The Banjo-ification of Pop: Why the Instrument Is Everywhere

Music listeners are getting more twang for their pluck

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In 1963, when the folk-music trend made a young Greg Deering want to learn to play the banjo, his mother said no. But he was obsessed, desperate to create the sounds he had heard on a Kingston Trio record. When he was 13, he saved his paper-route money for a month and splurged on a $20 instrument advertised in a local San Diego newspaper—over the objections of his mother, who was convinced he was wasting his hard-earned cash on a passing fad.

“Every time I turned around, I had somebody discourage me,” he recalls, “That just increased my resolve.”

That resolve turned an obsession into a vocation: in 1975, he and his wife Janet went into business as the Deering Banjo Company and, nearly 40 years—and more than 76,000 banjos—later their company is the leading banjo manufacturer in the U.S.  And these days, interest in the instrument is about to reach the tipping point.

At the Academy of Country Music awards on Apr. 7, artists who’ll be play Deering banjos will be everywhere—including Eric Church, Taylor Swift, Kacey Musgraves and The Band Perry. But that’s just plucking the surface: banjos are spreading. Steve Martin has basically stopped acting to play the banjo. Banjos are even in political ads. Deering spokesperson David Bandrowski says the company doubled production in the past year—and plans to do so again this coming summer. Due to pre-orders, if you want to buy a high-end banjo from them, you’ll have to wait till 2014.

“The end of ’08 when the banks had all the trouble just took something that was bad and made it even worse; we just barely hung on through ’09 and ’10 and had to borrow some money to keep going,” Deering says. “But in 2011, things started picking up sales-wise, and once it started picking up it has not slowed down.”

Banjo experts predict that this craze may be different from banjo crazes of the past. And this time, the instrument—once confined to the worlds of folk and country—is making inroads into pop.

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Not that banjos haven’t been pop stalwarts before. For most of its history, the banjo was associated with popular music. They evolved from African gourd-based instruments brought to the U.S. by slaves and began to approach their current form by the 1840s, says Robert Lloyd Webb, author of the banjo history Ring the Banjar! Their use in minstrel shows of the time introduced pop-music audiences to the instrument; they were only brought to the people of the Ozarks and Appalachians, the areas perhaps most associated with the banjo today, in the late 19th century.

And though we think of bluegrass and the banjo as being born together, bluegrass didn’t evolve until the mid-1940s. As part of a band called the Blue Grass Boys, Earl Scruggs created a whole new kind of music based around his three-finger picking style, says Webb. After that, though the popularity of folk music waxed and waned, the banjo was an instrument of folk and bluegrass.

So it should come as no surprise that the most recent boom has roots in traditional music as well. Even though Webb cites innovative players like Bela Fleck and Tony Trishka for broadening banjo styles, he and Deering alike point to a very specific moment that brought the banjo where it is today: Dec. 22, 2000, the release date of O Brother, Where Art Thou?

“That movie brought what you might call traditional music back into the limelight and made it more accessible socially and interesting to people again,” says Webb.

The increased popularity that came from O Brother’s Grammy-winning soundtrack wasn’t the first pop-culture banjo bump. It’s not even the first one inspired by a movie: Deering says that 1972’s Deliverance, which came out shortly before he got in the game, put the instrument into the public consciousness with its famous “Dueling Banjos” scene. But interest then was focused on same folk music with which the banjo has long been associated.

“We’re just now finding that a lot of the banjo escaping its normal cultural boundaries was the movie O Brother, Where Are Thou?” says Greg Deering, who notes he didn’t see as much of a boost in sales with the movie’s release.  He later learned from some customers that much of the instrument’s recent popularity came from the enormous popularity of the movie’s soundtrack. Among those customers were Mumford & Sons, the incredibly popular English-Americana band that, along with bands like the Avett Brothers, have ushered in a banjo-friendly folk revival in pop music just as country music has moved toward a pop sound. “We just found out that the guys in Mumford were influenced by the movie to start working with the banjo,” Deering says. “Groups all over the world are now using the banjo that would have had electric guitars otherwise.”

So for the past few years the Deering catalog—after what Greg Deering says was a year and a half spent trying to convince his own marketing department—now makes it clear that you don’t have to play bluegrass to play the banjo. And it’s working: Deering says he recently saw a teenage boy with spiked purple hair come into the factory to buy an instrument. “You wouldn’t have seen that before,” he says.

Still, O Brother and Mumford aren’t solely responsible. Deering says that the banjo was due for popularity right about now and it would have happened anyway. Prior to the banjo’s association with bluegrass, when it used to be a pop-music instrument, amplification wasn’t common; the banjo is loud, so it was a good choice for public performance. But until recently, the only option to amplify banjos so they could compete with electric guitars was a pick-up that essentially turned the instrument’s drum into another microphone, creating what Deering says were really bad feedback problems. A new kind of pick-up, however, allows the banjo to be amplified while still retaining its signature sound. “So mainstream, heavy metal, punk, and rock ‘n’ roll groups can plug a banjo in, turn it all the way up and make music,” he says.

Technology has also allowed the instrument to spread among amateurs, points out historian Robert Webb. You once had to travel to find someone to teach you to play the instrument—Deering didn’t meet another banjo player for about three years after he started using a Pete Seeger how-to book to learn to play—and you were then limited to the style your mentor played. Today, YouTube brings banjo lessons to anyone who wants them.

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But will the trend last?

Neil Perry, the banjo-playing sibling of country stars The Band Perry, says he thinks that the unique sound of the banjo is the attraction for musicians who aren’t already part of the country and bluegrass scene—which means that, when listeners’ ears become accustomed to that sound, the musicians may move on. “I do see more banjos coming out. I don’t know why. I think instruments come in phases, like anything; people have short attention spans,” he says. “Another sound will just catch their ear.”

But it’s also possible that the uniqueness of the instrument will help keep it going. Jeff Hyde, who plays banjo with country stars including Eric Church and Taylor Swift and Kenny Chesney, thinks that, while the banjo may leave the hands of lead singers, it won’t go far. Hyde’s own banjo was made by Texas-based expert Mitch Key, in Key’s backyard. “It wasn’t fit to clean a catfish back there, much less build a quality instrument,” Hyde remembers, “but it was amazing” The instrument  has since been all around the world. Hyde says he doesn’t see that stopping. “I don’t think it’ll ever go away,” he says,” as long as Jeff Hyde has anything to do with it.”

Deering’s David Bandrowski agrees with Hyde. Compared to other trend-inspiring instruments (for example: the YouTube ukulele craze of a few years ago), the banjo has a wide range and a higher up-front cost for the new player, which may mean more serious musicians take it up. His boss, Greg Deering, is optimistic too. And if this particular fad lasts as long as his initial interest in the banjo did, it may not be long before we’re hearing that telltale twang on a dance-music hit.

“The banjo world has been so small and very confined for so long, just having it be a little bit broader is a huge change in the market,” he says. “We don’t have a crystal ball but we can easily observe whether the trend is expanding or slowing down—and it’s not slowing down.”