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This is your room maestro...

March 19, 2007

Contemplating an upcoming period of unemployment (my job with the NHS is finished - any FA fans out there need a commercial/copywriter/journalist/subeditor (UK English!)/comedy writer or pornographer - please drop me a line). I have procured a four string tenor banjo with which I intend to busy my idle hands and amuse my neighbours.
I gather the damned thing uses fiddle tuning. Are there any alternatives? Are the strings supposed to be half an inch clear of the frets at the top of the neck (nearest the bridge)? If I mess with the action will the infernal machine explode like a grenade?
The last time I was this nervous of an object this weight and this noisy, I'd been handed my baby daughter for the first time (she was a couple of pounds lighter and wasn't full of fragments of rolling tobacco, but the panic is reminiscent).


Posted by Huw Pryce at March 19, 2007 2:56 PM


Huw, Google Joe Bethancourt and see what you come up with!
Also find him here:
and here:
and email him here:
(Jim Pipkin also knows him well.)

Posted by: JoLynn Braswell at March 19, 2007 7:17 PM

Mr Bethancourt and I have corresponded over creative anachronism in the past. Thanks JoLynn.

Posted by: Huw Pryce at March 19, 2007 8:28 PM

I think when he played in studio sessions, Tommy Tedesco used to tune his 4-string banjo D-G-B-E. Knocked back the learning curve to pretty much nothing.

Posted by: Joan Kennedy at March 20, 2007 9:57 AM


Posted by: Huw Pryce at March 20, 2007 10:52 AM

Joan, I read an interview with Tommy Tedesco where he said he tuned all his stringed instruments like a guitar. He has been recorded playing nearly every stringed instrument he has ever found, so I believe you are absolutely correct!

My friend and musical collaborator, Bob Lopardo, has a six-stringed banjo that is tuned like a guitar so he can have all the convenience of playing guitar, while never really having to worry about tuning!

Posted by: Jack Swain at March 20, 2007 12:00 PM

Was that a side swipe at the noble banjo Jack? I will confess that the thought of trying to tune this thing to a digital signal is ridiculous, but there are niceties to be observed here...

Posted by: Huw Pryce at March 20, 2007 1:17 PM

You know, I could use a good pornographer.

Posted by: Ann VerWiebe at March 20, 2007 1:46 PM

Use me any way you like dear lady - but my wife has the veto!

Posted by: Huw Pryce at March 20, 2007 1:49 PM

Yes, Huy, it is a long-standing joke about the banjo!

I happen to love the instrument, so I say it fully tongue-in-cheek!

Posted by: Jack Swain at March 20, 2007 2:16 PM

Yes, Huy, it is a long-standing joke about the banjo!

I happen to love the instrument, so I say it fully tongue-in-cheek!

Posted by: Jack Swain at March 20, 2007 2:16 PM

Echo... Echo...

Definition of perfect pitch - banjo down a mineshaft without touching the sides?

I don't want Bethancourt after me - he's armed.

Posted by: Huw Pryce at March 20, 2007 2:19 PM

..and he has friends...!

Posted by: JoLynn Braswell at March 21, 2007 12:40 PM

Now, there's a new one for me - never thought I'd hear both "Banjo" and "pornographer" in the same thread!

Posted by: JoLynn Braswell at March 21, 2007 12:42 PM

Banjos and pornographers occupy the same subset of their fields (to use a statisticians phraseology).

Posted by: Huw Pryce at March 21, 2007 1:20 PM

Huw, you can tune the instrument as it suits you, but GDAE makes for some neat two finger chords to get started on, not to mention that it's convenient for playing fiddle tunes and cribbing from mando/bouzouki material. By way of illustration:

If the action's unplayable but you're worried about adjusting it yourself, it might be a good idea to take it to your local music shop and ask the crusty behind the counter to get it adjusted for you.

(I should explain to our friends from overseas that most British music shops are staffed by clones of a grizzled throwback from a long gone decade. Well. they're either clones or it's one guy who moves really fast between shops.)

