Arms wide open

Laurence writes:

I just discovered your channel on YouTube and your various websites and they’ve successfully given me banjo fever!

However, all I know is that “I like banjo”, nothing else. I think I’ve narrowed it down to what I perceive to be old-time banjo, at least most people seem to be playing a 5 string open back and either trailing or using clawhammer.

That said, there’s so much variety I’m a bit confused.

I was wondering if you’d be good enough to recommend some listening material for both bluegrass and old-time so I can figure out what I’d like to learn. I find that there aren’t as many resources here in the UK as their are the US.

If that makes no sense at all, please say so!

Music is music. Any genre of music can be explored with any technique. Three-finger, plectrum or frailing are simply mechanical ways to bash on the strings.

So instead of promoting specific artists what I would suggest is to find a methodology for learning the basics that appeal to you. Five string, tenor or plectrum. It’s all the same only different.

While you are learning the basics of your chosen technique start listening to as much music as you can. Listen to everything. From Bach to The Dead Milkmen to Billie Holiday to Hawkshaw Hawkins (those were the first five names to come up on my ipod) to every other musician you can think of. There is so much wonderful stuff waiting for you to discover.

You see, music is music. As musicians we are not limited by a particular style or technique. We can, with practice and and open mind use our instruments and our hands to do anything imaginable as well as stuff nobody has gotten around to imagining yet.

To sum it up:

  • Get a banjo.
  • Learn the basics of the technique of your choice.
  • Listen to, and find a way to take part in, as much music as you can.

Walt Whitman’s advice to young poets in the 1855 preface to Leaves Grass works just as well for aspiring musicians (and that makes sense because music is nothing but poetry created by sounds instead of words):

This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body…
~Walt Whitman