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The day of the dreaded big banjo


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I posted this over o the vintage corner of the UMGF, but then I thought this might have been a better place or it.




We have a lot of old instruments. They were bought mostly long ago as an investment, but they are also sort of like a wardrobe to us. We play several different styles and hang out in several different musical communities. We can do that because we are retired.


Perhaps our favorite community is the north Georgia bluegrass community and our favorite places are small bluegrass venues in rural Georgia. Well last weekend was a picking camp-out at the Armuchee Bluegrass Park. Wonderful because we had the RV, there was no show (so we did not have to play on stage), and all we had to do was jam (and jam and jam).


So we had choose what to ware and what instruments to play. Of course we had to have my wife's 1939 S-51 (5- string Kay) bass -- that goes without saying. My job is to move it from place to place so my wife can play it. We also took -- 1930 Studio King banjo (Gibson TB-3 conversion), 1921 Vega Whyte Laydie, 1944 J-45, 1944 D-28, 1939 D-28, 1930 Larson, and 1935 Jumbo. So we were ready for serious bluegrass, as well as a bit of old time (Vega) and even some folk revival (J-45 and Larson) in a corner sometime. Well we usually also bring some other "odd" (from a bluegrass perspective -- things like non dreadsrolleyes.gif) sort of instrument of for "show and tell." This time I chose bring our dreaded big banjo -- a 1923 GB-4 with a 14" head. I had bought it on ebay long ago because I liked the way Norman Blake played ragtime on his and it was the only guitar banjo whose tone I liked -- very deep and thunky.


Well then disaster struck. After the truck was loaded, I tipped and fell flat on my face on the concrete garage floor -- ouch! Well other than my pride, the only thing that was hurt was my right wrist -- it sustained a sprain. Not super bad, but bad enough I guess. The question was what could I play? Well anything that used my wrist energetically was out -- so no claw-hammer -- but also heavy guitar rhythm in a bluegrass session requires a lot of wrist. The latter was a serious loss, since when we sing I play the rhythm guitar role quite a lot. However there is always harmonicamsp_cool.gif, and anything that only involved fingerpicks -- BG banjo and ragtime/gospel guitar. Well we almost went home, but we got into a quiet ragtime guitar session with the J-45 pretty early and since that worked, we decided to stay.


Well we were looking forward to playing with our friends Nikki and James McKenny. Jame is pretty well know since he won the bluegrass banjo national title a couple of times -- in addition to bluegrass is also plays jazz, classical, blues, and big band tunes -- all on the banjo. Amazing stuff. But his other characteristic is that his banjo setup is the heaviest I have ever seen -- and I guess he may be the loudest player I know (and I know a lot of loud banjo players). Playing rhythm for James is an aerobic activity. So I was sad. Not wishing to whine or embarrass myself, I did not even take out either of the old bones. I decided this was a novelty opportunity, so I brought out the GB-4.




Well strumming the GB-4 is out of the question -- it sounds like a cat being sucked into a vacuum cleaner. But alternating thumb ragtime and banjo rolls work fine. It has a wonderful thunky tone. But here is the thing -- it was the loudest instrument in the session. You could hear every note. With all that power and thunk, alternating thumb rhythm could actually drive a bluegrass session -- who knew? For four hours one day and ten hours the next, we turned it every way but loose. Undoubtedly a once-in-a-lifetime experience all because I had a sprained wrist and a GB-4.


Let's pick,



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First, I am glad you are OK. Us old guys can be a bit brittle.


I do appreciate these things aesthetically. And I do putz around with banjolins and the like while my daughter plays a banjo uke (she is pretty darn good on it). But about the only time I have really been tempted to play a banjo was after watching that History of the Banjo with that guy playing it on his lap with a slide. That guy's playing sounded amazing.

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Interesting that it's a '23 with no truss rod, and 34 brackets to tighten & adjust - Wow!


Re those square holes underneath the head - is that a tone ring, or part of the rim?


Part of the rim -- it would have been invisible with a skin head.

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Quite cool!


QMaka Jazzman Jeff

Ps. I've played 5 string banjo since I was 10 years old, so I am a banjo enthusiast. I primarily play bluegrass or folk banjo (from the Pete Seeger book long ago).


I too find banjos hypnotically compelling in a way that does not happen with other instruments.





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