Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Six-String Banjo

It's hardly a new concept, but it seems that I'm hearing more banjo sounds coming from various records these days: Keith Urban, Robert Plant, LeAnn Rimes. I suspect that sometimes what we are hearing is a session guitar player playing a six-string banjo, a hybrid instrument tuned like a standard guitar, but with the sound of a 5-string banjo. The newer sounds aren't being played in the Scruggs style, but more as just another tone playing a part in the arrangement. The typical (stereotypical) "banjo-y" sound is rare. This is not "Deliverance" or "Bonnie and Clyde".

Plant's recent duet record with bluegrass/pop diva Allison Krauss has plenty of examples of this new sound, used by avant-guitarist Marc Ribot (Tom Waits) to creepy effect on "Nothin'" and as a pseudo-Django French-cafe rhythm pulse on "Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us". Nice.

I've been thinking about getting one, and I found that Deering makes several models and in fact, Rusty Danmeyer with LeAnn plays one. We call it a "ganjo". In the hands of a steel guitar player, the 6-string can sound especially authentic, since the right hand techniques used in both are so similar. You can sound like a guitarist playing the banjo or a banjoist playing a de-tuned banjo.

Obviously some people have taken to it with ease. Here's Brad Davis - and a damn fine cup of coffee - with a lesson or two. "It's good for the 'double down-ups'...it's got a real cool sound to it." says Brad. Word.

It's a neat sound, familiar and ancient, yet new and exotic. I like that.

UPDATE: Welcome music-loving Instapundit readers. Thanks for stopping by and thanks to Glenn for the link.


Blogger TMink said...

Yeah, I play around with those when I go to the music store. Well, I did until World Music had to make people ask for help to touch a guitar!

Didn't James Taylor play one of those on Old Man by Neil Young?


19/8/08 13:46  
Blogger paul a'barge said...

Wake me when they start to frail it.

19/8/08 14:13  
Anonymous anomdebus said...

I suspect Bela Fleck has something to do with the cross-genre appeal of the banjo of late, though I am sure others can point out others.

19/8/08 16:42  
Blogger Leo Richard Comerford said...

Is this the same banjo-guitar that was popular in the 1920s?

19/8/08 16:43  
Blogger chickenlittle said...

I caught an earlier bug a bought an old fashioned 5-string last year. Banjo rules!

19/8/08 17:34  
Blogger Tom Spaulding said...

Yes, basically. In early Jazz, the banjo was the rhythm instrument and as the guitar's popularity increased, the banjo-guitar was used to ease the banjoists into the guitar. Sounds like a banjo, plays like a guitar. Johnny St. Cyr is one of the key figures in this movement.

19/8/08 18:02  
Blogger Sean said...

Marc Ribot is one of the great under-appreciated composers. Not just a great guitar player, but a man who can write anything he decides he wants to. Listen to the apocalyptic 'Yo, I killed your God' (or any of his work with John Zorn), then listen to his incredible work in 'Marc Ribot Y Los Cubanos Postizos', the 'Prosthetic Cubans'. His work, along with T-bone Burnett and the incomperable pedal-steel of Greg Leisz, makes that Plant/Krauss album really sing.

19/8/08 21:56  
Blogger Tom Spaulding said...

Yes, I have the Prosthetic Cubans record and his solo album, "Don't Blame Me". I'm a fan of his style(s).

20/8/08 00:02  
Blogger Hucbald said...

Now, how about a nylon string version with an RMC Polydrive; a classical electric banjo with synth access.

I have a(nother) dream.

20/8/08 04:28  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Joe Satriani used a Deering 6-string banjo on various tracks off of Flying in a Blue Dream...

20/8/08 14:04  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I realize this is like asking for Stan Getz and getting Smothers Brothers (--Tom Waits), but I'm pretty sure the New Christy Minstrels had one of those. Maybe even a 12-string. Just saying.

20/8/08 20:44  
Blogger Tom Spaulding said...

Yeah, they've been around for 100 years. But now they are making non-Folk and non-Bluegrass appearances. Deering makes a 12-string.

20/8/08 20:47  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The best way to play a six-string banjo is to tune it down to an
E flat tuning then capo it on the first fret. That way the strings are still tight like banjo strings should be. However you don't get the hard thud on your top strings that these banjo are known to produce. Happy Jack

30/8/11 05:17  

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