Learn to play banjo in 15 minutes

It has strings, you pluck the strings to cause the instrument to emit sound. What could be simpler?

Very similar to a guitar, perhaps, but the banjo is certainly its own animal. I have seen a number of web sites with information about the history of the banjo, and lots of other banjo lore. I have never been all that interested in where the banjo originated and that sort of thing, but I have always been fascinated by how the banjo makes me feel. It can't be described, I suppose, but somehow the banjo can hook you. If you get hooked, you get hooked - and if you don't, you don't. I am one that got hooked.

I learned to play banjo in 15 minutes, and that is the absolute truth. I was 17 or so, and had been messing around with the guitar for a year or two. A friend of mine had been picking the banjo and was getting ready to upgrade from his Sears Silvertone for a new Gibson butterfly or something like that. He offered me that old Silvertone for $10. I borrowed the money from my mom.

Well. I plucked a little on it, and everyone seemed amazed at how good it sounded. Of course, it had nothing to do with how well I played - I could hardly do anything more than play a chord or two - but that is the curse of the banjo. You can make a lively and clean sound with almost no effort - and some people just seem to love it. Still, I hadn't learned anything really banjo-like on it yet - just a little strumming.

A few weeks later I was walking through the park near my home and noticed a gathering of old gentlemen sitting around playing and singing old gospel music. The youngest of the bunch was in his 70's - so these were truly old timers. They were stately and dignified, somehow. There were guitars and a few other instruments, and one particularly old fellow with a banjo. The music they made was the real old style camp meeting sort of stuff - Power in the Blood, Jesus Hold My Hand, What a Friend We Have In Jesus.

I sat in silence for an hour or two in awe of this music they were playing, and after a while the banjo picker turned to me and asked if I wanted to learn to pick - he offered to show me how in just 15 minutes. Well, you bet I was interested in that! I ran home and grabbed that Silvertone and rushed back to the park. And true to his word, my new friend showed me how to pick a decent little tune using a sort of 4 finger (no picks) picking style, a few simple bar chords, and a few simple flourishes. It was so old-timey sounding I felt like I was transported back to the nineteenth century.

His banjo was a crudely fashioned hand-made thing he had made himself from scraps of wood and metal. As far as I could tell, the only store-bought parts were the tuners and the strings - and he had salvaged the tuners off of some ancient dime-store guitar, including the fifth-string "peg". The flange and other metal parts were made from long burnt out frying pans and other cooking utensils that he transformed into a higher calling. He had written the starting lines of dozens of hymns onto the head of the banjo to help him remember how to kick off the song. Once he got started, he never had trouble recalling the words to hundreds of these fading spirituals, and they came to life once more in his rusty voice, full of real passion and purpose.

That was a long time ago. The memory of that day remains strong for me - and hardly a day goes by that it doesn't resurface. Many hours were spent over the next 7 or so years listening to him play and sing, and tell stories of his life and the way things used to be. He died at about age 96 sometime in the late 70's, and it warms me just to think about him and a 15 minute banjo lesson that has served me all my life.