Friday July 16, 2021

Geoff Walker's
 In Defence of the Banjo
Courtesy Jazz World : Issue 1 : Feb 1991

 Geoff passed away in July 2013


I have played the banjo in many bands over the years. I was a founder member of the Blue Mags on Merseyside, the Heritage Hall Stompers in Durham and the New Orleans Express in Chester. I now play with Liverpool's Savoy Jazzmen and the four-piece Society Jazzmen; so I have seen a few things.

In 1978, I went with the Stompers and Malc Murphy to New Orleans and came back with the view that our kind of music would sound better without a banjo in it: quite a chastening thought for a banjo player!

I had been getting quite restless with the limitations of banjo style prior to going to the States and, after a conversation with Dennis Browne, the Lancashire-based New Orleans fanatic, had been experimenting with a much busier, but hopefully less intrusive, style of banjo playing. This got me fired from the New Orleans Express on my return from New Orleans!  Being without a band had a spectacular effect on my business career and I was soon able to afford the time and money to learn to fly, and to race vintage cars; so it was not the disaster it had at first seemed.

Anyway, my old pals the Savoy Jazzmen, who had kindly helped me to keep my hand in by letting me sit in with them, took me on permanently in the early eighties, and I had the chance to develop from where I had left off in 1978. The Savoy Jazzmen have an enormous repertoire, try to entertain whilst maintaining the integrity of the music and play across the full spectrum of musical styles to suit individual tastes. They also keep numbers down to about three minutes each, which ensures audience interest throughout the evening. This provided a basis from which to learn what I now consider to be profound truths regarding the banjo, and I shall now share them with you: 


The Piano is a wonderful instrument, totally self-sufficient - but it has several failings and pitfalls when used in a group:   


  •  It is usually out of tune or flat, and sometimes not there at all! If a band contains a clarinet or saxophone a flat piano means that tuning must be a compromise, since flattening one of these renders it inconsistent throughout its register; it will inevitably be out of tune somewhere.

  • Piano actions are very variable, ranging from missing keys to sticking keys, missing notes, etc.; so the pianist cannot develop a comfortable hand action. Nor can he see or hear what is going on, or attract the attention of his colleagues. A mirrored front panel would help, I suppose!

  •  It is so easy to drop in gratuitous extra chords that it takes great self-control not to improvise chords around the melody instead of the other way round.


  • The Guitar is a beautiful and self-sufficient instrument. I never practise on the banjo, always on the guitar. However, in a jazz band it, too, has shortcomings:

  • To hold its own it must be amplified. This means more gear to carry, set up and balance. It also means that the sound of the instrument is coming from somewhere other then under your fingers and I can never seem to get used to this.

  • Like the substitution of string bass for brass bass, substitution of the guitar for the banjo moves the whole sound in the direction of swing music, not a bad thing unless you have a fondness for the music of Jelly Roll Morton!

  • Whenever I play guitar in the band, we lose drive, and the platform the front line relies on is weakened.

  • If you play jazz guitar, you really must do it sitting down, and watch your fingers; so you tend to become introverted and less supportive


This brings me to the Banjo. This, too, has weaknesses and pitfalls:

  • Many front line musicians despise it or take it for granted, and most do not understand it. The major exceptions are Ken Sims, of the Dixie Kings, who taught me a lot when we were in the Blue Mags together, and Sammy Rimington, who can play my banjo even better than I can and knows exactly what he wants.

  • It is really a musical tambourine rather than a virtuoso instrument. Your main responsibilities when playing the banjo in a band are to contribute to, rather than detract from, the drive of the rhythm section, and not to play any wrong chords. Virtuosity can be the enemy of good jazz when applied tastelessly to the banjo; so can the relentless pursuit of every passing chord.

  • It can be a very loud instrument, and if played unfeelingly it can have a drastic effect on the band.

  • If you play it sitting down there is a great temptation to get really involved in what you are doing, to the exclusion of everything else.

However, the banjo has strengths as well:

  • If you play it standing up it is directional. This means that you can throw chords, rhythms, encouragement and ideas in the direction of whoever needs them. If you get in the middle of the back line this can work really well. You can watch, and enjoy, the drummer's technique, and this develops respect and understanding. You can play knuckle to knuckle with the bass player, and develop tremendous
    rapport. You become much more aware of the whole sound, and much more a part of it. This makes an enormous difference to the band.

  • If you sort out some basic details, the banjo can be quite tuneful. I use an unbleached calfskin vellum which you could make boots with, at a very high tension. I take care to position my fingers cleanly behind the frets, and concentrate more on the tone of the chord I have just struck than on getting to the next one, leaving the change until the last possible moment, to let it ring. This way, you can break windows at a hundred yards if necessary, and usually you don't need a microphone. At the same time, I use a light nylon plectrum, coated in crushed violin rosin, which means that it is not necessary to grip the plectrum hard to avoid dropping it. This in turn means that a very light and easy style is possible.


For three weeks last year (1990),  I owned a William Lang Super Orpheum G banjo which was so deep from resonator to vellum that I can now understand why so many banjoists do play sitting down. When it was stolen, it was a godsend! The experience led me to improve the tone of my slim and light John Grey, which now allows me much more freedom.

I have been through many stages of banjo bigotry. I have played the chunk chunk-a- thukka thukka of alleged Lawrence Marrero devotees, the thunk thunk thunk of the Ken Colyer style, the plink plink plink of the Dixieland period and in- numerable virtuoso rolls in imitation of my first banjo hero, Neil Hopkins - of the early Panama Jazz Band. I was once fired from my own band for experimenting with a shuffling, reggae-influenced rhythm to break up the 4/4 pattern.

Now, I like what I do. I wish I were a better pianist. I wish I were a better guitarist. Then I would play the banjo by choice, and not just necessity.

Geoff Walker                       

 Sent initially by Terry Birkinhead, and forwarded by Peter Swensson

Main Menu

Please visit my Home Page