From the sublime … to the banjo

The Paratone

If you are already playing guitar, mandolin and ukulele, you have got yourself on to a very slippery slope and it is a near certainty that you will end up getting a banjo at some point. Nevertheless, when the time comes, it is quite a big line to cross, culturally speaking. You have to convince yourself, then you have to convince your friends, then you have to convince your detractors and finally you have to convince your nearest and dearest.

“Why” – as they all quite reasonably asked – “a banjo?” The appeal of a banjo, to me, was simply that you can hear it. And I mean hear it like other instruments. Most other instruments are not just a bit louder than an acoustic guitar or mandolin, they are louder by SEVERAL ORDERS OF MAGNITUDE. A banjo can compete on equal terms in many settings where any other fretted instrument would be inaudible.

In 2010 I was starting to think of a particular sound  for a folk band (this eventually turned into Half Ton Sessions) and the moment seemed to have arrived to take the plunge. I went down to see Andy at the BanjoWorks in Faversham. I highly recommend Andy as a dealer. Despite years of playing similar instruments, I knew next to nothing about banjos, but he could see that I could play, took me seriously and gave me plenty of time and space and good advice as I was choosing.  Here is what I came away with, a Barnes Bros. “Paratone” built some time in the 1930s. Isn’t that headstock gorgeous?


And here’s what it sounds like … 

Apparently (Andy tells good stories) the Barnes Bros. factory was right next door to the Woolwich Arsenal and it is quite possible that the ironmongery for this banjo would have been done in the Arsenal itself. The factory was bombed in WW2 (the Germans were aiming at the Woolwich Arsenal, not the banjos 🙂 ).

Of the various possible banjos, I went for a tenor, reasoning that as it was tuned in 5ths like a mandolin, I would get the hang of the fingering fairly quickly. To begin with I tuned it the “Irish” way – i.e. GDAE like a mandolin, but one octave lower. You could hear it two doors away when I was practising. Later I found I liked the sound of the “true tenor” tuning better, which is a fourth higher, like a viola – CGDA. At this pitch,  you could hear it half way down the street. One or two of the neighbours (any my nearest and dearest) started to look a little tense around this time – I’ve never been sure why.

Here are a couple of banjo heroes of mine:

Gerry O’Connor

On Irish tenor banjo, Gerry O’Connor. Click here for a wonderful clip of him playing at an Irish session. 

On five-string banjo, Bela Fleck is a wonderfully versatile player. He started out in bluegrass, but has expanded into every style imaginable. Have a listen to his album Perpetual Motion on Spotify, where he uses the banjo in duets with classical luminaries such as Evelyn Glennie, Joshua Bell,  and John Williams.

And on a completely different note, here is an old clip with his band The Flecktones  (they had the oddest line-up you can imagine) 🙂

Finally, I can’t resist one more shot of the Paratone. Gorgeous … 🙂