Popularity of banjos rises in mainstream music
Published: Wednesday, February 6, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, February 6, 2013 20:02
As we hear its strumming as the centerpiece in many indie-rock bands, the banjo is becoming more prevalent due to the success of the rising folk rock scene. Though recent bands like Mumford & Sons, the Avett Brothers and Trampled by Turtles deliver banjo performances in their songs, musicians have long been using the banjo for its ability to adhere to various genres of music.
Junior Jess Applebaum says she first heard the banjo when she saw the bluegrass band Ricky Boen and Texas Mud perform in Branson, Miss. She was immediately fascinated by its sound, she says, and her grandparents soon after purchased a banjo for her birthday.
Applebaum, who has played the banjo since she was 16, says because the presents certain challenges because it is different from other instruments. However, she says it is this quality that keeps her strumming.
“It sets me apart from a lot of other musicians who stick to the typical acoustic guitar and drum set,” Applebaum says.
While the banjo and guitar are similar in structure, Delaware-based performer Chris Braddock says the banjo offers a sound the guitar cannot.
“Compared to the guitar, there is virtually no sustain,” Braddock says. “So you pick a note and it gives you a tremendously percussive attack, but then it’s just gone. So that influences what you play on it, even though the basic techniques are the same.”
A university graduate, Braddock began playing the banjo in 1999 when he joined the Tidewater Brassband, a New Orleans–style jazz group, he says. He now teaches classroom courses, directs student ensembles and offers private lessons through the Music School of Delaware, where he teaches guitar and banjo.
However, Braddock says he does not play the five-string banjo that is usually associated with jazz music. Rather, he plays the plectrum banjo, a four-string instrument that is played with a pick and tuned in a similar fashion to the guitar.
Using the plectrum banjo, Braddock plays a jazz style often called Dixieland—the earliest form of jazz, he says. Acting as a part of the rhythm section along with the tuba and drums, the plectrum banjo is as an essential part of the Dixieland sound, Braddock says.
“The music has a swirling, contrapuntal flavor,” he says.
As far as the reemergence of the banjo in mainstream music, Braddock says it began before the release of Mumford & Sons’ first album, “Sigh No More,” which was completed in 2009. Rather, it began in the early 2000s when Dolly Parton released the album “The Grass is Blue,” a country album that differed from other albums of its genre primarily because of its increased emphasis on the banjo. Around the same time, the film “O Brother, Where Art Thou” was released, and Braddock says its soundtrack helped launch the banjo back into mainstream music.
Sophomore Phillip Chinitz, host of ‘Phil’s Jam Sesh’ Thursdays on WVUD says he has noticed an increase of requests for folk rock songs, often featuring the banjo, during his show.
“Mumford & Sons is one of those big bands that popularized the idea of playing the banjo,” he says. “People started to notice and said, ‘I really like how that sounds.’”
Though Braddock says the banjo has a key role in jazz music, he says it acts best as part of an ensemble rather than a solo instrument. Paired with other traditional folk instrument such as the mandolin, Braddock says the sound produced by the banjo can be excellent.
“It’s as if they were all invented to play together,” he says.