Renaissance in banjo playing amongst young and old is driving best-ever sales, says UK's leading banjo retailer. Britain's banjo retailer Banjos Direct is reporting record sales, driven by a resurgence of interest in the instrument amongst players at both ends of the age spectrum. Manufacturers in the USA and UK are expanding their ranges and increasing production to meet the demand for the instrument.
Two distinct demographic groups, over thirty years apart in age, are driving the greatest resurgence of interest in banjo playing since the 1960s, according to Simon Middleton, founder of UK's specialist store, Banjos Direct. "We have strong sales evidence that something very exciting is happening with banjos, with both young players aged under 25 and the over-55s too," explains Middleton.
"Bluegrass music has experienced a powerful rejuvenation, partly driven by high profile and very accessible Bluegrass artists like Steve Martin (better known to non-bluegrass enthusiasts as the comedian and comedy actor). But the trend is wider and deeper than that. Rock artists like Bruce Springsteen are incorporating banjo into their music too."
Banjos Direct reports that its customer base reflects strongly increased interest from two broad but distinct groups of players: baby boomers aged over 50, and young players aged under 25 whom Middleton refers to as "young-timers".
"The older group of enthusiasts are often learning an instrument for the first time, or in many cases are former guitar players who may not have played for years. For these people the banjo is attractive because it is arguably easier to begin to play than guitar, but provides a challenging and fulfilling musical adventure," says Middleton.
"There is also a nice DIY aspect to this instrument which many older players enjoy. Banjos are endlessly adjustable and improvable and have many replaceable parts, which makes them more engaging than guitars for older players in particular," Middleton explains.
The "young-timers" are being drawn to the banjo by the high profile success of roots and folk bands like Mumford & Sons in the UK and The Avett Brothers in the USA, as well as accessible virtuoso players like Abigail Washburn and Bela Fleck.
"The wonderful thing about this trend is that the 'young-timers', as I call them, have no regard for rules about what should and shouldn't be played on the instrument. They soak up every influence and incorporate elements of folk, bluegrass and old-timey music into new styles," says Middleton.
Part of the phenomenon may be attributable to tough economic times. The banjo has a long association with self-generated entertainment amongst disadvantaged groups, from enslaved labour on plantations in the 18th and 19th centuries through to poor white farmers of the southern United States.
"Perhaps the banjo is the instrument for our times," says Middleton. "It works as a home-hobby instrument, but is also easy to incorporate with other instruments for social playing and singing. It is modest and involving: an instrument with real soul which is cutting across generational and musical genre barriers."
The two leading USA manfuacturers GoldTone and Deering both report sales trends increasing against recent economic trends, along with hand-made high-end makers like Nechville and Stelling.
UK based brands are expanding their banjo ranges too. Barnes & Mullins, an English brand founded by two London players in the late 19th Century, has returned to a serious interest in the instrument after a long hiatus, whilst acoustic guitar brand Tanglewood has also launched a substantial banjo range.