The Banjo By. Dr. Michael Herndon, DDS, Amsterdam Fellow –

   Before I actually tell some banjo jokes, lets talk a bit about this rather incredible and interesting instrument. It originally came from Africa and was called a Banjar. It also only had 4 strings and while 4 string banjos are still played today, it was converted to what we now know as a 5 string banjo when an interesting fellow named Joel Walker Sweeny added a 5th string that was shorter than the other strings and thus higher in pitch. This modification was done in 1831 and thus the 5 string banjo, commonly heard in bluegrass music, was born. It is the 5th string that gives it such a distinctive sound. And this leads us to a few of the jokes about such a beautiful yet intrusive instrument!

   So, what is Perfect Pitch? When you throw the banjo out the window into the dumpster and it doesn’t hit the sides. What do you say about a bunch of banjos buried up to their necks in the sand? The sand ain’t deep enough…

   How do you get a million dollars? Start off with two million dollars and buy a banjo. The definition of a successful banjo player? A guy whose wife has two jobs. And to keep it diverse, if you drop a banjo and a set of bagpipes at exactly the same time from a 10 story building, which will hit the ground first? Who cares?

   Aaaand … the jokes go on and on. I’m a guitar player, both electric and acoustic, but all of my early years on the guitar were playing fingerstyle in alternate tunings. So when I first picked up a banjo in Mill Valley in 1969 I was hooked. I bought a Vega Scruggs banjo and had it for a number of years only to sell it to pay rent and one month later I owed rent again only did not have a banjo. I did that with a guitar once too but after that I learned my lesson. Never sell something you love.

   A little over a month ago, Multi-instrumentalist Joe Craven was staying with us and we decided to go into the local wine bar here in Quincy and jam with the rather loose but fun group called “Fish Tacos”. We all had a great time and I had so much fun that I have been joining them regularly… on the banjo of course. The banjo, as exemplified by well known Bela Fleck, does not have to be clanky and bluegrass sounding and can actually sound round and warm as opposed to harsh and, well, clanky.

   The banjo is a wonderful, incredible, and joyful instrument and one of the fun things about playing one in a group is that you can always be heard. Indeed, I often tell people when I am playing the banjo to keep their teeth together so their fillings don’t fall out. Add one more joke to the list!