Banjo Hackers

This entry was posted by on Wednesday, 2 May, 2007 at

The Hacker’s Dictionary defines a “hacker” as:

“(1) A person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and how to stretch their capabilities, as opposed to most users, who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary. […] (7) One who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations.”

A hacker is a tinkerer — someone who wants to endlessly poke at a system to figure out how it works, modify it, experiment and improve it.

Since I started playing banjo about three years ago, I’ve been watching the relatively small-world community of banjo players. They have endless forum discussions at banjohangout.org. Many also subscribe to the “official” community magazine, The Banjo Newsletter, which a monthly treeware periodical that’s been going for 34 years now, full of hand-transcribed tablature, tinkering advice, and classified ads.

What’s striking to me is what a “hacker” culture it is.

By comparison, I played guitar for a few years before playing banjo, and most of my musician friends are guitarists as well. Guitar-player culture seems (to me) to be a fairly refined thing. Instruments are exquisitely designed and crafted as works of art, and the people who buy and play guitars much the way classical musicians handle their antique violins. “This is a beautiful object, both in form and tone.” The instrument goes on a pedestal. It can be slightly tweaked to taste, by choosing a certain brand of strings. The ease of play(“action”) can be adjusted by slightly bending the neck via a turn of the truss rod. (Though many guitarists are too scared to do this themselves, they have a professional do this for them.) In a nutshell, when you shop for a guitar, you find the one you love, and it becomes an immutable piece of art — and takes its place as a distinct personality in your guitar collection.

The banjo community, however, is a bunch of wheelin’, dealin’, giddyap hardware hackers. Unlike a guitar, which is (mostly) a single piece of shaped wood, a banjo is a frankencollection of odd parts and gizmos. You’ve got the “rim” of wood that makes up the main body of the drum. There’s the “tone ring”, a metal chamber between the rim and drum-head which shapes the resonation, and the “tension hoop” held down by brackets, which secures the drum-head and provides even tension. Combine all this with a metal framework (chrome? silver? gold?) for holding down the drum-head, and the whole thing is called the “pot” — with uniquely shaped airholes surrounding the rim to let the sound reflect out from the “resonator”, which is the big plate of wood behind the pot. Don’t forget a custom tailpiece to hold the strings at the bottom, and a custom bridge (of varying height) to thread the strings through. Oh, and banjos can also have fancy tuner gizmos at the tip of the neck, allowing one to bend tones (via spring mechanism) in live performance.

Every one of these pieces is malleable. You can buy replacement parts, swap them around, adjust them, and then spend weeks tinkering to make your banjo sound just the way you want. These folks fill their discussion boards with advice about how one component sounds compared to another, the best way to tweak parts, and putting up recordings for each other to evaluate. The banjo you buy is just a starting mold; it may be something else a few years and many fiddlings later. When I shopped for the one, I was explicitly looking for a banjo known to use the Tony Pass rim, due to the partially-petrified (extrodinarily dense) wood used. Since then, I’ve changed my bridge, armrest, strings, drum head… and even my fingerpicks. (Double-cobalt plated picks!)

These folks are the same people who spend their weekends rebuilding old cars on their lawn. I love them dearly.

4 Comments to Banjo Hackers

  1. C. Michael Pilato says:

    May 3rd, 2007 at 7:00 am

    What you’ve said about banjos is (obviously) true, but I think you’ve taken a fairly narrow view of the guitar playing community here. Besides the minor oversight that acoustic guitarists can also tweak nuts and saddles to taste, you’ve neglected the entirety of the electric guitar hacker community, which routinely assemble instruments from parts: bodies (hollow, solid-body, …), necks, trem systems, pickups, knobs, electronics, and so on.

  2. rants.org » Blog Archive » Ben Collins-Sussman on hacking and hackers. says:

    May 3rd, 2007 at 12:36 pm

    […] What’s the blogiquette take on writing a post that’s basically just a link to another post somewhere else? I just read a great piece by Ben Collins-Sussman over at iBanjo, about the difference between hacker and non-hacker cultures — using banjos and guitars as the case study! Check it out: http://blog.red-bean.com/sussman/?p=62. […]

  3. Ben Collins-Sussman says:

    May 3rd, 2007 at 12:43 pm

    Yeah, you’re right, Mike. I have no experience with electric guitar folks… only with acoustic guitars and banjos.

  4. Karl Fogel says:

    May 3rd, 2007 at 4:11 pm

    I think Ben’s basic point still holds, though. The idea I took away from this post is that the community’s hackerliness correlates with the instrument’s innate hackability. For technical reasons, electric guitars are much more hackable than acoustic guitars, just as banjos are more hackable than acoustic guitars. Result: electric guitars and banjos get a more hacking-oriented community than acoustic guitars do. True, acoustic guitarists twiddle a few parameters here and there, but in general they don’t get down-‘n-hacky the way owners of the other two instruments tend to.