Why Play The 5-String Banjo?

Why Play The 5-String Banjo?

On my 21st birthday I got a present of a banjo, but no ordinary banjo – this one had FIVE strings! I had heard people like Barney McKenna of The Dubliners playing Irish music on the tenor banjo, but I had never seen a five-string banjo.

Then I realised that Luke Kelly of the Dubliners played a 5-string, and so did Tommy Makem with The Clancy Brothers. The instrument was extremely effective in accompanying all types of songs, especially some of Luke Kelly’s slower songs like Raglan Road.

So I started listening to all types of folk music in the mid-sixties, and developed a keen interest in American folk songs from artists like Woody Guthrie, Gid Tanner and Riley Pucket, The Carter Family, and lots of obscure recordings on the Folkways record label.

The frailing style of banjo had a wonderful rhythmic sound and created the powerful drive to the music. One artist, Bascom Lamar Lunsford, a teacher from North Carolina who played banjo and fiddle, had a unique style of playing. Banks of the Ohio, Jesse James, Good Old Mountain Dew were all songs first heard, and subsequently made famous, by Bascom Lamar Lunsford in the early twenties.

He was reputed to have declared, “the banjo is an instrument of the devil”, because it had become such an obsession.

But then I heard Bluegrass music for the first time when the movie, Bonnie & Clyde, came out. The theme song for the movie was Foggy Mountain Breakdown, played by Earl Scruggs on the 5-string banjo. This was riveting stuff – played at breakneck speed it was like country music in overdrive. Not knowing anyone else in Ireland who played bluegrass music, I bought a 45rpm record of the song, slowed it down to 33⅓rpm to discover how he played the tune. After that there was no turning back – I was hooked on bluegrass music.

In the late nineties I formed a small folk group with my old friend Brian Dowling, called The Cotton Mill Boys. This was a four piece acoustic group with fiddle, banjo, guitar and washboard. It subsequently morphed into a full seven-piece band and enjoyed tremendous commercial success on the ‘Showband’ circuit of ballrooms, clubs and concerts throughout Ireland and the UK.

But my first love was for acoustic music, especially old timey and bluegrass. In the late seventies I had the opportunity to team up with George Kaye on fiddle, and Dermot O’Connor (RIP) on mandolin, to form a group called Mash. This was one of the most enjoyable times on the road, as we got to perform our favourite songs and tunes to a appreciative listening audiences.

But in the mid-eighties I left the music business and pursued a career in financial services and eventually a career as a keynote speaker. But now I’m back to my first love, and George and I have teamed up with our mutual friend, Francie Lenehan on guitar to play the music we love. Because of the wealth of great old-timey, country, bluegrass and contemporary folk music from which to draw, coupled with some of our own original songs, we provide an eclectic mix of all folk styles ranging from Irish songs like Raglan Road, to old English folk songs like Willie the Weaver, or ballads like The Ballad of Amelia Erhart, to a Gram Parsons’ song like Hickory Wind, and of course the plethora of riveting bluegrass songs and tunes.

This is sheer musical bliss for me, as I get to play frailing style, three-singer picking style, bluegrass, and even melodic style 5-string banjo. Playing the music I love, with two accomplished musicians with the same love of acoustic music, is a stimulating experience – that’s why I play the 5-string banjo.


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