How to end a relationship…learn the banjo

by Bill Boyer

Teaching yourself an instrument can be tricky, especially if you have no experience in playing any instrument, and not being around those that do.  On top of that, learning to correctly play a style like clawhammer by oneself from a book is even more insane. When I first started teaching myself the banjo I found some tab books, but soon found out that if I never heard the tune before how was I gonna play it correctly.  So I started looking for records that included tunes I wanted to learn, which in 1971 wasn’t that easy. Nowadays there are plenty of teachers, videos, youtube, etc where you can actually get the concept.

Framus Banjo circa 1971

In 1970/71 I traveled the “Hippy Trail” from Europe to Kathmandu, by bus and train, a year long trip, where I carried an inexpensive Framus banjo that I bought in Berlin, and Pete Seeger’s book. I depended on the kindness of strangers (fellow travelers) to help me tune it, but during that whole trip I never met anyone who knew anything about banjos, especially the clawhammer, or frailing style. Plus Pete’s book had examples of many styles and diverse tunes, like “Ode to Joy” which kinda kept me unfocused on any one style.

I had some encounters at various borders where they were concerned that I was going to sell the banjo in their country and if I was then I should pay some sort of duty, when they wanted proof that it was my personal instrument I had to pull it out of my case and play it, well, since I couldn’t really tune it myself, or even play the durn thing it was kind interesting to see their expression when I tried.

In Afghanistan the people loved it, the chrome parts especially, and I was offered semi precious gems, like Lapis Lazuli  and Turquoise, as well as globs of Opium, all which I declined. But in India the land of the Sitar, they just acted surprised at how much I payed for this 5 string instrument, ($30.00) as compared to what a Sitar cost.

Learning an instrument like the banjo can be hard on a relationship, and traveling together for a year, the way we did, can also test the bond. Needless to say the marriage ended a bit after we got back, was it the banjo, or maybe it was because I was a bum, probably both.

I found out about Weiser Idaho’s Fiddle Championship event after I returned to the States, it was 1973 or 4, and went up there to see the music in action, my “unique” style brought cold stares as well as some snickers and it wasn’t until later, at a rest stop on Highway 2 in Montana, that a kind gentleman sat down and showed me all I was doing wrong…which was everything.

The person who showed me the actual mechanics of the clawhammer style was fron NYC and was working at a cattle ranch in Montana, a real nice guy, I don’t remember his name though but I am grateful for his help.

With the Internet it is now possible to find sources of tunes, how to play videos etc, and ways to connect with others of like mind. Even though I am still somewhat stuck in my hermit ways I do occasionally go out and try and connect with others and jam with them, and in Portland, which seems to be a hotbed of Old Time Music, I am finding people to play with and learning new tunes as I do.