Boy and His Banjo?
chronicling a day in the life of a local music store nearly
makes one Metroland writer a poorer man
By John Brodeur
was a last-minute assignment: Hang for a day at one of our
area’s fine musical-instrument dealers and observe the passing
ships. It seemed easy enough at first—show up, take some notes,
general people-watching stuff. Unfortunately, I forgot to
account for my wanton desire for new musical toys, and I damn
near came out a few hundred bucks in the hole.
(Now when I say I spent a “day” at the store, I mean I visited
on two separate occasions—once in the morning, once in the
afternoon. And if I mention any names, I’m making them up.
And when I get to the part about actually considering a purchase,
I’m flat-out lying—there’s no way I could afford another instrument
on my salary.)
I arrive shortly after the store’s 10 AM opening time. The
clerks just bustle around the store until noon, accepting
deliveries and unloading packages, or polishing the chrome
flames on one of the goofy-looking bass guitars. One of the
clerks, Chuck, tells me that mornings generally go this way,
with the occasional “old guy” popping in from time to time.
And while a few folks do show up—a 40-something guy wants
to get some setup work done on a 1970s Guild Jetstar (speaking
of goofy-looking bass guitars, this thing looks like it was
made in shop class), and a retired couple bring by an old
nylon-string classical guitar they want fixed up for their
grandson—there’s not a lot of action early in the day, so
I start fiddling with some of the acoustic instruments.
And that’s when it happens. I’d been worried about coming
here. Every time I do, I end up leaving with something I don’t
My inner Kermit (I didn’t even know I had one) tells me to
pick up a banjo. Big mistake. It just feels so right.
I’ve never really played the banjo, but it’s not fundamentally
that different from guitar, and right now, to my ears, it’s
the greatest sound ever.
But no, I can’t. Not today. I’m supposed to be working, you
On the other side of the store, there’s this kid with a knit
hat who’s been here since 11 or so. By my count, he’s checking
out his third guitar and second amplifier of the day. I’m
glad to know I’m not the only one who gets all pie-eyed at
everything he touches.
To avert certain financial disaster, I head upstairs to check
out the drum section. It’s about 2:30 now, and there are a
few more people milling around, more than elsewhere in the
store. I guess drummers are early risers.
drummer for a local metal band is fixated on the TV in the
corner. The TV is showing a Chad Smith instructional video.
While it might be fun to learn the finely honed technique
behind “Suck My Kiss,” I’m distracted by this other kid—he’s
all of 13 years old, and his parents are nowhere to be seen.
He’s wailing away at the electronic drum kit like he forgot
to take his meds. He has it set on “hiphop,” so everything
sounds like a record scratching or that subsonic bass rumble
you usually hear coming from the hatchback of a Honda Civic.
Technology is just fascinating.
Back downstairs, one of the clerks is explaining to a mother
and her two daughters how a lefty can play a right-handed
guitar. He explains to them that he’s self-taught, and that
he actually learned to play backwards (it does seem natural
that the right hand would do all the work) until someone called
him out on it months later. Mom ends up buying each of the
girls their own electric guitar and practice amp. Mom must
be pretty cool—when I was young, I asked my mom for drums
and ended up with a flute (no offense, ma).
I start fiddling around with this Gibson Firebird that I’ve
been eyeing. Even unplugged, it just sounds sweet. But the
price tag says “Hell, no,” so it’s back to the banjo. Ah,
yes. This is why I’m here. I’m trying to rationalize spending
$400, even though I still have to return empty beer bottles
to make rent this month.
think I have room on this credit card,” I’m telling
myself. “And I can always sell that old acoustic I’ve not
played in a year.”
Did you know that the banjo is the only non-percussion instrument
that has a drum head? Just trying to rationalize things.
One of the owners takes me aside to show me a Dobro banjo
that just came in. “They only made 300 of these,” he tells
me. “Isn’t it cool?”
not making this any easier,” I reply.
Between 4 and 5 PM, business picks up in a big way. Parents
drop off their kids for lessons, state workers stop by on
their way home to the ’burbs, and the “working musicians”
start to file in—they don’t have day jobs, Charlie jokes,
so they’re just getting out of bed now. From the looks of
it, he’s right—a few indie-rock types (thick glasses, tousled
hair, jean jacket, Vans deck shoes) are rubbing the hangovers
out of their eyes as they check out effects pedals, and one
out of every three customers wears a goatee and facial piercings.
Everyone’s got their hands on something that makes noise.
The kid with the knit hat is still here. The decibel
level is up; my energy level is down. It’s nearing closing
I sit for a few private moments with my new friend before
the store closes. Me and this banjo, we have this thing going
on. It’s personal and special, and I just have to have it
. . .
Man, I need to get something to eat.
Thankfully, that’s when they start turning down lights and
ushering the customers out into the November chill. “Saved
by the bell,” I tell myself. I’ve survived with my skinny
wallet and questionable sanity intact, but there’s always
a next time. . . .