In his impressive, enjoyable, soundly argued book, Building New Banjos For An Old Time World (2017), Richard Jones-Bamman elucidates the relationship between old time banjo players and their banjos, a relationship that involves the emergence of old time music as a “recognizable and reproducible style” and the development of a population of contemporary banjo makers who produced new old time banjos that were built to found that sound.
Jones-Bamman speaks articulately about the way a generation or two of banjo builders emerged, and equipped themselves with the skills necessary to replicate the iconic vintage banjos that caught the fancy of banjo players because of the way those instruments fit the conception of the “structural and musical boundaries that came to define old time banjo playing. The “particular type of banjo used” was part of the equation that went into defining the musical instrument choices old time banjo players made. The sound produced by those iconic banjos went a long way toward defining old time music. It was a classic “which came first, the chicken or the banjo” question.
It is instructive to view the musical biographies of two contemporary old time banjo players with an eye toward untangling how these relationships emerged in the communities of musicians in which they lived – or the communities they sought as the headquarters for their old time music work.
The two musicians I’ve attempted to portray, Dwight Diller and Tommy Thompson, bear different relationships to their banjos, and perhaps also very different relationships to old time music. The character of those relationships shaped the unique proximity of these two musicians to the tool of their trade.
The relationships Dwight and Tommy developed with the tools of their trade were perhaps as different from each other’s habits of association with the various five string banjos that moved in and out of their arsenals as from the association between the broader community of contemporary banjo players and the instruments that were their weapons of choice.
They each were performing musicians, and commercially recording musicians, for a time, associated with bands. Dwight played with the Black Mountain Bluegrass Boys (1968 – 1973), and with the Morris Brothers (1972 – 1973).
Tommy played and recorded with the Hollow Rock String Band, and the Red Clay Ramblers.
Their musical instruments needed to be able to withstand the hardships of band work and capable of being fine tuned and sensitive to serve performance purposes.
Dwight tended to be hard on his instruments; I once sat down beside him as he was preparing for a concert at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington DC in the early 1990s, and noted that he had taken a plumber’s metal pipe tensioning sleeve and fitted it around the dowel stick of his banjo to repair a break.
Tommy, too, though the catastrophic neck break sustained by his beloved Fairbanks Number Five was the fault of a misstep by a tipsy neighbor lady, not Tommy’s neglect. However, he did neglect his banjos, lost several in incidents that involved him leaving them vulnerable to thieves, and from the appearances of those that remain in the hands of his daughter Jessica through at least 2017, he wasn’t much for setup work, and he was not too particular about the appearance of the banjos which after years of disuse and careful storage, still showed the marks of a busy pro musician – grimy tuners, not too well tended, tarnishing hardware, nicks and scratches in the neck, worn down frets.
Dwight ended up having very specific views of what a banjo should look like, feel like, and be able to do and those views had little to do with the banjos that Sherman Hammons or Hamp Carpenter played.
Tommy, too. And for both of them, their sense of the banjo they needed to deploy in performance was not necessarily shaped by the iconic banjo models, but by the very practical frames that would produce specific sounds and stand up to very personal setup preferences.
The central features of Dwight’s playing emerged in the earliest years of his banjo work, and became the bedrock on which he built his playing up across the later periods. Beyond a growing sense of the need to modulate the speed that began to emerge in the latter part of this first developmental period, Dwight’s style and technique began to crystallize, and he began to think more systematically about the mechanics necessary to produce the sound he wanted. In later years, in the 1990s and 2000s, Dwight’s playing style has been characterized as sparse, cleanly paced, a combination of rhythm and melody that captures tunes simply and accurately, without sacrificing the intricacies that make the old music interesting. Those same characterizations apply to the style and technique that was emerging in the first development stage. His playing technique came to be centered on a rhythmic right hand approach to striking the strings and the head, achieving a consistent syncopated percussiveness.
Tommy’s banjo playing it was heavy on the rhythmic though he managed to play a lot of the notes of the melody. Many saw Tommy as a musician fluent in numerous styles, who managed to echo, reflect or otherwise make reference to vastly different banjo stylings in his music, from minstrel playing to plectrum.
Dwight and Tommy also came at the business of making choices about banjo preferences from different and personal perspectives that derived in part from their unique, individual skill sets.
Dwight had spent some time seriously immersed in blacksmithing, and developed what he saw as an informed sense of metal qualities that worked best for banjo hardware, especially the tone ring, as well as his own views of banjo mass insofar as the wood/metal ration was concerned, and woods that added tone and heft to pots and necks.
Tommy had a more focused familiarity with banjo history, including minstrelsy, and a comfortable understanding of what playing such old instruments entailed. He had also, during encounters with source musicians, put modern banjos in the hands of some of the oldsters who played but no longer possessed their own five strings. In discussions with some of these gentlemen, Tommy fixed attention on the practical dimension of banjo choices they made, their own formula for banjo setup, perhaps as a function of his own close attention to performance values and voices of instruments with which he was familiar.
I’m still working the rest of this stuff out in an article-length manuscript.