Saturday, July 16, 2011

Good Ol' Uncle Amos


Awhile ago I mentioned to my dad that I was thinking of learning to play the banjo. And he said, "Oh. I have a banjo." I was really surprised! I mean, I know my dad and step-mom combined have a lot of stringed instruments including an upright bass, a harpsichord, a mandolin, and a few guitars. But I seriously had no clue about the banjo. It turns out that my great great Uncle Amos (my grandmother's uncle) played the banjo and my dad had inherited that very one. I begged my dad to let me borrow it. Heritage is really important to me and knowing that music flowing in my blood went as far back as a great great uncle was totally awesome! And I could hold his very banjo in my arms and strum on it just like he did was so exciting! He told me that as he got talking about the banjo he wasn't sure he wanted to let it go. So, I kind of gave up on it (secretly thinking I'd beg him some more later. heh heh heh....)

Well, while we were out staying with my dad for my brother's wedding he said he had the banjo all tuned up and ready to go. Whew, was I excited! I went downstairs, took it out of the case and then cradled it in my lap. Holding onto the neck, and not knowing what the heck I was doing, I started plucking away making tuneless music. And I was sold. That sound was so beautiful. I knew it was what I wanted to learn.

Now, banjo music has usually annoyed me. Come to find out, it's the Bluegrass style that is notorious for the bright-sounding feverish plucking that rubs me the wrong way after 5 seconds. I had heard about the clawhammer technique which involves more strumming and it was what I was interested in. Luckily, there's an Appalachian string shop not too far from where I live (yippee!), so I headed out there solo since my husband was a sweetie and watched the kids. 

I stepped into a cozy shop full to bursting with the rosy, gleaming woods of guitars, mandolins, ukuleles, fiddles, dulcimers, and banjos. It was a beautiful sight and I felt totally lost. I wandered for awhile soaking it in, and wishing I could just soak in the stringed instrument vibe. I stopped in the ukulele room, and was pleased to hear someone in the banjo corner pick one up and start strumming away. I was totally riveted. It sounded just like what I wanted to play! He stopped playing and I finally wandered over to the counter to ask one of the shop guys for a banjo mute (since they're kind of loud and I have kids and neighbors) and he offered to show me how it worked. I agreed and we went back to the banjos and he showed me how to slide the mute on and off the bridge. I asked if they offered lessons and he said they did. When I asked if they taught clawhammer, he said no, they only had instructors that taught Bluegrass. Bummer!

Then, out of the blue, a guy behind us said, "I teach clawhammer." The shop guy left, happy that I'd found someone into clawhammer too who could answer my questions. This guy was a student who taught clawhammer banjo on the side and even though I hadn't seen the mysterious banjo player's face from before, this guy must have been the one playing. He was really nice and was so willing to talk to me about the banjo and showed me the differences between the Bluegrass style verses the clawhammer style. He shared tips and played a little. The music was sweet, mellow, and melodic. It was one of the most beautiful things I've ever heard and I was blown away. I had no idea the banjo could sound like that (aka not annoying)! Man, if I hadn't been sold before I was sold now. He gave me his contact info for lessons during the summer before he goes back to school.  

It has been awhile since I've had such a freakish meeting with fate. Of all the days to wander into that shop. Ha! But, boy am I excited! I'm hoping to have a couple lessons to learn some solid technique and then be able to teach myself from there. I can almost feel the banjo cradled in my arm as I strum out an old mountain tune. :-) Good ol' Uncle Amos! (And thanks, Dad!)


2 comments:

chickadeeworkshop said...

Oh, you're going to have so much fun learning an instrument. I learned fiddle on my own (at age 58!) for a year and then I began lessons. I am still enjoying the heck out of it. Now I'm learning piano too.

Katherine said...

Hope you take up a few lessons. There are lots of instructional videos online too, of course! Yeah, I look forward to getting a piano some day to start teaching Alina baaic piano (and revisit myself).

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