Frank Turner Interview

Written by: Liam Eales

He has been called the hardest working musician in the world. With over 7 albums 4 complication records (With an abundance of originals and covers), 2 books and numerous other side projects including hardcore band Mongol horde, Frank Turner has established himself as one of the most relentless artists of our time.

The closest England has come to producing their own Bruce Springsteen, Frank has a knack for blending his ideas, interests, passions, anxieties and personal life into fantastic sincere rock/folk/country/punk records. The kind of record that can be hard to find on the mainstream market in recent years.

His accomplishments include selling out Wembley Arena and playing at the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony in London.

The man is a master of his craft and owns the stage. Having played over 2000 shows and counting, he has no plans of slowing down.

If I haven’t made it painfully obvious yet, I’m a fan (A word he doesn’t like). So even though it is early days in my career, I thought I would reach out to ask Frank for an interview and try to allow him to introduce himself.


Liam: Hey Frank, how are you?

Frank: Good thank you. Happy to be home at the end of the year.

Liam: First of all, thank you for doing this during the busy holiday season.

Frank: A pleasure. It’s good to be home from tour and winding down for the year, if not the decade.

Liam: Awesome, well let’s get started.
So, you’ve just got off the Mongol Horde tour, this past summer you came out with an amazing new album No Man’s Land, your second book and a lot more touring, the album Be More Kind just a year earlier, as-well-as getting married! Where did you learn to have that kind of work ethic?

Frank: I come from two families. My father’s family is characterised by impatience, my mother’s by practicality. It seems to be a good mix.

Liam: What advice would you give to someone who wants to be more productive?

Frank: There are 24 hours in each and every day, you can use them all.

Liam: On top of all this, you still make time to meet and chat with fans, and leave your email open for them to write to you. I know we have met on a few of these opportunities you create.
However “ Fan” is a word I hear you don’t really enjoy using. Can you elaborate on that philosophy?

Frank: The word “fan” implies a permanent divide between the people who make music and the people who listen to it, and I’m uncomfortable with that. My early exposure to live music was through the London hardcore punk scene in the late 1990s, and it was a scene that was very much characterized by egalitarianism. When bands finished their set, they’d jump over the barrier and watch the next band. It’s ingrained in me from back then. I want my music to be part of a wider conversation between equals.

Liam: Speaking of fandom, you were recently name-dropped by the Boss (Bruce Springsteen) himself, on a list of more contemporary artists he enjoys. What was that like for you?

Frank: That was pretty surreal, but something I can be proud of for sure.

Liam: Eton College is a place that hung around your neck for years. Not the most punk rock place on earth. What is your relationship with your secondary school and are there positive things you have you have to say about it?

Frank: I don’t have a current relationship with my secondary school, I’m in my late 30s, that would be weird.
I didn’t enjoy it much at the time, and certainly didn’t choose to go there. I got out as soon as I could and started making my own choices. The education was, obviously, pretty incredible, and I’m grateful for that. But the social milieu was vile, and it’s something I’ve been trying to distance myself from since I first got there.

Liam: On your most recent tour, you did an unplugged set with the Sleeping Souls as well as a solo set for the No Man’s Land songs. In the unplugged set, you opened up about your past and created as sit down storytelling experience from songs across your discography. Why was this important for you to do?

Frank: I’m not sure I can say it was important as such – more that it struck me as interesting, as different, as a refreshing approach. I try not to repeat myself as an artist if I can avoid it. I’ve never tried that approach to a show before, so I got into it conceptually, and found it really inspiring actually. It’s given me a lot to think about going forward, both as a songwriter and as a performer.

Liam: Forgive me if I’m wrong, on No Man’s Land, it sounds like each song is sonically and lyrically tailored to stylistically fit the time period of each song’s story as-well-as tonally match the subject matter. Personally I find sounds incredible and incredibly, sonically diverse as a result (Jinny Bingham sounds like it could be ripped from Sweeney Todd, and Dora Hand sounds like it was being played by an actual cowboy). Was it difficult to write in various styles and learn so many new ways of crafting a song, all for one project?

Frank: That wasn’t the case on every single song – there’s precious little link between the music of “The Lioness” and the life and cultural world of Huda Sha’Arawi. But where I could make it make sense, I did.  Trying to write a jazz piece for Nica Rothschild was a major challenge for me, and one I enjoyed. I always want to try my hand at pushing my own boundaries a little, every time I make a record. I guess it was just more at the forefront this time around, given some of the subject material.

Liam: Have you ever thought about writing a musical?

Frank: I can’t say I’m a huge fan of musicals alas. That said, I have friends in that world more recently who’ve given me a deeper appreciation of the artistry involved. Still, not really for me.

Liam: Sierra Leone charity group WayOut Arts, is something you’ve been working with for a few years now. What can you tell us about them and how it’s inspired you?

Frank: They’re a group who use music as a conduit to reach some of the poorest and most marginalized people in the world. It’s really quite mind-boggling, visiting the slums and the camps, but then also meeting a lot of the people involved and hearing their stories, and seeing how much of an impact a group like WayOut can have on individuals’ lives. It’s a small group, they’re not going to change the world, but then again their size makes everything they do more personal. I like to think I have some genuine friends out there now, which is a lovely thing, and the fundraising I do for them enables them to make a huge impact.

NOTE: If you are interested in making a donation or finding out more about WayOut Arts their website is https://www.wayoutarts.org/

Liam: Known for being always on tour, you are finally making the rounds in South America. What took so long? and how does it feel to finally get over to that area of the world?

Frank: Touring in South America is, it turns out, not the easiest thing to organize, the scene there is still pretty wild west, there are a lot of sharks and you have to be careful about committing to travelling so far. Thankfully I finally found the right promoter, so I’m going at last. I’m excited, it’s a completely new part of the world for me. There are people excited about the shows, which is cool, and I hope to learn something new while I’m there too.

Liam: Author/Critic Clive James recently passed away. You often plugged him, and his writings as an inspiration for Be More Kind. Care to say a few words on his work and how it impacted you?

Frank: I was aware of his work as a television critic, but it was only comparatively recently (the last 10 years or so) that I became aware of his work as a cultural writer and poet. His erudition and wisdom blows me away, he might be my favourite prose writer ever, and he’s certainly hugely broadened my cultural horizons. The book “Cultural Amnesia” pretty much changed the way I think about everything.

Liam: Your catalogue is huge and a lot has been released in a short amount of time especially compared to other artists. What in your career are you most proud of? and/or what would you like to be remembered for?

Frank: In a way, the thing I’m proudest of is still being here, still standing. It’s a rare thing to sustain a career at this level for more than a decade, to release 8 albums, and still be selling tickets and making some kind of an impact. It was unlikely enough that I’d ever succeed, but to continue to do so after this long feels like a real achievement to me. Spending your time considering how you’ll be remembered strikes me as a slightly foolish thing to do, it’s quite narcissistic, plus I won’t be here then anyway by definition, so I can’t see why I should care that much.

Liam: The roaring 20s are about to begin! As I understand it you’re a man of history and learning as much as you are a musician. You went to University for 20th-century history, any reflections/analysis on the past decade and anticipations for the next?

Frank: I feel like we’ve lived through a decade that has seen a lot of political fragmentation and division in the west and north. That’s pretty worrying. But from a statistical point of view, we’re still living in the wealthiest, healthiest, most peaceful moment in the history of our species, and that’s something to consider and cautiously celebrate, in my view. There are huge challenges ahead, not least the state of the climate, but then I think we’re discussing that more than ever before, which is some small kind of progress

Liam:  What does the next decade look like for you? and any plans for next year, that you are at liberty to reveal of course?

Frank: I have no idea how the decade as a whole will go – in 2010, I’d have been surprised to see myself here, I’d imagine. Next year will be about touring, but also finishing off a new record for 2021. So there’s that.

Liam: Frank, thank you for joining us, it been a pleasure.

Frank: The pleasure was all mine.


So there you have it!

Frank will be on tour in 2020 and a new album 2021!

You can buy his latest album No Mans Land on his website https://frank-turner.com/

Who is Clifton Chenier?

