Saturday, January 7, 2012

Musical Influences

I'm still not to the point of hearing something and then playing it, so it would be premature for me to say that the musicians listed below are already direct influences on my playing. A more accurate statement would be to say that these are some artists that I aspire to have as influences.  If I could incorporate elements of each of these players I would consider that a success.  I may play tenor banjo but the way I look at it is the 12 notes I have to work with are the same as the 12 notes these folks use to craft their magic!

Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band
Jerry Garcia - guitar
Before I ever began playing an instrument, when I was just an obsessed listener, the Grateful Dead was my musical home base with Jerry Garcia as its lynch pin.  There was something joyful and effortless in Jerry's playing and singing that just drew me in.  Now that I am giving music a shot I have even more respect and understanding for Jerry's playing.  I'm especially intrigued by the way he could  arrange and improve old folk songs like Jackaroe or Peggy-O, or interpret a classic Dylan song.  Think of any song that Jerry covered and chances are his version either equaled or surpassed the original source.  Jerry's technique is rooted in bluegrass and folk and his seemingly effortless lines hide a level of complexity .  Suggested listening: The Grateful Dead - Reckoning, Garcia/Grisman - Shady Grove, Jerry Garcia Band - Jerry Garcia Band Live.

Norman Blake
Norman Blake - guitar and mandolin
My apologies to those whose idea of oldtime music is limited scratchy fiddle and clawhammer banjo.  To me Norman Blake is oldtime music.  A true folk musician, he embodies all the great characteristics of someone who has mastered the music of the people:  not that different from what you and I are doing, but yet somehow distinctive enough to ensure elite status in the traditional music world.  Norman's not as flashy or as technical as some of the guitar and mandolin flat-pickers, but perhaps that is precisely what makes him so endearing.  He kinda sticks in first position and just plays the tune.  While a lot of name brand players seem to be about playing as fast as possible with as many hot licks as possible, Norman's not afraid to slow it down and keep it simple, and manages to put in more as a result.  Suggested listening: Whiskey Before Breakfast, Natasha's Waltz.

The Ceili Bandits - Eoin, Yvonne and Quentin
The Ceili Bandits - Irish traditional music
In some ways I can attribute the Ceili Bandits (Yvonne Casey - fiddle, Eoin O'Neil - bouzouki, and Quentin Cooper - banjo, mandolin and more) as the group most responsible for inspiring me to play music in the first place. Little known outside of County Clare, the Ceili Bandits were the first traditional Irish music I was ever exposed to - we literally got off the plane on our first trip to Ireland, drove to the town we were staying in that night, and that evening saw the Ceili Bandits play one of their best gigs ever - the CD release party for Yvonne Casey's "solo" CD held at McGann's pub in Doolin! It would be a couple more years before I would decide to take up tenor banjo, but that evening planted the seed for sure!  Irish trad remains a main facet of the music I am trying to play and oddly I have yet to hear anyone do it better than these guys.  Recommended Listening: Yvonne Casey - Yvonne Casey, The Ceili Bandits - Hangin' at the Crossroads.

Linda Higginbotham w/ Brad Leftwich & Mark Ritchie
Linda Higginbotham - banjo uke
Linda Higginbotham plays the banjo uke as a rhythm instrument to accompany oldtime fiddle tunes, usually with her husband Brad Leftwich.  She plays the banjolele as if it were a little drum with strings, more percussive than tonal, driving the pace with rock solid timing. This style is deceptively simple, but when done right you create a seamless, mesmerizing yet energetic sound that gives the music an extra lift.  Linda provides a droning quality by continuously strumming “down-up-down-up” and hitting all the strings each way. Not as subtle as some backup techniques but oh so much fun to do!  The idea is to perfect this strum so it sounds effortless. Due to the 5ths tuning of tenor banjo this sound is more spread out on that instrument but you can employ most of the same ideas.  Suggested listening:  Brad Leftwich and the Humdingers - The Humdingers.

Moses Deans
Nelson Chambers
Moses Deans and Nelson Chambers - 4-string Mento banjo
I've only been listening to Jamaican Mento music a short while but it has had a profound effect on me.  Moses Deans of the Jolly Boys and Nelson Chambers of the Blue Glaze Mento Band are both now passed away, but I expect to be listening to their recordings for the rest of my life, trying to glean as much as I can from their elusive Caribbean rhythms and apreggiated solos.  I'm really hooked on this playing style and it's so cool to discover a whole new genre of music that uses tenor banjo as its main instrument.  I love the rustic, natural feel of Mento music, likening it to Jamaica's version of oldtime.  Suggested listening: The Jolly Boys - Pop 'N' Mento, Sunshine 'N' Water, and Beer Joint & Tailoring.  The Blue Glaze Mento Band - We Will Wait.

Bill Frisell
Bill Frisell - electric guitar
This may seem like an odd choice, but unlike a lot of jazzy players, Frisell keeps the melody going rather than simply soloing over the chord changes.  That impresses me.  I also like how he says that the people that influenced him the most were saxophone players, piano players, and orchestral music. It never was really guitar. So maybe an electric guitarist could be a main influence on me, a fledgling banjo player?  Frisell's rootsy jazz Americana style has a sophisticated, experimental bent, yet his playing always comes across as more internal than intellectual.  As an electric guitarist, he is afforded the luxury of being able to coax a lot of out of each well-chosen but spartan note. That is hard to duplicate on tenor banjo; the 4-string's quick decay makes you want to let loose a flurry of notes, but what can translate is Frisell's emotional touch and command of harmonics.  Suggested listening:  Bill Frisell - The Willies.

Angelina Carberry
John Carty
Angelina Carberry and John Carty - Irish tenor banjo
Irish tenor banjo is the style most closely associated with what I am attempting to do so I should also mention my two favorite Irish tenor banjoists - Angelina Carberry and John Carty.  I was turned onto these players shortly after getting a tenor banjo, however I'm only now starting to develop a real interest in exploring the trebles, triplets, slides, hammer-ons and other embellishments that give Irish banjo playing its flavor. Angelina Carberry's style has been described as "light handed and sparkling", and John Carty's style is old school 1920's New York - bouncy, rhythmic and melodic.  Now that I have a little more experience and a renewed motivation to learn, I plan on re-examining recordings by each of these artists to see what I can absorb.  Suggested listening:  Angelina Carberry - An Traidisun Beo, John Carty - I Will  If I Can.


  1. Thanks for sharing this wonderful post.i love it.regards and have a good one!

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