right hand to place my left-hand fingers onto the frets. The first attempts I made sounded like a car being crushed in a metal compactor. I was so ignorant and untrained musically that when I finally learned to play several chords, I could not discern any difference between them.
I had a high school friend named John McEuen, who was also interested in the banjo. He is now one of the finest banjo players in the world. It was at his house in 1964 that a friend, Dave, came over and played the banjo live. Dave sat in front of us and intoned "Floppy Eared Mule," a song whose high point came when the strings were struck behind the bridge, emulating the sound of a donkey's bray. Emulating the sound of a donkey's bray may not be your idea of music, but to us, Dave was Menuhin.
Dave showed us some simple picking patterns and wrote them down in impromptu hieroglyphs on a torn piece of paper. These patterns could be practiced not only on the banjo but also on your school desk and on the car steering wheel and on your pillow just before sleep.
I scraped together two hundred dollars and bought Dave's spare banjo from him. I still have it today, an open-backed frailing banjo, a Gibson RB-170. Its tones have mellowed nicely through the years.
The first song I ever learned was "Cripple Creek." The advantage of learning "Cripple Creek" was that it could be played over and over and over and over into the night, endlessly, forever. WE could play it fast, then we could play it slow. We could modulate from fast to slow. We could play it quiet and then play it loud. It had lyrics that we could sing, and when we came to the end of a verse, the banjo would take over, and I would play it extra loud, believing the increased volume created excitement. Then, after hours of playing "Cripple Creek," we would look at each other and decide it was time to end it, and we would blunder to a coda, stop, and take a break. Then it would be time to play again, and someone would suggest "Cripple Creek," and the whole thing would start all over. To this day, I cannot stand to play "Cripple Creek." I can barely write its title.
Finally, I was ready to play for my high school girlfriend, Linda. I put the banjo on my knee and played in all earnestness. She burst out laughing. The reason she burst out laughing was not my playing, but rather that my lips moved with each finger movement.
Worried that this involuntary twitch would signal the end of my embryonic two-chord career, I tortured myself trying to keep my lips still while playing.
Obsession is a great substitute for talent. I had several 33 rpm banjo records by the Dillards and Earl Scruggs. The Dillards boasted the fastest and most thrilling banjoist alive, Doug Dillard. They played live in Orange County in those days, and watching Doug Dillard was like watching God, if God were a finger-picking madman. Doug, thin as a rail, had a grin that Lewis Carroll could describe, like a piano keyboard stuck on the end of a reed. But the sound of the banjo accelerating from zero to sixty in a nanosecond, in a town that had heretofore heard only the lazy folk guitar, made us freeze. Doug was generous, too, and he would teach us various licks (slang for finger and chord sequences). My obsession was such that I would hibernate in my bedroom and slow down the 33 rpm records to 16, and figure out the songs note by note. This process took days. I would have to down-tune the banjo until it was in the same key as the down-shifted recording, which caused the strings to become so slack that they would oscillate like a slow-motion jump rope. It also drove my parents crazy. Imagine the muffled sound of a banjo being clunked, insistently and arhythmical, through the paper-thin walls of a tract home, of a song being played so slowly that any melody was indecipherable. My understanding of how annoying this must have sounded led me to park my car on the street after dinner, close all the windows -- even in the baking Southern California summer -- and practice into the night. By the time I had closed myself in my '57 Chevy, however, I was getting somewhere, and I was entranced with the sounds I could make. One tone from one string could send me into ecstasy, and here I was, making thousands of notes in thousands of combinations. The songs that I worked on in the Chevy were "Doug's Tune," "Fireball Mail," "Earl's Breakdown," "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," and "Old Joe Clark." I'm sure if that car were unearthed today, my little tunes could be found trapped in the cellulose of its seat cushions.
My interest in the banjo was also heavily fueled by David Lindley. David played in a group at Disneyland called the Mad Mountain Ramblers. During my last two years of high school, I worked at Disneyland performing magic tricks in the magic shop. I arranged a deal with Patty, who worked there with me, where we would cover for each other when she wanted to sneak away to rendezvous with her boyfriend or when I wanted to sneak away to hear the Ramblers. In the summer nights at Disneyland, with the fairy lights in the trees, I would listen amazed as Lindley's authority over his instrument drove the music. I spoke with him once, and he explained the frustration of having his mind outpace his fingers' ability to move. I was still learning to put the fingerpicks on properly. He had an eccentricity of standing on his tiptoes as he played, which I copied for years afterward, thinking it was cool. I was also pleased to see that he moved his lips when he played. I intentionally redeveloped my old habit. Lindley later became a renowned rock 'n' roll guitarist.