Clifton Chenier (born in Opelousas, near Lafayette , the June 25 , 1925 – died in Lafayette on December 12 , 1987) is a zydeco musician, and among the most celebrated musicians who play in that genre that ever lived, having been called the King of Zydeco music, and King of the Bayou (by Paul Simon).

who is clifton chenier

Zydeco, stylistically, is a mix of Cajun and Creole music with influences of jazz and blues. Clifton played the accordion, and was the first to use this instrument to play blues style music.

Here is a rare clip of Clifton Chenier playing live, and you can see from the video footage that he infuses his music with a spirit that simply makes people want to get up and dance!

Biography

Clifton Chenier learned to play accordion at a very young age thanks to his father Joseph Chenier.

He began playing at various balls and parties on Saturday nights, with his brother Cleveland Chenier, playing a corrugated washboard, which is quite literally a washboard, but can be used as a musical instrument as well.

Here’s Clifton a little later in his life – 1979, with Honeyboy Edwards, and Lightnin’ Hopkins in NYC.

Ok, backing up a ways.

In 1945, Clifton left the family farm to work in the sugar cane fields. He then went to Lake Charles to join his brother Cleveland. There, he met other great pioneering zydeco musicians and refined his style, leading to the distinctive style that won him a Grammy later in life.

His professional career began in 1954 , when he signed with Elko Record and recorded Clifton’s Blues (under the name of Cliston Chanier ) which was a local success. He continued with Ay-tte-fee ( Hey, little girl , the spelling of the Cajun title has had many variations!) which made him more widely known.

Here is Clifton’s recording of Louisiana Stomp as Cliston Chanier.

He toured extensively with the Zydeco Ramblers and signed with Chess Records in 1956 . The Chess label did not do too much publicity for its records, and so he left in 1958, and moved on over to Houston.

He finally signed at Arhoolie Records in 1964, expanding his audience to a more “white” audience. Clifton was welcomed warmly in 1969 at the American Folk Blues Festival, a legendary festival indeed, making him even more famous for this bourgeoning style of music known as Zydeco.

In 1973 he signed the music of the Alain Corneau France film company. In 1979, he was diagnosed with severe diabetes and had have one of his feet amputated.

Clifton’s career was crowned by a Grammy Award in the year 1983 for “I’m Here”, and then in 1984 he was made a National Heritage Fellow for his contributions.

He died in 1987 of a kidney disease in Lafayette, Louisiana.  Clifton Chenier was buried in All Souls Cemetery in Loreauville, Iberia Parish, Louisiana.

king of zydeco

Posthumously, Clifton was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, and then later, in 2011, he made it into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame.

Clifton’s son, CJ Chenier took over for his father, and continues his music producing legacy of red hot zydeco concerts and records.

Clifton Quote

“My music is not complicated. It’s nothing but French dances with a little swing to get people moving.”


Discography

  • Clifton Sings the Blues (2004)
  • Louisina Blues & Zydeco / Bon Ton Roulet (2001)
  • Live at Grant Street (2000)
  • Comin ‘Home (2000)
  • Live at 1966 Berkeley Blues Festival (2000)
  • Cajun Swamp Music (1999)
  • Bayou Bayou (1999)
  • In New Orleans (1998)
  • Zydeco Are Not Dirty (1997)
  • I’m Coming Home (1996)
  • On Tour (1996)
  • We’re Gonna Party (1994)
  • Live at St. Mark’s (1988)
  • 60 Minutes with the King of Zydeco (1988)
  • Bogalusa Boogie (1987) * Sings the Blues (1987)
  • The King of Zydeco (1985)
  • Live! at the Long Beach & San Francisco Blues Festivals (1985)
  • Country Boy Now (1984)
  • The King of Zydeco Live at Montreux (1984)
  • I’m Here! (1982)
  • Live at San Francisco Blues Festival (1982)
  • Blues & Zydeco (1981)
  • Boogie ‘n’ Zydeco (1980)
  • Bayou Soul (1979)
  • Clifton Chenier & His Red Hot Louisiana Band in New Orleans (1979)
  • Clifton Chenier and His Red Hot Louisiana Band (1978)
  • Cajun Swamp Live Music (1978)
  • Frenchin ‘the Boogie (1976)
  • Bogalusa Boogie (1975)
  • Out West (1974)
  • Clifton Chenier Live (At a French-Creole Dance) (1973)
  • Bayou Blues (1970)
  • King of the Bayous (1970)
  • Clifton’s Cajun Blues (1970)
  • Louisiana Blues (1969)
  • Black Snake Blues (1966)
  • Louisiana Blues & Zydeco (1965)

The History Of The Clarinet

Instruments have always played an essential role in music since their advent, tens of thousands of years ago.

As much as music can be done with simply the human voice, there is just a magic about instruments accompanying the human voice that only your heart can understand. 

Much of the knowledge behind older instruments is shrouded in mystery, as we see images in old books and paintings, and have little to no knowledge about what exactly they are. 

It doesn’t help that these odd instruments are being played by mythical (and dare we say fictional) creatures.

We can only postulate that certain instruments of today somehow trace back to these ancestral instruments, and we need to dig deep into the dustiest of history books, to find out more details on just what these instruments were.

Today, we will be talking about the history of the clarinet, a unique instrument from the woodwind family, and the result of a revolutionary development that was built upon another instrument called the chalumeau (pictured below).

Difference between a clarinet and a chalumeau

Although the clarinet and the chalumeau are somewhat similar in appearance and, to an extent, the way they are played, they are two separate instruments.

The chalumeau, which is nearly identical to a recorder, was in existence before the invention of the clarinet.

The sound of chalumeau, at lower registers, worked fine, but it lacked vibrancy at higher registers. 

Another instrument, called the Baroque clarinet and sometimes called a “mock trumpet”, could cover the higher notes.  Both had a limited number of notes they could play.

The development of the clarinet created a high-quality sound at both high and low registers.  In this way, the arrival of the clarinet was born out of a certain need for a fuller range of notes.

Here is a quick video review of the chalumeau and the Baroque clarinet to hear their respective sounds.

In addition to the tone holes of the chalumeau, their distance for the lower octave is similar for the upper octave.

The first clarinets (once the instrument was invented and its structure was decided upon) also had two extra holes as compared to the chalumeau.

Due to certain practical and theoretical restrictions, the instrument makers prior to the 1700’s could not manufacture the particular effect the clarinet producesd, and had to rely on these other instruments to get those sorts of sounds.

Who invented the clarinet?

Johann Christoph Denner, an instrument maker from Nuremberg, together with his son, invented the clarinet. 

Denner was experienced with making whistles and hunting horns, and just 10 years prior to 1700 is when he moved towards oboes and recorders, and, in time, came up with something new and exciting – the clarinet!

A few of his originals still exist today, dating back over 300 years now and demanding hefty sums at auctions.

The arrival of the clarinet came after a long period of experimentation with the chalumeau, which Denner was busy examining with and working on improving.

As a maker of instruments, he knew what instruments had and also what they lacked.  You can be sure, in speaking to the players at the time, that he often heard an earful in regards to whatever issues they were experiencing with their instruments back then. 

It was the time of music which involved many huge concerts, and all of the big names in what we now call “classical” music were living and breathing like Haydn, Vivaldi, Beethoven, Bach, and so many more, and so there was an emphasis on producing the utmost quality instruments at the time for these composers, and the players who supported their works.

Denner wanted to build an instrument that could play both the upper and the lower registers without much sacrifice in terms of clear intonation. Two extra holes were added to the duodecime key to achieve this.

The first clarinets to be invented were very simple and had a similar look of a great recorder.

These early clarinets had two keys, and, with time, another key was added to make three keys.

With this addition, the newly minted clarinet instrument had a wide tonal range as compared to trumpets and oboes of that particular time. 

Being relatively loud and able to perform difficult jumps, the clarinet had an ease of playing which could not be obtained on other instruments like the trumpet, due to its various mechanical restrictions.

