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Start with a Banjo, Keep Adding Strings

Michael Raphael

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Paul Metzger jams on his hybrid sitar-banjo
(Jim Gates)
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Paul Metzger improvises on banjo and guitar
(Paul Metzger)

If you're in the Twin Cities area and you're looking for something kind of interesting -- or really interesting -- to do this afternoon, you might want to swing by the Hosmer Public Library. Paul Metzger will be there, playing the banjo.

But a word of advice: Don't show up expecting to hear your typical bluegrass music. In fact, don't expect to see your typical banjo, either.

Metzger has spent more than 20 years tinkering with the instrument, adding more and more strings. A banjo normally has five strings. Paul has gotten his up to 23 now. His highly modified instrument has pushed the sound of the banjo to new limits:


Multimedia slideshow: Hear and see Paul Metzger play his unusual instrument


Paul Metzger: The idea to have 23 strings on a banjo was not a single "light bulb moment."

Some banjos have a fifth string, a higher string on the top end of it. Instead of just having a single accent string there, I added initially just one, another one and then a third one, just to see what would come of those sounds.

Things that would become available to me by having some extra strings to use as an accent would then further inspire me to add something else to the instrument, or then play it in a different way than is expected.

When I first heard the instrument and was interested in music, as far as a banjo goes, I liked the sound of the instrument more than the type of music that was being played on it. So I was listening to instruments from India and Iran and Afghanistan that have certain sounds that are really quite similar to what you get out of a banjo or a guitar, if it's played a certain way.

So those were things that I was going toward. You've got to remember that this was at a time before the Internet and being able to get an instrument like that. To get a serod from India would mean going to India. And as a young teenager, that wasn't really an option, so the idea of taking something that I already had access to -- the U.S. is just silly with banjos everywhere. It was just a very natural thing to do, take what's around and see where you can take it with what you're hearing in your head.

I have 12 strings that are mounted to the circular body of the banjo, the drum part that are used for tuning this set of strings. Then there are another twelve tuners up at the regular expected spot up at the head stalk. They're for tuning the main melody strings, which are these, and then the two sets of accent strings, these four and these three.

It can be very percussive and exceptionally loud. I just dig that sound so much.

I make my own pick out of a coconut shell and it's really just like a thick piece of wood. I don't like to play with a piece of plastic. I actually lost this pick when I was touring and had to buy a coconut. They're really hard to open up. I had to run it over with the tire of the car. This street guy came out and started yelling at me. Why was I running over a coconut? I'm saying, "Well, I need to make a pick for my banjo." And at that moment, I just realized how ridiculous a lot of what I do is...

I do look at myself as a bit of an evangelist for the instrument. I'd like to think that someone would hear the recordings I've done and to hear the sounds of the banjo, sort of with new ears, and to hear those kinds of tones and to perhaps think of approaching it as something that can produce certain sounds -- rather than, 'Oh, I think I'll learn how to play bluegrass music.'

Comments

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  • By sasha borenstein

    From provo, UT, 04/27/2008

    wonderful story! the slide show is magnificent. please, could someone say to me where is the music in the background from?

    sasha

    By Roy Woodstrom

    From Minneapolis, MN, 04/26/2008

    Thanks for having Paul Metzger on your show and mentioning Hosmer Community Library.We had several calls and new people attending our popular weekly series.Pual put on a great show. Hosmer has a great music series going funded by community dollars that features musicians, dancers and actors of all types and cultures. We've recently had North Indian , Iranian and Ancient Chinese Chin music. Our Iranian concert celebrated Iranian New Year and Iranians from the community brought treats and tea to the event. On May 19th we are moving our concert series to the Central Library to honor the original Minnesotans during Minnesota's sesquicentennial. A Native Troupe of original Minnesotans called Owakankanshi Oyate or the Truth telling people will present dancers. singers, drummers and storytellers to honor our first Minnesotans.

    By Marya Jones

    04/26/2008

    Thank you for the great story on Mr. Metzger and his banjo. I love the banjo, and have been calling it the "hillbilly sitar" for many years! Thanks again.
    --Marya

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