Some bluegrass instrumentals are called "breakdowns," which simply describes a song that is played very fast. When a song had the word breakdown in its title, it acquired a mystical oomph that sent the adrenaline rushing and the fingers pumping, whether they were quite ready to play that fast or not. It had the same cache that the word raptor had after the movie Jurassic Park was released. Breakdowns were the meanest and baddest of the banjo tunes. Whenever I played a breakdown, I wanted everyone who was in listening distance to understand that this was something very special indeed. I would convey this by standing on my tip-toes and getting a very serious look on my face and moving my lips.
The Topanga Canyon Banjo and Fiddle Contest took place in the summertime in California, and the contest was held under trees in the dry forests of the Santa Monica mountains. Carrying my banjo in its case, I walked down the long road to the tree-shaded bowl and could hear the tinkling of fifty banjos, all playing different tunes. As there were no seats, the audience spread themselves out on blankets. One could wander away from the contest itself and find, hidden away in the trees, an occasional clump of musicians, all whizzes compared with me, who had found one another and who expertly played the tunes I longed to know. The sound was so pure and exhilarating, it cleansed me. I had about three songs in my repertoire. I entered the contest in the beginner category and vaguely remember winning something, either first or second place. I have a clipping of me onstage that appeared in the local newspaper. Later that day, I heard blues artist Taj Mahal, in the professional category, frail the song "Colored Aristocracy" so vibrantly that I actually wanted to be the song, to be the notes that wafted into the air under the broken sunlight filtering through the trees.
By the time I got to college, I had discovered another quality of the banjo, which came to dominate my initial desire for speed: melancholy. By then I had found recordings of frailing artists both young and old, who wrung from the banjo an echoing sadness. The banjo has a lonesome sound, reminiscent to me of Scottish and Irish pipe music. One of my favorites was a song written and played by Dick Weissman called "Trail Ridge Road" (later, the title was changed to "Banjo Road"). I learned it the usual way, by slowing down the record. There are odd rhythmic passages that still elude me, but it is one of the few songs that I still play today. I had also become proficient enough to write my own songs. I went to Nashville with my soon-to-be manager, Bill McEuen, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, of which Bill's brother, and my old high school friend, John, was now a member. Catching the coattails of the Dirt Band 's recording time, I taped five original songs with the best bluegrass musicians around: Vassar Clements on fiddle, Junior Husky on bass, Jeff Hanna and John on guitar. Years later, I put the songs on the back of my last comedy album. I still take pride in these early efforts at creativity.
Some of the records I loved were Livin' on the Mountain by Bill Keith and Jim Rooney (Bill Keith stood banjo playing on its ear with his two-finger rendition of "Devil's Dream"); Bluegrass Banjos on Fire by Homer and the Barnstormers (because I have never heard of this group before or since, I believe they were created as a one-shot to satisfy the banjo-recording demand created by the popularity of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," the theme song to Bonnie and Clyde); New Dimensions in Banjo and Bluegrass by Marshall Brickman and Eric Weissberg (Marshall Brickman is now a friend and the talented screenwriter who co-wrote Annie Hall); Old Time Banjo Project, an assemblage of various artists; and my favorites, The Banjo Story and Five-String Banjo Greats, available these days on one CD, under the title Feuding Banjos.
I played the banjo in my stand-up comedy act, largely using it as a prop, but sometimes played a full-out bluegrass song, which the audience tolerated. When I stopped performing live in 1981, I also stopped practicing consistently, though I still pick up the banjo periodically and get my thick fingers moving again. Occasionally, I'll learn a new song.
Several months ago, I went out to the garage and sat in my Lexus and put in a CD of Bill Keith playing his whizbang version of "Auld Lang Syne." I plucked it out note by note on my banjo, just like the old days.
Nothing had changed but the price of the car.