The fact that the word “clarino” was used to mean a small trumpet is an interesting twist on things, and, it so happens, that the word clarinet may have originated from it.

With enough small tweaks, and the addition of the two holes to the chalumeau, this new instrument basically became what is now known as the clarinet. 

With time, and more tiny alterations, the clarinet became more and more itself.

The sensational sound that the clarinet produced made it find usage in the orchestras of the day sooner than expected.

In the year 1740, Vivaldi had written a concert and Händel had composed an overture in 1748, both of which demanded the use of the Clarinet.

The development of the clarinet attracted various instrument players looking to try this new and exciting sound. The most widely known instance is from the Mannheim Orchestra, where two oboe players transitioned into clarinet players.

Further development of clarinet

Just like any instrument, the clarinet had its challenges and technical difficulties as it evolved.

The clarinet had only five primary keys by the 1760’s.  People of the time wondered if it was even possible to play music with that kind of instrument?

Clarinet players, loyal to working with this new instrument because of its entrancing sound, found ways to play this new instrument even with the limitations of developing models.

With each new technological jump and musical challenge, craftsmen and clarinet players strived to improve the instrument, and, if possible, to achieve perfection. The progression was in small steps which sometimes could lead to dead ends.

Eventually, however, the demand for greatness was at hand and entire concertos were being produced with the clarinet at their center.

Types and versions of clarinet over the years

Many clarinet types emerged, over the years, but only a few have survived to date. The development of these particular varieties of clarinets were as follows.

In the year 1710, the Denner’s was the first type of clarinet to be established in any way as a standard.  After all, it was his invention, so people looked to Denner for the template of how the clarinet was to be made.

Iwan Müller’s Clarinet

As time progressed, Iwan Müller’s version of the clarinet was established as a new benchmark for the instrument.

Being an instrument maker and a clarinet player himself, Iwan Müller developed a spoon-key with sunken holes, a conical ring, and an airtight pad.

This is because the old keys were unreliable, since they had a felt pad simple pivot-mechanism. Müller developed a ligature and changed the reed to what is commonly used today.

Altogether, Müller’s clarinet had 12 keys.  His development was not accepted by the Paris Conservatorium, as they believed in the characteristics of each specific scale not be tampered with.

Clarinets by then were only able to play one scale, and an introduction of a clarinet that could play chromatically would destroy this particular characteristic of each scale that they wanted to see upheld.  Also, they were a little bit snobby.  

In 1939, another development was made and was attributed to the name Bhoelm.

Theobald Boehm’s Clarinet

Theobald Boehm, a flute maker and composer from Germany, brought changes in the instrument world by making two changes.

The first change that he made was able to create a mathematical basis that could be used in determining the exact construction of the tone holes. This applied to the concert flute as well as the up and coming clarinet.

The ring key was his second invention. Covering of a hole that may have been larger than the finger that lies on it, the ring key was made possible through his creativity.

Here is a sample of the man’s work – a beautiful flute piece.

Hyacinthe Klosé

Hyacinthe Klosé, a Frenchman, developed a model of this clarinet and, being a Frenchman, he knew how to deal with the finicky nature of the Parisian Music Academy because he himself was a composer and also professor at the Conservatoire de Paris.

As one might expected, his fellow Parisians were convinced of his assertions about the clarinet.  Hence, his instrument was accepted and is currently played worldwide today.

But the progress didn’t stop there.  In 1900, a new German system was developed by improving Iwan Müller’s system. This type of clarinet is attributed to the name Oehler.

Although the German system did not make the Bhoelm system its standard, the Oehler standard is just as good as the Bhoelm system.

Although, in their opinion, any German will tell you that the Oehler system is far much superior to the Bhoelm system.

Although the two instruments look similar, there exists a difference between the two instruments. The significant difference can be seen in the keys that are meant for the little finger.

The Oehler system has a half-round key ends with a wooden roller and flat two levers, where the Bhoelm system has four levers.

What are clarinets made of?

The Clarinets can be made using different materials.

Classical instruments are commonly known to have been made from boxwood.  To send notes far and wide that are part of difficult passages, the instruments have undergone a dynamic change.

Grenadilla has become the most widely used material in making the clarinet. Grenadilla is commonly used because it has a higher density than boxwood.

The use of grenadilla makes it more comfortable during the performance to support the clarinet with body hence allows more air volume. This makes the sound to be more gentle and soft.

Here is a video by Yamaha talking about the difference between ABS resin and grenadilla.

The clarinet family

The family of clarinets is made up of similar instruments, although the sizes vary.

This includes bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet, alto clarinet, and piccolo clarinet. 

The bass clarinet can trace its origin to France. 

There are also instruments in this family that differ slightly in construction, such as the basset horn. 

The clarinet and jazz

Since 1910, the clarinet has continued to play a central role in the jazz music.  It could be said that jazz music was made for this instrument moreso than classical, but that would be splitting hairs.  

The attraction between jazz music and the clarinet is not surprising, in retrospect.  Jazz music has a mysterious sound that is quite beguiling, and that same description could be used for the clarinet’s tone itself.

The Bb soprano clarinet is one of the most commonly used instruments by jazz pioneers such as Sidney Bechet and Johnny Dodds.

Here’s the best of Sidney Bechet, just to give you a taste of his incomparable clarinet styles in the old New Orleans jazz mode.

A number of bands have actively used clarinets from the 1920’s to the 1970’s, but this is generally found outside of the realm of the the rock, pop, and blues genres that dominated the radio starting in the 1940’s.

The usurping of the clarinet from the jazz ensemble by the saxophone, made the clarinet seem to disappear partially. This is because the saxophone was a louder and more forceful instrument, that did not have as complicated of a fingering system.

Also, modern jazz required an increase in speed and this did not also favour the clarinet, which was not built for the same blinding ferocity as the sax. 

That said, you can rock out on a clarinet (examples below) and it can be played quite fast.  But, if you look at a saxophone, you can see that by design it is designed to really wail if you push it, whereas clarinets are a more demure instrument by nature.  

As you can hear, it is possible to “riff” on a clarinet, but at the same time, it always has that “nice” and rather calming breath-y sound that basically precludes it from being a full-on rock instrument.

Now, you might say, “Why don’t they just electrify a clarinet like you would a guitar?”  Well, they have.  If you are interested in this concept, please check out the following video on the subject of electric clarinet.

Because it is naturally a rather lively instrument, clarinet is found everywhere in a wide variety of musical styles.  Modern styles, older more obscure styles – clarinet has a wide berth in terms of appeal.

Samba and choro, both of which are Brazilian music style, use clarinets quite liberally.

Clarinets have also been featured in the folk music in Macedonia, klezmer music and Bulgarian wedding music.

In conclusion, the clarinet is one of the instruments that is indispensable to the vocabulary of music, due to its exotic and unique nature, ability to play speedy runs, chromatic embellishments, and generally lighter touch.

The uniqueness of the clarinet still stands today as its prime feature, and we can’t imagine that the clarinet is going anywhere anytime soon.  All hail the clarinet!  Leave us a comment if you also love this instrument, or if you know about something that we may have missed!

The Controversial History Of The Banjo

History can be a hard thing to discuss, because, inevitably, you probably weren’t there to see the events unfold as they did. 

This is especially true when we’re talking about the history of one particular musical instrument with a somewhat checkered past – the banjo.

The banjo, as we know it, dates back 400 or so years to the Carribean in the 1600’s, when and where it was first documented.

By documented, I am referring to the only way anything way typically was documented centuries before now, and that is to say – in books, by way of either sketches or more detailed drawings, since cameras weren’t yet invented.

Sir Hans Sloane – First Documented Picture of a Banjo

For instance, here is an image taken from a travel journal from 1707 by Sir Hans Sloane, called “A Voyage to the Islands of Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica”. 

This shows the first documented image of what appears to be a banjo, or something like it, in the Carribean isles.

It should be noted that the book from which this picture was taken, was based on events that occurred in 1687, and then transcribed into book form in the 1700’s. 

Sir Hans Sloane was a noted Irish physician, and his purpose in the Carribean was to assist the new Governor of Jamaica, the second Duke of Albemarle, as his personal physician.

