I see I'm not the only one with an abiding interest in "America's instrument. The following comes to us from the Associated Press, courtesy of The Columbus Dispatch:
Banjos all the rage in Ohio music scene
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - In scruffy beards, tight jeans and thrift-store cardigans, the young men look like any other hip musicians.
When they go onstage, though, the central Ohioans take along another retro accessory - one they laud for its tone and texture, and apply to their indie-folk or chamber-pop fare: the banjo.
"It's a really great gimmick," said 21-year-old Max Sollisch, who spent almost three years playing banjo in the percussion-free Columbus folkpop quartet Our Cat Philip.
Sollisch, who at 15 discovered an old banjo in a friend's attic, plays guitar and occasionally banjo these days with his latest project, Arlo & the Otter.
"Anytime you step onstage as a couple of 19-year-olds and you pull out a banjo," he said, "you automatically have the crowd's attention."
Once relegated to dusty bluegrass and Dixieland stylings - or conjuring up creepy scenes from the 1972 thriller Deliverance - the lowly banjo has begun to cro p up in hip, unlikely places.
Sure, the instrument gained prominence through the work of folk artists Earl Scruggs and Pete Seeger and later, prime exposure in the films "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and "A Mighty Wind."
But in recent years, contemporary artists such as Beck, Grizzly Bear, the Decemberists, Modest Mouse and Travis have incorporated it, too.
For years, the Los Angeles-based CMH Records label has released the "Pickin' On" album series, which puts a folksy, banjo-fueled spin on covers by modern bands such as the Shins and Metallica.
Comedian and longtime banjo player Steve Martin last year recorded the album "The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo," and all three members of the retro-cool Carolina Chocolate Drops rotate stage roles on four and five-string banjos.
And, last month, Denison University in Granville announced a bluegrass-concentration option for music majors, a nod to the growing popularity of folk music among youn ger listeners.
"We're starting to see a banjo renaissance, I guess," said Tyler Evans, a senior, 21, at Capital University in Bexley who plays banjo for the alternative Columbus groups the Super Desserts, Couch Forts and Bird and Flower as well as periodic appearances with the Black Swans.
He might be right: The Super Desserts' quirky third album is titled "Banjo Forever."
Trendy it is; simple, it's not. Many banjo newbies tend to play guitar - a skill that doesn't seamlessly translate, Evans said.
First, the strings (which, depending on the variation, number four or five) are typically tuned to create an open G chord.
Five-string players use three fingers - each wearing a finger pick - instead of four (as guitar players do). The neck is smaller. Melody and rhythm structures vary greatly.
"It's a different beast altogether," said Evans, a jazz-studies major who has taken banjo instruction at Capital.
Thought to have originated in Asia or Africa, the banjo was brought to the Western Hemisphere as early as the 17th century by black slaves. Made of hollowed-out gourds strung with catgut, the instrument's primary variations were called banjer or banjar in the British colonies.
By the mid-1800s, the banjo found a place in white culture, thanks to mass production and exposure on the Dixieland circuit, said Denison associate professor Andy Carlson.
What made the instrument stick was the addition of a fifth string in the 1830s, allowing for accented notes.
"It took what was a mellow instrument and made it project, really cut through in a band setting," said Carlson, who will co-direct the bluegrass program at Denison. "It became the signature sound of American folk music."
In the 1990s, the banjo found its way into the fringes of popular music via jam-rock outfits such as Yonder Mountain String Band and Celtic-punk groups, including Flogging Molly.
It has since become a growing stapl e of the retro-heavy indiefolk scene - particularly among an arty, low-key segment known as "twee."
"Most people think the banjo is this backwoods, nerdy thing," said Rachael Maddux, an associate editor at the Georgia-based music magazine Paste, citing favorites such as folk-rockers the Avett Brothers and singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens.
"But there are definitely a lot of people doing really fun, really punkish stuff with the banjo."
Modern performers claim that the instrument offers their music something genuine, a pure feeling that's tough to define.
"There's something about the tonal quality," said Ryan Wells, a 26-year-old who plays banjo for the folksy Columbus four-piece Moon High. "You can't match it with any other instrument."
Wells, who took up the banjo on a lark, said the instrument's role with Moon High has grown and can be heard on the band's self titled debut album. (Wells' instrument lights up onstage, thanks to a flashlight head he installed in the banjo's drum).
For listeners, such pluck can't be overlooked.
"Every note has a sparkly sort of texture," said Zac Little, whose uncle gave him a "really old, ... off-brand, flea-market banjo" on his 16th birthday, five years ago.
Now a banjo, dulcimer and guitar player for the newly formed Columbus quartet Saintseneca, Little hasn't opted for an upgrade.
Nor does he see his banjo brethren as bandwagon boarders.
"I think people were using it before anyone knew each other," Little said. "Then, when we started playing shows, it was like 'Oh, there's five other (local) bands who use banjo as well.'
"I saw it as a point of connection. It's exciting."