Banjo…

When I was about four, I started banjo lessons at the old town school of folk music in Chicago. I ended them when I was around 8. I grew up with a lot of really good musicians around. From Wendy Warner playing the cello, to Jordan Rosen on the guitar, and others as well. (Hoff, Oakley, etc) I always felt the banjo was a second class instrument. I’d pick it up every once in a while, and pluck out a folk tune… then put it back. Folks music was good, but ‘county’ music as I knew it wasn’t good. And no one around me besides my parents thought the banjo was a ‘real instrument’. So it would sit in its case.

I tried the electric guitar several times. But it’d always bother me that I’d have to use a pick… I wanted to touch the strings. I just couldn’t get into playing it. Piano was okay, but I had the same feeling. I’d play for a while… then I’d go pick up my banjo. Then I’d obsess and play with the banjo for a while… eventually I’d grow tired of playing the same tunes and put it back in its case. Then I’d do something else, like baking or programming.

Several years ago, when my mom was seriously ill, I started trying to play the banjo again… try to teach myself. I wanted to show her I could play well after all these years. I’d practice what I knew, plucking away as I did years ago. I’d grab a new book of songs trying to learn something new. But I just never would progressed. She died before I got the chance to play for her again. I put the banjo back in its case.

We put my son on a piano when he was 4. Gave him lessons with a seriously good pianist who is great with kids. But he didn’t like playing. Switched him to electric guitar which he likes, but never wanted to practice. And I could see in him the struggle I had years ago. Its a lot of work. And you have to like it to really do it. He’d like to play what he knew, but never liked to learn something new. And honestly, being 8 is so young to work on an instrument seriously, but he didn’t have fun with it on his own. I could see in him what it was like for me. But now I was 42… and I saw that had I just played more when I was 8, I would be where I wanted to be now. I didn’t have to take it ‘seriously’… just play more. But play what?

After watching a bunch of videos of people playing the banjo on YouTube, I decided to start taking lessons again… and learn something that was really new to me. Clawhammer style. An old co-worker of mine was taking lessons from Joe Bethancourt and liked him, so I took a chance and took lessons from him too. I started in the middle of last year. I looked at sites like Banjo Hangout and other places to find stuff to play. I’m starting to learn to play new songs by ear, but I still read tabular music as well.

At Banjo Hangout, they have a ‘song of the week’ that people try to learn and show what they can do. The first one they did when they started the program was West Virginia Gals, which has an Irish feel to it. I told Joe early on that was the one I wanted to do. Over the months, I’d switch between songs but always thought in the back of my head that I really wanted to learn that one. Once I started getting the clawhammer technique down, and drop-thumbing, I tried the song again. Now that its almost St. Patrick’s day and though my playing of the song is still rough around the edges, I wanted to document where I am. So years from now I can see how I progressed. Without further ado, here is my variant.

Yeah, the lighting is a bit dark. I’m not used to taking videos…

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