While visiting the islands, he collected plants for study and also documented other things.  He also invented drinkable chocolate (chocolate milk), so you have him to thank for that, apparently.

As you can see from the drawings in his documents of the islands around Jamaica, these “banjos”, as it were, didn’t really resemble the banjos of today.  This is because they weren’t, strictly speaking, banjos.

These instruments were, at the time of documentation by Hans Sloane, considered to be simply the instruments the peoples of the Carribean were playing at the time, and in the text you can see them referred to as “lutes”.

One of the defining characteristics of a banjo, which is present in the above example, is the drum-like body.

I should mention that, around this time in history (mid-1600’s), there were dozens of variations of stringed instruments that all appeared slightly different.

With the increasingly large migration patterns of people in 1600’s, it was certainly a difficult task to document what each was called, and what unique traits each one possessed.

Stringed instruments themselves date back 40 000 years, so it’s not as though stringed instruments themselves were new.  Humans have been playing stringed instruments for thousands of years. 

Plucked lutes, in particular, have been documented in Mesopotamia from around 6000 years ago.

Today the word banjo is loosely defined as: A stringed musical instrument (chordophone) with a round body, a membrane like soundboard and a fretted neck, played by plucking or strumming the strings.  

The origin of the word “banjo” can be traced back to several places, including “banja” from Jamaica, “banza” from Brazil, and mbanza from Angola.

I’ve also seen the word “banjo”, used as a verb, meaning “to beat” or “to hit”.  As in, “He banjoed that guy in the face.”  This usage is, apparently, of British decent.  I don’t believe it is commonly used nowadays, but only the Brits know this for sure.

Where Did The Banjo Instrument Originally Come From?

Although the first documented picture of what could be considered a banjo dates back to the 1600’s in the Carribean islands (ie.(the one at the top of this article), this doesn’t mean banjos were “invented” in the Carribean.

Again, if we define a banjo as a stringed instrument with several strings and a drum-like surface, we can trace its origins back even further, and to other continents.

There are many popular perceptions surrounding precisely where the banjo originated, and there are logical reasons for each of these presumptions. 

For example, most people who live in North America don’t think first of the Carribean as the birthplace of the banjo.  To some of us living in North America, suggesting that the banjo came from the Carribean doesn’t really sound accurate, and I think this is understandable.

The more dominant association that Westerners, I think, tend to recognize between the banjo and a particular geographic location, links the banjo, at least in the Westernized mind, to the southern United States.

This is a fair guess, as much of the lore, not to mention the majority of the popular media from the past 50 years, associates the banjo with styles of music that originated in the southern U.S., such as bluegrass, dixieland, and country music.

In addition, southern banjo players have been prominently been featured on various television shows and movies over the past 50 or so years, and that leads many of us to simply assume that banjo must come from the southern U.S., not the Carribean, as most research points to quite clearly.

Indeed, I’d say that there is a deep association between the instrument we call the “banjo” and states in the U.S. which are considered to be Appalachian. 

Appalachian states include: West Virginia, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.

In turn, the history of Appalachian culture traces back to Scotland, Ireland, and Germany, when those peoples moved to North America and began living there in the 1800’s.  And so, there are those who might guess that the banjo may have come from these countries, originally. 

For example, it would seem fairly logical to think that the banjo may have come from Ireland, where the banjo is still popular today, when Irish peoples migrated into the mysterious and mountainous Appalachian rural regions, when the potato famine and general starvation prompted them to leave their homeland.

As many of us are aware, there are various stigmas attached to the idea of the someone who is from Appalachia, both good and bad, which I need not elaborate on here. 

Suffice it to say, Appalachian peoples are considered to be of the land, and there is certainly a connotation that links banjo playing to a more rural type of folk. 

In other words, an impoverished people, and this is fact is very much line with the reputation of previous peoples who played the banjo in past decades, where they were of a lower caste.  

Here is that famous scene from the movie Deliverance, featuring the classic “dueling banjos” bit, although one “banjo” is clearly a guitar.

The interesting thing about the boy from Deliverance, Lonnie, who was presumably chosen for this unusual appearance (the book depicts an albino negro), is that he didn’t even know how to play the banjo, nor was he recruited from the backwoods of northern Georgia.  

This next clip interviews the “boy” himself (now in his 50’s), played by Billy Redden, where he talks more about his role in the movie and his lack of skill on the instrument.

The clip also includes an interview with Ronny Cox (who played Drew Ballinger) talking about the cultural significance of the famous banjo scene, as being one of the defining movie moments of all time.

As more research is done about the history of the banjo, an interesting but rather dark narrative began to emerge from the gloaming of the past.

All that is needed to put this in perspective is a proper view of history and the slave trade in the 1600’s, which historians, by this point, have illustrated rather conclusively, to the point where any educated person would have trouble refuting it.

When it comes to the banjo’s true origins, all research points to it originating from Africa.  Specifically, countries such as Senegal or The Gambia (ie. Senegambia), which were the focus of the slave trade.

The original picture which I shared at the beginning of this article, from 1707, shows a version of the banjo that does not yet appear in its modern form.

Banjos made from gourds

When the banjo was beginning to catch on in the Carribean, it still showed some evidence of its past where it was fashioned sometimes out of gourds, serving as a shell for the body.  This was then attached to its characteristic long neck, and strings were added.

Before banjos took on the appearance we know them to have today, with a circular body shaped that almost looks like a snare drum, their precursors from Africa were often made from different materials than were available in the Americas in later centuries. 

Here is a reproduction of a colonial era banjo made with a gourd for a body.  As you can see, this has influences of a style of instrument popular in Africa over the centuries.  At the same time, you can see how this instrument below does have characteristics of the modern banjo.

Next, we have an image of a banjo that seems to bridge the gap, between a banjo body made out of a gourd, and one that more resembles a wider circular drum. 

Even though it still has a primitive look, like it wasn’t “professionally” built, this banjo begins to take on a more “modern” shape.

The image most of us conjure up when someone says the word “banjo”, was not yet in existence in 1707, and wouldn’t be for at least 100 years.

Here is an old banjo from the 1900’s.  By this time, banjos were fully Americanized, one might say.  It has the modern fretboard, the modern tuning pegs, and the unmistakable body and neck shape.

To reach its modern form, history would have to wait until the late, great, and controversial Joel Sweeney came along in the 1830’s and “invented” it, or so it has been said.

Joel Sweeney, “Inventor” of the 5-String Banjo

Joel Walker Sweeney was a popular minstrel performer from the first half of the 19th century hailing from Virginia, who was perhaps the first popular white man to famously play the instrument.  At the same time, he was said to have been taught by African Americans, which is partly why he could play so good.

Joel Sweeney has been credited with raising the profile of the banjo from an instrument associated with the unwashed masses, and bring it up to a level of sophistication which could be eventually be accepted, and then firmly embraced by the middle class.  

Claiming that Joel Sweeney somehow single handedly raised the stature of banjo playing on a global level is almost too ludicrous to say, but it may in fact ultimately be true. 

The reason the claim is contentious, is because Joel Sweeney was not just a talented performer who ended up making the banjo more famous because of his adept abilities on the instrument.  He certainly was that, but that was only part of how Joel Sweeney shined the spotlight on the banjo, and “brought it” to the higher societal castes, as it were.

Here is a book on Joel Walker Sweeney, if you are interested in getting the full story on the man and what he did for the banjo.

Feature Pick

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The Birth Of The Banjo: Joel Walker Sweeney And Early Minstrelsy

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The Birth Of The Banjo: Joel Walker Sweeney And Early Minstrelsy

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It is more accurate to say, I think, that Joel Sweeney was a multi-talented circus performer who, according to rumour, played the instrument with his feet, while fiddlin’ with his hands, and then playing mouth harp all at the same time, when the mood hit him. 

He was also highly skilled at imitating animals, as one of his primary talents for which he was known.  Basically, the guy was just a son of a gun who was, by all accounts, very entertaining to everyone who happened to catch his performances.

