The history of skinny banjos

We all know of the famous scene from the Burt Reynolds movie that bore rise to the ‘Dueling Banjos‘ song. Deliverance was published in 1972 and also starred Ned Beatty and Jon Voight as a set of adventurous blokes from Atlanta taking a canoe trip on a wilderness river before a dam that was in the process of being built turned the raging rapids into a docile lake. The fictional Cahulawassee river was the backdrop for a tussle with folk probably inspired by the stories of the Hill People along the Blue Ridge Parkway. The Chattooga River between Georgia and South Carolina was used as a backdrop when filming this classic movie. But more about Banjos.

The Banjo has four or five strings and instead of an acoustic box such as that in a guitar, the strings excite a circular bit of parchment or animal hide (usually pig or bore skin) or plastic much like a loudspeaker. The simpler form in the video may be like the primitive African instruments fashioned by indenturees in pre-colonial America, i.e. when the continent was colonized by France, Spain, Portugal and Great Britain.

The banjo is common in country and folk music but also has taken a shine to Irish and even pop music. Steve Martin, a comedian, was a proficient player of the banjo. African roots to banjo music may have been the foundation for country and bluegrass.

The banjo is often played with a set of picks on the fingers. Modern picks are sold in the left and right thumb configurations. Players that strum with their right hand would get a right hand set where the thumb pick is tailored to the right hand thumb. The finger picks are interchangeable between hands. A thumb pick and two finger picks for most players are the complement of picks that acouter a banjo picker’s strum hand. Most modern banjos are strung with stainless steel for the high note strings and a thicker but lighter and more flexible metal alloy to produce the lower tones. Bronze, an alloy primarily of copper and tin, is a common material used in lower tone strings of four and five string banjos.

Banjos come stung with anywhere from 3 to 10 strings, but five is most common. Instruments related to the banj o with a similar sound might even have one string or 12. We can al picture the old washtub with a stick of would levered to pull one sting tightly, we have a vibrating drum and a sting making this a crude form of banjo but the deft touch to apply the correct pressure to tune the sting and still have the slack in the timpani of the washdrum is not as easy as it looks.