One thing you might try first though is getting a replacement bridge and sanding its feet down to see if that lowers the strings to an acceptable level.

Posted by: Peter Pointon at March 27, 2007 6:34 AM

Footnote: A friend's just pointed out that if it's a second hand instrument the action has probably been tweaked as far as it will go without folding up like the Titanic anyway, so lowering the bridge may be your only option.

Posted by: Peter Pointon at March 27, 2007 6:39 AM

Ahhh but did the Titanic actually fold..?

It's never been adjusted, it was bought as an educational resource 20 years ago and no kid was ever uncool enough to touch it, it is Korean however. Not always a good sign.

Thanks Peter (one of my local music shops is run by Rod Argent!).

Posted by: Huw Pryce at March 27, 2007 6:58 AM

One of my other locals is run, or at least staffed, by an infinite number of identical, spotty white boys who think they are (sorry, is) black. It might be worth taking them a banjo just to see what happens.

Sanding the feet sounds like a clever wheeze, if I go too far I can always score another from ebay, or put felt pads under the existing one - which might calm down the volume a little.


Posted by: Huw Pryce at March 27, 2007 7:42 AM

If you put an infinite number of spotty white boys in a music shop, they'll eventually, accidentally come up with the complete works of Miles Davis (fact).

Posted by: Huw Pryce at March 27, 2007 7:44 AM

I'm sure you're right (the complete works of Miles plus a scale model of the Forth Bridge made entirely out of guitar strings, I suspect) but the scary thing is that evolution being what it is they would eventually find a way to reproduce, I would advise against the experiment.

Posted by: Peter Pointon at March 27, 2007 9:57 AM

Agh! ParthenoGenesis (I'll follow you if you'll follow me...).
Actually they couldn't reproduce - there's an infinite number. Infinity +1 is just infinity, so they'd be in a stable state.
Nightmarish thought though!

Posted by: Huw Pryce at March 27, 2007 10:35 AM

Banjos have..feet? Well, no wonder!

Posted by: JoLynn Braswell at March 27, 2007 6:25 PM

But think of the possibilities, Huw. If they could replicate Miles, then surely one of them could fix your banjo. Else dissolve it in a infinite lava streams of pustulence. Either way you get a result!

Anyway, how will you find time to learn the banjo? Surely you're fully occupied with playing your pornograph?

Posted by: Peter Pointon at March 27, 2007 8:03 PM

The needle sticks in the groove. The dog keeps staring at the horn. You can only crank the handle so many times. I ought to be at 33 1/3, I'm closer to 45, I sound like I'm 78.
The banjo looks good from here.

Posted by: Huw Pryce at March 28, 2007 7:36 PM

BRAVO! You get the standing ovation of the night, Huw!

Posted by: JoLynn Braswell at April 1, 2007 12:19 AM

You're gonna play tunes on this cos chords'll make your ears bleed. So you need to tune in fifths - GDAE or CGDA depending on scale-lenth, or else your left hand'll be up and down the neck all the time. Tuned in fifths you've got 2 octaves from the first position. With a high action, staying away from the "dusty end" is also a good idea. Learn your tunes by ear or get a book of mandolin tab - there are plenty out there. Let me know if you're coming to Leeds, I'll arange to go on holiday!

Posted by: David Klaus at April 5, 2007 3:21 AM


Technicalities, schmechicalities...just make music. In the end, that's what it's all about. And, if you neighbors complain, just tell them you considered the tuba!

Posted by: Michael Rogers at April 14, 2007 5:27 PM

I've always wanted a tuba!

Posted by: Huw Pryce at April 14, 2007 5:46 PM

Trent Park for the first picnic of the summer. The banjo is staying home!

Posted by: Huw Pryce at April 22, 2007 6:51 AM

I guess you've seen "Deliverance", then...

Posted by: JoLynn Braswell at April 27, 2007 3:49 AM

Uncannily appropriate as it turns out JoLynn...

Posted by: Huw Pryce at April 27, 2007 5:05 AM

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