The Forgotten Masterpiece
The plectrum banjo, according to some historians, was the first “Dixieland Jazz” banjo. It is said that the early 20th century Dixieland bands wanted a rhythm or “chording” instrument and the acoustic guitar did not have the volume to be heard over the horns and drums.
A few banjo makers built five string banjo necks but left off the fifth string, re-carved the neck and used the “C” tuning of C,G,B,D (fourth through first). Because the banjo was designed to be strummed with a “plectrum” (what we now call a flat pick or pick) the banjo was called the “plectrum” banjo to differentiate it from it’s fingerpicked and clawhammered parent, the five string banjo.
Strumming the five string banjo was challenging for guitarists of the day because the short fifth string was hard to avoid when strumming chords and the fifth string couldn’t be fretted consistently while fretting in certain positions.
But the four string plectrum banjo, was easy for the guitarist to learn, powerful enough to be heard with the saxophones, trombones and other powerful instruments in the Dixieland bands and gave a “new” sound to this up-coming musical style. This was in the early part of the 20th century before amplification was commonly available and the natural acoustic volume of the plectrum banjo was very helpful to be heard above, and blend with, the band.
Dixieland Jazz was one of the more popular musical styles in the early part of the 20th century. As this style of music faded in popularity, the awareness and popularity of the plectrum banjo, like a painter’s “forgotten masterpiece” also began to fade. Through the years, small groups of Dixieland enthusiasts and banjo enthusiasts kept the music alive at a grass roots level creating “banjo bands” around the US and dedicated plectrum players taught lessons inspiring banjo interest. We owe them all a great debt of thanks for preserving this wonderful music.
Today, the advantages of the plectrum banjo are amazingly similar for modern musicians as they were one hundred years ago. Since there are four strings and we have four fingers on our fretting hand, there is one string for each finger, and no more…. just like a violin. This makes the neck much narrower than a guitar and is very comfortable for folks with smaller hands. The strings are tuned in a natural progression of highest pitched first string down to lowest pitched fourth string, similar to a guitar or violin.
Since there are many “strumming styles” of guitar playing in popular music today, the plectrum banjo is perfect for modern guitarists and in fact, some modern plectrum banjoists tune their plectrum banjo to the first four strings of the guitar (D,G,B,E fourth to first).
While there are, and have been, brilliant plectrum players who’ve played very complex and difficult music on the plectrum banjo, the plectrum banjo lends itself, maybe more than any other banjo, to playing a simple strumming style. Ukulele players enjoy strumming and playing simple chords and singing songs. Folk singers, country and pop singers often strum their guitars with a simple strumming approach to accompany their voice.
The plectrum banjo is designed for this kind of technique, combining the simple chord forms like a ukulele but with more bass and brightness, great acoustic power and that special, magical, banjo sound. If strummed with bare fingers it sounds very soft and warm. If strummed with a flat pick or “plectrum” it can deliver big volume and sparkle. In fact, the hit song of the Kingston Trio called “Tom Dooley” was played on a plectrum banjo with a flat pick by Bob Shane of the group. The strong “folk strum” of the banjoists in folk groups like the Kingston Trio are beautifully accomplished on a plectrum banjo.
I’ve even seen some plectrum banjo fans finger picking their banjo for a completely different character of sound and it was beautiful. It is not a very common approach, but very beautiful.
Of course, it is a banjo that has no musical limits and can be as positive a source of challenge and played to any level of difficulty. As desired, and with dedicated training, it can become a life-long project with never ending development like any classical instrument.
But with all of life’s daily complexities and challenges, many of us just want something that is “fun” and “not overly demanding”; something that will pull us out of the daily tensions, problem solving, negotiating, hot sun or other frustrations of our day to day work. The elegant simplicity of the plectrum banjo, like the humble ukulele, offers the average person, the non-musician, a beautiful, versatile instrument that can be played simply; in jam sessions, accompany singing, strummed softly in the middle of a lonely night and all without having to practice hours and hours a day to learn even a basic technique.
The plectrum banjo is perfect for a casual, fun instrument. It is an aesthetically beautiful banjo with the long slender neck. The light strings are easy to push down for the fretting hand. It takes very little effort to get a beautiful sound from the strumming hand. Whether you strum with your index finger like a ukulele, put on a “Fred Kelly” over-the-nail finger pick for a louder strum, finger pick with bare fingers or with finger picks or strum with a flat pick, you’ll get a big powerful sound if you want it and a soft sweet sound when needed. It is great as a vocal accompaniment banjo and adds a sweet musical flavor to any ensemble or jam session.
Though not as well known as the popular five string, this magnificent banjo is one of the most elegant and approachable instruments the world has yet produced. If you love the sound of a banjo but have limited time or no particular desire to learn fancy and complex techniques or music, this is your banjo…. The plectrum banjo…. The Forgotten Masterpiece.