The Banjo

my bowlback fretless banjo

Pardon me, I’ll talk about maps and programming when I get around to it.

Whether this year or next, I’m going to build a banjo. It’s always been my dream to make most of the things I love - bikes, instruments, etc., and it’s time to start doing that. It’s also a classic move to limit my possessions by putting pretty hard constraints on how I’m going to add a third banjo to my fleet - this is going to take blood, sweat, and tears.

1890s at Codfish Park

So here’s an ode to the banjo. So usually you see them with frets, and a lot of times you see them with big ol’ resonators, but ignore these things: unlike the ukulele or the bass guitar, it’s convergent evolution - the banjo was an African instrument more like a Kora than stratocaster. Frets happened in the 1800s, but the fretless movement is still alive and well. Fretless banjo makes a lot of sense - playing styles focus on glissando and there’s less sustain and fewer dissonances in chords than a guitar, so chording on fretless is totally doable.

1888 Lydia Williams

Banjo music itself tends to be incredible, whether it’s Bela Fleck-level virtuosity or ministrel style tunes on simple open-back instruments. The fact that banjos use a reentrant tuning with a drone string means that the banjo naturally pulls itself to a certain musical key, but you can retune and give music a modal feel without doing nearly as much mental calculus as with other instruments.

Get a cheap banjo. Start off with Mike Iverson’s tabs. Sing songs about going into town and how your girl will miss you when you go away and about hens and civil war battles, and you’ll feel so much better for it.

Posted Jul 18, 2011 Tweet / Follow me on Twitter

Tom MacWright

I'm . I work on tools for creativity at Mapbox. This is where I write about technology and everything else.