Banjos: The Islander OB Ash Leaf 5 String Open Back

Choosing your axe is never easy, especially if you’re like me and want a banjo that stands out visually as well as audibly. I certainly want my next purchase to be my last for a while, if not for good, as I have been playing for a couple of years and know that this is no longer a fad, and something I want to stick at - I confess, I’m an addicted! So I’m starting to put together wish list of banjos to check out and start saving for, and remembering what my mother taught me about always buying quality, I am already setting my sights quite high.

Currently at the top of my list is the Islander OB Ash Leaf, which I consider to be a work of art. She’s a real beaut, handmade using Ash for the body and Maple for the neck, gives her the persona of a playful brunette, capable of turning any head that catches a glimpse of her in the corner of their eye.

Advice: Timing

Not so long ago I started thinking about the difference between my playing and that of the players I admired. How can they make the same set of notes that I’m playing sound so much better? I decided to record myself so I could listen to my playing objectively. I used Garageband on my Mac to lay down a basic backing track for “Whisky Before Breakfast”, and then recorded the banjo part. When I listened back I noticed my playing was not as even as I thought it was, and there were many tempo variations. I went on to record myself without backing, and the tempo issues were worse. I tended to rush the easy bits, then slow down when the rolls go challenging, and it was clear that I had to look at improving my timing. Sadly, unless timing comes instinctively to you, you’re gonna need to buckle down and do some real practice, and if you’re like me, a little impatient, and have never had a lesson in your life, you’re probably lacking fundamental skill.

Tab: Foggy Mountain Breakdown

About a year ago I started going to a local bluegrass meet, held monthly at the Red Lion pub, Wolvercote, near Oxford. The group comprises of some impressive fiddle, mandolin and banjo players, and they effortlessly play many bluegrass standards, including some cool instrumentals such as The Cherokee Shuffle and Angeline The Baker.

Keen to join in, I listened out for a tune I could quickly master, and one that would be played often. I was looking for something with a simple sequence, a really good hook, and it also needed to make me sound clever! Needless to say, I came across my first party piece quite quickly. It was on my second visit, the night was really cooking, they had a double bass player in and plenty of soloists, and as a rousing rendition of Blue Moon of Kentucky finished one of the better banjo players kicked off Foggy Mountain Breakdown. I was hooked.

Technique: Ukuleles are cool

News flash! "Playing the ukulele can help you practice your banjo techniques". Interested? Read on.

I have a need to play music almost everyday, it's like an addiction, which has often resulted in me almost going out of my mind when I don't have a guitar or banjo to hand, especially when on vacation. Taking instruments abroad is a pain, there is the extra cost, the risk of theft and finding somewhere to make some noise. As a potential solution my missis brought me a ukulele, nothing special, just a £30 Mahalo, but small and quiet enough to travel with. I then searched YouTube for some lessons, sussed out some chords, in preparation for my first holiday with my uke. At first I found it quite unsatisfying, and after a while, just strumming it bored me (I'm not a song and dance man), so I started to pick a little, which was OK, except picking was weird because of the way the uke is tuned (this I will come back to later). When I returned from holiday my uke found its way to the attic, which is where it stayed until the following summer holiday. This cycle repeated for a couple of years, but this year I made a bit of a breakthrough, which I feel compelled to share.

Advice: Amplification

Moving from your bedroom, or your friend's living room, and into band situation comes with a requirement for amplification. Generally Banjos don’t come with pickups or built in speakers, so you’ll be faced with the challenge of choosing the best solution for your taste and situation.

The type of music your band plays is a factor, and you might not want to go down the route of expensive pickups and amplifiers, as they do change the sound instrument, and you might be after something more natural. An option here would be to use a small number of microphones and a PA system, which I have seen done to perfection by The Coal Porters. These guys all stand around a single microphone, moving closer or further away to change each instruments volume for solos and sound balance. If you want to do this you’ll need a omni-directional microphone, which can pick up sound with equal sensitivity from all directions. I would personally only recommend this technique for bands without drums, typically Bluegrass. If your interested in seeing how this is done, then have a look at this The Water Tower Boy’s video recording of Uncle Pen, I love these guys, and if high energy Bluegrass is your thing, then you should check them out.

Article: Essential Listening

My last post focused on a new generation of banjo players, and how the banjo has found a place in the 21st century, but however much I dig what people are doing now, I have overwhelming admiration for the players who brought the banjo to our attention in the first place.

In my opinion it is essential to listen to music as close to its source as you possibly can, for example, if you want to listen to Rock ‘n’ Roll, you should listen to the Elvis Sun recordings, if you want to listen to the Blues, then check out some Jimmy Reed and Leadbelly... and if you want to accomplish anything on banjo, then listening to some pivotal players from this genre will pay dividends as you develop your own style.

Article: New Blood

Up until fairly recently the banjo has been absent from UK pop culture, in fact I struggle to remember hearing it on commercial radio during my teens, 20s & 30s, with exception to the Rednex version of "Cotton Eyed Joe" - why, Why, WHY!

So how could an instrument that was so vocal in the 60s folk movement become so unpopular? Was it because George Harrison never played banjo on "Norwegian Wood"? Bob Dylan and the Stones certainly didn't use it in the early parts of there careers, which is a sad thing, cos it would've worked well on some of there tunes. Over the years there were a few exceptions, such as The Violent Femmes Blister In The Sun and "Sweetheart of the Rodeo" by the Byrds, have a listen to I Am a Pilgrim, it's cool, but this album is more of a nod to the past than a step into the future.

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About Me

I have been playing guitar for over 20 years, at first playing in indie bands, followed by a long stint playing rockabilly on the streets of Oxford, a short excursion into dance music, followed by looking at early blues styles. Now after a few years of listening to Dylan, Guthrie, and early Americana I find myself in possession of a banjo, and I'm addicted! Currently I play Banjo and Guitar in an Oxford based group called Swindlestock, you can hear our music our myspace page.

Listen to my favorite Banjo songs on