His influence spread as he and his troupe toured America, as well as Europe, and even played for Queen Victoria in 1843.  He then went on and played and showed off his formidable banjo playing skills with his brothers, called Old Joe’s Minstrels.

Joel Sweeney’s influence on the popularity of the banjo cannot be underestimated.

The controversy, which occurs more in retrospect than it did at the time it happened, comes now from the fact that Joel was a blackface performer, a practice which is now practically forbidden in Western society today.

To be specific, blackface is the theatrical practice where non-black performers painted themselves up to look “black” with greasepaint, burnt cork, or shoe polish.

The last time we saw people performing in blackface wasn’t all that long ago.  One more recent instance was The Black and White Minstrel Show from 1978.

Consider this – slavery didn’t end until 1865, with the introduction of the 13th Amendment, which declares: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Of course, it is not difficult to see the connection between the racial stereotypes that blackface seemed to promote, and the mistreatment of blacks through the centuries.  In fact, the idea of the old style minstrel show, complete with blackface, is a quick reminder to many people, to this day, of the existence of slavery, and various caricatures of black culture.

Of course, where you had minstrel shows in the 17th century, onward, you had blackface, and so then you had banjos.  Banjos, the instrument which was beginning to see acceptance worldwide, and detaching itself from various prejudices of the times, was still very much embroiled in what I can only call “racism”.

It is understood that, in the context of the times, minstrel shows were quite normal.  Then again, so was slavery. 

Perhaps the most famous blackface performer people know today is Al Jolson, who was the highest paid entertainer back in the 1920’s and was, at the time, proclaimed “The World’s Greatest Entertainer” at one time.

Al Jolson, although he didn’t play the banjo himself, helped popularize one of the most well known banjo songs ever – Oh Susanna. 

To me, this song represents, in large part, why the banjo is thought to come from the southern U.S., as the lyrics reflect this, and the song is maybe the best known banjo tune of all time.

As you can see above, Al Jolson used blackface makeup, which he often did. 

This practice of blackface dated back to, reportedly, the 1400’s, but had become very popular in colonial America at the time in the 1800’s.  There are many pictures of blackface performers holding or playing banjos.

The association between minstrels wearing blackface makeup and the banjo itself is a strong one, but I don’t say this to indict the banjo as being part of the history of racism, even though it essentially is a part of that history.  That said, you can’t really “blame” an instrument for anything, can you?

Of course, there’s no denying that the banjo probably wouldn’t have made it to the Carribean, to be used by slaves in the Americas, had it not been brought across the seas along with the thousands of slaves who played similar instruments, and who were sold to slavers at the time, in the 1600’s, when the trade was in full swing.

It is worth mentioning that at this time, the banjo was not called a “banjo.”   I mentioned some of the other names of the banjo that were used previously, but, back in 1687, when Sir Hans Sloane was travelling in the Carribean, writing his now-famous journals, he referred to the instrument as the “strum strump”.  Nice name!  

Akonting

In these African communities in Senegambia, from which slaves were being captured and brought to the Americas by the thousands, there was (and still is) an instrument known as the akonting, which is said to be the precursor to the modern banjo.

Other African instruments said to be precursors of the banjo include the ngoni and xalam, but for now I’ll focus on the akonting, a hide-covered instrument said to be the most similar to the banjo. 

The akonting (also known as the ekonting to the Jola tribes who first created them) is a strummed folk lute style of instrument which is similar to a banjo, traditionally made with a gourd for a body, along with two strings for melody, plus one drone string played with the thumb.  This makes the akonting similar to a 5-string banjo. 

The akonting can be traced back to the village of Kanjanka, Senegal.  It can be tuned in different ways, similar to a 5-string banjo, and its tuning, called kanjanka, equates to kan (5th note of a scale), jan (root note of a scale), and ka (the flatted 7th), or 5/1/-7. 

Here is a picture of a Jola village, the originators of the akonting / ekonting instrument.

Up next, we have a man named Daniel Jatta, playing a tune written by his father on the akonting in the traditional style. 

The downstroke style here, called “o’teck” or “to strike”, is very similar in style to the very first banjo styles in the Americas, the “stroke style”, which was a precursor to the clawhammer or frailing style.

While all of this seems very plausible, that the akonting was brought over to the Americas by slaves, and that is the instrument upon which the modern banjo was based, there is still some controversy around this topic, making it unclear at which point exactly what happened during those harrowing years when the slaves were brought to the Americas.

Banjos on the Plantations

By 1807, there were over 3 million African slaves in the Americas, where they harvested crops like tobacco, sugar, and cotton.

Once the slaves were living in the Americas, they lived on the plantations, worked, and, above all else, suffered.  For a more detailed history of what this was like, go here.

As much as the African slaves suffered, their music never left them, and they looked for opportunities to express it, as anyone would.

Although they basically were brought here with nothing, the African slaves were eventually able to have some small respite from their masters, at first through the singing of gospel music, which is something that was impossible to take from them completely and helped them cope. 

Then, if they were able, they would produce the occasional musical instrument that they were able to build by hand.

This is where their memories of their favourite native African instruments came back to them, and they were able to make these banjo-esque instruments, in order to accompany their singing, and put voice to their struggle. 

That is, if their cruel slave masters allowed it.  Some plantation owners certainly did not accommodate their wishes, regardless of how modest they were.

Here is a recent “lynching memorial” erected in Montgomery, Alabama.

William Boucher

In the midst of the tumult that was America in the 1800’s, due to slavery, wars, and other factors, a Baltimore man named William Boucher was busy building instruments, including drums and minstrel banjos.  He was the first ever commercial maker of banjos in the U.S.A.

Here is a video which shows a replica of a Boucher banjo being played.  Not surprisingly, there’s a little Oh Susanna thrown in for good measure. 

You can still purchase original builds of these banjos, although they will can cost upwards of $10 000 nowadays.

Conclusion

While there is plenty more to say about the development of the banjo up through the years, I think it’s alright to stop here.  

As we know, the banjo went on to become an instrument that is a major part of the broader musical landscape around the world. 

Despite its confusing and controversial history, I can say that in 2018, if a young person wants to learn the banjo, they can do so without having to ponder all of the heavier historical baggage that comes along with it and just enjoy the music.  

That said, sweeping history under the rug is never a wise thing to do, especially when we know some of the facts.

Unique Guitar Picks Created by Some Dude’s Pesopicks Stuart Brady

Before I get to my talk with Some Dude’s Pesopicks creator, Stuart Brady, I want to say a few words about the humble guitar pick.

If you play guitar, you probably know there are picks of all shapes, sizes, colors, thicknesses, designs, etc. 

You might even keep several guitar picks handy, and stop by the local guitar shop regularly to re-stock.  Picks are usually kept at the front of store and sold for under a dollar, near the other relatively inexpensive musical accessories like guitar strings, capos, etc. 

For such a small object, guitar picks are certainly an important part of guitar player’s setup.  They help define the sound, even though they don’t generally get a lot of credit.  

Guitar players can get rather particular about their picks, the more they develop a certain sound.  It is at this point that guitar players start to notice the different characteristics in the picks they like or dislike, and their preferences get more particular.

Some players want picks that have a grip, others like ’em smooth.  Some want them thicker, others want them paper thin.  Some like gimmicky picks that are covered in logos and designs, others like them with no symbols on them in just one color only. 

The type of pick you use depends on your own playing style more than anything, and that can take time to develop.

It’s worth mentioning, for the sake of beginner guitar players out there, that the type of pick does contribute something significant to the sound that’s being produced by the guitar. 

That said, guitar picks, for the most part, are made of plastic and many players don’t think about them much.  You just buy 10 for a dollar as you’re making other purchases, and if you drop them on the ground and lose them, many would say “Who cares?”

But some picks you might not want to lose.  

Pesopicks

The thing is, not all picks cost $0.25 and look cheap and shoddy.  Some guitar picks are worth showing off.

Enter: the Pesopick.

These unique picks are made from actual Mexican pesos by a dude by the name of Stuart Brady, AKA Some Dude.  In fact, his business name is Some Dude’s Pesopicks.

