What's the difference between a banjo and a chainsaw?
April 22, 2008 8:39 PM   Subscribe

Practicing & Playing Music in Washington DC: Learning the banjo without getting murdered

So... I'm doing a (great) internship in Washington, DC this summer, and I'm currently buying a banjo. I know that opinions on the banjo vary, but I like the sound and the tonal possibilities, and I'm interested in learning another stringed instrument with different techniques than guitar & ukulele.

It's a Deering Goodtime w/ a resonator. I'm almost certainly removing the resonator to reduce the volume that much, but beyond that, what can I do as far as mutes? And how loud do these things really end up being? I'll be living in a subletted room or apt.

Bonus points for ideas on what to do with a banjo and some general knowledge (or a guitar and some advanced knowledge, and a ukulele and some novice knowledge) in the 'big city.'? Up till this point, it's been all dorm rooms, college shows, and once-in-a-blue-moon fantastic jam sessions. Are jams possible? Open mics stupid? Lessons expensive? Places to play nowhere?

Thanks for any information! I'm psyched to learn one of the most interesting/loved/hated/misunderstood instruments on the planet.
posted by tmcw to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
i've always shoved a towel or tshirt inside the body of the banjo, it calms it down a bit. it's been a while, though, so i don't remember whether using the resonator to hold the towel in was louder or quieter than without the resonator.
posted by soma lkzx at 8:58 PM on April 22, 2008

Would the KBH Banjo mute work for your instrument?
posted by Bixby23 at 9:12 PM on April 22, 2008

The hand towel thing always worked for me too. You wont get the same sort of tone obviously, but it is good for close spaces. Like playing an unplugged eloectric guitar.
posted by timsteil at 9:19 PM on April 22, 2008

You might get better local info and connections putting an ad up at the House of Musical Traditions in Takoma Park. It's a hub for people with interest in roots music of a great many stripes, and not far from the early stomping grounds of John Fahey. The Red Line will drop you a half mile west of the store on Carroll Ave.
posted by el_lupino at 9:35 PM on April 22, 2008

To some extent, developing an even and soft picking hand is going to be your biggest aid in not driving folks crazy; I've got a Sweetgrass that can get plenty loud but which I have no problem keeping nice and quiet these days. That'll take some time, though, so the mute/towel approach is good.

As far as a banjo in the city, I can't speak to DC venues specifically but in general once you're halfway competent you should be all set for jams and folks to play with—everybody and their dog plays guitar, but banjo's harder to come by and folks'll welcome the change. Open mics are a gimme, too; barrier to entry there is generally just a willingness to show up and sign your name on the list.
posted by cortex at 9:48 PM on April 22, 2008

The Deering Goodtime I was looking at just last week (didn't buy, but I agonized over the decision) had the resonator removed and I was playing quietly in the store. No louder then picking on my guitar at home with a fingernail instead of a pick. If you play clawhammer without the resonator, it shouldn't disturb any neighbors.
posted by ctmf at 9:51 PM on April 22, 2008

You can get a cheap violin mute from any music store. They fit on most banjo bridges. Combine that with a towel or T-shirt in the back and you're good to go. And do lose the resonator if you're concerned about volume.

There should be both old-time and bluegrass jams in the DC area. Drop by the Banjo Hangout for huge amounts of information on both styles and for leads about jams.
posted by PatoPata at 5:25 AM on April 23, 2008

If you do anything even slightly bluesy, I know of a good weekly jam.
posted by MrMoonPie at 6:00 AM on April 23, 2008

Seconding the House of Musical Traditions. A pilgrimage there will be so helpful.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:13 AM on April 23, 2008

Tiffany Tavern in Old Town Alexandria is a great bluegrass-oriented place with open mic nights (and pretty good burgers). The folks who show up at for open mic tend to range from actual bluegrass to general dude-with-guitar stuff.
posted by somanyamys at 9:38 AM on April 23, 2008

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