Banjo master Tony Trischka plays Performance Space 21
CHATHAM, N.Y. -- That "twangy," fast-paced, metallic sound draws so many musicians to the banjo. The sound is so unique that many musicians feel compelled to play it.
That sound has a long history.
The banjo came to America from Africa in the 1600s. It may have traveled on slave ships, or more likely slaves may have re-created instruments from memory on American shores.
Originally, African musicians made the stringed instruments that evolved into the banjo from hollow gourds covered with skins of calves or goats. Three or four strings made of animal hair stretched across the length of the gourd.
In the mid-1800s, drum-makers in Baltimore decided to attach a neck with frets to a drum, creating a banjo similar to ones used today, and the banjo gained its fifth string in the 1900s.
For some, playing the banjo is a hobby, a way for friends to get to get together and rock out in the living room. For others, the instrument is a way to explore the makeup of classic old-timey music and branch out into a personal style.
For Tony Trischka, the banjo is a passport to the world.
An internationally acclaimed musician and teacher, Trischka earned an Independent Music Award and a Grammy nomination for his 2007 album, "Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular."
On Saturday, he will bring the banjo sound to Performance Space 21.
In his 50-year career, Trischka has performed with Bruce Springsteen, John Denver and banjo legend Earl Scruggs, among many others. Scruggs helped to revive banjo music and bluegrass music, which had waned in the early 1900s.
"Earl Scruggs was my biggest influence and still is today," Trischka said in a phone interview. Scruggs passed away in March 2012. "He reinvented the banjo in the 40s. He made it so exciting; he would not be denied."
Scruggs "blew everyone out of the water," said Steve Reilly, a native of East Chatham, N.Y., who has been playing the banjo since he was 17. When Reilly isn't working as a builder and carpenter, he enjoys playing the banjo with his friends, teaching others to play, and building his own banjos.
"I pretty much taught myself," Reilly said. "I started to run into people who played and learned more."
Reilly said many people want to learn to play the banjo because they fall in love with the sound. He and Trischka said one of the first times they heard banjo music were the theme songs for the Beverly Hillbillies and Bonnie and Clyde.
"I think the sound is an exciting sound," Trischka says. "I've asked other banjo players why they loved it, and it's a very simple thing. There's something bright and shiny about it."
Banjo players draw their inspiration from artists of many genres, including folk, country, and jazz. There are many different styles of the instrument itself, as well as many different techniques for playing.
A typical banjo player will play the instrument using the thumb, index and middle fingers. The two most popular techniques for playing banjo are called traditional picking and clawhammer: Traditional picking consist of an up-picking motion of fingers and down-picking motion by the thumb. Clawhammer is primarily down-picking of strings using fingernails or a pick.
It's not uncommon for banjo players to dip into other instruments as well.
"Banjo players are not afraid to take chances on other instruments," said Rob Codwell, owner of Musica, a music store in Hudson, N.Y. "It's all about different personalities. Some will try anything and play anything."
Some banjo players also play the guitar, but Codwell has also seen customers try the ukulele, lyre, or anything with strings. The banjo is more socially accessible to musicians, compared to performance music, he said: "It's more social rather than extravaganza. People make it themselves from their living rooms.
"To me it's just invented and modeled something really fun. It can be a little bit intimidating because styles are different. It's a good way to have fun time."
From the campfire and front porch to concert halls, banjo players love the unique music and friendships that come from playing music.
Looking forward to his upcoming show at PS21, Trischka said he is excited to reunite with Darol Anger, "an old friend and an amazing fiddler." He will also play with Michael Daves, "an amazing singer and bass player," Trischka said.
Codwell is also a fan of Trischka's banjo music.
"Oh yeah, he's one of the legends," he said. "He's done really great music for a long time. He has pretty high energy and shows a lot of intelligence in standard bluegrass. He has a lot of respect for tradition, and is an innovator as well."
Trischka enjoys playing with his friends and teaching students how to play banjo. He has workshops and lessons available online.
"I get to do what I love to do," he said "It's fun to share what I know about the banjo for people who are hungry to learn."
If you go ...
What: Banjo player Tony Trischka will perform with fiddler Darol Anger and guitarist Michael Daves.
Where: 290 Route 66,
When: Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
Admission: $30 general, $18 students, $25 member
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.