Thursday, August 18, 2005


Tonight, I am going to a bona-fide hootenanny! I am hoping there is at least one banjo.

When I had my first private banjo lesson, I noticed that my instructor Chris had really fascinating fingernails. They were yellow and very thick. I wondered if he had some strange nail disease, but I thought, how fortunate for him! Because whatever necrotizing affliction it was seemed to have resulted in fingernails so long and so thick that it made hitting the right strings much easier, and what luck for a professional musician.

I was so curious, but not wanting to be rude, I broached the subject by saying, "I'll have trouble keeping my nails long." (I bit my nails as a child and for longer than I'd like to admit after that. I still like my nails short. I have to work hard to cultivate, at the very least, a long right index fingernail so I can play.)

He said, "Well, you can always do what I do, and get fake ones. The ladies down the street at the parlour do these three fingers up for me because I can't afford a broken nail." That was when he put his hand out for me to see that it was only the first two fingers on his right hand and his thumb that had the Frankenails.

Most banjo players focus a lot on their left hand, doing fancy and fast fingerwork, ornamentation -- pull-offs, hammer-ons, slides, bends, all that good stuff. Chris is just about the nicest and least pretentious guys I've ever known, and though he could play that banjo in circles around most people, he emphasizes playing what sounds best and feels best, not just what might impress. For him, it's all about the right hand because that's where your rhythm comes from, how you make the banjo ring. Sure, the left hand stuff is fun, and even important, but you sound like a hack if you start showing off too soon.


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