Kentucky’s Favorite Instrument: Why you should play the banjo


BY SHRUTI RAM – STAFF WRITER

When you think of Bluegrass music, it’s impossible to not think of the banjo. The instrument is synonymous with the south and is making its way into popular music as folk and country music gain more popularity and are incorporated into other genres. Not only is it one of the more underrated string instruments, there are plenty of Centre students that know how to play it, and play it well.

With a little (or a lot) of practice, you too could learn the art of the banjo..

Our resident expert is Centre College’s own Dr. Tim Lake, who has taught the banjo for 42 years. Dr. Lake received his doctorate in banjo concerto and has written three books on the subject.

“The banjo is the only original acoustic instrument from America,” Dr. Lake said, “but the technology came from Africa before it evolved into the American banjo we know today.”

Dr. Lake shared that the banjo only gained popularity after the Civil War, and has always been a part of social movements of the United States, particularly in the South.

Sophomore Drew Burns (pictured below), who has been playing the banjo for more than a year, said he was drawn to the instrument by listening folk bands such as Mumford and Sons, who incorporate the instrument into many of their songs.

Senior Elle Enander was also inspired to play the banjo because of music she heard.

“I’ve wanted to learn to play the banjo since I was maybe 8 or so,” Enander said. “I grew up with my mom always talking about wanting to learn to play herself, and when she started a few years ago and would play songs around the house, I decided to start taking lessons at Centre.”

Senior Jeri Howell appreciates the instrument’s history and the important part it plays in traditional Kentucky music, which she has been interested in since a young age.

“I love the music’s power of storytelling and bringing folks together to dance, sing and listen as folks have done in the mountains for hundreds of years,” Howell said. “By playing banjo, I feel connected to the Kentucky music tradition, as well as a little connected to the instrument’s African roots.”

Dr. Lake was also inspired to play the banjo by listening to artists, in particular ones from the 1950s and 1960s such as the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, as well as Earl Scruggs, who popularized not just the Banjo, but the three-finger banjo-picking style of playing it, named ‘Scruggs Style,’ after him. Scruggs Style is the most popular style of playing the banjo, but Howell plays the banjo in a different style.

“I play a style known as ‘claw hammer,’ ‘bear claw’ or ‘overhand’,” Howell said. “It is the style that I’ve heard played most in the Kentucky mountain music tradition. The different styles usually signify different type of banjos. Claw hammer players usually play an open back banjo while Scruggs style players play a banjo with a resonator on the back.”

Photographer: Michelle Kim

Photographer: Michelle Kim

No matter which style they prefer, students who are looking for a connection to the bluegrass through music, or simply looking to learn a new instrument, can learn to play the instrument at Centre, under the guidance of Dr. Lake.

However, learning the instrument may take longer than expected, though knowing how to play a similar instrument beforehand, such as the guitar, can quicken the learning process, as they are more familiar with the finger placement.

Despite playing the guitar for a long time, Burns added that it took him close to a year to play the banjo comfortably and learn songs. While this may seem like a long time, the process is even longer to those new to music.

Dr. Lake agrees that learning the instrument requires a lot of patience. He also shares that, over the years, it’s been taking longer for students to learn to play the instrument.

“Their attention spans are very small, because we have too much going on nowadays.”

Dr. Lake’s advice for anyone learning how to play an instrument is to take it seriously and practice consistently everyday.

If learning to play the banjo seems to be too much of a commitment, students can still appreciate it by listening to songs that feature it.

In addition to the Mumford and Sons and the Lumineers, some artists that feature the banjo are The Avett Brothers, the Osborne Brothers, and New Grass Revival. For students looking to support artists closer to home, Dr. Lake has multiple albums released featuring the instrument, including We All Need Heroes and Kentucky Home. His latest album, Banjo Sonata, comes out October 16 under Padraig Records.

Though learning the banjo may require a lot of patience, students promise it is worth it in the end.

“Centre’s music program makes it really easy to learn practically any instrument,” Enander adds. “I definitely recommend learning the banjo because it has a unique sound and culture surrounding it, one that in the past century has been very closely tied to Kentucky.”


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