home » blog » “A Kazoo With Strings”

ARChive news

“A Kazoo With Strings”

Over at Boing Boing yesterday, Cory Doctorow blogged about Patrick Costello, a Maryland based banjoist who wrote a book – free online, with a creative commons license – called the How and Tao of Old Time Banjo. Costello’s quite prolific with the pedagogical materials. He has written a couple of other books, posts lessons on youtube, makes teaching videos available through archive.org and writes a blog that help players learn how to play old time banjo. He seems to make all of his knowledge available to anyone who wants it for free.

This post caught my eye because I love banjos and I play tenor. Although I don’t play old timey music, I am familiar with Costello’s work. The story goes like this: I stole my mother-in-law’s old banjo (a mid-1890s Haynes Excelsior) in late 2005 with the help and blessing of my wife and sister-in-law. We all agreed that Momma J was neglecting – and thereby mistreating – it; an intervention had to happen. My intention was to mess around a little with the short fifth string to see what the fuss was all about. After whipping the banjo into playing shape, I found Costello’s site and with his tutelage I was frailing tunes in about an hour. Good stuff, indeed.

Doctorow’s description of Costello as a “famous banjo author” may be somewhat optimistic, but in the banjo community Costello is a somewhat notorious and controversial character. Over the years he has been banned from various internet forms, including Banjo-L and the Banjo Hangout. There are certainly those who admire what he offers and give him a lot of support, however many in the five string banjo community vehemently dislike him (btw, the content of the hyperlink is a summation of the arguments “against” him and don’t appear to be the opinions of the blogger). Some cite an abrasive and argumentative online personality as the basis for their hostility. Others take issue with his pedagogical philosophy which encourages the free adaptation, transformation and availability of his banjo teaching materials, and presumably siphons business away from those who make their living teaching old-time banjo.

Costello’s own pedagogical philosophy as of 2004 – expressed in a critique both of internet banjo forum posters and fledgling players searching for guidance – was recently quoted in a post on the Banjo Hangout:

Fumbling through a tab[ulature] file isn’t playing a song, it’s just memorizing a set of finger movements. You all say that you can play X number of songs, but what can you do with those songs? Are you jamming? Playing and singing? Can you change keys, change the rhythm or come up with a new lick on the fly?

You guys are not being taught how to play. You are just giving money to banjo teachers and getting zilch in return.

Put away your books. Stop taking lessons. Take a couple of chords and a roll or two and a hook with with some musicians in your area. Sing folk songs and play rhythm. This whole “play lead in a bluegrass band” crap is nice to talk about- but none of you are making any real progress. Nobody could because nobody ever learned to play by tab.

Play simply, learn how to work with the rhythm of a song and start making music rather than sitting around here talking about tone rings. learn how things work, FEEL the music and UNDERSTAND how and why things work rather than just trying to memorize it.

I could have any of you guys jamming in a weekend, and I don’t chagre [sic] for in person lessons. It’s a freaking BANJO. It’s a kazoo with strings. If you know three chords you can play a thousand songs. Why are you all so set on making it hard?

Look at the problems you are having. Think things through. If you can’t go through the wall go around it, over it, under it, go buy a ladder, get a big hammer. . . there is never a single solution. You just have to think like a musician instead of a banjo player.

This post stirred conflict and briefly brought Costello back into the Banjo Hangout fold. He joined the above-linked thread which was eventually locked and his (new?) account (again?) suspended (I believe he’d already been once banned from the Hangout) after he basically called everyone there “losers.” He’s pissed enough of the online banjo community off so that new even threads about him get locked on relatively short order.

Is all the hostility against Costello only about his difficult online persona? Costello’s ideas about what old time music is and how it should be taught raises fascinating questions about who owns music and what the politics are surrounding musical pedagogy. They seem to run against those of an important part of the banjo playing community. Does unrestrictive musicking (Christopher Small’s idea that music is a process or activity rather than a “thing”) in the new millennium undermine the community of teachers whose depend on teaching “authentic” old time music as part of their livelihood?

Discuss amongst yourselves…



  1. Patrick Costello

    The “vehemently dislike him” link points to a password-protected page.

    I enjoyed the post, but I kept waiting for you to stop telling us what everybody else thinks about me and getting down to what you think and how you feel.

    I mean, when did the value of an artist start hinging on his or her willingness to conform?


  2. arcmusic

    Patrick, thank you for posting! I didn’t think you would even bother with this; I appreciate your response and your candor.

    Thanks also for the kind word about enjoying the post. My basic idea was to point out the questions your work raises about traditional music in the digital age – really nothing more. As I was writing it, I didn’t think that my opinion was particularly relevant and I thought adding it would likely have stunted the kind of discussion that I think should happen about how you do what you do. It seems that with many on the HO there is such a concern with “sounding like Earl” (or, having the right rim and tone ring combination) there is little room left for developing – or even talking about – alternate perspectives on what the banjo (no, what music) is all about.

