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Museum Of Making Music: The Banjo

New Exhibit Explores A New Day For An Old Instrument

KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando visits the new banjo exhibit at the Museum of Making Music.


The Museum of Making Music in Carlsbad says its ultimate purpose is to make the world more musical. Visitors can get their hands on an electric banjo and make music as loud as they want at the museum’s new exhibit The Banjo; A New Day for an Old Instrument.

Music is such a part of our everyday lives that perhaps you didn’t notice your first introduction to the banjo might have come from the 1960s Beverly Hillbillies TV show.

Beverly Hillbillies Theme Music

Or maybe from the movie "Deliverance."

Dueling Banjos from 'Deliverance'

The media has played a significant role in defining the banjo ever since the Grand Ole Opry Show gave audiences across the U.S. their first taste of country music with the radio program’s national debut in 1939. The Museum of Making Music is sponsored by NAMM, the National Association of Music Merchants. Both these nonprofit organizations want to raise awareness of the role the industry plays in creating music. The current exhibit, "The Banjo: A New Day for an Old Instrument," came about in part because the museum’s executive director Carolyn Grant was contacted by the San Diego-based Deering Banjo company.

"They had been telling us for a year or two about how successful and how busy they were at their factory so I started asking, 'why now? Are we starting to hear banjo more or in different arenas?'" Grant said, "So we asked the question and felt, 'let’s explore that.' A lot of what we do here at the museum is not answering questions per say but exploring trends."

The Museum looks at what it describes as the cycle of music making. What is the need that arose to create a musical instrument? How did manufacturers, engineers, and craftsmen respond to that need? How did the playing of the instrument change over the years? The museum may not have answers to all those questions but it does offer suggestions. The renewed popularity of the banjo, for instance, may stem in part from recent innovations.

"Deering has made a tremendous contribution to music making through this Cavanaugh pick up developed by John Cavanaugh; it’s a pick up that you put on the banjo that doesn’t feedback so the banjo can now be played onstage a lot more successfully than it could say 20 years ago so watch for big things happening there," Grant said.

Two years of research went into putting this exhibit together with 80 banjos on display to show the variety and history of the instrument. Grant explains that the banjo evolved from the instrument brought across during the Atlantic slave trade. There was not a lot of standardization at first but these stringed instruments had a resonator, a gourd typically and four strings with a short fifth string.

The Museum of Making Music’s exhibit The Banjo: A New Day for an Old Instrument runs through the end of October.

"The fifth string being short or being the drone string. Later on, musical styles change, jazz came out in early 1900s for that type of music this one string picking or melodic wasn’t what was needed for that type of music they needed chords, they needed to strum, they needed to be rhythmic and they needed to be loud." Grant explained.

So the instrument changed not by accident but because it had to in order to adapt to changing music styles and to the needs of the musician. Visitors to the museum can get a feel for what goes into making an instrument at a work station where they can assemble the pot or round lower portion of the banjo.

"You’ll see all the different elements that go into making a pot, so you’ll take for example, a flange, and then put on top of that the wood rim, and on and on and on till you make your banjo pot. This kind of hands on experience is central to the Museum’s mission.

Photo caption:

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

Museum of Making Music's executive director Carolyn Grant demonstrates assembling the pot of a banjo.

"This is our interactive area where we have three different banjos that you can play, so you can experiment," Grant said as she strummed the electric banjo available to visitors.

Grant wants the museum to pique somebody’s curiosity or whet somebody’s appetite, even her own.

"This is a gold tone cello banjo," Grant said, "which I am curious to learn a little bit about because it’s tuned just like a cello so you can use the same musical map that you’ve learned as a cellist to play on the banjo."

The Museum of Making Music’s banjo exhibit is not designed as a comprehensive history. Instead it provides little tidbits that show our need and desire to make music and communicate, it’s part of what makes us human.


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