George Thompson


My Life with a Banjo

Posted on April 3, 2024 by George Thompson

My name is George Thompson and I’ve had a music radio show on KSVY called the Coyote Road for 18 years. I am happy to be joining the Sonoma Valley Sun newspaper with this new regular music column entitled “The Coyote Road: Journeying Through Musical Terrain.” I will be writing about all things musical that are of interest to me and this first feature is a story of my life with a banjo. I’ve been playing banjo since I was 21 years old, so that means about 46 years. I hope you enjoy my story and I look forward to writing more stories monthly.  

In 1965, at the age of 9, I found myself alongside my father and mother and brothers flying towards a Sportsman Pilot Association fly-in breakfast in Northern Kentucky aboard his Twin Engine Aero Commander. These fly-in breakfasts, gatherings where pilots and their families gather at small airports or airstrips, offered not only a chance for sportsman pilots to connect but also an unexpected introduction to the realm of bluegrass music. It was here that I witnessed bluegrass musicians—strumming guitars, plucking bass strings, fiddle players, and, most importantly to this story, picking away at the five-string banjo. The stage was set up next to where we were eating blueberry pancakes,  bacon and eggs and hot chocolate for the kids and it was the first time I had seen or heard a banjo up close!

Fast forward to when I was 21 years old in Santa Barbara, 1977, when I found myself standing in Jensen Music, purchasing my very first banjo. The spark ignited  inthat 9-year-old boy in Kentucky had finally caught up with me. Enrolling in lessons with a local banjo picker, I dedicated myself to learning the intricacies of bluegrass picking. Yet, despite my earnest efforts, progress proved elusive. My apartment mates soon grew weary of my incessant practice, and after a year of striving, I reluctantly parted with my banjo, freeing both me  and my roommates from the sounds of my practicing. I sold the banjo.

In 1979, a couple of years later, a relocation to Sonoma County prompted a resurgence of banjo fervor. Settling into a cabin near Occidental,  once again I decided to learn the banjo, which culminated in the purchase of an expensive Deering banjo from Stanroy Music in Santa Rosa. Enrolling in lessons with Phylis at the 5th String Music Store in Berkeley, I found myself under the tutelage of a chain-smoking banjo master, whose teachings were a true inspiration to me.  She taught me all the many picking styles: Straight rolls, crooked rolls, hammer-ons, push-offs, slides, alternate tunings— I rededicated myself to learning the banjo!

Now it is 2024 and I’ve recently celebrated my 45th anniversary with my banjo! We have been through a lot together in those years and let me tell you it has not always been easy, but it has always been fun! Though I’ve never pursued music professionally, the joy of playing my banjo with friends has opened doors I never thought possible. The act of making music is a gateway to creativity and sanity into my daily life. Playing solo can be lonely and educational but playing music with others is always fun and one of my favorite pastimes. I’ve always been attached to the idea of growing old gracefully with my banjo, imagining myself on a cabin porch picking out tunes when I am an old man. I can literally spend hours practicing and I think it is a great brain exercise to figure out new stuff to play. For me it beats watching TV and it goes well with my other hobbies of gardening and cooking.   Somehow it fits right in. 

The collaboration in music I’ve discovered playing in jam sessions is where much of the magic truly lies. Whether sitting in with bands or playing in group music sessions, the convergence of diverse instruments, styles, and skills gives rise to tons of good times. The process transports me to an emotional space that feels ancient – sitting in a circle playing music. This in turn connects me  to the rich history of American roots music of which the banjo is an integral part .The banjo always adds a unique plucking sound that can add melody, rhythm, and sometimes a lonesome sensation that feels ancient. 

I think overall the biggest lesson I’ve been taught in playing music with others is the skill of listening. I’ve learned that the key to playing with others is listening, as it demands an attentive ear, a “tuning in“ to the rhythm and pulse of the music. It’s in this interplay of listening and responding that individual notes coalesce into fun-loving jam sessions. As I reflect on my journey—from that fateful fly-in breakfast in Kentucky to the countless jam sessions with my banjo —I’m constantly amazed by the enduring power of music to help me stay connected to the very essence of life itself.  In the shared language of melody, rhythms and notes strangers become friends, and friends become family, bound together by the timeless magic of music. The banjo will be with me until the day I die.  

As I strum the strings of my banjo, I am reminded that music is not merely a pastime but has been a lifelong companion to me. I look forward to living out that image of growing old with my banjo and sitting on the porch of a cabin out in the country.  It adds meaning and depth to my life and seems to connect me to a larger sense of self. I’ve often joked with friends that I’d like to be buried with my banjo and I guess that kinda love says it all! 


3 thoughts on “My Life with a Banjo

  1. Wow, a long, strange trip indeed! (But, you know, with all those years of playing, you really should be better!) Couldn’t help myself, Coyote.
    Love ya, man…

  2. Yes: “ the joy of playing my banjo with friends has opened doors I never thought possible. The act of making music is a gateway to creativity and sanity into my daily life. Playing solo can be lonely and educational but playing music with others is always fun…” Looking forward to your column George.

Comments are closed.

Sonoma Sun | Sonoma, CA