The Eternal Search for The Ideal Banjo

A little over a year ago, my wife and I were sitting in a restaurant in Seattle with some friends when I announced, “I think I’d like to buy a banjo.” My wife, not knowing what she was saying, said, “Go for it.”

So began my search for the perfect banjo, by no means a unique quest among banjoists. There are many who play the banjo, then there are those for whom the banjo and banjo lore has become a passion (some would even say obsession). It starts out with finding certain details about the banjo fascinating, and pretty soon you’ve got a living room filled with banjos and banjo parts. As Scott Avett of The Avett Brothers said, “You can never have enough banjos.” What I have come to realize is that this drive to collect banjos is more than just a compulsion to acquire a large number of instruments, it is a philosophical quest: It is the Eternal Search for The Ideal Banjo.

It’s all Plato’s fault

As he sat playing the banjo in a cave, the Greek philosopher Plato proposed that the things we see or touch are merely shadows of a perfect expression of reality. In this perfect reality, there exists the Ideal Banjo—a perfect Banjo Form, of which all physical banjos are mere shadows, imperfect representations at best.

My own quest began innocently enough, simply looking for a good first banjo—one that was affordable but also well-made and with a decent sound. I expected that this banjo is one I would own for a number of years. After all, most of my guitars had been around for some time, 25 years or more. So, I was somewhat taken aback by an article I read about buying a first banjo, which stated that regardless of what you buy, once you begin learning to play you will want another banjo soon. For the life of me, I couldn’t see why this would be true.

I traded my Strat (which had sat in it’s case for about 10 years) for a Deering Goodtime and began taking lessons.  Sure enough, it wasn’t long before I started looking through Craigslist and hitting yard sales looking for used deals. From there I moved to the hard stuff: I began searching eBay. In the past year, I have acquired a total of 8 more banjos, but not necessarily to keep; I have also sold 3 that I have rehabilitated, at a fairly decent profit, and have 2 “project” banjos in pieces. Again, it’s not about acquisition, it’s about the quest.

It’s the question that drives us…

What is the banjo?

There is something about the banjo which is mysteriously compelling. I have altered all but one of my banjos apart and have come to understand their various design features, but I do not understand why I and countless others around the world have become so bewitched by these particular instruments.

Perhaps it is the fact that they are accessible;  you can’t dismantle a guitar or a violin, and if you could, you probably couldn’t get it back together. Banjos, however, invite you in—there is something about the nuts and hooks (not to mention the years of dirt and corrosion) that call out, “Deconstruct me!”

For me, the fascination is mostly the open-back “pot”—the rim, the hardware, the head…  I have nothing against necks and tuners, but to me, there is very little more beautiful than a well put-together banjo pot.

Blind Willie Johnson sang in Soul of a Man, “Won’t somebody tell me, answer if you can / Won’t somebody tell me, what is the soul of a man?” The same question goes for a banjo; you can take them apart, leave them together, and even play them, but the soul of a banjo is a mystery. That, I think, is what drives the quest.

Yes, I actually play them all.

I actually play all my banjos (at least the ones that are assembled), and like each of them in their own way.  If I had to choose only one, it would be my Vega Little Wonder (also made by Deering), a gift from my wife.  It is hand-made from violin-grade maple with great tone and for me, a perfect neck shape. I of course modified it some, putting on a Renaissance head, an old style “no-knot” tailpiece, and a curved “Moon” bridge. Somewhat mysteriously to me, it tends to sound different on different days.

I am, to a great extent, perfectly satisfied playing this banjo. I can play it for hours, and often do. But then, I’ll pick up a different banjo, and enjoy that just as much. And sometimes, I just find myself staring at them.

It’s not the journey, it’s the destination

I realize that I will never find the Ideal Banjo, and as far as banjos go, I think my Vega is as good as any I’ve played (although I did play a Bart Reiter Round Peak that was awfully nice…). However, if Plato was right and there is an Ideal Banjo out there, I think it is possibly a composite of every good “shadow” banjo. So, my theory is, the way to banjo nirvana is to simply experience as many banjos in my lifetime as possible.

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4 Responses to The Eternal Search for The Ideal Banjo

  1. And it sounds so great with mandolins and guitars.

  2. me says:

    If Buddha had played the banjo, he would have found Nirvana a whole lot sooner.

    And, you’ve got a point- the banjo is possibly a good representation of America. Brought over from Africa and adapted to European folk music, to jazz, to folk music (and somewhat unfortunately, to country & western). And there’s a good dose of liberalism in there as well. The Star-Spangled Banjo.

  3. If you keep playing better in each life, the Buddha says you will reach the Nirvana state of banjo playing. Earl Scruggs was on his last stage of reincarnation and now is there, gleefully playing for eternity the perfect rendition of Foggy Mountain Breakdown. And his fingers will never tire.

    Perhaps the essence for you of the banjo is that it is an American instrument, created by slaves, yes, but still original in the way that they formed and shaped it in the United States. And there is the American Exceptionalism aspect in your conservative American herat.

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