Here is the Pesopickdude himself standing with the late great Bill Paxton.

Stuart makes a living producing these Pesopicks by hand in his home state of Texas, home of some of the greatest guitar players of all time. 

He started making Pesopicks decades ago, in an effort to create a more durable, unique type of guitar pick that creates a deeper, richer sound.  They have other benefits as well, such as outlasting the person using them.

We were lucky enough to talk with Stuart about his prized creations.  We just had to get the lowdown on them straight from the source. 

Enjoy our Q&A with the the Pesopickdude!


What are Pesopicks?

Pesopicks are authentic Mexican pesos handcrafted into guitar picks.

How durable are these things?

They will last forever…the first one I made is owned by my best friend and is over 40 yrs old.  He still uses it everyday…they are heirlooms.

What do you like about the metal on metal sound?

They make your stringed instrument a little brighter and louder, creating awesome pinch harmonics…they are super fast due to less friction than other picks.

How much does a Pesopick cost?

They start at $50.00 and go up in price depending on type of peso and the work done to it.

What’s the difference between a Pesopick and your typical $.050 plastic guitar pick?

They don’t wear out and they wont harm strings…kinda of a nickel on nickel thing.

Is it true that Billy Gibbons has a soft spot for these picks?  Also, why does he like them so much?

Yes, Billy Gibbons loves them and I am currently making him a large order of them now. I believe he likes them because of the tones they create plus the mystique of the peso as a pick.

Who’s the intended audience of these types of picks?

The intended audience is anyone that wants to improve their technique and tone.

How long does it take to make one of these babies?

It normally takes me about an hour to complete one single pesopick…but I do about 30 to 50 in stages.

Do you ever run out of stock?

Sometimes I do run out of stock…but not for long…I have a lot of contacts.

How unique is each pick, would you say?

Each pesopick is unique, but they are consistent with the shape and size of a regular fender 357 style pick…they are never the same because of dings, dents and scratches on the face of the coin.

Do you use any other coins these days besides the peso?

Sometimes I’ll make a pesopick with a lire or shilling, or any cool high quality metal coin large enough.

Are they only good for rock music?

They work excellent on any electric guitar, acoustic guitar, or bass guitar without harming the strings.

Where can people get them?

They can be had by contacting me on Facebook at this time…however, a website is in the works and should be up and running soon.

Check out the Pesopick Facebook page!

Our 3 Favourite Mandolin-Focused Websites

Mandolins are a popular instrument with a long, rich history, which are played in innumerable styles across the globe.  The fans of this instrument are dedicated and passionate, and so it’s no surprise that the mandolin has been growing in popularity as of late, especially on the ‘net.  If you are new to the world of mandolins, you may wonder – where does an admirer turn to find comprehensive information about this versatile and unique instrument online?  

In this article, we want to share with you what we think are the 3 very best mandolin websites on the internet today, providing just about everything you could ask for as a mandolin player and more.  Let’s check ’em out!

Mando Hangout

Website Features At A Glance

  • Community (Member Login)
  • Forum (Very Extensive)
  • Classifieds (Mandolins for sale)
  • Learning (Tabs, Videos, Find a Teacher)
  • User-Submitted Videos
  • Jukebox

Mando Hangout has been around for almost 10 years now, and its purpose has been, since the beginning, to be the most comprehensive mandolin resource on the internet.  Considering how extensive the topic of mandolins is, this is no small feat.  That said, Mando Hangout has evolved over the years to be basically exactly what it set out to be.  Complete with a login system to make you part of the online mandolin community, there are many mandolin resources here at your fingertips, whether you are logged in as a member, or just casually surfing the web.  

If you are new to Mando Hangout, just know that it’s going to take you a good while to explore the website, because there is so much to see and do there.  In terms of content, there is a ton of stuff to explore, from an extensive forum where people come to chat about everything mandolin-related, to a marketplace where you can browse the classifieds section, to a video catalog section where you can learn practically anything about the mandolin from the pros. 

As you look at the home page, there are 5 choices for what you can delve into on the left sidebar (Forum, Marketplace, Learn, Media, and More + the search bar), and each of these options has several sub-categories that are just a bounty of knowledge and media, from a video section where players post a wide variety of video, including live performance, instructional video, covers, originals, and more.  And then there’s a feature we really enjoy, which is the jukebox, allowing you to search different types of mandolin music by genre.  The “More” section has a lot going on as well, including a blog, reviews, a calendar that features nationwide events, and links to even more mandolin-related content!  These guys even sell Mando Hangout merch!

All in all, this is one mandolin online community you’ll want to explore if you are a player, or someone who is new to the instrument.

https://www.mandohangout.com/


Mandolin Café

Website Features At A Glance

  • Classifieds (Mandolins, Guitar, Banjos, Lessons, etc.)
  • Forum (Sorted by topic, lots of threads)
  • News (anything related to mandolins, across the country)
  • Mandolin Builders (who makes the, plus “eye candy” section)
  • Lessons (Tabs, songs, lessons, history, and more…)

Another great all around mandolin resource on the internet is the Mandolin Café, which has been around since, well, the dawn of the internet back in 1997! 

Again, what constitutes a good mandolin resource website is exactly what is offered by the Mandolin Café, including mandolins for sale, an extensive information forum, latest mandolin news, names of mandolin builders and pictures of different mandolins (they call it “eye candy”), historical information, nationwide events shown on their calendar, chords and tabs, classes, and on and on.

Like Mando Hangout, Mandolin Café has a member login, so that you can access even more resources relating to mandolins.  This site also has a handy search bar so you can find what you’re looking for quicker. 

There are a few things that set this site apart, such as the fact that it talks about other instruments such as guitars and banjos, but that’s only really in the classifieds section, where you’ll find instrument sales posted.  Otherwise, it’s mandolins 24/7. 

Also, you can see who is online, and what they’re up to on the site, which is a nice touch.  This shows who uses the site, and also what people tend to do on the website.  Visit the Mandolin Café and you’ll find people browsing the site just like yourself.  

One of our favourite sections of this website is the “social groups” listed under “Learn/Listen”.  Here you can find all sorts of mandolin aficionados from around the country, who are involved in various mandolin-related groups, from those who admire specific types of mandolins, to those who enjoy specific styles of mandolin playing, to jammers, and all sorts of other folks.  It’s a great place to visit to get a sense of the wide world of mandolins and the players who enjoy them.

We really could go on and on about the Mandolin Café, but we figure that if you’re reading this, we shouldn’t spoil it all for you by nitpicking everything.  Make haste and see what’s going on over there now if you haven’t been there before!

https://www.mandolincafe.com/


Mandozine

Website Features At A Glance:

  • Learn Mandolin (tabs, tunes, and techniques)
  • Apps (All kinds for mandolin)
  • Articles (Informative posts)
  • Social Media (Mandozine links to Facebook, Soundcloud, and more)
  • Pictures (some from events, some humorous)
  • Mandolin Radio
  • Links

Another tried and true website for mandolin players is actually also the oldest one on the net that we’ve seen, and that is Mandozine, dating back to 1996. 

It was a great resource for players then, and it remains the same today, featuring a strong educational element where people are invited to practice different mandolin tunes, with write-ups about the songs by in house teachers who work for the site, but provide valuable information for free. 

In addition to the tunes, you get the techniques as well, including picking techniques, reading scales, performing double stops (two-note harmonies), and more.

The media section of the site has several cool features, but one of our favourites has to be the home recordings section, which features users submitting their own personal tracks done on mandolin, showcasing the name of the song, the artist, and the instrument it was performed on.

Mandozine radio is another excellent feature of this website, allowing you to tune in on either desktop or mobile, featuring a number of artists and playlists that you’ll surely love if you’re a fan of mandolin-based music.  You can even submit your own tunes!

Overall, this is a great website with its own flair that you don’t want to miss out on if you’re a beginner or experienced player. 

http://www.mandozine.com/index.html


Conclusion

We hope you enjoy these websites focused on the mandolin, and please let us know what you think of them!

