[Dixielandjazz] What is a banjo?

Bill Gunter jazzboard at hotmail.com
Fri Mar 4 15:12:26 PST 2005

Russ Guarino write (re: the 5-string banjo):

>The fifth string  in the five string banjo is not played.  It just humms 
>That's my understanding.

Not exactly . . . the fifth string is often called a "drone" string because 
it generally plays the same note (usually a G) and is normally not stopped 
on the fret board. However, there are times when the banjoist will 
deliberatly choose to stop the string and that is not unusual.

The fifth string is generally played with the thumb (using finger picks on 
the thumb, index and middle fingers). The five string is played in a finger 
picking style where three fingers on the right hand alternately pick the 
strings in a pattern (there are several -- the "Scruggs" roll, the "Travis" 
roll, the "Seeger" roll, etc.). The result is a bubbling, bouncy rhythmic 
effect with the melody pulled out as the notes roll by.  It's the basis of 
"Bluegrass" music.

However, just because the 5-string is not traditionally used in jazz does 
not mean that one can't use it.  Ringwald and I have done a nice jazzy 
version of song "Gentle On My Mind" with Ringwald on guitar and me on 
5-string. It goes over with jazz audiences just fine!

But finally, I must admit that such usage of the 5-string in jazz is in fact 
a "novelty" and is used for effect precisely because it is NOT the usual 
instrument. The fact that it is a lovely instrument with great rhythmic 
capabilities is beside the point. Personally, I really love the instrument 
and would play it any chance I get. Unfortunately, with all the washboarding 
I do my banjo picking chops are sorely out of shape.


Bill "Twanger" Gunter
jazzboard at hotmail.com

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