These are the family's instruments, from left to right: tenor banjo, ukulele, and banjo-ukulele. The tenor or 4-string banjo was my grandfather's, and he used to ride around the Adirondacks on his Harley and play for drinks. The ukulele was my father's, but I don't think Da ever had a motorcycle. The banjo-ukulele was my grandmother's (the ribbon is what she used for a shoulder strap).
I have taken the tenor banjo home, and have determined I will learn to play it. I can do three chords, a basic scale, and one song at the moment, none of the above very well. I can only play a couple of minutes before my fingers hurt, but it'll take a while for the calluses to build.
Meanwhile, I've been looking into the history of the banjo. Grandpa Burt played by strumming or by picking out a tune. Now I know why. If you have an hour and a half to spare and you'd like an overview of Banjo, I recommend watching the PBS special, Give Me the Banjo: http://www.pbs.org/arts/exhibit/give-me-the-banjo/
But I'll sum up here. The banjo started in Africa and came to America and was refined by slaves. It wasn't until the 1840s when blackface vaudevillians started playing the banjo on stage that white people started to notice its existence. The 5-string banjo was the most common banjo even then. Just before and during the Civil War, manufacturers decided to start making banjos and began marketing them for "classical banjo style" to the white middle class, and as far as I can tell, this is when the 4-string tenor banjo was introduced. The documentary shows a flash of a bass banjo as well, and I just met on the Rav someone with a piccolo banjo. I showed her the pic above and she swears her banjo has an 8" head, sized firmly between my tenor (10.5) and the ukulele (6ish). Banjo was played in the North as well as South throughout the Civil War, and continued. Most music released after the War was marketed as "Coon Music", various cake walks and folk songs attributed to the former slaves. But after WWI, Tin Pan Alley took over, and this was my Grandpa Burt's influence as well as folk music. Burt had a lot of show tunes in his collection that are marked as his favorites. Bluegrass didn't evolve until Bill Monroe's Band took the stage, and fingerpicking styles developed by artists like Earl Scruggs didn't become known until the mid/late 1930s. So while I grew up with Beverly Hillbillies and Hee Haw which featured the clawhammer and other picking styles, Grandpa Burt would have seen it well after mastering the classical strumming style. Also, the two and three finger picking styles tend to be done on the common 5-string banjo, and few people in bluegrass play the 4-string - if they want the sound, they tend to reach for the mandolin instead, which is played in a similar style. The blues apparently evolved from bluegrass, and therefore tend to do the finger-picking on a 5-string. However, classic folk playing with strumming or frailing (a subset of strumming with a whole 'nother technique) has continued to this day, and the Irish folk music tradition has picked up the tenor banjo and taken the 4-string to Ireland. Most of the instruction available on the internet for the tenor banjo focuses on how to do the wild improvisation frills of Irish folk music. And out of curiosity I did a search for an electric banjo - apparently that exists as well and there is a rock music style as well. Heavy metal banjo exists on the YouTube. I was amused and delighted by this.
So while I am trying to learn the basics of the tenor banjo, I am overwhelmed by the possible musical connections I can make with the instrument. How do I want to play it? Can I master it all, or shall I just pick and choose what interests me and see what develops? I like all kinds of music, but the person I am most likely to play with is my sweetie, so we can jam together. We'll probably end up with bluegrass/folk and some rock, and end up with our own sounds of joy. Just need to figure out a guitar and/or harmonica for him, so he can play along. (and sadly, no, he isn't interested in the family ukulele :) )