Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Cigar Box Banjo Jam

In Peanuts Guide to Life, the collection of one-frame wisdoms of Charlie, Lucy and Linus, cartoonist Charles Schultz advises, “As soon as a child is born, he or she should be issued a new dog and a banjo.” Good advice for anyone wanting the right start. The idea begs two questions though—what kind of dog and which type of banjo? The answer to the first is obvious, it’s a beagle. The second answer concerning the right banjo is a little more elusive.

There are probably more variations of banjos than there are breeds of dogs. Okay, a banjo is a drumhead with strings, right. But, in reality, a host of high quality banjo types exist, some made entirely from wood, or metal, or plastic, others put together with varying combinations of each. They can also grow out of combinations with other instruments—ukuleles, guitars, mandolins; one stand up type I’ve seen even uses a bass. Playable banjos can also be made with one, three, four, five, six, even ten strings, with or without pickups, and open-backed or close-backed. Add it all up and you have a mind boggling power of 10.

One type that is often overlooked, though, is the cigar box banjo, which seems strange because the cigar box banjo has often been the very root of a banjo player’s life experience. These are relatively simple instruments to make, either from scratch or assembled from a banjo kit containing the basic components—either way, scratch or kit is then subject to the user’s own creative imagination during the fabrication process. But don’t let this relative simplicity fool you into thinking that cigar box banjos lack a quality sound. Like anything else, the quality of the sound and the playability of the instrument are in direct proportion to your commitment to excellence during the building process.

It is true that “good sounding banjo” is a subjective term dependent as much on the music you’re trying to produce as it is on the banjo itself. It can range from plunky hollow and incisive to piercing and painful, especially in the beginning. Mark Twain once said that a gentleman is a person who knows how to play a banjo but doesn’t. But as Mark Twain also knew well, that inimitable banjo sound is exactly what makes playing a banjo the matchless experience that it is. Cigar box banjos don’t play quite as loud as a conventional banjo, but with care and craftsmanship you can create that uniqueness in a well playing instrument that is both rich and responsive, often with a deeper, mellower sound.

Many well known banjo players and many well known people who are not so well known for their banjo playing got their first exposure to making music with a cigar box instrument. Freddie Hart, whose 1971 country hit “Easy Lovin’” peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard chart, grew up in Loachapoka, Alabama in a large, sharecropping family of fifteen children. He got started musically by cobbling out a cigar box instrument using strings made of wire from the copper coil of a Model T Ford.

For others, the roots of their iconic musical style were developed from the very rudiments of instrument making, creating what would scarcely be considered a musical instrument today. Jim Reeves, the youngest of nine children, made his first instrument from a cigar box and rubber bands. Stringbean Akerman made his first banjo from a shoebox with thread from his mother’s sewing kit.

Even Carl Sandburg, who Thomas Lask declared “the American bard,” played his own brand of music, especially early in his life. Sandburg is quoted as saying, “My first stringed instrument was a cigar box banjo where I cut and turned the pegs and strung the wires myself.” Before the banjo, he tried his hand at a willow whistle, then a comb with paper over it, a tin fife, a flageolet (a type of wooden flute), and an ocarina, none of which he played very well, including banjo, but all of which helped define who he really was.

Whether famous as recording artists or famous as something else, what ties all these folks together is their unquestioned gift of originality. If even the minutest part of that originality was sparked by their early-in-life experiences playing a simple cigar box banjo and if you can in the minutest way identify with that experience, then my work here is done. Now let’s go see if we can find a beagle.

Source: Papa's Boxes
About The Author

Bill Moore

Cigar Box Papa


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