    But, since you’re the first poster (and, I will imagine, likely the last) I believe what you do and the way you do it is right (see “good stuff” above). It’s an insightful way of teaching music, I think it probably resonates with older paradigms of how music was passed along (OLD time) and it certainly is the right way of attracting more people into the social experience of making music given the technological possibilities today (which I think is a good thing).

    So yep , there you go.

    ps. and whoops on the p/w protected link the “vehemently dislike him” page.

  3. jonnymia

    I hope this isn’t the last post on this subject, Dan’l, because it’s a good one and I think it suggests themes which run through everything that goes into the ARCblog.

    The sum total of what I know about the banjo you could fit comfortably in a bug’s ear, but opinions about popular music I got for days. Let me keep this short and sweet.

    Number One Pronouncement From On High: Nerds Abound.
    Meaning if you get sucked into interminable arguments about technique and authenticity, usually with folk who have a head full of trivia but no real feeling for the music, you are wasting a lot of time you could be spending just plain playing. Isn’t this what we’re talking about here?

    Second Law Of Music That Doesn’t Suck: If You Stop Playing To The Dancers You Are Dead.
    Name your genre (and I mean any music with roots in a tradition that goes back further than Wednesday) – folk, blues, jazz, Celtic boogaloo, whatever – if the tune you are playing isn’t provoking some kind of physical response then it is dead on arrival. You should at this point try playing drunk, and if this doesn’t help just concentrate on writing books. The surest way to attain Almighty Authenticity is not learning tunes, it is playing something – anything – that will compel people to pat their feet, clap their hands, or wiggle their asses.

    Technology continues to chase its own tail at an every increasing tempo and the culture becomes more anesthetized by the spectacle, like a rube at his first carnival staring at the cooch dancer while his pocket gets picked. And that’s why this stuff is important – humans need music played live in front of them by other animals of the same species, and without the benefit of footnotes. Sorry about that footnote crack, leave it to me to find an insulting way to agree with you!

    – Jonny

  4. arcmusic


    Great post!

    To your pronouncement number one: I really enjoy talking about music and raising questions about its meanings – I think it’s important. In musical discussions, some are more likely to argue about technique and authenticity than others and that’s fine. Me? I happen to think that authenticity as a concept is antiquated and restricts potential – there is too much happening in music (through communicative technologies, for example) to make it useful. However, the imperative to “play more” (or more commonly, to “practice more”) instead of talk, however, is a common way on message boards to curtail discussion. One can feel like talking and not feel like playing, too! (And who said that talking about music is necessarily “nerdy?”)

    I also like your second point, but I’d point out that people respond to different things in music. Some like to dance, others don’t, but I get your point – it’s all about keeping a groove (and I think that might be the point of Patrick’s teaching – getting people to tap into that feeling).

  5. Grant

    When I took French in school, we conjugated verbs in long lists by voice, and in the end we couldn’t say anything! When I took German, which concentrated on language and speaking, I could converse more in one semester than after three years of French.

    So I like Patrick’s approach.

    At the same time, I’m one of those naive beginners that wants to sound like their favourite band.

  6. arcmusic

    I had the exact same problem in my French classes in high school. Too much busy grammar (making it harder than it needed to be) and not enough practical application (when I went to France in my teens, for example, my HS French studies were of absolutely no help). Not to say that the “busy’ grammar wasn’t important (because it is), but to get one started and really passionate about speaking another language, an emphasis on rote grammar seemed to me a great way of taking the emphasis off of human communication.

    Thanks for the post!

  7. Patrick Costello

    Trust me, I will never claim to have a point to my teaching outside of getting everyday people to make music.

    Audiences, dancers and non-musicians don’t factor into anything I do. I refuse to perform, and it’s been years since I played for a dance. My only interest is getting people who have a desire to make music into the headspace where they are willing to try – to take the risk of putting themselves “out there” with the language of music.

    To me this isn’t a hobby, business or even a topic of discussion. It’s just something I do. A way of living my life. I’m not teaching for free out of a desire to buck the system. I’m teaching for free because that is how I was taught the craft. My motives are pretty clearly laid out in the .pdf file I put out to state my status as a walking/talking free resource (that’s why I was boingbnoinged) at http://tangiersound.files.wordpress.com/2007/07/patrick.pdf

  8. arcmusic


    I really admire your approach – I really do think its a more productive way of getting people to play music. However, while I respect your assertion that how you do what you do isn’t a topic of discussion, I disagree and would take it a step further: I’d argue that it HAS to be a topic of discussion because it’s a good idea that uses technology to spread music in an interesting way.

    Of course, you are under no obligation to participate in any discussion about what you do – why would an artist necessarily want to engage in analysis of his or her own work? I do feel fortunate that you have so far chosen to engage with me here, but I think we have seen on the BHO (and elsewhere) that ideas and discourse about traditional music are preciously held and vigorously defended but often short-sighted. I happen to think that the best way to LIMIT music making is to ensure it – and the discourse about it – can happen only with the approval/permission of others. Your work goes against this notion and it’s refreshing.

    ps. thanks for the link; feel free to link to any and all the work I missed in the blog post.