The lowly, stereotyped, and at times downright confused profile of the bluegrass banjo is about to get a significant jolt. The new BBC series Play It Again features a number of celebrities learning to play a musical instrument and comedian Frank Skinner will be taking 5-string banjo lessons. His bluegrass journey will include some tutelage from our very own British picker John Dowling.
With a BBC One audience of several million tuning in, a sudden rise in the number of beginner banjo players is surely inevitable. To help make the most of the interest, we’ve quizzed Frank’s tutor about starting out on banjo and the British bluegrass music scene.
He’s been playing music for most of his life, but 25-year-old John fully understands how you can’t make people learn to play if they don’t want to. “When I was five years old I started playing the violin,” he tells us. “I soon lost interest, however my parents made me stick at it. Forcing someone to play a musical instrument is a risky move as you may achieve the adverse effect of making them hate music forever. I love the sound of the violin, especially in bluegrass, but to this day I can’t play it without feeling like it’s a chore.”
Despite this, John was still keen to play music in some way. “When I was twelve, I heard what I later found out to be bluegrass on some Burt Reynolds car chase film. Having only been exposed to classical music all my life, this fast, anarchic, and dare I say fun music on the film hit me between the eyes like a brick. I knew by general knowledge that the fast twangy instrument in the song was a banjo, so I asked my dad if I could get one for Christmas.”
But his youthful enthusiasm may still have ended there. “I specifically asked for a four string banjo, thinking it would be easier to play, not realizing that it’s a completely different instrument and that the fast stuff I had just fallen in love with was actually played on a five string.
“The reason why I now play what I play, the reason why I’m doing this interview, and the reason that everything that my life and career is based on is due to the very simple twist of fate that the shop that my dad got my new banjo from had run out of four string banjos, so he got me a five string instead.”
That’s something that anyone who wants to learn bluegrass style banjo needs to know. You definitely need five strings but John insists that you needn’t break the bank to buy one. “My Mum recently bought me an open back Ozark travel banjo for £160 so I didn’t have to keep hurting my back carrying my other great heavy thing around London.” he says. “A colleague then gave me a pickup (for plugging into a PA system) which he bought once for £8, and God’s honest truth, it sounds just as good as my Custom Calico Deering banjo and £300 pound pickup. I use it everywhere now. Just goes to show that you don’t need to spend a fortune to get a good banjo.”
You can see John playing that banjo on the tutorial video he’s recorded to go with the show.
If you are starting to learn banjo then you can choose to teach yourself at home, or get out and meet and learn from other musicians. John recommends the latter route. “You ideally need to find a teacher,” he says. “I’m not saying that books and DVDs are no good, in fact I would promote learning from as many different sources as possible, but a book or DVD can’t tell you when you’re doing something wrong, and you can’t ask a book a question.”
John also encourages new players to get to jams and picking sessions. He pays credit to the work of those running the scene in Cheshire, whom we recently featured on ukbluegrass. He makes it clear that beginners shouldn’t be frightened by such gatherings. “It’s for anyone who plays bluegrass at any level. It never feels intimidating or puts anyone on the spot.” He adds that if you’re keen, “festivals are another good way of playing in sessions and finding people who want the same thing. The great thing about bluegrass is that anyone can join in and anyone can get up and perform it.”
Beginners also needn’t be put off thinking that the banjo is all about super-fast tunes. “Most people when they think of the banjo, they think of many notes played fast, instead of one note played perfectly.” he explains. “The sound of the banjo is sometimes overlooked in order to play fast. However, recently I’ve been playing in such a way that focuses on the sound of each note individually.”
John is currently involved in a number of projects, taking in a wide range of styles from western swing to classical. But to the general public, the bluegrass banjo stereotype remains firmly entrenched. “There’s no doubt that Deliverance made the banjo known to probably everyone in the whole world, hence I always get the biggest reaction from the audience when I play it,” says John. “It will always remain a comic tune, but I use it as a tool to turn a few heads so I can get a better reaction with the stuff I actually want to play.”
To culminate Frank Skinner’s banjo journey for Play It Again, he’ll be seen taking part in the National Bluegrass Banjo Championship, in Winfield, Kansas. It’s a competition that John famously won in 2002, the first ever overseas winner of the title.
So what does that mean for a picker? “I think it’s more long lasting to be a British winner as opposed to an American winner because it’s always Americans that win it,” says John. “One year after Winfield a new winner comes along, but the British winner is still classed as the current British winner. Of course it’s a major thing to put on your CV and pull out the hat a few times, but it counts for a small part of everything you’re working on.”
“I would like to say at this point that I don’t parade up and down my street five years after winning Winfield, holding my trophy and singing ‘I Am The Champion’. I just mean at gigs and things, you get introduced as the winner of Winfield sort of thing.”
It’s completely true. I’ve met John, had a lesson with him, seen his gold-plated banjo he won at Winfield up close, and can honestly say he’s just your normal down-to-earth, hairy musician type.
So, will Frank go on to once again win it for Britain? The heart says yes, but the head says no. Let’s just say, it was recorded last year, and obviously John can’t tell us the results before the show, but a quick Google will…we’ll leave it as a surprise.