Best Mandolin Brands for Beginners 2018 – Reviews

We review the best mandolin brands on the market for 2018. It is exciting, buying a new instrument, but it is an investment that is worth taking some time to research before making a final decision.

For our list of the best mandolin brands, we looked at age and reputation of each company, as well as the materials and construction used to build their mandolins.

Seasoned mandolinists will be familiar with their brands of choice, so this article is geared toward beginner players who want to learn about the different mandolin makers in order to choose their instrument.

There are three models of mandolin on the market today: the very traditional bowlback, which is difficult to find and to hold; F style, which is favoured by bluegrass artists and has more decorative features in the body; A style, a simple pear-shaped mandolin good for beginners, folk and classical artists. The F and A styles were developed in the early 1900s by the Gibson Company.

We list the companies from lowest to highest price point.

Rogue

The first Rogue instruments came out mid-1990s, and to this day are considered ideal for beginners. Their mission is to provide quality instruments at the lowest price possible to give everyone a chance, since you can’t put a price on creativity, and music belongs to everybody. You’re looking at bang-for-your-buck with Rogue, whose instruments deliver solid playability and sound quality.

Rogue makes great instruments for those on a budget, specializing in making low-cost instruments based on classical designs. This is a great brand with unbelievably low price points (you can buy a mandolin for just $40).

They make a nice looking instrument. You’ll have to make sure you buy the right case for these, as the Rogue mandolins are sometimes slightly larger than other manufacturers.

Rogues have everything you’d expect from any mandolin: the necks are straight, intonation is near perfect, and the tuning pegs hold their tune during and in between plays.

There may be some nuances in the ease of turning the tuners, but these instruments are so affordable it’s nothing to really complain about. You might want to adjust your bridge on the Rogue in order to adjust the action (height of the strings on the fretboard).

You can take your instrument to a local music shop and they will set this up for you for about $15.

Ibanez

Ibanez uses quality hardware and desirable features on their instruments without breaking the bank. You will find great craftsmanship and tonality right out of the box. Its spruce top is largely responsible for this, while the mahogany bodies offer perfect sustain.

The sound comes out clear and crisp, with consistency throughout use. There are no cons to using an Ibanez mandolin, for they are well built and offer good tone, at a price point of around $200.

Loar

Loar makes handcrafted instruments inspired by classical designs. Both F and A style mandolins are tried, tested and true. You will recognize the quality of these mandolins in the way they chop (a sharp, short chord, commonly used in mandolin playing).

Their instruments are designed to look attractive while fitting comfortably into the user’s hand. A neat feature is they remove the fretboard after the 20th fret, in order to allow for easy strumming.

Kentucky

Kentucky Mandolin company is located in San Francisco, California, owned by Saga Musical Instruments, established in the 1970s. Their goal is to maintain tradition and time-honoured designs in their mandolins.

Their mandolins are manufactured in China where they have set up their own hand-carved workshop. Kentucky Mandolins is so named for the birthplace of bluegrass.

Kentucky makes damn nice mandolins, if you pardon the language, for both students and professionals. They are rather the best low-budget mandolins on the market in terms of quality.

They are very nicely finished instruments, with decent thickness of wood, usually modeled after famous instruments. Their classic design and low price point makes them a favourite.

These instruments play easily with really nice action straight out of the box. Action refers to height of strings on the fretboard. In the 1980s, their higher-end KM-1000, KM-1500 and Dawg models were built by a master luthier.

Gretsch

Gretsch is another beloved instrument manufacturer, offering mandolins in the low-mid price range ($330+). Their designs are very inspired by tradition, striving to capture the sounds of generations past and celebrate everyone’s musical roots.

Gretsch mandolins are beautifully made with solid spruce tops and mahogany sides. Solid wood construction is important to an instrument’s tonal quality, as the notes have one big piece of wood to work with, making for a more uniform sound, rather than glued slabs of different woods altogether. Solid wood also holds up better to the stress put on the instrument.

The finishes on these instruments are beautifully smooth and very nice to touch. The tuners hold their tune in between uses. Great action right out of the box. Well made, nice looking instruments.

David Dawg Grisman – Mandolin Masters Series

David “Dawg” Grisman is a living mandolin master, and today we celebrate his contributions to bluegrass and newgrass music, as well as acoustic composition. He is so revered in the bluegrass scene to have invented his own genre of music called Dawg Music, into which we shall delve further along in this article.

Dawg has toured with several bands, performed in his own, played as a session musician and composed many bluegrass and newgrass songs. He is best known for his work on the mandolin, but is also accomplished on the mandola, mandocello, banjo, piano, saxophone and keyboards.

Dawg was born in Passaic, New Jersey in 1945. His background is Conservative Jewish. His family was musical, as is often seen with virtuosic musicians who go on to make grand careers of lifelong musical study. His father was a professional trombone player and passed on his skill to David who was enrolled in piano lessons at age 7. In 1955, his father passed away, and David gave up the piano. Throughout this decade he was exposed to early rock n roll and pop music, from all of which taking inspiration for his future particular brand and style.

A few years later at age 14, he resumed piano playing after discovering the Kingston Trio during the period of American folk music revival. He and friends from school were greatly influenced by Ralph Rinzler, who possessed vast knowledge of folklore and traditional music. Folk music was very popular at this time and it was then that David decided to pursue music.
 

He got his start in 1963 as a member of Even Dozen Jug Band. The following year, 1964, he would meet close friend Jerry Garcia at a Bill Monroe concert in West Grove, Pennsylvania.

In 1967 he played mandocello on Morning Again, an album by Tom Paxton. Also in 1967, he played in Earth Opera, a psychedelic group with Peter Rowan (fellow bluegrass composer). Then in 1973, he formed Old and In The Way, a bluegrass group, with Peter Rowan, Vassar Clements, Jerry Garcia and John Kahn. It was during this time period he was given the nickname Dawg.

The next year, 1974, Dawg, Rowan and Richard Greene played in the band Muleskinner with Bill Keith and Clarence White. During this year he also played in The Great American Music Band. In 1975 he started the David Grisman Quartet who then released their first album in 1977. In this year he also played mandocello for Sweet Forgiveness by Bonnie Raitt.

 

Just as Dawg himself has played in several bands both live and as a session musician, Dawg Music is a style of music inspired by an eclectic selection of sounds, including jazz and modern jazz fusion, bluegrass, folk and Old World Mediterranean string band. Together all of these sources create a unique sound that is vivacious, playful and technical.

To this day he plays with the David Grisman Quintet and his other bluegrass group, David Grisman Bluegrass Experience with Keith Little on banjo, Chad Manning on fiddle, Jim Nunally on guitar and Samson Grisman on upright bass. Recently he toured with John Sebastian (songwriter and guitar player) as a duo. They also recorded an album together.

David Dawg Grisman is a feature artist on Common Chord, an album with both traditional and contemporary folk songs. He was a judge for the sixth and seventh annual Independent Music Awards, and his song Dawggy Mountain Breakdown was the opening theme of Car Talk, a talk show about automobiles.

His life’s work also includes appearing on American Beauty, an album by Grateful Dead (1970). He wrote a lot of bluegrass music for 1974 film Big Bad Mama, as played by the Great American Music Band. He was also involved with the music scores on films Capone (1975), Eat My Dust! (1976) and King of the Gypsies (1978).

 He is married, and has three grown children. His children are musicians and filmmakers residing in the United States. His son Samson plays bass and they often perform together. Gillian is a filmmaker living in California who directed Grateful Dawg about her father’s deep friendship with Jerry Garcia. Monroe is named for Bill Monroe of course, famed mandolin player, and plays in a Tom Petty tribute band in California.

Dawg’s versatile musical style has led him to accomplish great things, including his extensive discography as well as starting his own record label, Acoustic Disc Record Label, which he founded in 1990. The label is based in California and focuses on folk, bluegrass and new acoustic music. Before starting his own label, he has been associated with Electra, A&M and Warner Brothers. He is a highly accomplished musician and has given so much to the world of folk and newgrass. It is inspiring to see someone so wholly dedicated to their instrument and to furthering the genre.

