I liked the idea and went home that night and practiced for nine hours playing one tune. (I had a houseguest at the time, who fled with his hands over his ears after the first three hours.) After that, it was fairly plain sailing, as the hardest part really is accustoming yourself to hitting dowards twice in a row with your frailing finger. "The Lark in the Morning" was the third jib I ever worked out on the five-string banjo, and I think the two-part banjo harmonies that eventually appeared on my 1980 record (and in the MP3 this links to) were in my head from the beginning.
Many people think the five-string banjo is unsuited to Irish music. My feeling is that it is in fact better suited than the tenor banjo is, despite the fact that you'll find a lot more people playing Irish music on the tenor banjo. (If you don't know the difference, the tenor banjo has a much shorter neck and is tuned in fifths like a mandolin and played with a flat pick, where the five-string has a variety of tunings and is much more accommodating for chords.) Irish instrumental music is fascinating because of its eccentricities, or perhaps anomalies is a better word, and each instrument has to find its own way of playing variations that suit that instrument -- almost a problem in definition. A fiddler, for example, can play rolls, triplets (listen to Aly Bain if you want to hear clean, crisp triplets), double notes, slides, open string and double-stop harmony notes, drones, and so on, not to mention all the possible tricks with the bow. The pipes have many idiosyncracies that are well known: they bark, and the drones can, in the case of Irish pipes, play chords, crans, slides, and so on. Part of what interests me in adapting Irish music for the banjo is discovering the things that only a banjo can do. It can play ornaments and (albeit limited) harmonies, drones (again, limited), and do all kinds of ornaments. In addition, the banjo has specific techniques, such as the roll which, like the double G in Archie's March, are all its own. And it is a very percussive instrument with a great deal of punch and drive, which really suits Irish music very well. I believe there is a great deal more exploration to be done into the possibilities of the banjo as an expressive instrument.
Still, "The Lark in the Morning" was a preliminary stab at defining the problem; that and other tunes I played when I was performing full-time had nowhere near the variations I'd have liked them to have.
Since then, certain limitations of the banjo have become more apparent to me, chiefly that it is a very poor session instrument. Most Irish music sessions play any given tune no more than twice, and then flit on to the next tune. This would be no problem except that musicians playing on fiddle, mandolin, guitar, and bodhran have no problem changing keys midstream, and so they do. This is not true for the banjo, which is typically retuned for different keys and may also require the player to add a capo (eg, to play in D, you typically play in open C tuning capoed up two; to play in G, you typically play in open G). Playing any given tune on a banjo has more in common with an engineering problem than it does with picking out a tune on a piano or fiddle. This means that an important part of the fun of Irish music -- playing in improvised sessions with other musicians -- is pretty much closed to the banjo player unless you can find a group who will accommodate its special needs. In my experience, such a group is uncommon. Plus, I don't know enough tunes well enough.
March 7, 2002
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