Banjo in China
May 25, 2009 12:06 AM   Subscribe

A bid of a wild side multi-layered question. Learning the banjo. And doing so in Shanghai. Most people who travel (younger free-spirited types, work with me here) sling a guitar over their shoulder.

I never could much play one, and want to pass some free time picking some traditional instrument...something I could drunkely 'jam' with other amateurs and maybe use in a classroom situation.
I took maybe 7 years of piano as a kid and can't play a lick. I love guitar but just ain't interested in learning it. Whatever I might 'learn' will be quite non-professional and rudimentary, so why not something a bit different?
I love the banjo, the happy sound, Pete Seeger and it's place in American folk music...
I guess, to cut to the chase...
is it as easy to learn as the guitar? would it not be cheaper to buy one here and take with? (I plan to make at least 2 more r/t's this year)
What's the best style/brand/model for a raw beginner?
Or should I just get a decent harmonica?
Or stick with the ipod...
posted by dawson to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
If you're interested in portability, you might consider toting a banjolele.

In case you haven't seen it, here's a video one of the awesomest banjo jam sessions known to mankind: the First Pumpkin Banjo Bash, 1996.
posted by aquafortis at 12:34 AM on May 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

In my opinion the playing style of banjo is harder and separates it from guitar. The easiest thing to do on a guitar is hold chords with your left hand and strum with a pick. You can do this on a banjo, for sure, but the traditional styles involve either finger-picking or "frailing", both of which require a bit more dexterity. But they're definitely learnable.

Also it depends on which kind of banjo you buy. There are four-string banjos that can be treated like a guitar or could just play around with strumming different chords. And then there is the five-string banjo, which has a high drone string on top. The drone string, in my experience, makes it more of a modal instrument, meaning: it's in G. Or, if you retune it, then it's in A. But the drone string maintains one high repeating note, which can be harmonically limiting. Like you, I am not musically gifted, and I would have severe trouble jamming with guitarists just because my shit is always in G or D. I don't regret this fact, though. I had your exact motivation: "Whatever I might 'learn' will be quite non-professional and rudimentary, so why not something a bit different?" I'm very happy about the stripped-down minimalism of my banjo repertoire.

If you're in America now, why don't you read the Wikipedia article on banjo, look at some youtube, and go to a store and try out a 4-string and a 5-string? If I were you I would also take a lesson or two before going. I didn't take any lessons, because I knew how to play guitar and thought I could figure banjo out on my own...apparently I was holding the thing wrong and got nasty tendonitis. Just played again yesterday for the first time in months. But after one or two lessons you'll be able to keep learning just by searching for youtube instructional videos.

Or: you could just buy a ukelele. That's some travel-size shit right there.
posted by creasy boy at 12:54 AM on May 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

While I'm at it, this guy has some excellent instructional videos.

For a prime example of banjolele at it's best, check out Two Ton Tessie at about 00.38 into this video--red hot!! Here's a video where Tessie has the whole audience jamming along with paper bags. Gotta love her!
posted by aquafortis at 1:20 AM on May 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

in shanghai why dont you go to JZ school. maybe talk to laurance ku or eddie goltz. they are nice guys and should be able to give you some guidance. i bought instruments at best friend music store, it is a good store and they might have a banjo, not sure. there is a lot of junk and copy in china so if u buy there i would be careful.
posted by edtut at 4:37 AM on May 25, 2009

The guitar is easier to learn and plays more types of music, but if you are drawn to the banjo you should heed that. Learning an instrument is all about the time you spend practicing, and you are more likely to practice with the instrument you love.
posted by RussHy at 4:44 AM on May 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you are in Shanghai, you should get a sanxian. I learned how to play it on my own, using some Chinese songbooks and watching videos. Speaking from experience, it's just as much fun to play as the banjo or the guitar.
posted by billtron at 6:55 AM on May 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

A couple problems about travelling with banjos. First, a resonating banjo is HEAVY. Significantly moreso than a guitar, I would not want to carry one on my shoulder for more than a few hours. An open-back banjo is much lighter, more in line with a guitar. So that's probably the type you want to be looking back (and they're generally much cheaper).

Second, the way most banjo straps attatch isn't good for carrying them slung across the back. They tend to flip over. This is mostly because they're slung around the body of the banjo because of the heavy weight, an open-back banjo with a clip on strap would solve this one.

Third, they're a bit more fragile than a guitar. If you drop your banjo and the head breaks it will not be playable. If you drop your guitar and it gets a crack or hole in the body, it will generally still sound decent enough to play. Also the non-fixed bridge tends to get bumped around a lot and will need regular readjustment.

That said, the bajo is a lovely instrument and I'd probably want one on my back if I were travelling. I find it a little more natural than guitar and much easier to just "play". With guitar I feel like I have to have a song or chord progression to folllow, banjo I spend a lot of time just noodling around.
posted by Jawn at 7:25 AM on May 25, 2009

thanks, every answer here is instructive and helpful, I really appreciate the advice... getting a clearer picture of 'what and how' to do.
posted by dawson at 7:53 AM on May 25, 2009

It depends a lot on the type of banjo. If you play an open-back banjo, it can be very light and easy to travel with in a gig bag that rides on your back like a backpack. If you play a banjo with a resonator, it can be bigger and heavier. I travel with a light open-back in a sturdy gig bag and it's easy--so far, I can even carry it on to international flights. You'll want to carry extra strings and an extra head.

