This might actually be appropriate for the "Classic banjo... the continuing story" thread, but I wasn't quite certain and didn't want to derail that thread, so a new one seemed in order.  Presumably a moderator can fix this, if necessary.

Anyway... I just kind of jumped into the forum with my ragtime question, and not much background information on myself other than that I'm a composer & multi-instrumentalist.  My first instrument was actually piano, at which I began formal lessons at the tender (and, I now think, much too early) age of four.  My next was clarinet, taken up in the 4th grade and played with various degrees of dedication through grad school.  At 12 I picked up guitar, and went so deeply into it that I have long since considered it my primary instrument.  I've studied jazz, classical, and folk instruments formally, and delved into most styles at one time or another, from playing Visee and Bach in chamber ensembles to once actually taking an axe to an electric guitar on stage. :)

I first got the notion to play banjo at age 18, in college; I had just seen a live Roy Clark concert, and Roy is no slouch as a multi-instrumentalist himself.  After seeing that, I had to have a banjo, so I found someone selling a generic no-name 5-string at a price a starving student could afford.  I noodled around with that banjo for a couple of years on my own, trying to play bluegrass, mostly by ear.  I got to where I could play up to a pretty good bluegrass speed, and get melodies in there with the rolls, but somehow what I was doing felt awkward and never really sounded like "bluegrass".

Then I picked up Pete Wernick's "Bluegrass Banjo" book and discovered why. 

Essentially I had brought folk and classical guitar three-finger technique -- T/1/2/3 -- to the banjo.  Everything in Pete's book was two-finger technique -- T/1/2.  No wonder I always felt like I was tripping over my own fingers:  I was; I was using too many fingers for the style.  So, I set out to change my technique, and as with most habits it turned out to be harder to unlearn what I was doing than it probablay would have been to learn it the right way from the beginning.  Oy.  (Since then I have made it policy when I take up a new instrument to always at least try to seek out a qualified teacher, if only for a few months, to get the flavor of how the pros are doing things...)

Classic banjo is something I first encountered several years later when I had a banjoist roommate for a while who was actually playing classical banjo -- banjo arrangements of Visee, Sor, Guiliani, Bach, Beethoven, etc.  He used a regular bluegrass instrument -- a nice old Mastertone he inhereted from his dad -- with metal strings.  I was intrigued enough to dabble a little myself, off and on, but other things were happening in my life at the time, and I never really spent the time to delve very deeply into this style.  In grad school I was spending most of my time writing and practicing classical guitar, so although I was getting exposed to a whole new world of banjos -- wooden tops, gut strings, monster bass instruments, etc. -- they were kind of at the periphery of my musical insterest at the time.  If I needed a banjo part played, I knew plenty of people who could play them, so I didn't have to play them myself.

But all obsessions come back around to haunt us,  I think, and here I find myself once again l looking at classic banjo and wondering, "so what the heck is this thing?"  The ragtime connection alone is enough to keep me around for a while, and I am intrigued with trying nylon strings.  Which raises a number of questions for me:


First off, can any banjo be converted to nylon strings?  I have some spares I'm willing to experiment with, both with and without tone ring. 

Is there, perhaps, a different kind of head preferred than the stock Remo "Weatherking"? 

Does one tune the head to the same relative pitch for nylon as for steel?

Resonator or open back?

What is the prefered way to use the 5th string in this style?

And perhaps most critically for me right now, what kind of right-hand technique is most appropriate?  Is it still the T/1/2 of bluegrass playing, or is classic banjo, perhaps, the place to bring in my classical guitar T/1/2/3/ technique again?  Or even the T/1/2/3/4 of flamenco playing?

Well, I've droned on for far too long in one post, but I do expect I'll see at least a few interesting answers. :)



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Jody Stecher said:

Look on the right side, near the thumb and index. You can see the windings. On the left side of the photo there *is* the illusion of a plain string. But note that it is thinner than the third string. For a lower-tuned string that's a dead giveaway that the thinner string must be wound. the wound fourth string is always thinner than the unwound third. An unwound fourth would have to be a thicker string than the unwound third.

Have a look at the videos of what I think is the same banjo as in the stills. You can clearly see the windings. For instance:



Jody, I'll take your word for it.


I certainly have no objection to wound strings -- I even use a wound low G on my bluegrass banjos -- and most of the sets do seem to include them.   I was just curious.

I've ordered a couple of Chris Sands sets -- regular and medium, and... I'll see what happens.

Meanwhile, I'm working on a couple of rags from the library, currently on metal strings.

Thanks for the advice and info.



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