Deering Goodtime Americana Banjo 12 In. Rim Review

The Deering Goodtime Americana Banjo has a grand 12 inch rim and a beautiful Renaissance head. These combine to give the instrument an incredible bass response with a warm tone. From the peghead with the Americana name all the way down to the blonde rim, this banjo will look great while you’re learning to play or when you’re standing in front of an audience.

Feature Pick

Deering Goodtime Americana Banjo 12 In Rim

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Specifications

  • Grand 12” rim
  • Renaissance head
  • Rock maple neck
  • Hardwood bow-tie inlay
  • Nickel-plated hardware
  • Geared fifth string
  • Long-neck 22 frets

First Impressions

This is a stunning instrument that has a great sound. This is actually an upgraded model with a grand 12” rim and Renaissance head. We’ve included a video from the manufacturer, so you can hear how much warmer the tone is with the new, improved banjo.

The Goodtime Americana is a long-neck banjo that has been around for years, but the current new model has a warmer sound. It’s made of natural woods with quality construction from a company that cares about its customers. They only create a certain amount every year because they take the time to make quality instruments that are good enough for their customers.

The Americana has the Deering fiddle-shaped peghead with the name engraved on it in beautiful script. We love the fine details and satin finish of this instrument. When you’re purchasing accessories for your banjo playing, make sure you buy a stand to display your banjo when you’re not plucking those strings.

Deering Company

The Deering Banjo company has been around for over 40 years. They’re the company that actually made Pete Seeger’s long-neck banjo back in the day. He’s the one that made the Deering Vega incredibly popular. They have been creating banjos that customers love for generations.

The company creates banjos with artisans who have a total of 271 years of experience. They provide some of the best banjos in the world. They are a family-run business that cares about the quality of the products they produce. They back those products up with great customer service and warranties for their instruments.

Required Setup

The banjos delivered to customers are left loose to ensure that they are not destroyed during delivery. When you buy a banjo from any company, you can be assured that it’ll come with loose strings and a bridge that needs to be placed. It’s always best to expect that you’ll have to make adjustments yourself or bring it to a professional who can perform those tasks for you.

The strings will need to be tightened and tuned to get the warm sound that the Americana can produce. There are markings on the bridge where you’ll want to place it under the strings, but in some cases, the markings might not be accurate. The professional will be able to accurately insert the bridge where it’ll produce the best sound. All the bolts and brackets should be tightened, too.

Instrument Materials

The rim is made of blonde violin-grade maple while the neck is a slender rock maple. The bridge is maple as well with an ebony top. This gives the entire banjo a lovely light appearance. The blonde material looks great with the dark, hardwood bow-tie inlay along the fret and the nickel-plated hardware.

Resonator or Open Back

The warm sound of the banjo is further enhanced by the open-back design. A resonator works to give a sound with more twang, which is great for certain kinds of music. Other styles need a warmer tone with less twang and resonance. You’ll love the warmth of the tone created with the open back on this Deering Goodtime Americana. If you haven’t, make sure you listen and watch the company’s video that we linked above. You can hear the beautiful tone of the instrument for yourself.

Frequently Asked Questions

How much does the banjo weigh?
This isn’t one of the most lightweight options for a banjo. It weighs approximately 11 pounds. It’s shipping weight is 11.35 pounds.

Does it come with any accessories?
This doesn’t come with accessories. You’ll have to measure the length and width of the instrument to find the right case for it.

Does the banjo come with a warranty?
The company provides for a 6-year warranty. You can contact their responsive customer service to report any problems.

Conclusion

From the beautiful fiddle-shaped peghead to the lovely blonde finish and the grand rim, this instrument is a true representation of the Deering quality of instruments. It’s a long-neck five-string banjo that looks as good as it sounds. We recommend this instrument for those who want to play something a bit different than the same old five-string that other musicians have played. You’ll catch the interest of everyone in your band as well as the audience.

5 Famous Jazz Mandolin Players

Mandolin takes 20th century root in American bluegrass and jazz style, both of which utilize tight improvisation and quick movement. With this article we take a look at five famous mandolin players who make/made significant contributions to the jazz mandolin style.

 1. Jethro Burns

Kenneth Charles Burns earned the name Jethro after touring as comedic duo Homer and Jethro back in the 1930s, with Henry D. Haynes. He brought humour to his mandolin acts, telling jokes between songs. His great energy and humour combined with impeccable mandolin picking and original style made him a mandolin legend.

He was a country musician, but played jazz style on the mandolin, using clean, single-note melodies rather than bluegrass style. He was responsible for introducing jazz melodies and methods of playing to country mandolinists. Growing up in the big band era, he took a lot of influence from Cole Porter and Duke Ellington.

Over the decades and into the 1970s he had inspired an entire younger generation of acoustic musicians. In this same decade he wrote several columns for Mandolin World News on both music and humour.

He toured with Haynes, Ken Eidson and Steve Goodman. He was a great entertainer, a master teacher of mandolin jazz, and was inducted to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001.

  1. Paul Glasse

Paul Glasse grew up in New York. As a young person he was drawn to the acoustic sound of the mandolin. Growing up he listening to bluegrass, old timey and New England traditional music, and moved to Austin, Texas in 1977 to sturdy under Tiny Moore who taught him Texas Swing. This genre is quick in tempo and blends early country with jazz harmony, a la 1930s swing. To this day, Paul is known for this style.

In the 1980s he won several mandolin contests for his master picking including the Buck White International Mandolin Championship. His signature skills include improvisation and head, where he takes on the lead of a song, or its main theme.

  1. John Reischman 

John Reischman has a large repertoire of songs and styles, whether he is writing original pieces and touring with his band the Jaybirds, re-inventing old-time tunes, or playing bluegrass. He is renowned for his mastery of the mandolin, which he began playing in the 1970s, and helped build the new acoustic sound.

He was highly influenced by early bluegrass mandolinists such as Jethro Burns and David Grisman. Over the years he has collaborated with many artists, creating new hybrids of cross-cultural sounds on the mandolin due to his interest in musical rhythms and stringed instruments.

In addition to his collaborative albums he also has three solo albums, on which he performs both original songs and traditional tunes. He stands at the forefront of American Bluegrass style, but his mandolin style is very jazzy in the sophisticated interplay between himself and other instruments, and his ability to improvise.

  1. Tony Williamson 

Tony Williamson is a mandolin virtuoso, bringing his extensive knowledge of musical intruments and their histories to his playing. For 40 years he has delighted audiences across the globe with his superb mandolin playing, and when he is not playing he is selling vintage and pre-owned instruments. This originated with his grandfather, who made musical instruments and inspired his grandchildren Tony and brother Gary, on banjo, to begin playing in 1957.

By 1969 Tony and his brother were child sensations and won World Championship. He received his degree with highest honours at University of North Carolina where he was born and raised, and after graduating, went on tour with the Bluegrass Alliance. From there he played in a number of bands utilizing classical, folk and jazz styles on his mandolin.

His work with the mandolin is largely responsible for its modern-day popularity, as he is immensely talented as a player but also highly knowledgeable. He shows his collection of vintage guitars and mandolins to crowds, demonstrating their tone and craftsmanship. It is rare to find instruments like these being used, as opposed to sitting in museums. He continues to record, using F-5 mandolins from the 1920s (around the time Gibson had invented this model). 

  1. Don Stiernberg 

Don Stienberg has been playing mandolin for fifty years, and in this time period he has also performed, written, recorded, produced and taught. He was born in Chicago and is based there. As a child he was gifted a mandolin, and was sent to study with Jethro Burns, who became role model, mentor and friend. Don lived and breathed mandolin and played in a bluegrass band called The Morgan Brothers, and later in The Jethro Burns Quartet.

He is currently regarded as a trailblazer for the jazz mandolin style. His working band is called The Don Stiernberg Trio, with whom he recently recorded his ninth music project. The trio has performed across North America and in Germany and Brazil. He participates in The Mandolin Symposium in California and several mandolin and acoustic camps across the United States, Italy, Germany and Brazil.