LIVERMORE -- Jim Bottorff settles into a chair in his living room and a pack of his fellow four-string banjo aficionados pile in with him.
Some, like John Green, travel from as far away as Fiddletown, a 200-mile round trip to Livermore. Jim and Mary Raddatz make the trek from Sunnyvale and Ed Rossman takes the weekly trip from El Sobrante to rehearse with the Wineland Banjo Band.
One by one, each banjo player follows Bottorff's foot-tapping lead until all eight banjos and two washboards are deep into "Coney Island Washboard."
"It's a freaking disease," said Green, 84, the eldest member of band, who has come each week since Bottorff founded the group in 2007. "It is an addiction. There is nothing like it. It's that twang."
For the past seven decades, Bottorff and a shrinking group of fellow four-string banjo players have been keeping alive an era of music with a sound that falls somewhere between twangy and percussive and that has long been forgotten by the mainstream.
"The beauty of it is you can play it soft or loud and you don't need electricity," said Bottorff, who started playing the banjo in the late 1950s and was one of a stable of banjo players in the 1970s at Cal's Steak House in San Rafael. "You don't need any power to get music out of it."
The four-string banjo was once rampant in the Bay Area during the 1960s and 1970s with more than 60 banjo groups and places in every corner of the region to enjoy the
While the five-string banjo has seen its popularity grow over the years thanks to the likes of Steve Martin, the movie "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and the popular three-day Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in Golden Gate Park, the four-string is struggling to keep its audience and players.
Today there are fewer than a dozen four-string groups and even fewer venues in the Bay Area, Bottorff said.
"The style that Jim and his people play is a nostalgic style that they have endeavored to keep alive," said Johnny Baier, the executive director of the American Banjo Museum in Oklahoma City.
"In the 1920s, the plectrum banjo (four-string) was like the electric guitar is today and Eddie Peabody was like Bruce Springsteen, and that is not an exaggeration. That is how (the plectrum banjo) was tied to the mainstream pop and since then it has never regained that popularity."
It came close in the 1960s and 1970s, especially in the Bay Area when post-World War II veterans flocked to the region and hoped to reclaim the carefree spirit of the music from the 1920s and 1930s, Baier said.
The 1920s was when ragtime music found its way into jazz bands and the five-string banjo players needed a way for it to stand out. They began playing their banjos like guitars, plucking them with a plectrum pick and that fifth string got in the way.
As four-string banjos started to come on the market it gave mandolin players a new instrument to be heard during the dance craze.
"When you see (four-string banjo) groups out there they are preservationists in nature and are favoring a style of music and banjo that had its heyday," said Baier, of the banjo museum.
The craft of the music is not lost on today's audience.
At a recent Wineland Banjo Band show, a fan left the group the following note on a napkin at Harry's Hofbrau in Livermore.
"Thank you so much!" the anonymous note read. "You are like the monks who preserved Western Culture through the Dark Ages."
Charlie Tagawa, a longtime member of the Peninsula Banjo Band and a 2003 inductee of the National Four String Hall of Fame, has been preserving the four-string banjo for the past seven decades as both a teacher and critically acclaimed player.
Tagawa still plays once a week with the Peninsula band at Harry's Hofbrau in San Jose, and when he's not playing he's teaching students, most in their golden years.
"Teaching the banjo is interesting and almost nobody is under 40 years old," Tagawa said. "Most of my students are over 50 years old and they decided to play after they retired."
The Wineland Banjo Band knows the challenges of an aging pool of fans. The group was founded with 16 members and since then two have died. Bottorff points out that when he started playing the banjo in 1958 he was the youngest in his group and now at 70 he is still one of the youngest.
"The biggest problem we have now is all the musicians expiring on us," said Paul Knechtli, one of Wineland's two washboard players. "We are in need of some warm bodies."
Contact Robert Jordan at 925-847-2184. Follow him at Twitter.com/robjordan127.
For details, go to www.jbott.com/winelandbanjoband.html.