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Style Magazine

Sacramento Banjo Band

Jul 01, 2014 12:37PM ● By LeeAnn Dickson

Photo by Dante Fontana © Style Media Group

What’s the difference between a banjo and a guitar? To put it simply, a guitar is a wooden box with strings and a banjo is a drum with strings. A common joke between banjo players is, “How do you tell the difference between banjo songs? They have different names!” Banjo players are a lighthearted lot and tend not to take themselves very seriously; the players of the Sacramento Banjo Band (SBB), however, take great pride in their instruments and sound.
With each performance and jam session, the SBB brings a gutbucket, stumpf fiddle, washboard and more to life—all with a heaping helping of fun. Along with these unique instruments—fashioned from household goods—they also have tubas, clarinets, fiddles and singers. The not-for-profit group even funds children’s causes through performance proceeds.
Comedian and accomplished banjo player, Steve Martin, once explained, “The banjo is truly an American instrument, and it captures something about our past.” The SBB has been dedicated to bringing tunes from the late 1890s through the 1940s to fans throughout our area for more than 50 years.
According to banjo player, enthusiast, newsletter editor, SBB board member and historian Jim Matthews, the instrument has been around for a long time. He even authored the ultimate banjo history tome You Can’t Shoot the Banjo Player (available for sale at area performances). Matthews explains the instrument dates back more than 2,000 years, finally arriving in the U.S. and having its first public appearance in 1830.
Matthews joined SBB in 1968 and played for about four years before leaving the area to pursue a career in San Francisco. Fast-forward to 2004 when the now-retired Matthews returned to Sacramento and rejoined SBB right away. “Although I continued to play the banjo, the group stayed in my heart and I joined back up.”
Ben Dale, the group’s booking agent, has been playing the banjo for more than 25 years with the band. “Since retiring, I have a lot more time to play.” And that is good, since they play about 50 gigs a year, including all four days of the internationally acclaimed Sacramento Music Festival. The group is also the driving force behind the annual Banjo-Rama, a wild four-day extravaganza that features players, performers and banjo bands from around the world.
Members range in age from late teens to late 80s, with the more mature players often mentoring the younger, newer ones. “We make a conscious effort to keep the band going,” Dale explains. “Our players are getting older and we want to bring in younger people.”
The group jams every first and third Sunday at Straw Hat Pizza in Rancho Cordova from 2 to 4 p.m. and welcomes the public to come and play or just enjoy a meal.

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