Thursday, March 19, 2009

That's some banjo

In addition to dulcimer, I play old-time banjo. After playing banjo for a year or two, I had a desire to play fretless banjo. I felt it might make a better match with some of the more archaic old-time fiddling I was trying to play along with. I had initially succumbed to a case of the deadly Banjo Acquisition Syndrome, and by this time I already had a handful of lovely fretted banjos. They were quite pretty, some with very elaborate and beautiful pearl inlays of various designs. I was proud of my banjos, but I kept searching for a fretless banjo. I bought one, a delicate and lovely antique English fretless from the 1800's...but like many antique instruments, it was difficult to play smoothly... I continued my search for a smooth playing fretless banjo.

One day while perusing Ebay in my fretless banjo quest, I stumbled upon an unusual auction. It was for a fretless banjo that was a recently made reproduction of the famous formica-necked banjo played by old-time banjo player Fred Cockerham (now departed but revered by many). 

Fred's original formica banjo now resides in a museum, click here to see it. But a knowledgeable banjo playing friend of ours, Ray Alden, had designed and sold a few reproductions of Fred's white banjo years ago. This Ebay banjo was one of those very banjos, and indeed I also knew the current owner who was selling it on Ebay because he was now more interested in playing Irish music. His wife was even planning on attending the same party we were going to in a couple of weeks! I spotted the auction within a half hour of it being put up on Ebay.

Now, here was my dilemma:
This was about the ugliest banjo I had ever laid eyes on. The slotted peg head was shaped like Gumby's head, it had cheesy guitar geared tuners (just like Fred's original). The neck and peg head were overlaid with white kitchen counter formica with little gold flecks sprinkled throughout. Aggggghhhh! All I could think of when looking at it was making egg salad sandwiches. DAMN but it was ugly!

It was one of those banjos that I knew would be easy to re-sell, since it was a perfect reproduction of Cockerham's famed banjo and you very seldom saw something like this up for sale. It was made by people with excellent reputations in the banjo world, so I knew it would be quite playable and well made. The "Buy It Now" price was such that I knew I could probably re-sell it easily if I didn't like how it played. And I could pick it up at the party in two weeks and not even have to pay shipping! Who knows, I might even be able to use it at home for practice.
It was too good a deal to pass up. I bought the monstrosity, thinking I might wind up re-selling it.

I went to the party two weeks later and the Ugly Banjo was handed over. I was almost afraid to open the gigbag to look. Well, there it was, mocking me with its luncheon counter top, crap tuners, and dopey Gumby head. I sure as hell wasn't about to be seen playing it there at the party though. I played my beautiful inlaid banjo instead.
Back home again, I tuned up the thing and picked it up to check it out.
That's when everything changed.
It turns out this escapee-from-a-greasy-spoon-diner banjo played like butter. The neck felt wonderful in my hands and everything fit me like a easy to play! The formica felt so good under my fingers! ...And it sounded terrific! It was everything I had hoped for in a fretless banjo. I was awed. DOH!- now I couldn't possibly think of re-selling it! No, I had to play it!
I began to play it all the time, and my gorgeous elaborately inlaid expensive banjos lay forlornly in their cases like gilded embalmed Egyptian mummies.
In my crazed state, I played it in front of my friends, who at first thought I had lost my mind. But my infectious enthusiasm for the Moby Dick of banjos seemed to produce some sort of mass-hypnosis effect, and soon all my friends began to view the white formica banjo with kind tolerance, even puzzled admiration. I took it to old-time music gatherings, where it attracted attention of course, standing out like some glittery billboard, and several high ranking banjo players asked to play it out of pure curiosity. After playing it, each one told me privately that if I ever wanted to sell it I should please let them know first, because they wanted it badly. I began to take pride in my 'spectacular' banjo. I named it Casper after the handsome and stately pure white cat owned by our friend Ray who designed the banjo, had it made, made the bridge for it himself, and set the banjo up perfectly years before I bought it.

It reminded me of the episode of Seinfeld where Jerry and Elaine visit friends who just had a baby, and the baby was frankly 'unattractive'. As the parents proudly showed Elaine their little bundle of joy gurgling in its crib, they asked her "Isn't he just gorgeous?!"...and Elaine, thinking quickly, said enthusiastically "That's SOME BABY!".

Thus, I grew to see my white formica banjo as a thing of great beauty because of how it played and sounded and felt to me. It gave me everything and asked for nothing in return. It didn't fuss, I didn't need to be careful of the finish like my other banjos. It already had a nick in the peg head. It's unassuming presence, playability, and great sound was it's appeal- and isn't that really what musical instruments are all about? Just as over the years I came to find more and more beauty in music played a simpler way, without all the fancy notes and excess musical 'decoration' I sought in the beginning, in the same way my Ugly Banjo showed me that beauty comes more from within. There is beauty and elegance in functional perfection that is completely independent of artificially valued superficial appearance.

Anyone for egg salad?


  1. What a great story. You made me fall in love with your banjo and I haven't even heard it or seen the whole thing. But I know something of the feeling, as that's how I feel about my beat up old Yamaha acoustic guitar.

  2. Great story.... one of those instruments that you know are going to be yours for a long long time...

    I also like the sound of formica necked banjos...I might very well add a formica plate to my goodtime (BTW: the Goodtime is also one of the most despicted banjo, look-wise, but I like it looks!)

    I really like how Kirk Sutphin can make his formica banjo cry...
    Here, for example:
    (but when backing Elisabeth Laprelle, anything can sound great...what a voice she has!)

  3. Yup that's a heckuva nice banjo right there Lisa......f'real....

  4. Frank! How funny! Yes, the Ugly Banjo is really a beautiful white swan. I still love it and brought it to a gathering just the other day. :D