Banjo player takes the ‘funny’ out of playing


Robert Beaver

Music performance major Frank Ceballos started playing banjo as a joke, but immediately connected with the instrument. He said the instrument was something that was missing from his life.

Robert Beaver and Robert Beaver

Music major Frank Ceballos goes to class to practice singing and playing piano or guitar, but when he goes home he picks up his banjo.

He strums the five-string instrument using a two-finger picking style known as “Clawhammer.”

Ceballos alternates between his middle finger and thumb as he strums, while his other hand forms various chord shapes. Together, his hands produce a twangy, melodic sound.

Originally, Ceballos bought his Epiphone MB 500 banjo thinking it would be a great joke to share with his music friends at Cerritos College.

He did not know that he would become a folk artist.

“It started off as a funny thing,” Ceballos said about playing the banjo, “Everybody plays guitar and I just wanted to try something different.

“I thought it was going to be easy like guitar, but after some research, I found out that I was in over my head. It’s totally different than guitar. You can’t even compare the two.”

As it turned out, Ceballos started playing his banjo more often than any of his five guitars, bass guitar, keyboard and eight harmonicas.

“Out of all my instruments, this one has the most character,” Ceballos said. “After a while it wore into the way I played it. The neck is bent the way I like it and the head is worn from my fingers. I modified it a few times as part of my self-expression.”

On his banjo reads, “This train is bound for glory,” which is a quote he pulled from a book called “Bound For Glory,” written by folk icon Woody Gutherie.

Ceballos said that his banjo, with all of the modifications, has become an extension of his body and a significant part of his personality.

“It’s a piece that was always missing from my life,” Ceballos, who also plays to relieve stress, said.

“As soon I got it out of the box, put it together and played it, I realized this is something I’m going to have on me at all times. This is something that is going to be a big part of my life.”

“The sound is what drew me to it in the first place. It’s loud and harsh sounding. It’s something you would recognize if you heard it,” he added.

Ceballos said it was hard at first, but he eventually “broke through” and got the hang of playing.

To date, he has been playing banjo for seven months.

He can now play various folk songs like “Worried Man Blues,” by an unknown artist, and “This Land is Your Land,” by Gutherie, who is one of Ceballos’ personal heroes.

In each song, Ceballos adds his own style.

“They’re songs that have been passed down long ago,” Ceballos said. “There’s so many ways to play them. When you learn the songs you develop your own way of playing them.”

Ceballos said his favorite place to play on campus is on the grassy hill near the Music Department building.

He said it is a good place for people to hear and appreciate his music.

“You get to meet a lot of interesting people there,” Ceballos said, “But the staircase in the Social Science Building is also a good place to play. You get some pretty good sound there because it echoes all the way up the stairs.”

Some of his friends can recall the day when Ceballos bought the banjo.

“I can remember before he could even pluck it,” Javier Segura, nursing major, said. “I thought it was a pretty sick instrument. Nobody plays it so it was cool to see (Ceballos) take on the challenge. It was really random.”

“He got better and it was entertaining to hear him play. I can see him actually doing something with music.”

Ceballos was already a fluent musician when he first picked up the banjo. He started playing music seven years ago when found an old dusty guitar in his garage.

He got more serious with music as a senior in high school.

“It was then when I decided that all I wanted to do, was music.

“There are so many rules in life that you can’t deviate from. In music, if your creative enough, you can make your own rules. Music is second to breathing in my life and just above eating,” Ceballos said.

Since then, he picked up singing and playing piano and mandolin.

He was first interested in punk and rockabilly music until he attended Cerritos College and began pursuing a music degree.

As he studied more about music, he grew an appreciation for jazz, classical and folk.

Ceballos has also performed live in various venues in the local area.

“Music is one of the few things in life that you can feel is real. You can hear it and get it from the start. If you hear it, and if it hits you, it hits you deep. It’s probably the best way to get to a person,” Ceballos said.