It also depends on the style of banjo. You mentioned Pete Seeger, which is 5-string but not bluegrass. You can learn his style from his book, learn chords, and jam with any western musician.

Some other 5-string playing styles include clawhammer, different types of bluegrass, and jazz. Some people consider clawhammer easier to learn; some think the three-finger picking used in bluegrass is more natural.

Then there's 4-string tenor banjo, which I don't think you meant in your original post, since you refer to Pete Seeger, but you might take a look at it.

The banjo is easier on your left hand than guitar because the neck is narrower and you only have to fret 4 strings. For me, it's also easier to hold than a guitar--less bulky.

There's a famous bluegrass/old-time banjo player who plays and sings Chinese songs, currently with Bela Fleck. Unfortunately, I can't remember her name.

I suggest you post this question at the Banjo Hangout. You'll get a lot of responses.
posted by PatoPata at 8:00 AM on May 25, 2009

PatoPapa...I don't really know enough to know what I'm talking about, but I mentioned Seeger cause that's the style I love. Not that I'd ever be a fraction as good. Not real huge on bluegrass, though I realize the banjo is a key instrument in much of that genre.
Just really seems like such a versatile thing to learn...
I frankly didn't expect any decent answers, so this is all an excellent help...
posted by dawson at 8:25 AM on May 25, 2009

If you have access to youtube, you'll find a ton of resources. I've been learning clawhammer banjo over the last few years (a great style, and comparatively easy once you get the basics down right).

This really useful page has sound files and tabs for a ton of clawhammer stuff, from the tunings to basic tunes all the way to some very difficult stuff. Combined with youtube videos, it's possible to get pretty decent pretty fast--or it was for me.

Open back banjos are lighter weight and handier to tote, and generally aren't quite as loud (though you can quiet down any banjo by putting wooden alligator clothes-pins on the bridge).

Banjos are actually pretty rough-and-tumble on the long term: a lot more banjos from the 20s are around than guitars. You may need to change heads, keep a spare bridge around, etc., but all that's work anyone can do.
posted by LucretiusJones at 9:59 AM on May 25, 2009

4 different playing styles explained (2-finger, 3-finger, up-picking or Seeger-style and clawhammer/frailing)

Clawhammer and Seeger's style are, for basic arrangments and back-up, pretty similar. You could take a lot of clawhammer/frailing instructional material and use it to teach yourself to play in Seeger's style (simply substituting "pick the string up on the first beat" when they say "strike down on the first string on the first beat"). It wouldn't cause you too many problems until further down the road with more advanced right-hand work and complicated arrangments.

On one hand, there's a lot of instructional material (DVDs, websites, youtube videos) and songbooks for clawhammer so starting in that playing style offers a lot of options. I can't think of any book or DVD (apart from PS's own, which I don't like that much as a first-banjo-book) exclusively dedicated to up-picking. OTOH, clawhammer more common than Seeger's up-picking, if that matters to you. But if you get along with either style, it shouldn't be too hard to (for example) start with c'hammer for a few months and then try to pick up Seeger's rhythm with the tunes you already know.

Years ago the popular consensus at was that either the Deering "Goodtime" or the Gold Tone "Cripple Creek" were the ideal beginner's banjos. You could get a decent one to learn on for considerably cheaper, but after a year or so you'd notice it's flaws more and be intching to trade-up. But most people still liked the sound and reliability of their GT's and CC's several years on. There are a few others that are cheaper and get mentioned as being good enough (Rover, I believe) if you (or someone else) takes the time to set them up and install a geared fifth-sting-peg. Friction-pegs on the fifth string tend to go out of tune a lot (or so I hear).

Buying one from a banjo-specialist is generally a good idea as they can make sure it's "set up" to be easily playable and stay in tune. You might be able to find a banjo incredibly cheap on eBay or at a big guitar store, but if the action is incredibly high it'll hurt to play, if it's too low it'll buzz, if the bridge is out of position it'll never sound in tune, and if it doesn't stay in tune it's a major frustration.

As you're in NC, Zepp Country Music should be a reasonable drive (unless you're deep in the mountains). The owner is the guy in the video linked above. They get nothing but praise on BHO (and he was a regular contributor there). There are at least two other highly rated banjo dealers in NC, but I can't remember who they are OTTOMH.
posted by K.P. at 12:20 PM on May 25, 2009

wow, thanks guys, incredible replies...every one of 'em is appreciated.
posted by dawson at 1:39 PM on May 25, 2009

"I would be remiss..."
but seriously, for archival purposes, I have discovered that a facebook group also exists that deals with questions like this one...

thanks again...
posted by dawson at 4:10 PM on May 25, 2009

PatoPata: "...
There's a famous bluegrass/old-time banjo player who plays and sings Chinese songs, currently with Bela Fleck. Unfortunately, I can't remember her name...

Abigail Washburn. Just came across her yesterday while googling about my new (to me) Washburn banjo :)
posted by [@I][:+:][@I] at 1:17 PM on May 27, 2009

« Older Meetup group organizer needs promotion tips   |   Windows XP Undelete Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.