Oct 242012

The banjo’s never had much success in rock, has it? I know, if we did a Last Man Standing we could end up listing 138 rock songs featuring a banjo, but beside a Monkees’ song or two featuring a banjo, how many instances immediately spring to mind—and to the point of this discussion, when do you ever think, “You know, this song would really benefit from the inclusion of a banjo!”

Scruffy the Cat originally had a banjo player; I don’t know anything about him or how long he stuck with the band. I saw them with the banjo guy early on at Maxwell’s. They were awesome, and the banjo made for a fine percussive rhythm instrument, able to cut through on solos as well as rhythm parts. The banjo is essentially a guitar with a snare drum. What could be more rock ‘n roll than that? Why isn’t the banjo more often featured in rock ‘n roll songs? The stinking mandolin probably gets more use. The mandolin doesn’t seem to possess many rocking qualities.

Maybe I’m wrong about this. Maybe the banjo has a rich history in rock ‘n roll that I’ve forgotten. I, for one, believe the banjo has untapped potential as part of an actual rock ‘n roll rhythm section, played more like a guitar, not so tied to the instrument’s pickin’ and grinnin’ tradition. Say Amen, somebody!


  25 Responses to “The Banjo in Rock”

  1. bostonhistorian

    This is a pretty good example of the Scruffy the Cat sound with the banjo: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KaT20S8_X3c They also did some more acoustic stuff that really lets the banjo shine.

  2. That’s a good example of how they let the banjo be part of the rock song and didn’t feel the need to pretend they were suddenly a bluegrass band.

  3. First song I thought of was “For the Turnstiles.”

    Not so rockin’, but prominent banjo that is fairly well integrated into that particular song. My instinct is that Neil has used banjo on and off quite a bit, but I’d have to cheat and google to figure out when.

  4. diskojoe

    Here’s what I first thought of when I saw this thread:


  5. Regarding Scruffy the Cat: I love them! During I shortlived attempt to digitize some old LPs (must return to that project), I borrowed a USB turntable and dug out High Octane Revival. What a great record! And since I now only listen to MP3s on an iPod or Sonos player, I can actually enjoy it again. I don’t know much about Scruffy the Cat, but a friend in Boston told me that his daugher went to grade school with the keyboard player’s daughter. He’s now an minister but still rock out as needed, according to my friend. As for the banjo angle, that was news to me.

    Regarding the banjo in rock, a friend in town (Madison WI) plays an electric banjo in one of his groups. He makes it sound like a chicken-picked telecaster. As for a traditional banjo sound in a rock sound, check out Adrienne Young’s song “Poison” on “Plow to the End of the Row.” Can’t find a youtube clip, but it’s a nice use of a banjo helping to build U2-like layers of sound. Most of the rest of the CD is a bit more traditional.

  6. Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about: the banjo as a strummed percussion instrument.

  7. That’s a great song and fine use of the instrument in a non-country context. Not exactly what I was getting at, but I think you have appropriately widened the context of the discussion.

  8. It’s one of my least-favorite Who songs, but “Squeeze Box” is an attempt at finding a middle ground between pickin’ and grinnin’ and rock.

    Does “Stuck in the Middle With You” also feature a banjo? I’m hearing one in my head.

    One of my favorite Ronnie Lane songs, “Roll On Babe,” uses a folky banjo in a folky song. That is NOT what I have in mind for the possible untapped potential of the banjo in rock.

  9. About eight-or-so years ago, I was a big fan of a guy named Curtis Eller, a banjo player who played songs about Amelia Earhart, Buster Keaton and Abe Lincoln. It sounds unbearable, I know, but he did these songs with Iggy Pop-like abandon, and as a songwriter, he wasn’t interested in being a musuem piece, even if he did kind of feel outside of time. Anyway, my attempts as a music writer to get him more of a Philly audience were massively unsuccessful, and I kinda lost touch with his career. I know he moved from NYC to NC, and he tours a lot in the UK, where he’s always had a sizable fan base.

  10. H. Munster

    Some nice banjo at the end of “Bluebird” from “Buffalo Springfield Again”.

  11. I was a Scruffy the Cat fanboy, and attended many an early Scruffy show (mostly at the Rat). They were just the right mix of ramshackle rollick, folksy, and fun, especially with inclusion of Stonah Fitch, their banjo player. The High Octane Revival ep is fun, though it didn’t do justice to the impact of their live sound. )This was a problem for a lot of bands coming up in the 80’s: the dearth of decent recording facilities not stocked with crappy 80’s recording gear. Boston was no exception). After Stonah left the band, they became much more speedy and punky, if tighter from all the touring. I have a big soft spot though for their delightful banjo years.

    As for other bands with banjo, it pops up occasionally and to nice effect on Uncle Tupelo’s March 16-20 album. Also check out the Marah tune “Far Away You”.

  12. I was going to bring up Marah but was unable to log on. They have several songs o their first album which feature the banjo but who’s names escape me.

    Also, Tom Waits has used it on Murder in the Red Barn and (I think) Chocolate Jesus. Not percussive but not bluegrassy either. Just sort of broke down minimalist.

  13. Oh, and check out Califone. Way moody, night time stuff, but very cool and consistently good, and lot’s of banjo in between the reverbed string squeeks.

  14. bostonhistorian

    I thought Dave Minehan did a pretty good job with High Octane Revival, but yes, STC is one of those bands that absolutely had to be seen live. I’ve always wondered what a Rick Harte produced STC would have sounded like, since I really like his Lyres work. Did Charlie Chesterman do some production for you?

  15. hrrundivbakshi

    Surprised nobody has mentioned Brian Wilson’s extensive use of the banjo on “Smile.”

    And let us not forget this banjo-centric gem!


  16. DUH! In my own backyard! Of course, they worked the banjo in a rocking way.

  17. No, but the Trolleyvox did do an instrumental called “Chesterman.” To date, not a peep from Charlie about it.

  18. bostonhistorian

    I’ll ask him about it next time I see him.

  19. Ryan Adams plays and uses the ol’ banjo — “Answering Bell” is a good example — which really sounds nice to my ears 10 years later. I forgot there’s a little guest spot by Elton John in the video at the end, if you can stick with it all the way through.


  20. ladymisskirroyale

    I think Les Claypool has been known to incorporate the banjo (and banjo bass) during some Primus gigs.

  21. The only banjo player I can possibly think of is Steve Martin in his early stand up comic days.

  22. Good call on Marah!

  23. mockcarr

    Didn’t John Lennon learn banjo chords from his mom before he figured out proper guitar chords? That stamps it as of primary rock importance.

  24. Yes, and Townshend too, if memory serves.

  25. hrrundivbakshi

    Just thought of a great banjo-rock song: “Gotta be Free” by the Kinks, off of “Lola and the Powerman, etc.”

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